The Dwarf in Western Literature: Romance, Celtic, Germanic
The Germanic Literature of the Middle Ages
It was around the years 1023-1050 that a dwarf was mentioned for the first time in the literature of the German-speaking regions, but non-literary texts show that this figure was known long before this date. The Ruodlieb, which is considered to be the first romance of the Middle Ages, was written in Latin, based on legends whose traces we can find in later works. It tells of the encounter between a knight and a dwarf, and this encounter deserves a momentary stop as it includes all the principle characteristics of the German dwarf found in subsequent tales.
Ruodlieb sees a dwarf at the entrance to a cave and captures him. In return for sparing his life, his prisoner promises Ruodlieb that he will show him the place where the treasure of Kings Immunch and Hartnuch is hidden; then he foretells his future. Ruodlieb will win the hand of the fair Heriburg, but it will only be at the cost of much spilled blood if he does not follow his counsel. The suspicious knight demands pledges; so his captive calls for his wife. She emerges from the cave and offers to be the knight’s hostage until he has made good on his promises. It is finally said that this figure “is quite beautiful despite her small size.”
Unfortunately, the eighteenth fragment of the Ruodlieb stops here.
We should keep in mind the essential information gleaned from this story: dwarfs live in caves, they know hidden secrets, and they have the gift to foretell the future. Furthermore, they inspire distrust in those they meet, which implies not all of them mean well.
All the later texts confirm what the Ruodlieb says and add some finishing touches.(29) The dwarfs dwell inside hollow mountains that are veritable underground palaces sparkling with gems. They have wives and children, suzerains, and vassals and live in a hierarchical society that is a perfect reflection of medieval society. There is a nobility with a king at its head. Only peasants are not mentioned, but they rarely appear in courtly literature. Dwarfs experience the same passions as men, especially the torments of love and the goad of ambition. They wage war among themselves to expand their domains, in other words to conquer other hollow mountains. They have hereditary enemies: giants and dragons. Their amusements agree on all points with those of the human world: they love music, singing, dancing, good meals washed down with wine or mead; they organize jousts and tourneys on the green meadows that extend before their underground palaces; and finally, they know how to speak courteously. The great majority of them are well-meaning and helpful; only the Arthurian romances, in agreement with romance literature in general on this point, portray perfidious or thieving dwarfs.
Dwarfs can appear in one of three ways in the Germanic regions. They can take the appearance of bald, bearded old men, or resemble extremely beautiful children, or else look like knights. The first type is quite rare in the Middle Ages, although it is the predominant type in later folk tales. It is vouched for by only three texts.(30) The child dwarf is equally rare and only appears in the Gest of King Ortn.(31) These first two types are incontestably the oldest and the least contaminated, but they were supplanted by that of the dwarf knight, a reflection of the era in which the poets lived whose work I am using--and they almost vanished completely from the writings. Their resurgence several centuries later indicates nevertheless that they continued to live in oral folk traditions.
In the romances, dwarfs are generally between twenty-seven to forty-four inches in height. Though they have small feet and short legs they have the strength of twelve to twenty men, which some authors explain is due to their possession of magical items. (The physical weakness of a dwarf is an add-on motif: it was thought that a small body could not possess great strength.)
Dwelling inside mountains or even underground, and sometimes even behind a waterfall, the dwarf knew all the secrets of nature: the virtues of the waters, stones, metals, and herbs. Of all the monstrous humans of Medieval German literature, the dwarf is the only one to wield magical powers. He knows how to turn invisible, thanks to a magic cape (Tarnkappe) or headgear (Tarnhelm), an object that plays an important role in the legend of Siegfried.
The dwarf can also travel in an instant to wherever he wishes to go, like the fairies in the romances. He owns rings in which marvelous stones are set, and belts that multiply the strength of the wearer, or provide protection from poverty, hunger, and so forth. He owns certain gems that would be quite useful for students of living languages because when placed beneath the tongue, they make it possible to understand and speak foreign languages. They also prevent thirst and prevent dragons from attacking; in short, nothing is a priori impossible for them. The dwarf knows the future, which implies a connection to the other world, but a later, rational explanation redefines this knowledge as the fruit of the study of necromancy, which, during the Middle Ages, was synonymous with sorcery.