Powerful dwarves in Arthurian literature

Completed 26 December 2002.
Last modified.
© Text Copyright 2002 Michael Wild

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This is an attempt to rescue the Arthurian dwarf from the mediaeval prejudice that the dwarf was as stunted morally as he was physically. The attempt has its roots in a point developed by Roger Sherman Loomis in 'Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance' concerning shape-changing Sun/Sky Gods. He was of the opinion that, in Irish myth, one of the guises that this God adopted was that of a dwarf. In his discussion of the gatekeepers (or porters) of castles, who Loomis regarded as menifestsations of the Irish Sun/Sky God, Curoi, he says:-

In the romance of Fergus by Guillaume le Clerc the hero meets before a tent a porter, whose skin is black, whose hair is bushy, who carries a baston, and who is exceedingly ugly of countenance. In brief he corresponds exactly to the descriptions of Curoi as the churl, except that he is three feet tall. That he is, however, in spite of his stature but another of the forms of Curoi, is strengthened by the fact that the gray Turk, who is Gawain's helpful companion on his expedition to the Isle of Man and who is certainly Curoi, is described as a dwarf. This theory also explains the cryptic remark which Lancelot makes to a dwarf who, according to the Vulgate Lancelot beats him with a stick: "I am honoured to be touched by so high a person as you are." Accordingly I believe we shall not be far wrong if we regard the many dwarfs who mysteriously appear and disappear in Otherworld castles, __ for instance in those of Brun de Morois, and Pelles, __ as manifestations of the ubiquitous god.

Loomis, R. S., Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, Constable: London, 1993 (1926), P. 109.

This strain of thought found some support in a short passage from 'Chronicles of the Celts' on the origin of the word Leprachaun from an epiphet applied to Lugh, an Irish Sun God, in Christian times. This suggests that a Sun God, who was the master of all crafts, eventually became demoted to a minature being who mended shoes:-

Lugh Lámhfada, Lugh of the Long Hand, the senior of the gods and patron of all arts and crafts, was eventually deomoted into Lugh-chromain, "stooping Lugh", and from there Anglicized into "leprachaun".

Ellis, P. B., The Chronicles of the Celts, Robinson: London, 1999, P. 6.

The second quotation leaves one wondering whether the pagan Sun God originally had a dwarf aspect, or whether this stunted personification developed as Christianity became dominant. Either way it seems that the dwarf of mediaeval Arthurian myth could have originally been an extremely powerful entity. The question dealt with here is, can some some residue of this power be found in other areas of Arthurian myth? I believe that it can.

Dwarves as powerful beings in Arthurian stories

this section deals with dwarves in various Arthurian tales; firstly by Lancelot's encounters with dwarves in Perlesvaus and in Chrétien de Troyes story of the 'Knight of the Cart (Lancelot)'. Secondly by the dwarves mentioned in Chrétien de Troyes 'Erec and Enide' and in the closely related tale of Gereint and Enid in the Mabinogion. Thirdly by the dwarf at the spring in Guilliame le Clerc's Romance of Fergus. Fourthly by mentions of dwarves in Malory.

Lancelot and dwarf in Perlesvaus

A dwarf is most clearly equated with the Sun God in a episode in Perlesvaus. Here Lancelot has refused the obligation of being the king of a city for a year. A period that would have culminated in him being crowned in the midst of a fire that was consuming the city, and had been since the death of the last king. This coronation will prevent the city being consumed by fire.

Lancelot is saved when a dwarf, accompanied by one of the most beautiful damsels of the country, willingly agrees to become the king of the city. It appears that the dwarf is the Solar God whose year of rule culminated in his own sacrifice. A cycle that would be perpetually repeated and that Lancelot is merely an interloper in the story. The whole of this incident has been quoted elsewhere.

The dwarf of the cart in Lancelot by Chrétien de Troyes

To continue with Lancelot, his encounter with the dwarf in Chrétien de Troyes story of the 'Knight of the Cart (Lancelot)' is interesting. This dwarf invites Lancelot, who is following the abducted Guinevere on foot, to jump into his cart and be led along the path that the abducted queen was taken along. Chrétien de Troyes makes great play of the fact that carts were once used to take convicted criminals for punishment and that Lancelot is losing his knightly status by choosing to ride in the cart. I have a suspicion that the cart was originally a chariot, perhaps that of the Sun God, a more appropriate mode of transport for an heroic warrior. When the cart reaches a tower late in the day, the dwarf forces Lancelot to dismount and then vanishes. This vanishing is an appropriate act for a Sun God, who would be leaving his daytime aspect and taking on his night-time role.

That Lancelot, and his companion Gawain, are now given green robes to wear is a clear indication that they are being entertained in a tower where the potency of the forces of nature is celebrated. Then follows the perilous bed incident in which Lancelot defeats an attack by the Sun in his night-time aspect. An attack that takes the form of having a burning spear flung at the bed he is sleeping in. The section of Chrétien de Troyes poem where these events happens has been quoted elsewhere.

Erec and Gereint and dwarves

Lets stick with Chrétien de Troyes and move to his poem 'Erec and Enide'; and to it's Welsh derivative; 'Gereint son of Erbin' in the Mabinogion. In Chrétien de Troyes version of this story three examples of powerful dwarves can be found: the dwarf of Yder, the dwarf king Bilis and Guivret the Little.

The dwarf of Yder son of Nut

When Guinevere and Erec are following King Arthur into a forest where the king is hunting the otherworldly white stag. They seem to stray into the otherworld themselves, for they lose all sound of the hunt. Now they encounter a mysterious knight (Yder son of Nut) and his lady, led by a dwarf riding a hack and bearing a knotted scourge. The dwarf refuses to let either Guinevere's damsel or Erec talk to the knight and his lady and beats both with his scourge. That the knight is larger than other humans, and that he and his lady ignore Guinevere and Erec, indicate that he is of a divine origin and that the dwarf acts as the intermediary between him and the everyday world.

The otherworldly connection becomes more apparent in the Mabinogion version of this tale, where Yder son of Nut is named as Edern son of Nudd. Nudd was a God famous in Roman Britain as a healer and finder of lost and stolen property. Indeed he had an opulent cult centre at Lydney in Gloucestershire. His son Edern has a name that may derive from the Latin adjective, Aeternus, which referred to a divine origin (Loomis, R. S., Celtic Myth and Arthurian Romance, P. 349). Furthermore Edern is referred to in the Mabinogion (The Dream of Rhonabwy) as leading a troop of warriors dressed in black with white fringes to their mantles, a colour scheme echoed by their horses and their standards. The troop that Edern led was from Denmark. This origin for the warriors is perhaps a rationalisation of an their coming from an undersea otherworld, by ascribing it to an overseas nation. Could we have here another aspect of Edern as an otherworldly being?

Later in the Mabinogion, in the account of the battle between Gereint and Edern. The dwarf supplies Edern with his lances. Thus contrasting with the role of supplying Gereint with lances; that was played by Earl Ynywl (Liconal in Chrétien de Troyes 'Erec and Enide') . I suspect that we have here what was once a battle between two divine champions, represented by the Gereint and Edern. By supplying lances to Edern, the dwarf performs the divine function of giving especially powerful Solar weapons to his champion. That Gereint wins is, perhaps, a reflection of his being a knight of the heroic King Arthur.

In both the Mabinogion and in Chrétien de Troyes accounts the knights are battling to prove whose damsel is worthy to be the possessor of a falcon. This falcon was clearly represents the power of the Sun God: a symbolism that can be traced back to ancient Egypt.

It should be noted that the dwarf of Yder son of Nut (Edern son of Nudd) is not the only powerful dwarf who is portrayed in in this story. There is the dwarf king of the Antipodes, Bilis, and the minature figure of Guivret the Little.

Bilis, the dwarf king of the Antipodes

When Erec married Enide at Arthur's court at Pentecost, one of the guests was a dwarf king, Bilis. His ruling of the Antipodes seems to be Chrétien de Troyes method of disguising his being an otherworldly king. For the Antipodes of the Southern Hemisphere were, in the middle ages, regarded as being a separate creation which the sons af Adam had not penetrated. They were prevented from reaching them by the burning band of the tropics that was held to separate the world of man from the Antipodes.

The lord of the dwarfs came next, Bilis, the king of the Antipodes. This king of whom I speak was a dwarf himself and own brother of Brien. Bilis, on the one hand, was the smallest of the dwarfs, while his brother Brien was a half-foot or full palm taller than any other knight in the kingdom. To display his wealth and power, Bilis brought with him two other kings who were also dwarfs and who were vassals of his, Grigoras and Glecidalan. Everyone looked at them as marvels. When they had arrived at court, they were treated with great esteem. All three were honoured and served at the court like kings, for they were very perfect gentlemen.

Chrétien de Troyes: Arthurian Romances, trans. Comfort W. W., Dent: London, 1975 (1914), P. 26.

Guivret the Little

There is Guivret the Little (Gwiffred Petit or Y Brenhin Bychan - the Little King - of the Mabinogion) who occupies a fair town and does not let any knight pass through his territory without challenging him. In Chrétien de Troyes story he rides a horse whose saddle has a golden lion (a solar animal) decorating it. While the horse, when galloping crushes 'the stones beneath his hooves finer than the millstone grinds the corn' and showers so plentiful a supply of sparks 'so that it seemed as if his four feet were all ablaze with fire.' Surely the horse of an otherwrldy being who probably was originally a Sun God?

I believe that hidden behind the adventures of Erec and Gereint lie Solar myths in which dwarves played an important part. The dwarf of Yder (Edern), was clearly associated with solar symbols. As can be seen by the emphasis placed upon the combat between Gereint and Edern being undertaken by lances in the Mabinogion version of the tale, also by their fight being over the possession of a solar hawk. In addition Guivret the Little, by the golden lion on his saddle and the fire aroused by the passage of his horse, appears to represent the power of the sun.

Fergus of Galloway and the dwarf of the spring

Now let us return to the starting point of this investigation, Fergus of Galloway. Although Roger Sherman Loomis ignores the second dwarf who mentioned in this poem, he is undoubtably a powerful being. He is a seer who is bound to a magical spring and who makes predictions about the fate of those who drink from the spring. This seems to tie him to the earth, rather than to the sun ( the aspect of dwarfdom that R. S. Loomis explored). For do not springs bring forth water from beneath the earth? While in this case the fact that the spring runs over a bed of precious stones accentuates this connection with the soil.

Dwarves in Sir Thomas Malory

Finally let us consider Sir Thomas Malory. Dwarves form a very minor part of his book. Only once can a dwarf be considered as being powerful in their own right. This is an incident where a knight and a dwarf are fighting over a damsel and ask Gawain to decide who has the damsel. Gawain allows the damsel to chose who she is to go with and she choses the dwarf, who departs rejoicing with her accompanying him.

A dwarf is closely associated with Gareth. He is present when Gareth arrives at Arthur's court (Malory, Book VII, Chap. I). He brings Gareth rich armour and a horse whose origin is a wonder to the court (Malory, Book VII, Chap. III & XXV). When Gareth has defeated Sir Kay, he gives the latter's horse to his dwarf (Malory, Book VII, Chap. IV). The dwarf also brings news of Gareth's approach to the besieged lady (Liones) and takes her gifts to Gareth (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XIV). When the dwarf is captured by Gringamore, Gareth makes great efforts to obtain his freedom (Malory, Book VII, Chaps XIX-XX). While, when he retains the magical ring that Liones had given Gareth, he seems to act as though he not entirely Gareth's loyal servant. At this time Gareth is prepared to take the advice of his dwarf (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XXIX), even asking the dwarf for advice (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XXX).

Let us look at Gareth and find out what sort of person the dwarf was associating with. When Gareth comes to Arthur's court he exhibits characteristics that one associates with the lazy youth who turns into a hero. He seems unable to support his own weight and he asks firstly that he be fed for a year (Malory, Book VII, Chap I). After having been fed for a year he takes up the quest of the damsel Linet: to free her sister (Liones) from the siege that is being undertaken by the Red Knight of the Red Laundes. In this quest he overcomes opponents of increasing power until he defeats the Red Knight of the Red Laundes himself. As this knight is an undoubted Solar entity, his strength increases throughout the morning (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XVII), one can say that Gareth is a solar hero. This solar aspect of Gareth is emphasised at the tournament at the Castle Perilous (Malory, Book VII, Chaps. XXVI-XXX). Here Gareth wears a ring, the gift of his love Dame Liones, that continually changes the colour of his armour and protects him from injury (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XXVII). However he yields to the persuasion of his dwarf and gives up the ring to him while he drinks and forgets to ask for it back (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XXIX & XXX). Gareth is then recognised as he appears in his natural colour, yellow. This is a true solar colour. So that the dwarf is associated with a knight who shows solar characteristics in his true colour and in his defeat of an undoubted solar knight. This notion finds further support when the dwarf's abduction by a black knight at night, Sir Gringamore, (Malory, Book VII, Chap. XIX). Undoubtably Gringamore is a creature of darkness, as Gareth is one of sunlight

Otherwise, that dwarves were originally powerful beings can only be inferred from their associations, in Malory, with a person and a place of undoubted power. For example the dwarf who brings Excalibur to Accolon of Gaul from Morgan le Fay (Malory, Book IV, Chap. VIII). Or when Lancelot enters the Grail castle with a drawn sword, it is knocked from his hand when a dwarf smites him on the arm (Malory, Book XVII, Chap. XIV).


That dwarves in Arthurian literature exhibit characteristics that lead one to believe that they were originally pwowerful magical beings seems reasonably clear. This can be seen from the incident in Perlesvaus, where the dwarf is an undoubted Solar God. Then follows another incident featuring Lancelot, where the poem disguises the Solar origins of a dwarf. Then we passed to the story of Erec (Gereint), where two of the dwarves mentioned appear to have solar characteristics. Next followed an incident from Fergus of Galloway where the dwarf was intimately connected with earth magic. We ended with the weaker association of a dwarf with a solar being in Malory's tale of Gareth.

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