Although perennially opposed to directly explicit allegory, Tolkien himself states in letter 176 “I do think of the ‘Dwarves’ like Jews.” The Jews are a group that may seem at first left out of Tolkien’s reluctantly allegorical and religiously influenced work. The Christian connections are explicit, as the world can easily be interpreted in a Christian liturgical context; such context gives the story all the more meaning, but does it not leave out then entire groups from Tolkien’s fantasy? Tolkien’s extended allegories it seems also have elements of Nordic and Jewish theology, leaving room for further engagement on multiple religious tracks.
There are several features of the Dwarves that enhance their “Jewishness,” but the first that I will discuss, perhaps the most evident, are the negative stereotypes. The Lord of the Rings is itself already in a pseudo-medieval context, so this lends a good frame for viewing treatment of various races. What common ground do Elven stereotypes of Dwarves have in common with Medieval European stereotypes of Jews? Tolkien based his Dwarves on the traditional mythological Germanic Dwarves, as recounted in Old Norse Sagas (particularly those of Snorri). These characters physically were shorter than other races, had larger and hooked noses, and their curly hair was often red (a common trope to indicate the Jewishness of a character). Furthermore, Dwarves, especially Tolkien’s Dwarves, are greedy and proud creatures who care primarily about gold and its acquisition, as well as stashing it. The Dwarves, like the Jews, are noted craftsman, workers of stone and metal.
Politically, the Dwarves are highly insular, worrying little of matters outside their own nations. Although they do sometimes take sides, they are very hard to sway often accused by the Elves of being stubborn as the rock they so adore. Historically, the Jews were political wildcards as well; European states often did not know what sides Jews would take in conflicts, if any, and it was hard for them to involve themselves politically in much outside their own “nations.” In Tolkien’s world this neutrality is especially evident regarding the rings; Sauron is unable to subjugate the Dwarf ringbearers, and these incredibly powerful objects have little effect on them, merely increasing their avarice and desire for wealth.
The Dwarf communities also exist in parallel with European Jewish ones; Dwarves, like Jews, tend to live in smaller communities near or around communities of Elves or Men. Although the Dwarves and Jews adopted the languages of the countries within which they lived, they retained their own private language for use within their own communities. Tolkien’s Dwarves speak heavily Semitic-influenced language, Khazad, which heavily follows Hebrew phonology. Here there actually lies an important distinction between the Jews and the Dwarves, and that is that Khazad is a highly conservative language, essentially unchanged since its origins, whereas the Jews in Europe generally spoke Yiddish, an incredibly dynamic and fusion language. Yiddish exists in many dialects and varieties, taking on local vocabulary and characteristics from the countries in which the various Jewish communities lived, with some varieties more Slavic or more Germanic, although they all retained a large Hebrew influence. Why does Tolkien draw this distinction? For one, Tolkien may have just wanted a clear difference between Dwarves and Jews, to avoid too much overlap. Perhaps he did this to reflect population trends- Dwarf populations have massively decreased in Middle Earth, and they are almost dying out, whereas Jewish communities continued to grow in Europe until Zionism and the Holocaust.
Zionism brings up another great comparison between Jews and Dwarves: the search for a homeland. Both groups live in diaspora and in the shadow or larger, foreign communities, so we often see the desire to found a homeland. The first example of this is in The Hobbit, where Thorin seeks to lead a pilgrimage of sorts to reclaim the Lonely Mountain, a “lost homeland” of the dwarves. Moria is yet another example, with an even more Zion-like status. Moria was founded by Durin in the Years of the Trees, which essentially serve as Middle Earth’s biblical age. However, Khazad-dûm was eventually lost to the dwarves, and the various Dwarf/Orc wars over it could possibly be interpreted as analogous to the crusades. It’s hard, however, to think of an analogue for Durin’s Bane, the Balrog, and perhaps there isn’t one. An attempt to construct one might be done by looking at Gandalf in this situation; I would postulate that Gandalf is the British Empire, who destroys the current power occupying the area, and makes the land safe for the Dwarves/Jews to return. This would imply that Durin’s Bane is the Ottoman Empire, however this does not function historically very well, as the Ottomans (and Muslim empires in general) were in fact kinder and more hospitable to the Jews than many European powers, allowing them to peacefully coexist as dhimmi (People of the Book). Maybe Durin’s Bane is something nobody expects, like the Spanish Inquisition?
As a final point in closing, I think is worthy of note is how the Dwarves are driven from their lands- and that is generally by fire. Dragons drive them from Erebor and the Grey Mountains, and a fiery Balrog drives them from Moria. The Dwarves’ history of being genocided mirrors the Jews, in fact, the Holocaust is literally Greek for “death by fire.” True, The Hobbit, detailing Smaug’s genocide of the Dwarves at Erebor, was written prior to the Holocaust, the other events are all detailed in The Lords of the Rings and The Simarillion, which of course were written many years after the Holocaust.
It’s easy to draw on a few apparent characteristics and jump to a conclusion; but Tolkien goes beyond that, his comparison of the Dwarves and Jews is far-reaching, relating them not just in their stereotypes, but their politics, anthropology, language, and history. Those who might attribute shared negative traits (avarice specifically) to anti-Semitism would do well to read a letter Tolkien wrote in response to a German publisher’s inquiry into his lineage: “But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret that I appear to have no ancestors of that gifted people.” We would all be well reminded that Tolkien showed vice in not just the Dwarves, but in all races: Man, Elf, Hobbit, and Maiar alike.