Tolkien’s dwarvish (not dwarfish) names

Confusticate and bebother these dwarves: Bilbo tries to keep names like Fili, Kili, Oin, Gloin, Bifur and Bofur straight.

For all that Tolkien devoted The Silmarillion to the vast history of the Elves (and, to a lesser extent, Men), it’s clear from The Hobbit (and in the characterization of Gimli in The Lord of the Rings) that he had a soft spot for Dwarves.

In the first place, Thorin Oakenshield isn’t the leader of a band of three or seven or even nine dwarves, but thirteen; and, remarkably, they all have personalities and relationships and are pretty well fleshed out for secondary characters.

But where did Tolkien find such distinctive dwarvish names as Fili, Kili, Dwalin, Oin, Bifur, Bofur and Bombur, among others?

Look no further than “Völuspá,” or “The Seeress’s Prohecy” in the Old Norse Poetic Edda; specifically the odd section known as the Dvergatal, or “Catalogue of Dwarves.”  Nestled in among the apocalyptic fortelling of the end of the world is a long list of dwarves’ names. For a comparison of the original and a translation, with the names Tolkien used, here.  The Old Norse runs thus:


10. Þar var Móðsognir mæztr of orðinn

dverga allra, en Durinn annarr;

þeir mannlíkun mörg of gerðu

dvergar í jörðu, sem Durinn sagði.


11. Nýi, Niði, Norðri, Suðri,

Austri, Vestri, Alþjófr, Dvalinn,

Nár ok Náinn Nípingr, Dáinn

Bívurr, Bávurr, Bömburr, Nóri,

Ánn ok Ánarr, Óinn, Mjöðvitnir.


12. Veggr ok Gandalfr, Vindalfr, Þorinn,

Þrár ok Þráinn, Þekkr, Litr ok Vitr,

Nýr ok Nýráðr, nú hefi ek dverga,

Reginn ok Ráðsviðr, rétt of talða.


13. Fíli, Kíli, Fundinn, Náli,

Hefti, Víli, Hannar, Svíurr,

Billingr, Brúni, Bíldr ok Buri,

Frár, Hornbori, Frægr ok Lóni,

Aurvangr, Jari, Eikinskjaldi.


14. Mál er dverga í Dvalins liði

ljóna kindum til Lofars telja,

þeir er sóttu frá salar steini

Aurvanga sjöt til Jöruvalla.


15. Þar var Draupnir ok Dolgþrasir,

Hár, Haugspori, Hlévangr, Glóinn,

Dóri, Óri Dúfr, Andvari

Skirfir, Virfir, Skáfiðr, Ái.


For those of you skipping the Old Norse — it’s fine if that’s all of you — one of the names above was also Gandálfur, a name that means “magic elf,” anglicized by Tolkien as Gandalf.  Also mentioned is Durinn; in Tolkien’s Middle-earth mythology Durin was the primal Dwarf created by the godlike Aulë. And in The Hobbit, Durin’s Day has a special significance, though as Thorin laments, unfortunately even the Dwarves are unable to calculate when it falls anymore.

Dvalinn is obviously the basis for Dwalin; but Dwalin’s brother Balin, I’d guess, actually gets his name from Balin or Balyn of Arthurian legend.

As for the use of “dwarvish” and “dwarves” in The Hobbit as opposed to “dwarfish” and “dwarfs,” Tolkien breaks his explanation into two parts, one at the beginning of that book and the other in The Lord of the Rings. In the former, he asserts that the correct plural in English is dwarfs, by which I tend to think he means our word that was used as a synonym for midgets, as opposed to an actual separate race of fairy-tale beings. In the latter he puts forth that the correct plural of Dwarf (as he means them in Middle-earth) is Dwarrows. Note that one of the names for Moria, the great underground kingdom of the Dwarves, is Dwarrowdelf.

Tolkien’s plural, by the way, does correlate with other English words such as scarf/scarves and wolf/wolves.  Personally, though I can think of titles such as Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs and they don’t sound odd, when speaking I naturally fall into using dwarves.  Maybe it just sounds right to me; or maybe I’ve just played too much Dungeons and Dragons in my time.

What do you think?  Do you say dwarfs or dwarves?

UPDATE: Join the discussion at BookSnobbery as SJ posts on the first five chapters of The Hobbit; check in with Kate Sherrod as she gives a personal (and hilarious) overview of same; and at  Shouty Men in Shiny Armour, SJ’s comparison of Peter Jackson’s dwarves to Klingons. I’m not kidding. There is a discussion to be had there as well.

UPDATE II: Jim at Thoughts in the Grass has a some interesting thoughts on the story’s opening and  the crucial chapter “Riddles in the Dark” here.

UPDATE III: Wow, there are a lot of us chiming in this week! Over at Dab of Darkness, I think we get the first mention / comparison in this readalong of Tolkien’s hobbits to the characters in Willow. Significant for those of us waiting for the honest-to-goodness live-action Hobbit movie coming this year, not George Lucas’s pastiche (which, I admit, I loved and still watch from time to time).

11 thoughts on “Tolkien’s dwarvish (not dwarfish) names

  1. I think I’ve always said “dwarves” (probably because my first experience with that word comes from Snow White). Thank you for this–it’s nice to know where all of this stuff comes from.

    • I fully admit I care waaayyyy too much about things like etymology, even for things that don’t exist. And discovering Tolkien’s dwarven names in Völuspá when I was supposed to be slogging though the Old Icelandic vocabulary was a real perk.

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  3. Hmmm, that’s actually a tough question. I THINK “dwarfs” does sound more to me like people living in our universe who happen to be smaller, i.e. Peter Dinklage, and “dwarves” sounds more to me like a race or magical small people with beards, i.e. Peter Dinklage in armor and a blue hood with a silver tassel. But “dwarfish” sounds right to me for things like “dwarfish longing” (for gold) and “dwarfish hearts” (stirring with song) etc, whereas “dwarvish” just sounds to me like someone is mispronouncing Sufi mystic practices. Does that make sense? No? I thought not.

    • Jericha, that’s how I parse it as well. I think Tolkien was right to distinguish the terms even if (as I half-suspect), he’s making a case on phonological grounds (if his plural is “dwarrows,” then it’s likely the “w” becomes a “v” in his etymology) as much as morphological grounds (dwarves as a separate race vs. dwarfs as short humans).
      But I hear you on the “dwarvish” front. Would there be dwarvish dervishes? Whirling like the dwarvish?

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  5. That was pretty cool. My dabbling in languages allowed me to follow most of what you said. I appreciate the Dwarrow interpretation!

    • Thanks! I am speculating a bit on Tolkien’s decisions, but I’m no linguist. I’m just going on what I know from the languages I do know.

    • Thanks for stopping by! I wish I knew more about some of the influences Tolkien drew from. I’m familiar with the Old Icelandic literature and some of Anglo-Saxon and Middle English works, but I’ve never read others at all, such as the Finnish epic Kalevala (apparently one of his favourites?).

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