A simple Google seach will show that many people use “dwarven” as an adjective meaning “of or related to dwarves”. People can say things like “very dwarven”. But not many dictionaries list this adjective, and the ones I found that do don’t explain its etymology.

Some people might think of “The Lord of the Rings” (published 1954) but LOTRproject indicates that dwarven actually does not appear in The Silmarillion, The Hobbit, or The Lord of the Rings. [Edit: apparently, when I first wrote this question, I missed the fact that dwarven does occur in some of Tolkien's other writings that were published later on!]

These works do contain elven, although as far as I can tell, Tolkien uses elven only in compound words, not as an adjective (so it might be more accurate for me to say it contains "elven-"). So my current theory is that Tolkien’s elven- was reinterpreted by later authors as an adjective, and then dwarven (adj) was formed by analogy with this.

Could anyone tell me when this happened? What are the earliest cases we know of where dwarven is used as an adjective?


I tried to research this with Google Ngrams and Google Books. My results:

  • A case-insensitive Ngram for “dwarven, dwarvish, dwarfish” shows “dwarven” as having 0% use until 1976. This doesn’t prove it wasn’t used earlier since Google hasn’t indexed everything and the Ngram database can have errors. Nonetheless, it suggests that “dwarven” was not used much soon after the Lord of the Rings was published.

  • On Google Books, the first examples of attributive "dwarven" that I found are from 1979, 1980 and 1981.

    • 1979: The Middle-earth Quiz Book, by Suzanne Buchholz, p. 144 "The rings caused their Dwarven bearers to lust after gold and other precious materials."

    • 1980: The following blog post, a reproduction of "Fantasy Genetics: Humanoid Races In Review", by Gregory G. H. Rihn, December 1980. It uses “dwarven” as a non-hyphenated attributive word in various phrases. There are no predicative uses of “dwarven”, and it is never modified by an adjective-only word like “more” or “very”, so technically it could be either a noun or an adjective in this article. Also, it uses the compound word “dwarvenkind”, which if compared to “mankind” suggests “dwarven” is a noun rather than an adjective. Still, I’d say it is an example of the usage I'm interested in.

    • 1981: 2 examples from books, Trek to Kraggen-Cor by Dennis L. McKiernan and Fantasy Role Playing Games: Dungeons, Dragons, and Adventures in Fantasy Gaming by John Eric Holmes

So far, it looks to me like Dungeons and Dragons-related writing might have been an important influence, but I don’t know if it can be said to be the source of dwarven (adj) or if some authors of fantasy literature had already derived it before D&D.

Wikipedia says Dungeons and Dragons was “first published in 1974” so it fits timeline-wise with the Ngram Viewer for it to be the originator of dwarven (adj.).

The earlier plural noun “dwarven”: not what I’m interested in

I did find 2 results on Google Books for “dwarven” from before Tolkien, but both of them are unrelated to the adjective I am interested in: they seem to be (pseudo-archaic) plurals of the noun “dwarf”.

  • 1861: The cloister and the hearth, by Charles Reade

    The duke hath need of him; sore need; we are clean out o’ dwarven; and tiger-cats, which may not be, whiles earth them yielded.

  • 1911: The poetical works of Heinrich Heine : now first completely rendered into English verse, in accordance with the original forms, translated by John Payne

    And when men depart, the lordship / Will devolve upon the dwarven, / On the weeny witsome people, / In the mountain's womb... ("Atta Troll", vol. 2 p. 108)

    This also seems to be a plural noun, as the original is "Nach dem Untergang der Menschen / Kommt die Herrschaft an die Zwerge [plural noun], / An die winzig klugen Leutchen, / Die im Schoß der Berge hausen."

    There dwarven drum and fiddle / and horns and trumpets blow. (p. 166, “From the Harz Tour: The Ilse”, vol. 1 p. 166)

    (Again, looking at the original indicates that “dwarven” should be interpreted as a noun and “drum” and “fiddle” as verbs: “Die Zwerge [plural noun] trompeten und pauken / Und fiedeln und blasen das Horn.”)

Summary and my ideas of possible other places to look (or not)

To reiterate, I'm interested in the earliest uses of "dwarven" as an adjective. The earliest example I found using Google Books is from 1979 (Buchholz); tchrist's answer provides an even earlier example from 1976 ( Greyhawk).

I doubt there will be examples from before Tolkien, so I would say the relevant time period is 1954-1976.

Fiction with dwarfs that I know of from this era: Three Hearts and Three Lions (which seems to use the plural "dwarfs", so it probably doesn't have "dwarven") and the Narnia books (which also use "dwarfs").

War games rules: I have checked PDFs of the following fantasy rule-sets, and they don't seem to contain "dwarven":

  • the original edition of Dungeons and Dragons (which does have “dwarves”), 1974
  • the Chainmail fantasy supplement, 1971
  • Len Patt’s Tolkien-based fantasy precursor to the Chainmail/D&D rules in the NEWA magazine The Courier, 1970
  • the WRG 4th edition “ancient” fantasy rules (which do have “dwarves”), 1973

“Dwarven” also doesn’t seem to appear in the texts associated with the following LOTR-based boardgames: 1970 Conquest of the Ring, 1973 Quest of the Magic Ring, 1974 Battle at Helms Deep (Richard Jordison)

I did find some hints to a few possible future avenues of research, but I haven’t been able to pursue them currently.

Typically one would note here Tony Bath's article "Campaigning with the aid of Fantasy Fiction" in Slingshot #9 (Jan 1967), in which he mentions that a Colin Rowbotham had drawn up a rules for a Tolkien-based wargame "to include all these odd creatures". If Tony Bath was aware of Mr. Rowbotham's efforts at this time, then the rules themselves must have been conceived no later than 1966. I'm not aware that they were published anywhere. Over the next several years, fantasy games were revisited now and again.

(posted Wed Oct 24, 2007 11:22 pm by increment in Early Fantasy Games? -  Tome of Treasures Forum)

In addition to the article mentioned here, another article from Slingshot, the official journal of the Society of Ancients, seems like it might be relevant. I haven’t been able to access either of them, so I would appreciate it if anyone who is able to check them would tell me if they do or don't use the word “dwarven”:

  • “Campaigning with the Aid of Fantasy Fiction” by Tony Bath in Slingshot #9, pp. 10-13 (Jan 1967)
  • “From Khazad-Dum to Cormallen” by D J Walker-Smith in Slingshot #47, pp. 24-27
  • 1
    I also checked old issues of Strategic Review and the first couple issues of The Dragon Magazine that it quickly morphed into. TD#2 has dwarf hammer for what Greyhawk under different authorship spells the longer way. Gamers in Lake Geneva in that explosively creative 1974-1976 timeframe "naturally" used elven and dwarven in parallel -- and this probably was Gary's fault but I can't prove it.
    – tchrist
    Feb 24, 2017 at 6:01

2 Answers 2


Greyhawk, the first separately published D&D supplement from 1976 by Gygax and Kuntz, mentions “Dwarven Hammer” on page 15.

The word dwarven was in the Zeitgeist at that time and place: it was definitely a "Gary-word", as I recall; Gary liked to "rescue" old words that had fallen into disuse, like dweomer. He wasn't averse to making up his own refurbished words based on older models, either, much like Tolkien with mathom and all the rest.

I haven't looked much earlier yet. It doesn't seem to be the fantasy "supplement" for Chainmail for example.

It was a century ago at the close of the First World War that JRR Tolkien first put to pen his conception of the Dwarves in a collection of writings which his son Christopher would much later publish as The Book of Lost Tales, Volume II in 1984. This tome would eventually become the second volume in the dodecalogue of Christopher’s magnum opus, The History of Middle Earth.

In the commentary on page 247 CJRT writes:

The account of the Dwarves in this tale is of exceptional interest in other respects. [...] but this is the first description of the Dwarves in my father’s writings – already with the spelling that he maintained against the unceasing opposition of proof-readers – and they are eminently recognisable in their dour and hidden natures, [...]

The two places that Tolkien père uses the word from the book are in The Nauglafring. This is the original tale of what he would later name the Nauglamir, the golden necklace wrought of cursed gold by the Dwarves for Lúthien’s father that would someday bear the Silmaril that Beren wrested from Morgoth’s crown.

The word appears twice, once under the dwarven spelling and once under the dwarfen one.

The first sentence appears on page 227:

A golden crown they made for Tinwelint, who yet had worn nought but a wreath of scarlet leaves, and a help too most glorious they fashioned; and a sword of dwarven steel brought from afar was hilted with bright gold and damascened in gold and silver with strange figurings wherein was pictured clear the wolf-hunt of Karkaras Knife-fang, father of wolves.

The second sentence begins at the bottom of page 237 and continues on through the middle of the following page:

Now little doth the tale tell of wounds and blows of that affray, save that Beren got many hurts therein, and many of his shrewdest blows did little harm to Naugladur by reason of the [?skill] and magic of his dwarfen mail; and it is said that three hours they found and Beren’s arms grew weary, but not those of Naugladur accustomed to wield his might hammer at the forge, and it is more than like that otherwise would the issue have been but for the curse of Mîm; for marking how Beren grew faint Naugladur pressed him ever more nearly, and the arrogance that was of that grievous spell came into his heart, and he thought: “I will slay this Elf, and his folk will flee in fear before me,” and grasping his sword he dealt a might blow and cried: “Take hear thy bane, O stripling of the woods,” and in that moment his foot found a jagged stone and he stumbled forward, but Beren slipped aside from that blow and catching at his beard his hand found the carcanet of gold, and therewith he swung Naugladur suddenly off his feed upon his face: and Naugladur’s sword was shaken from his grasp, but Beren seized it and slew him therewith, for he said: “I will not sully my bright blade with thy dark blood, for there is no need.”

(Understand that these writings are deliberately written in that extremely archaic style Tolkien used in his earliest unpublished works, and do not represent anything he ever saw fit to publish in his own lifetime.)

The other instance of the word in the early writings appears in the second canto of The Lay of the Children of Húrin, which was written in the summer of 1918. This lay is in the alliterative four-beat verse characteristic of Old English and Old Norse poetry, with its two beats to either side of the caesura.

On page 48 of The Lays of Beleriand posthumously published in 1985 we read:

There he slept or swooned,          as sunk in oblivion
by drugs of darkness          deadly blended;
he heard not their whisipers;          no hope stirred him
nor the deep despair          of his dreams fathomed;
to awake his wit          no words availed.
No blade would bite          on the bonds he wore,
thought Flinding felt          for the forgéd knife
of dwarfen steel,          his dagger prizéd,
that at waist he wore          awake or sleeping,
whose edge would eat          through iron noiseless
as a clod of clay          is cleft by the share.
It was wrought by wrights          in the realms of the East,
in black Belegost,          by the bearded Dwarves
of troth unmindful;          it betrayed him now
from its sheath slipping          as o’er shaggy slades
and roughhewn rocks          their road they wended.

Although Gary Gygax cannot have read the word dwarven/dwarfen in Tolkien’s unpublished writings when he and Rob Kuntz wrote the D&D Greyhawk supplement, the publication of The Silmarillion the year following was met with great excitement by the still very small gaming community there in little Lake Geneva at the time.

So taken was everyone there by Tolkien that there was never any question of spelling dwarves as dwarfs, for there was some awareness even then of the battles Tolkien had waged with his publisher’s copyeditors over elvish over elfish, Dwarves over Dwarfs. We all felt that the ‑v‑ versions were somehow more “authentic” of the genre we were immersing ourselves in.

  • @sumelic Text added.
    – tchrist
    Jan 27, 2018 at 23:46

I just came across a passage indicating that the forms "dwarven" and "dwarfen" were in fact used in some of Tolkien's writings, contrary to my initial impressions. I'm not sure if these uses can be dated to any exact year, but they would necessarily pre-date the Greyhawk example from 1976 that tchrist found, since J.R.R. Tolkien lived from 1892–1973.

According to The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner,

Interestingly, the word dwarven—not yet recorded in the OED—is now much commoner in this form than in the spelling dwarfen. Tolkien experimented with both forms in his early writings: e.g. 'a sword of dwarven steel' in the 'Tale of the Nauglafring' (HME II. 227), but 'the forged knife of dwarfen steel' in 'The Lay of the Children of Húrin' (HME III. 44).

(p. 106)

Wikipedia says The History of Middle-earth Volume I (The Book of Lost Tales 2) was published in 1984, while Volume III (The Lays of Beleriand) was published in 1985, so it doesn't seem like these examples could have been the source of Greyhawk's use. Perhaps dwarven was independently invented by different people at different times.

I took a look at my library's copy of The Book of Lost Tales 2. The introductory note for 'Tale of the Nauglafring' gives the following information about the primary source:

This is contained in a separate notebook, and it bears the title The Nauglafring: The Necklace of the Dwarves. [...]This tale is [...] a manuscript in ink over a wholly erased original in pencil [...] so far as the words 'sate his greed' on page 230. From this point to the end there is only a primary manuscript in pencil in the first stage of composition, written in haste – in places hurled on to the page, with a good many words not certainly decipherable [...]

(p. 221)

The word "dwarven" occurs on page 227 (so, in the ink section of the manuscript). The index at the end of the book only lists this one page for dwarven, and also mentions a single occurence of dwarfen, on page 238 (in the pencil section of the manuscript):

...did little harm to Naugladur by reason of the [?skill] and magic of his dwarfen mail...

The index of The Lays of Bereliand says "adjective dwarfen 44, elsewhere dwarvish."

The word occurs in line 1143 of 'The Lay of the Children of Húrin':

No blade would bite on the bonds he wore,   1140
though Flinding felt for the forgéd knife
of dwarfen steel, his dagger prizéd
that at waist he wore awake or sleeping,
whose edge would eat through iron noiseless
as a clod of clay is cleft by the share.

The introductory note to this poem says

For the date of its commencement we have only my father's later (and perhaps hesitant) statement that it was 'begun c. 1918'. A terminus a quo is provided by a page of the earliest manuscript of the poem, which is written on a slip from the Oxford English Dictionary bearing the printer's stamp May 1918. On the other hand the name Melian which occurs near the beginning of the earliest manuscript shows it to be later than the typescript version of the Tale of Tinúviel, where the Queen's name was Gwenethlin and only became Melian in the course of its composition (II. 51); and the manuscript version of that Tale which underlies the typescript seems itself to have been one of the last completed elements in the Lost Tales (see I. 204).

(pp. 3-4)

The HOME index mentions that Dwarf- occurs often as the first element of a compound word (like "Dwarf-women", "Dwarf-speech", "Dwarf-Kingdom", "Dwarf-road"; p. 106).

If I'm reading it correctly, it points towards the following additional examples of dwarven:

(VII) [...] dwawen [sic] 104, the Dwarven-door of Moria 178, 204

The front of the book explains that "VII" refers to The Treason of Isengard.

The example from page 104 occurs in a version of the Eärendillinwë, the poem that Bilbo chants at Rivendell. According to Christopher Tolkien, the version published in Fellowship of the Rings, which he labels "C", was not the final form of this poem: it apparently underwent several revisions that were not sent to the publishers. The version "F", which Christopher Tolkien calls "the form in which it should have been published", contains the word dwarven in the second stanza:

His coat that came from ancient kings
of chainéd rings was forged of old;
his shining shield all wounds defied,
with runes entwined of dwarven gold.
His bow was made of dragon-horn [...]

In the published version, dwarven is absent:

In panoply of ancient kings,
in chainéd rings he armoured him;
his shining shield was scored with runes
to ward all wounds and harm from him;
his bow was made of dragon-horn [...]

The "dwarven-door" example on page 178 occurs in a struck out portion of a draft of the Moria story:

'That is where the Doors stood once upon a time,' said Gandalf pointing across the water. 'There was the Elven-door at the end of the road from Hollin by which we have come, [struck out: and the Dwarven-door further south]. We must get across [struck out: to the Elven-door] as quickly as we can. This way is blocked....'

The term "Dwarven-door" does not occur in the published version.

Based on this, my present understanding is that adjectives like dwarfen and dwarven are attested in J.R.R. Tolkien's writings, possibly formed on the analogy of elven/elfin, but did not appear in any of his works published during his lifetime, or even in the Silmarillion, which was published in 1977. But this absence may be more of an accident than I originally thought.

As described by tchrist, the form dwarven shows up as an adjective in Greyhawk, 1976, apparently representing an independent formation by analogy with the forms elven and dwarves, dwarvish that did occur in Tolkien's earlier published works. Past this point, the adjective dwarven (and to a lesser extent, the variant dwarfen) shows increasing use in fantasy contexts, making it harder to trace an exact chain of influence.

Looking at this made me realize that I had neglected to look for examples of dwarfen in my initial research, so I just attempted to do that. The results on Google Books indicate that dwarfen has been used as the plain form of a verb to dwarfen (as in "still farther to dwarfen and stifle God's image in their countrymen", from Life in Brazil, by Thomas Ewbank, 1856, p. 305) but that seems irrelevant.

I did find an adjectival use of dwarfen from 1839, but I would guess it is not related to the adjective elven, but rather formed along the lines of words like drunken that end in the strong past participle suffix -en:

The dwarfen beach which overhung the stream, were there thickly intermingled with some hazel copsewood, and deep brakes of briars, that extended several yards into the field that she now entered.

(p. 342, Irish Political Novels--The Manor of Glenmore, by "a Member of the Irish Bar", in The Dublin University Magazine, Volume 14)

There seem to be some further examples of dwarfen as an adjective not related to Tolkien-style fantasy "dwarves"/"dwarfs" from 1954 (in The Menorah Journal, a Google Books "snippet view" shows the line "a world a dwarfen dot") and 1969 (in American Opinion, by Robert Welch, for which Google Books "snippet" view shows the following: "But today, the witticisms of Whistler and his aesthetics are Lilliputian arrows – dwarfen, contrived, impotent, like the stings of wasps that have grown brittle and dry and do not wound as they crumble to brilliant dust...").

Perhaps these rare uses of dwarfen as an adjective also contributed in some way to the eventual rise of dwarven.

  • I not only own HOME, I also have its twelve-volume index. I can poke around. I advise you not to wait up for me, for one tends to drift off in undiscovered reveries pursuing such things. :)
    – tchrist
    Jan 27, 2018 at 22:01

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