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The Hole: Problems in Medieval Dwarfology

The Hole: Problems in Medieval Dwarfology

By Ármann Jakobsson

Arv, Vol.61 (2005)

Dwarves before their stone doors during the onset of Ragnarök as attested in Völuspá - 19th century image

Introduction: When trying to understand Old Norse dwarfs, one problem is knowing too much. Almost everyone comes to the old texts with some preconceived idea of dwarfs, if not from The Lord of the Rings, then from romances, folktales and modern novels, all presenting their own consistent image of dwarfs. However, although later representations of dwarfs may have some relevance to medieval dwarfs, in this study I will try to limit myself to what can be discerned from medieval sources. That is not really possible: I, like everyone else, have known since childhood what a dwarf is. And yet I think the attempt may have some merit, in spite of being bound to fail in the most rigorous sense.

What I will attempt here is to pay close attention to the nature of the sources and what they reveal, or, as if often the case, do not reveal. Mythological scholarship is characterized by inclusiveness, a tendency to collect information en masse, sometimes with little discussion of the nature of the sources. When it comes to Old Norse dwarfs, it might be helpful to distinguish between three types of sources, in which their nature and function may take various forms. While there is perhaps not a case to be made for dramatically contrasting views in the Middle Ages, it is unwise to assume that all medieval sources agree on the nature, character and function of dwarfs.

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When it comes to dwarfs, Old Norse sources may be classified into three groups:

1. Individual Eddic dwarfs: Very few dwarfs actually appear as characters with an active part to play in an Eddic narrative (in the Poetic or the Prose Edda), mostly in supporting roles.

2. Dwarfs as a race an and dwarf names. The Eddas also provide information of a general kind about dwarfs (including two different versions of their origins) as well as a large number of dwarf names which have been the subject of scholarly debate.

3. Later dwarfs: The late medieval and early Renaissance dwarfs of romances and folktales seem at first sight to have much in common with the Eddic dwarfs, but may be influenced by a different tradition or a literary invention.

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