Dwarves in fantasy may be dour, beer-swilling, gold-digging troglodytes, but there’s no doubt about their importance in myth and folklore. In the Prose Edda, four dwarves (Norori, Suori, Austri, and Vestri) hold up the sky, and there’s even some scholarly speculation that the little folk may have had a hand in the creation of the first humans, Ask and Embla.
The word “dwarf” (Old English dweorg, Old Norse dvergr) has been linked to the Indo-European root dreugh, which gives us the English “dream” and “trug” (deception), which has important ramifications for the dwarves of my own fantasy world of Aethir.
Dwarves have been around in popular culture for as long as I can remember (my longterm memory is significantly better than my short, which probably has something to do with my dwarven love of anything that can be drunk from a flagon). The Brothers Grimm recorded the folk tale of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves as long ago as 1812. Tolkien gave us an ensemble of silly-hat-wearing dwarves in The Hobbit (1937), and Terry Gilliam’s Time Bandits (1981) had a band of chronologically challenged, diminutive treasure-seekers doing battle with evil.
Dwarves are often associated with the deep places of the earth. It’s a connection that goes back to the Eddas and is a characteristic of the dwarves of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. In my own universe, the dwarves of Aethir are “created” by the scientist Sektis Gandaw in order to mine the precious ore, scarolite. However, there are darker and older secrets to their nature waiting to be discovered.
I was always quite ambivalent towards Thorin Oakenshield and his companions in The Hobbit— they are often avaricious to the point of foolhardiness, although it would be hard to deny their bravery. Gimli, in The Lord of the Rings, is perhaps more likable, particularly in his score-keeping scene with Legolas at Helm’s Deep, and his hardiness in the epic battle in the mines of Moria, the quintessential dwarven environment.
Something of a dwarf stereotype has developed over the years. Some of it comes from mythology, some from Tolkien’s feasting and drinking dwarves, and much from the development of the race in Dungeons and Dragons and Warhammer. Despite their often bellicose natures, dwarves tend to provide a touch of grouchy comedy to fantasy tales—“Nobody tosses a dwarf,” says John Rhys-Davies’s Gimli in the Peter Jackson film.
Various subtypes of dwarf have arisen, numerous clans, but there is almost always an immediately identifiable quality of dwarfishness about them. Generally it’s alcohol, although dwarves are also very much bound up with axes, stoicism, and a love of shiny objects that have to be dug out of rock.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but dwarves often have a flavour of Scottishness about them, so much so that a RPG figure I once painted for the Nameless Dwarf had tartan britches. Arguably, the trend was taken too far in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, but it’s been a staple of the Warhammer universe, perhaps epitomized by the character Gotrek. Someone once stated they felt the Nameless Dwarf was another Gotrek type. The funny thing is, the Nameless Dwarf has been around since 1979 (when there was no Warhammer), which means he predates Gotrek by nearly two decades.
Back in the days when I belonged to the legendary Wargaming Society sequestered away at the back of the Archery recreation ground’s public toilets, I was in the unsavoury habit of playing Dungeons and Dragons with a crabby bunch of ne’er-do-wells. We had the back room of the club (the front was for serious gamers in the Napoleonics tradition). We painted the walls and ceiling black, let the cobwebs grow, and gathered around an enormous (black) table with six-packs of Jacob’s Club biscuits for endless campaigns that took us all the way to the Abyss and back.
There were a few memorable dwarves among the players. One was particularly annoying (I forget his name). He was literally dripping with artifacts, was as indestructible as the Hulk, and had the “my axe is bigger than yours” personality type. The shogger had even been resurrected a couple of times. He just refused to go away. He did go away, eventually, though, when he took a pop at a certain dwarf with no name, who always had the luck of the gods on his side. Chopped the bleeder’s head off, and that was an end to the matter.
Another player had a fat dwarf, aptly named Falstaff, but all I can remember of him is that he was always lagging behind so he could hit on the party’s only female (an elf of all things!)
I pretty much always played dwarves. I tried other races, but the minute those characters were killed (and inevitably they were) I got straight back into my comfort zone.
When my brother decided to DM a particular nasty orc-fest at the club, a super-party was assembled, and I realized I was going to need a pretty special dwarf to get the job done.
That’s when the original Nameless Dwarf was created. He was nameless back then because he didn’t need any sort of personality. He was a tank, a hack-and-slash superhero. He was the dwarven Terminator (even before Arnold had first uttered “I’ll be back.”) Some time after his creation, I bought a miniature figure called The Dwarf with No Name—a cigar-smoking, gun-toting, poncho-wearing dwarf based on the Clint Eastwood character. It wasn’t quite appropriate for Nameless, but it was a cool figure nonetheless.
Over the years, the character developed, but he also grew more and more powerful, and that’s never a good thing in gaming. Eventually, I retired him. Years later, I reinvented him, but that was when I learned the hard truth that roleplaying games are for people less imaginatively and cognitively challenged than an old codger like me. I shoved my polyhedral dice in the attic and left Nameless to the Void.
Many years later, I gave him a cameo in my first fantasy novel, The Resurrection of Deacon Shader. Back then I was into being terribly, terribly literary and reducing all my characters to two-dimensional talking heads. I did the same with Nameless, although a lot of readers were impressed with his first appearance. With barely a word spoken, he scares the crap out of the hero, Shader, displaying some of that elemental violence he’d had as a D&D character.
When I was staying in Chicago a few years ago I found myself at a loose end while my son was out catching frogs. I sat at a friend’s dining room table and resolved to write a Nameless short story to sell to a magazine. I wrote the 5000 word The Ant-Man of Malfen in one sitting and liked where the character was going. He had elements of Shakespeare’s Falstaff (Henry IV 1&2), Hilaire Belloc’s drinking, singing, and camaraderie, a crippling manic depression, and a smattering of David Gemmell’s Druss the Legend.
Nameless has some of those stereotypical dwarven characteristics—the axe and the grog, but he’s also a rather unique, complex character who (importantly for me) has some surprising vulnerabilities.
The story was accepted by Pulp Empire, but then I went on to expand it into a novella. It starts after the Nameless, under the influence of a malevolent black axe, virtually commits genocide. The survivors of his massacre in the ravine city of Arx Gravis flee across the mountains into the nightmare lands of Qlippoth. At last free from the axe, Nameless desperately wants to find them before it’s too late (no one comes back from Qlippoth). He hires Nils Fargin, son of a criminal guildmaster, to lead him to some rather shady contacts who may be able to help.
That’s where the Chronicles of the Nameless Dwarf start—a guilt-ridden Nameless trying to find the survivors of his race, and knowing he’s the last person they’d want to run into. The series spans five books that take him on a journey with modest Sword and Sorcery beginnings to a truly epic conclusion.
The Nameless Dwarf books have benefited enormously from some great artwork. The first cover was produced by C.S. Marks. Subsequent covers in the first series were painted by Patrick Stacey. Russian artist Anton Kokarev came up with the iconic image of Nameless for the cover of the Complete Chronicles, which has consistently been my bestselling book, and has topped the fantasy charts on several occasions. More recently, Mike Nash, a brilliant English artist, accepted the challenge of producing covers for Carnifex (Legends of the Nameless Dwarf Book 1) and Return of the Dwarf Lords (Book 4).
The Nameless Dwarf books began as a fun spinoff from the Shader series, which is much heavier epic fantasy. Something of Nameless’s old D&D luck must still linger, though, as the Chronicles have easily outsold all my other books put together. Either that, or it’s just a reminder that the little guys, in spite of all their vices, remain as popular today as they were in the days of yore.
In 2015, I began work on a follow up Nameless Dwarf story, Return of the Dwarf Lords. Based on this, I was asked by my agent to put together a complete Nameless Dwarf story arc, and so I sat down to write the tragic origins story, Carnifex, and then put together Geas of the Black Axe from some material that originally featured in my Shader series, massively revised and told from Nameless’s perspective, along with approximately 60,000 of new material. Next, The Complete Chronicles were fully revised and became book 3: Revenge of the Lich.