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A Musing on Elves, Dwarves, Archetypes and Favorite Characters

By Teanna Byerts

Fantasy / Other

A Musing on Elves, Dwarves, Archetypes and Favorite Characters

...an Elf and a Dwarf Walk Into a Meade Hall,

and Find Out They Have Something in Common...


A Musing on Elves, Hobbits, Dwarves, Archetypes and Favorite Characters


"In The Hobbit, what character did you most identify with and why?"

That was a question on a survey I found in my inbox, it came from the excellent Tolkien website . "A team of academic researchers from the University of Waikato (New Zealand) and Ryerson University (Canada) is currently conducting a major international research project exploring audience engagement with The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey prior to the film's release..." and after the release. I did the survey in February, just before Valentine's day. Or is that, Dwalintine's Day... or Balintine's...It was fun, I blogged my opinion, my favorite thing to do...then I thought about that character thing.

Who do I most identify with? Peter Jackson, WETA designers, a shipload of great actors and the entire crew of the films have given us a great set of characters to love. Or fall in love with. Or...nevermind, fanfiction is kind of scary these days. They're all male (except for a few background females, mostly of the Awesome Goddess type, to which I can never ever aspire). Some of these characters are gorgeous, some are wise, charming, kick-butt, geeky, fussy, goofy, dopey...wait, that's another set of Dwarves... all are interesting. But identify with?

They're all short, stout, hairy guys. With pickaxes and battleaxes and stuff.

Wait, I've done this before...

"Do you want to be him, or have the pleasure of his company?" That, said to me, by a way-too-wise-for-his-age thirteen year old boy playing D&D with us, long ago. I had rolled up one of my classic male Elves. I'm a classic female human who shall not reveal her age other than to say I was born the same year Lord of the Rings was. At least, The Hobbit is older than me.

Do you love him? Or identify with him?

I first heard about J.R.R. Tolkien when some kid behind me in art class said "you look like an Elf in that shirt." It was the 70s, and the green flowy thing I was wearing did look like a refuge from Galadriel's yard sale. My response was; "...?" Weird kid, I do not look like Hermie in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

Then came 1977. Star Wars hit the big screen, and a fellow fan dumped a pile of reading material into my hands. "You must read this," she intoned. I stared at the stack of verbiage and paled. Lo!, in my copious free time, somewhere in the next millennium. The epic tome was J.R.R. Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. And tucked in with it was a battered copy of The Hobbit.

Somewhat later, I borrowed a tent from a second cousin twice removed, so I could spend a week lost on a barrier island called Assateague. He told me about this game they played: D&D. I showed up, rolled up a character, waved the paper at the DM and said, "What do I make of this?"

"Play an Elf."

"What?" You mean like Hermie, in Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer?

"Read Lord of the Rings."

I did, in 1978. My visuals for it were influenced by everything from that awful Rankin Bass cartoon, to the not so bad Ralph Bakshi film to some excellent fantasy illustration. One poster by Judy King-Reniets had a lovely illustration of the entire Fellowship in the center.

"Who's the blond guy with the bow?"

The BGWTB turned out to be my favorite. Not because he looked like Orlando Bloom (who was in diapers at the time), or because he was, in fact, "fair of face beyond the measure of Men", but because he was the one staring wide-eyed into the trees at the edges of Fangorn, while Gimli sat sharpening his axe and thinking grim Dwarfy thoughts, and Aragorn sat sharpening some other weaponry thinking Grim Rangery Weight-of-the-World-on-my-Shoulders thoughts. Because while they ran the Iditarod across Rohan, Legolas could stand a lonely watch and sing under the stars. Because he turned back to the Huorn wood to see "...eyes! Eyes in the trees!". (Gimli: "Do what you will in your madness, but first let me get down from this horse!"). Because in a blizzard on a mountain height he joyfully went to find the sun. Because he heard the cry of gulls in the dark and got a bad case of sea-longing (I still sing "to the sea to the sea" when I head back to Assateague)... but stuck by his friends despite his calling to go to his ancient home. Because he could "hear the stones speak". Because he was fascinated by mallorn trees. Because he could run on snow. (I can too, with a dogsled, and one of my Siberians is named Legolas). Because he knew how to paddle the swift forest river ( I learned how too, only I fell in a lot more). Because he could ride a "restive and fiery" warhorse without saddle or rein. (I was so inspired I taught my patient half-Arabian gelding to do the same.) I picked up a bow, fired ineptly from my horse, picked up a sword, bashed a few armoured guys upside the head with it (perhaps the reason I'm yet single) and spent some time doing living history; rowing Viking ships and sleeping rolled up in a cloak under the stars.

It was all the Elf's fault.

A few decades, a few illustrations, a few thousand miles, a few fanfics, and some stories of my own (Elves, lots of Elves... pay attention, this is important: ELVES!) later, Peter Jackson and Co. did some great films. Then we waited a decade... and he did some more. Despite the fact that I only liked The Hobbit because it was one of Tolkien's works (I preferred the epic detail of LOTR... oh, and it had more Elves), I was leaping and singing and tugging at the gangline like a manic sled dog waiting to run. YEAYYYYYYY! MORE MIDDLE EARTH!

While the BGWTB is back (somewhere, in there, in film two or something), the main crew is a bunch of...

Dwarves. Why did it have to be...Dwarves. The opposite of my Archetype of Choice. I mean, I like Gimli and all (he's the BGWTB's best buddy), but... Dwarves. I grew up with them, surrounded by them. Not literally, of course, I live in Penn's woods (Pennsylvania) not Mirkwood. But the point of characters in fairy tales is we understand and recognize them because they are archetypes. They show us something about our own natures. And the good people of York County PA are Hobbits and Dwarves; farmers, miners, hard working nose to the grindstone, pragmatic, stoic, guns and giantass trucks and red meat off the bone and beer and axle grease and beards.

I so totally did not fit in; a wildly imaginative child who wanted to talk to trees and animals, artistic, sensitive geek girl sitting in the back of the class with her nose in a book. I hate football, I don't do red meat, I dislike facial hair, I like slender and graceful, I like intellect, and I think your oversized truck is an affront to Ma Nature.

And then we saw the first posters for The Hobbit.

I have one word here: Thorin.

My reaction: …? ! ?

...and why does he look like a Klingon? (Bofur would say: Klingons, think Dwarves with warp drive). OK, so they modified the character design a bit after that poster. Now he looks a bit more like Aragorn, only shorter, stoicer, more stoic... with more majestic hair. Then we saw the others. Um. Not your grandmother's Dwarfs, these. Snow White never had it this good. WETA had, once more, ruled, and given the world amazing design: characters, costume, hair, weaponry.

It was Majestic.

Of course, people complained that these were not their grandmothers' Dwarfs. In an interview, Richard Armitage (Thorin, but you know that if you are actually reading this) pointed out the incredible variety in the humans working on the films. So, yeah, what was that about how Dwarves should look?

A bit of Dwarvish history here. Not the Middle Earth history, the other Middle Earth, the one from Norse myth. Let's work backwards, like a real Time Lord. Hobbit film, LOTR films...video gaming... D&D... science fiction conventions... Time Bandits... TV... fantasy novels...

21 September 1937: The Hobbit: The Classic from which modern fantasy sprang.

21 December 1937: Disney's Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, the first full length animated feature ever in the history of the universe. Unless the Klingons beat us to it.

Somewhere between Ori Dori Nori Bifur Bofur Bombur Oin Gloin Balin Dwalin Fili Kili Thorin Grumpy Happy Dopey Doc Sneezy Sleepy (or is that Bombur?) and Bashful our 20th century idea of what Dwarves or Dwarfs look like got set. Disney, having the visual advantage at the time, is probably most responsible for carving our image of little pudgy guys with hoodies and beards in stone.

Disney was drawing on Grimm's Fairy Tales.

Tolkien was drawing on Norse myth, among other things. About Dwarves in Norse Myth Wiki says:

Dvergar or Norse dwarves (Old Norse: dvergar, sing. dvergr) are entities in Norse Mythassociated with rocks, the earth, deathliness, luck, technology, craft, Metal work, wisdom, and greed. They are sometimes identified with Svartalfar('black elves'), and Dokkalfar('dark elves'), due to their apparently interchangeable use in early texts such as the Eddas. While the word "Dvergar" is related etymologically to "dwarves", the early Norse concept of Dvergar is unlike the concept of "dwarves" in other cultures. For instance, Norse dwarves may originally have been envisaged as being of human size.They are not described as small before the 13th century, when the later sagas portrayed them as such, often as a humorous element. In later Scandinavian folklore, other kinds of nature spirits, like the Troll and Nisse, take over many of the functions of the Dvergar. In the Dvergatal section, the Voluspadivides the dwarves into what may be three tribes, lead firstly by Motsognir their first ruler, secondly by Durinn, and finally by Dvalinn. Havamal mentions Dvalinn brought the rune writing to the Dvergar.

There's also some guy named Thor who has a habit of slaying frost giants in thunderstorms, which may explain the stone giant scene...

"...ooops, my bad...thought they were frost giants..."

Of course, if you are reading this, you probably know that Tolkien lifted the Dwarves' (and Gandalf's) names from Norse myth. He was reaching back into ancient legend, grabbing those archetypes, and dragging them kicking and screaming into the 20th century... and Tolkien gives them back their ancient power. New stories, new audience, different cultures reading the stories, same recognizable archetypes. Then Peter Jackson hauls them into the 21st century... and now he's got 76 years of degenerative fairy tales telling us that Dwarves are dumpy and Not Very Attractive.

So, the fine folks at WETA went on their own quest of discovery and reached into the mythic past... and found some Awesome Dwarves. Recognizably Dwarvish, seriously Majestic, individual, interesting, inspiring gazillions of fangirls to write fanfic and fanartists to peel off a few layers of costuming on Our Heroes.

Ahem, well... where was I?

"In The Hobbit, what character did you most identify with and why?" Remember, favorite LOTR character: Legolas. Favorite D&D characters: Elves. Favorite Tolkien epic: LOTR. The Hobbit is full of Dwarves, not much to pick from there. Thranduil (who I quite like, from the book, because he says stuff like;"Long will I tarry ere I begin this war for gold.") doesn't count, he's not really a main character, (he doesn't even have a name in the book). Neither does the Chief Guard who gets drunk allowing Bilbo to steal the keys (I illustrated that one, I liked it so much), though I think the butler is Galion, who ironically has the same name as a brand of (Dwarvish) heavy earth-moving equipment we see here in PA a lot. Legolas, of course, is actually there, Tolkien just hadn't found him yet, so he's offscreen in the book.

Nope. No Elves to identify with.

I like Bilbo for his dweeby stuck-in-his-comfort-zone geekiness. He's the little guy we all can identify with; he leaves his comfort zone, goes on an adventure, grows, achieves wonderful things, and goes to live with the Elves at the end of his life.

He's not my favorite (even though I would happily clone Martin Freeman), nor do I readily identify with Hobbits.

Galadriel's awesome, but, you know, Goddess of Awesomness. Can't touch that.

Gandalf is well, Gandalf, you have to have "Sir" in front of your name to identify with Gandalf. Radagast, hey, drives a bunnysled, that's hilariously cool, I drive a dog rig, and that's as far as that goes. Balin: adorable, someone make me a plushy. KiliFiliThorin; hot... clone them, please. Dwalin, tattoos, cookie jar, 'nuff said. Ori: I relate to the artist/writer/total geek thing.

Nope. That's not it.

Bofur. He who was a mere Name On A List in the book. Now he has a face and a (terrific Irish) voice and a great (gotta make it) hat and some (sexy) laugh wrinkles and some (really) funny lines. (squints at promotional character portrait... looks nothing like BGWTB...).

Apparently a lot of other fangirls also find him ridiculously attractive.

Why?

WHY? Why why why why why why why why why why do I find a short guy with a handlebar mustache and eyewrinkles and messy hair in Pippi Longstocking braids that stick out and a crazy musher earflappy hat and big furry boots attractive...?

Because he falls through the door of Bag End with half a dozen other Dwarves on top of him, and isn't annoyed. Because he pokes Bilbo out of his fussy comfort zone with "chip the dishes and crack the plates" (he starts the song). Because he plays a mean flute. Because he pokes more holes in Bilbo's boring life with "think: furnace with wings". Because he cocks his head like a clever raven when Bilbo hits the floor in a dead faint. Because he has deep eyes the color of mossy agate. Because of the playful glint in those eyes. Because, in a driving "thunderbattle", he leans off a cliff and shouts "bless me, the legends are true!" with a sense of wonder. Because he takes first watch without complaint, even though he's exhausted. Because he sympathizes with Bilbo and offers encouragement... and doesn't take offense at Bilbo's bumbling "NO You don't understand, you're Dwarves!"... and sweetly offers "I wish you the best!" Because he shoves Bilbo into the protective center of the circle. Because he finds childlike glee in small things, like breaking Elrond's furniture (OK, it was Bombur's fault... because Bofur tossed him that sausage). Because he left everything he knew to go off with a bunch of trained warriors (even though he clearly isn't) to hit a mountain full of dragon. Because he says "well, that coulda' been worse!" before the Goblin King lands on his head. Because you want him to be your BFF. Because under all those layers he's probably built like the proverbial brick outhouse.

Memes circulating online point out his sweet nature: drops his ice cream cone, hopes you enjoy yours... had a lousy Christmas? Gives you all his presents... Vegetarian, hopes your barbeque was great. It fits. WETA admits that he was designed to be loveable.

Nailed that.

What no one has mentioned is archetype. Someone posted a GIF set of the "furnace with wings" scene, and pointed out this geeky detail: Bofur cocking his head in bemusement when Bilbo hits the floor in a faint. I've only seen the film seven times, and there I was looking at my computer screen going... "missed that one." I did, however, create some "totem animal" memes for the whole thirteen. Bofur is a raven, I'm pretty sure. Now that is a mighty matter of myth, you could read on ravens for years and not understand the half of it. But let's see if I can put it in a clamshell...

Real ravens are ridiculously lovely, clever, intelligent, adaptable, and loyal. Also great mimics of sounds ranging from revving motorcycles to flushing pottys in National Parks. An incident is mentioned in Bernd Heinrich's Mind of the Raven, of people in a park hearing, over and over, "3...2...1... (realistic muffled explosion)". It was tracked down to a few ravens who had been listening to local demolition for a few months... and copying it precisely.

Think: recording device with wings... and a sense of humor.

In Norse myth, Huginn and Muninn bring the news of the world to Odin. In Northwest coast myth, Raven tricks the selfish people hoarding the sun moon and stars into letting him play with the heavenly objects... then he flies up the smokehole and puts sun, moon and stars in the sky for everyone. He pokes the first humans out of their shells, literally, finds them in a clamshell and frees them.

"Do ya hear that lads? He says we'll blunt the knives!"

"..furnace...with wings!" Hee hee hee...

Mythic ravens have fed prophets in deserts (Christian), guided ships (Viking) and carried goddesses (Hindu). They've guarded the Tower of London, and carried messages between Heaven and Earth, and as carrion birds, been associated with Death Goddesses like the Badb and Morrigan. (Did you notice the size of that mattock?)

But their main element of character is another archetype: The Magical Child.

Caroline Myss says of this: The mature personality of the Child archetype nurtures that part of us that yearns to be lighthearted and innocent, expecting the wonders of tomorrow, regardless of age. This part of our nature contributes greatly to our ability to sense playfulness in our lives, balancing the seriousness of adult responsibilities. The balanced Child is a delight to be around because the energy that flows from this part of our personality is positively infectious and brings out the best in others, as well as in us.

Yep. Nailed it.

Wait, there's more: The Magical Child sees the potential for sacred beauty in all things, and embodies qualities of wisdom and courage in the face of difficult circumstances. One example is Anne Frank, who wrote in her diary that in spite of all the horror surrounding her family while hiding from Nazis in an attic, she still believed that humanity was basically good. This archetype is also gifted with the power of imagination and the belief that everything is possible.

This is not the Eternal Child, not Peter Pan, manifesting as an inability to grow up and embrace the responsible life of an adult. (The Eternal Boy resists ending a cycle of life in which he is free to live outside the boundaries of conventional adulthood.) This is a balanced personality who can stand by his friends, protect the less skilled, and still find wonder in mountains coming to life, even while trying to cling to the side of a cliff.

And what has this got to do with the BGWTB?

Basically they are the same archetype. Legolas, too, is the Magical Child, eyes wide in wonder at eyes in the trees. Lightheartedly poking his companions into better humor in the midst of trials and blizzards on the trail. Seeing the Light when others couldn't. Singing under the stars in the middle of an impossible quest. Hearing the cry of the gulls, of hope, in the dark on the way to the end of the world. He is also the Nature Child: This archetype inspires deep, intimate bonding with natural forces, and has a particular affinity for friendships with animals. Although the Nature Child has tender, emotional qualities, it can also have an inner toughness and ability to survive-the resilience of Nature herself. Nature Children can develop advanced skills of communicating with animals, and in stories reflecting this archetype an animal often comes to the rescue of its child companion. Many veterinarians and animal rights activists resonate with this archetype because they have felt a conscious rapport with animals since childhood. Other adults describe being in communication with nature spirits and learning to work in harmony with them in maintaining the order of nature.

Whether Bofur also manifests some of that archetype remains to be seen. Clearly he has spent time in the deepest parts of nature, the underground world of rocks and minerals. And clearly he responds to natural forces (stone giants!) with awe. We'll see what he thinks of Beorn, giant spiders, Mirkwood... and paddling the swift forest river in a barrel. I'm sure he'll take it all in in stride, with a heavy dose of humor and wit.

Why did these two characters resonate with me the moment I "met" them? Even in an illustration (Legolas) or a movie poster (Bofur) the quality of their character came through. I identify with the Magical Child and Nature Child archetypes. These are qualities I value, qualities I don't want to lose. Qualities that enhance our own lives and the lives of others. The balanced Child is a delight to be around because the energy that flows from this part of our personality is positively infectious and brings out the best in others, as well as in us.

Other characters in LOTR and The Hobbit have some of these characteristics as well; Gandalf, Pippin, the irrepressible Tom Bombadil, Goldberry. Radagast. I mean, a wizard driving a bunny sled? Definitely Ginormous Magical Nature Child.

And Bilbo himself. He has lost his Magical Child, the Tookish one who, as Gandalf observes, used to go looking for Elves in the woods and come home trailing twigs and mud and fireflies. He has buried The Child under doilies and glory boxes and unchipped dishes...

Until a pack of rowdy Dwarves comes to call.


Quotes on archetypes from Caroline Myss: "Sacred Contracts"

real ravens: Bernd Heinrich: Mind of the Raven, Ravens in Winter

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