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Thoughts on Dwarven Habitat

As I’ve been working on world-building for my stories, I’ve been giving thought to various practical issues, including the question of Dwarves and their nature of living underground.

For example, as the fellowship enter the mines of Moria in LotR, Gimli says:

Soon Master Elf, you will enjoy the fabled hospitality of the dwarves. Roaring fires, malt beer, red meat off the bone.

Lord of the Rings by J.R. Tolkien
The Drawrf Gimli as has entered Moria
Gimli in Moria. © New Line Cinema

Which causes the analytical part of mind at the back to say: Wait just a minute.

Now, leaving aside the Health & Safety issue of open fires in a mine, let’s think about this for bit. Even though there’s no fire wood available (unless they’re collecting from out doors regularly), we can reasonably assume the dwarves have access to coal, and are also skilled enough masons to have built chimneys. They could also be expected to build ventilation shafts to avoid asphyxiation.

Those chimneys would of course provide an unusually bright Orc with various possibilities of attack:

  • Blocking the stack, thus smoking the dwarfs out.
  • Pouring flammable liquid down the chimney.
  • Extinguish the fires with water, then send assassins down the shaft.

Next there’s the question of food underground. Perhaps the dwarves are farming pigs as they did in Bartertown for their supply of “red meat off the bone”.

Pig farm in Barterwown.
Underground pig farming in Bartertown. From the film Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome

Now, whilst pigs are known for been somewhat flexible in their diet, they have to eat something. Magical rocks that provide light for photosynthesis are plausible, so maybe Dwarves are into hydroponic systems just as much as potheads are.

Though we’ve still got the explosive problem of the build-up of methane gas. In a mine. With open fires.

Now consider if Dwarves in our fantasy world are truly magical creatures. Perhaps they’re the embodiment of the spirits of the mountains, analogous to Dryads and Nereids. This is an approach used by Alan Garner in The Weirdstone of Brisingamen for example, and is close to the original folklore that fantasy-world Dwarves are based upon.

Being a purely magical creature, they don’t need to eat anything or keep warm, and can see in complete darkness. They also have no need of conventional biological reproduction, thus conveniently explaining the absence of female dwarves in most fantasy settings.

As soon as our Dwarves become a more anthropocised biological species, their nature of living full-time underground provokes rational questions that need explaining; and hopefully explained better than with the use of deus ex magicae.

There is a 3rd option, that of Dwarves don’t actually live underground. Whilst they may be keen miners, maybe “Dwarves live underground” is an exaggeration, a racial sterotype about their nature coined by other people.

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