To Be the Deathless that Returned (More than You Ever Wanted to Know about Dwarvish Reincarnation)

This relatively long passage details the Fellowship’s steps into the 21st Hall of the North End, in the Mines of Moria. It’s here where Gandalf becomes more sure of the way. Tired, they decide to camp in a corner of the hall. Gimli recites the “World Was Young” poem, they learn about Mithril, and finally go to sleep.

You can really tell that something is building. It’s clear that they are nearly out of Moria. Gandalf: “At last we are coming to the habitable parts, and I guess that we are not far now from the eastern side.”

This all seemed pretty hopeful, but Gandalf warned them that it was not quite over yet. Tolkien described the darkness of the hall as “hollow and immense, and they were oppressed by the loneliness and vastness of the dolven halls and endlessly branching stairs and passages.”

As they were about to sleep, Sam got a bit talkative, and Gimli told the story of Moria’s founding by Durin the Deathless via poem. The post I made on Monday basically echoes this story. However, the last stanza of the poem delves into a bit of Dwarvish lore.

But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies his crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

Though pretty much everyone knew that Durin the Deathless actually died, the Dwarves believed otherwise. In “Durin’s Folk,” we learn that Durin the Deathless died before the end of the First Age. But it’s hinted that the Dwarves might believe that he was reincarnated.

“It came to pass that in the middle of the Third Age Durin was again its king, being the sixth of that name.”

In a draft of “Durin’s Folk,” Tolkien went into a bit more detail. He explained that after Durin the Deathless’ death, an heir was born into that family line “so like until his Forefather that he received the name of Durin, being held indeed by the Dwarves to be the Deathless that returned. This went on until the last Durin was killed by the Balrog.

This seems rather implausible since a new Durin would have to be born before the old Durin died. At the time of the draft, Tolkien also composed a family tree, which showed seven generations passing between Durin the Deathless and Durin III (who was later replaced by Durin VI in the final draft). So basically, the reincarnation of Durin would come roughly ever other generation. In subsequent renderings, the generations between Durin the Deathless and the final Durin went from seven to twelve to “many.”

In an essay that’s been entitled “Of Dwarves and Men,” Tolkien explored this even further. While mostly it discusses their language and relation to Men and Elves, it also goes a bit into their philosophy.

Tolkien seemed then to back away from the reincarnation idea (or rather, to have the Dwarves back away from it). He explained that the name Durin was “they name they gave to the prime ancestor of the Longbeards and by which he was known to Elves and Men.” It was, he wrote “simply a word for ‘king’ in the language of the Men of the North of the Second Age.” Of all the names used by the Dwarves in the Elder Days, this was the only one that survived, though all were from “a long ‘dead’ Mannish language.”

It’s weird to see Tolkien head in this direction. When he first came up with the names for the Dwarves while writing The Hobbit they were simply nicked from the Old Norse poem ‘Völuspá’. Now, it seems, he’s linking them back to the Norse – “a long ‘dead’ Mannish language.” In a note, Christopher Tolkien posits that the name Durin wasn’t “the ‘real’ Mannish name of the Father of the Longbeards,” but rather “is a name derived from Old Norse, and thus a ‘translation’.”

And then, toward the very end of his life, Tolkien again returned to this idea of Dwarvish reincarnation. That the Dwarves held the belief that Durin was reincarnated at least six time was clear, but he stated plainly that it was a “false notion.” It was, he wrote, “in some ways connected with the various strange ideas which both Elves and Men had concerning the Dwarves, which were indeed largely derived by them from the Dwarves themselves.”

This enters into the strange quandary of just who wrote the tales recorded as the Lord of the Rings and the Silmarillion. The former was certainly by Men (Hobbits, mostly), though derived partially from Elvish knowledge. The latter was completely Elvish book (though Bilbo might have been the translator). With either, Dwarvish input was nil. It was because of this lack that assumptions were made and misunderstanding occurred.

“For the Dwarves asserted that the spirits of the Seven Fathers of their races were from time to time reborn in their kindreds. This was notably the case in the race of the Longbeards whose ultimate forefather was called Durin, a name which was taken at intervals by one of his descendants, but by no others but those in a direct line of descent from Durin I.”

The Dwarves did not believe that Durin VI, who was killed by the Balrog (Durin’s Bane), would be the last. They prophesied that in the line of Dain Ironfoot, Durin VII would appear one day. It was he who would be the last. So detailed was this philosophy, that the Dwarves held that the Durins all “retained memory of their former lives as Kings, as real, and yet naturally as incomplete, as if they had been consecutive years of life in one person.” Even more strange was the idea that their memories were “clearer and fuller of the far-off days.”

This essay seems to have been written from the Elvish point of view. It laments that just how this Dwarvish reincarnation came to pass “the Elves did not know; nor would the Dwarves tell them much more on the matter.” What information they had was obtained by Legolas through Gimli – so take that as it may come.

However, this information was corroborated by Noldor, who claimed to have learned it from Aule himself. They gave even more details. This was a gift from Aule “that the spirit of each of the Fathers (such as Durin) should, at the end of the long span of life allotted to Dwarves, fall asleep, but then lie in a tomb of his own body, at rest, and there its weariness and any hurts that had befallen it should be amended. Then after long years he should arise and take up his kingship again.”

Tolkien mused that Dwarvish flesh decayed much more slowly then Man flesh. Also, that this reincarnation/reawakening would only happen “when by some chance or other the reigning king had no son. So Durin became a sort of substitute king. Strange stuff, here.


A Few Notes

  • If you had any questions about the Dwarves during the Second and Third Ages, and how they got along with Men, you should find yourself a copy of The Peoples of Middle-Earth by Christopher Tolkien. That’s where the “Of Dwarves and Men” essay is published. Also, it’s just an amazing book – one of my favorites in the History of Middle-Earth series.
  • The essay “Of Dwarves and Men” was probably written around October 1969. It originally contained one of my favorite sections later published in Unfinished Tales: “The Druedain.” It’s where the wonderful story “The Faithful Stone” had its origin.
  • I’m not exactly sure how the Dwarves didn’t notice that the new Durin wasn’t just the old body of the old Durin. I mean, supposedly someone had to give birth to the new Durin. None of this really makes sense though. But by the time of the LotR, this was all nearly-forgotten legends.

About the Photo
This is the first digital photo that I’ve used in the 170ish posts of the blog. It’s a railroad snowshed at Stevens Pass in the Washington’s Cascade Mountains. In 1909, there was an incredibly horrific avalanche that killed 96 people. After that, they built this. It’s now part of a hiking trail and really easy to get to. Unfortunately, we weren’t able to do it this year, so I had to use a digital image taken in 2009. Still, this really reminds me of the Hall in Moria.

“…a vast roof far above their heads upheld by many mighty pillars hewn of stone.”

  • Day 169
  • Miles today: 5
  • Miles thus far: 834 (380 from Rivendell)
  • 57 miles to Lothlórien
  • 945 miles to Mt. Doom

Today’s place in the narrative begins with: They had marched as far…. and ends with …glimmered faint and distantly. Book II, Chapter 3. Inside the Mines of Moria! 22nd day out of Rivendell. January 14, 3019 TA. (map)


3 thoughts on “To Be the Deathless that Returned (More than You Ever Wanted to Know about Dwarvish Reincarnation)

    • Tolkien ended up seeing the Dwarves as sort of the Jews of Middle-earth. Not in an anti-Semitic way, but as in their cultures aren’t well understood, and there’s a lot of inside information that’s not laid out for the rest of the world. And if the original Dwarvish language was 1950s Brooklyn Yiddish, that would also make me happy.

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