Many years ago I spent a few weeks in Prague, at a friend’s who had a roleplaying and fantasy shop there. Prague, of course, appears in The Red Man and Others as the divided city of Starohrad. My friend introduced me to writer William King, writer of the Gotrek and Felix books, and got me one of the novels to read, which I liked quite a lot. Back home, I did a few drawings of the titular dwarf with the idea that perhaps I ought to do art for White Wolf, though nothing came of that.
While getting further into exploring the world of Kaila, Ymke and Sebastien, the homemade heroes of The Red Man and Others, we constantly have the push and pull of ‘how much sorcery is there with the swords?’ and ‘are there any monsters?’ too. We’ve still not quite figured these out; there is sorcery, but it’ll not be an easy matter of “here’s a spell to fix it all.” Here be no Harry Potters. In a story that’s currently ‘doing the rounds’ we do however have dwarves. Yet, fun as the Warhammer dwarves are, our ‘Wheelworld’ operates at a more human, realistic level.
So, the dwarves that you sometimes see, as wide as they’re high, and so muscled that they’re hardly should be able to move, are out. Also, where do they come from, in the history of our world which, if anything else, we want to give a ‘lived in’ feeling? There’s a few clues that guide our thinking in the right direction. Firstly, there’s the notion that tales of fairies and ‘the others’ are race memories of encounters with tribes which are like us, but not quite us. The fair folk of myth are often painted as shy and retiring, but also dangerous for ‘us normal people’ to encounter.
Basically, they want to be left alone, yet we cannot seem to do other than fear them. This actually is a known phenomenon: the Uncanny Valley is the point in which the relationship between something’s resemblance to a human and our emotional relationship to it takes a sudden plunge at the point at which it very much resembles us, but is not us. When a robot is a metal thing, we’re fine with it, but when it’s made to resemble us, we feel revulsion. This is something that’s hardwired in us, and I wonder whether it’s something to do with our own evolution: was this how we saw as enemies these people in far distant times who were not like ourselves?
Robert E. Howard certainly made use of this in his work. His Picts were not as much the Picts of history, as they were a race of smaller, darker people. In this he was possibly influenced by the theory made popular by the Scottish folklorist David MacRitchie, who in his Fians, Fairies and Picts (1893) argues that the belief in ‘the little people’ was rooted in the folk memory of Picts, who he imagined to be the diminutive indigenous population of stone-age Britain, driven to its remote corners by incoming invaders. He quotes John Francis Campbell, from his 1860-62 Popular Tales of the West Highlands: “I believe there once was a small race of people in these islands, who are remembered as fairies (…) smaller in stature than the Celts; who used stone arrows, lived in conical mounds like the Lapps, knew some mechanical arts, pilfered goods and stole children; and were perhaps contemporary with some species of wild cattle and horses and great auks, which frequented marshy ground, and are now remembered as water-bulls and water-horses, and boobries, and such like impossible creatures.”
MacRitchie notes that the Lapp-Fairy connection was already made earlier by Sir Walter Scott for whom “there seems reason to conclude that these duergar (in English, dwarfs) were originally nothing else than the diminutive natives of the Lappish, Lettish and Finnish nations, who, flying before the conquering weapons of the Asae, sought the most retired regions of the north, and there endeavoured to hide themselves from their eastern invaders.” So commonly accepted was this image of the Picts as diminutive, “swarthy” and hunted people that fellow-Scotsman Robert Louis Stevenson describes the Picts in his Heather Ale poem of 1890: Rudely plucked from their hiding / Never a word they spoke: / A son and his aged father – / Last of the dwarfish folk.
These, then, are the Picts of Robert E Howard, who in Roman times had fallen to a sorry state, with Bran Mak Morn fighting for his doomed people. Jason Ray Carney in his insightful article, Bran Mak Morn: Social Justice Warrior quotes Howard, who himself was an outcast, on the Picts: “My interest in these strange Neolithic people was so keen that I was not content with my Nordic appearance, and had I grown into the sort of man, which in childhood I wished to become, I would have been short, stock, with thick, gnarled limbs, beady black eyes, a low retreating forehead, heavy jaw, and straight, coarse black hair.“
Robert E. Howard describes his childhood image of his grown-up self as a Pict, but it’s closer to the image we have of the old-fashioned ‘caveman’, the Neanderthal man reconstructed in 1911 on basis of the finds at Chapelle-aux-Saints. Now we know that this man was aged and had arthritis, but it formed the popular image of the ape-like, stooped, bent-kneed creature for decades to come. One example of this is in William Golding’s 1955 novel The Inheritors in which a family of early men encounter the newer man, a meeting that inevitably spells their doom. While scientifically outdated, the novel is still a powerful and haunting read.
Years ago we were lucky enough to see Beowulf & Grendel in the cinema, courtesy the Belfast Film Festival. It’s a gorgeous film, and not to mistaken with the Neil Gaiman-scripted CGI thing where you see the Uncanny Valley in action! It starts with the the child Grendel and his father who are hunted by a mob of angry Norsemen. They kill the father but leave the child, figuring it’ll not survive on its own. Grendel, however, does. The adult Grendel is played by the Icelandic actor Ingvar Sigurdsson, with body prosthesis to bulk him up and make him hairy, but with just enough make-up on his face to keep him human. Almost. When Grendel starts to exact his revenge on the Norse settlement, the truth comes out: the troll was killed for having stolen a fish. The instinctive hatred for the other at work.
In Beowulf & Grendel the Norsemen call Grendel a troll. However, what we see is a species of Man. Neanderthal? Perhaps? Not to want to spoil the film (go! See it!), he does have a child with a human woman. We know that there has been interbreeding between modern humans and Neanderthals. On average a few percent of our DNA is made up of Neanderthal DNA. And here’s an uncomfortable one for the ‘race purists’ – if you want to look for the purest Homo Sapiens, you need to go to sub-Saharan Africa! Then you read stories about how the wooly mammoth survived, in isolated pockets, until 4000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid was already standing, and you think: ‘Could it be?’
Our dwarves are the last remnants of Neanderthal people, who have retreated to some of the most inhospitable places of Europe, like the Alp mountains. One dwarf in our story uses some Swiss-derived phrases, which also is a nice nod to our friends in Zürich. They are strong, yet cultured, as our understanding of Neanderthal people is now far removed from the brutish cave dweller: they created art, made twine and glue. That said, our own dwarves may have retreated to the caves, as it is the mountains, after all. They are the miners of fairytale, and they make beautiful things of the ores and crystals that they mine.
They are a race under a huge amount of pressure, and on the brink of extinction. They know this, and they mourn this. They’ve been pushed back, bit by bit, by the ‘big men’, either by expansion or aggression. They already were smaller than them, and adapting to their harsh existence and scarce food sources, they’ve become somewhat smaller even in size. Few of them have left the mountains, but wherever they go they’re met with distrust and rejection. If you meet a dwarf, most likely a man, you’ll find him sombre and brooding, his attitude an armour against the harsh treatment he expects.
Funny though, we’ve worked our way straight back to Grimm’s dwarves from Snow White!