recently wrote about Roger Zelazny’s conspicuous use of the incorrect plural, dwarves, suggesting that he borrowed this form directly from Tolkien. “‘Elves’”, he says, “[Zelazny] might have gotten from old tradition (or from Dunsany, who influenced everyone who came after), but ‘Dwarves’ is Tolkien’s own invention.” This got me thinking it was time to share some thoughts on this particular plural. (And this, by the way, is not the first time I’ve written about strange plurals.)
First of all, I think we have to consider the possibility that Zelazny did not borrow this from Tolkien at all, but rather formed the incorrect plural on his own, on the same model as calf / calves, wolf / wolves, hoof / hooves, elf / elves, etc. These plural forms are all correct, so it is a natural “mistake” to model the plural of dwarf on the same rule. Some plurals of this type (calves, knives, thieves, lives, wolves) are stubbornly holding onto their original plural forms, but in many cases the correct plurals are being ousted by “normalized” forms, as in hoofs, roofs, turfs.
How did we end up with these seemingly irregular plural forms? The answer is, they aren’t irregular at all; we’ve simply modified their spelling to match their pronunciation. Let’s take a quick look at one example, wolf. The Old English antecedent is wulf, a strong a-stem noun whose nominative plural is written wulfas, but pronounced /wulvɑs/. The letter v was foreign to the Old English alphabet, but it became more and more common after the Norman Conquest, and during the Middle English period, the plural was being spelled both wulfes and wulves, the former gradually giving way to the latter. So, for instance, around the middle of the twelfth century, we see “nu ich eow sende swa swa lamb betwux wulfes” (Luke x.3), but a century later, give or take, we find “suich wulves hit hadde tobrode” (l. 1008, The Owl and the Nightingale, a poem of which Tolkien made a special study of the vocabulary as an undergraduate). And by the fourteenth century, the word was beginning to look almost modern: “Þe wolves dra3eþ uorþ þe children þet byeþ uorkest and wereþ his uram oþre bestes” (“Ayenbite of Inwyt”, MS Arundel 57).
So, as you can see, the plural wolves, spelled with a v is not really so strange. It would be no different, really, if we were to spell the plurals of cat and dog, cats and dogz; after all, the final sound is different. The reason this orthographic change could occur so easily in the wolves class of plurals is that English spelling had not yet ossified, nor would it begin to until after the arrival of the printing press and moveable type.
So, bringing this back to Tolkien, is it possible he merely extrapolated or mistaken a likely plural, as any one of us might have done? Well, it’s certainly less likely, if only because of Tolkien’s philological training. That is to say, he would have known better. He used the form dwarves from the beginning of his mythography, as far back as The Book of Lost Tales (circa 1916–1920). He commented on the use of dwarves in his letters (and elsewhere), noting that the proper plural form ought to have been dwarrows, something he might have learned around 1919–1920 during his work on the Oxford English Dictionary. In the first edition of the OED (then called the NED), this note is offered (edited slightly for ease of reading): “The plural dweorgas became dwerwhes, dwerwes, dwerows, dwarrows […]. Parallel forms appear in barrow, burrow, berry [etc.] from OE beorg ‘hill’, and borough, burrow, bury [etc.] from bur3 ‘town’.” So, even dwarrows is not without precedent, however odd it may look to us today. But if the Old English word was dweorg, how do we explain the final f sound? Again, not so strange. Just consider: how do we pronounce the gh in enough? And British zythophiles still spell it draught, but here in America we now write draft. There’s no mystery about it. It’s a perfectly mundane phonological process.
As pertains to the question with which I framed this post, all I’ve suggested so far is that Zelazny might not have borrowed the spelling dwarves from Tolkien, arriving at it through a natural mistake; and moreover, Tolkien himself might have “invented” it in the same way. But now, consider that Tolkien might have seen this spelling somewhere and been the one to borrow it himself.
Others, it transpires, have used dwarves before, and it’s possible Tolkien knew it. In 1916, right around the time Tolkien would have been starting work on The Book of Lost Tales, the American-Scandinavian Foundation (with Oxford University Press) published a new translation of the Prose Edda. The translator, Arthur Gilchrist Brodeur, uses the plural dwarves consistently throughout, as here: “The dwarves had first received shape and life in the flesh of Ymir, and were then maggots; but by decree of the gods had become conscious with the intelligence of men, and had human shape” (p. 26). This story of the origins of the Norse dwarves obviously sheds some light on Tolkien’s own story in the Quenta Silmarillion, written not so many years after Brodeur’s work first appeared. I don’t know whether Tolkien saw this particular translation, but it was right in his wheelhouse, so I don’t doubt the likelihood. And it arrived on bookshelves right around the time Tolkien first began using the incorrect plural dwarves, an interesting coincidence if nothing else.
Another possible influence appeared much earlier. In 1866, George Webbe Dasent published The Story of Gisli the Outlaw, a translation of the 13th-century Norse Gísla saga Súrssonar. Dwarves — yes, I use Tolkien’s spelling too! — do not play any central role in the saga, but Dasent had cause to mention them once in his book, right at the outset of the saga, in reference to “Graysteel”, a sword that “will bite whatever its blow falls on, be it iron or aught else; nor can its edge be deadened by spells, for it was forged by the Dwarves” (p. 4). As most of you will recall, Tolkien knew Dasent’s work and quoted his famous “bones of the ox” metaphor in the essay “On Fairy-stories”. There seems a reasonable chance Tolkien saw this use of the incorrect plural form, although I admit we don’t know whether a single usage would have been conspicuous enough to catch Tolkien’s eye.
There are other antecedent uses of dwarves too. For example, in F. York Powell’s Old Stories of British History (Longmans, Green, & Co., 1885), a book based loosely on British and Scandinavian mythology and folklore. Google books has scanned a copy from the Bodleian Library, which provides the illustration at the top of this post. I have no basis to assume Tolkien was familiar with this work, but he might have been. For another historical example, though one I doubt Tolkien knew, unless from the OED, see Gilliver et al., The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, pp. 104–8.
The upshot is, we don’t know whether Tolkien coined this word or borrowed it. There was a long previous history of its use, and I’ve given two examples Tolkien could very well have known. There are likely others. Even if Tolkien didn’t borrow the spelling deliberately, he might have done so accidentally. Or he may have chosen it for other reasons, quite independent of anybody else. We don’t really know, but — a bit like seeing hobbit in the Denham Tracts — it catches the eye to see the spelling for which Tolkien is often given credit in the earlier Scandinaviana.