Something about dwarven architectures

Welcome back to me! Oh-ho! I need to apologise for this way too long break, but life happens and since I started my fulltime job almost four years ago, I barely have had time to research and write posts – but I really can’t complain, though. I love what I do and I get paid for it – thanks Mahal!

Speaking of which… today’s article is all about Khazâd. I’ve been waiting for so long for this piece! So, let’s start immediately.

Keep in mind: the material and the ideas you will find here, do not represent Tolkien’s thoughts and Peter Jackson’s view of things (or John Howe and Alan Lee’s). This is by no means an accurate atlas of what they were thinking when writing, drawing, creating. It is only a fun way to relate something that comes from the pen of a genius (and the pencil of two artists) to our reality. I will not draw detailed technical plans, because I can understand not all of you can read that kind of drawings. I will try to make it easier with schemes, more than architectural plans.

Great shadows sprang up and fled, and for a second they saw a vast roof far above their heads upheld by many mighty pillars hewn of stone. Before them and on either side stretched a huge empty hall; its black walls, polished and smooth as glass, flashed and glittered. Three other entrances they saw, dark black arches: one straight before them eastwards, and one on either side.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 4, A journey in the dark)

First of all, we should talk about dwarves origins, because as always it helps a great deal to understand them and accordingly their creations. They were born in secret thanks to the Vala Aulë, because he desired to have his own children and to teach them all the crafts he knew. However they arrived in Arda only after the Elves, because Ilúvatar himself forbid Aulë to destroy his creations when discovered and to allow them to awake before the First Born. The Seven Fathers of the Dwarves were then sealed in a stone chamber, until the right time arrived for them to rouse. So their very beginning was underground – and this explains a lot! Dwarves were also amazing crafters and skilled miners, so it certainly was more convenient to build a city right next to gold, silver, mithril or any other kind of metal.

Their halls were indeed underground and huge, despite their limited height. The actor Richard Armitage (who played Thorin in the trilogy of The Hobbit), said about this fact: “And when you see the way that they’ve got their kingdoms, they have this inflated– They’re compensated for the fact that they are a secret forbidden race that was nearly destroyed. And the Elves have their privileged existence, this almost spiritual existence, and the dwarves have to really fight for their place. And so they do it by aggrandizing their environment.”

It is not wrong to think that they are small, so they need to compensate their height with massive cities underground. But is this the right reason for the majestic halls of Moria or Erebor?

Erebor, movie version.

Gimli, while describing the Glittering Caves in The Lord of the Rings (The Two Towers, book 3, chapter 8, The Road to Isengard) said: “None of Durin’s race would mine those caves for stones or ore, not if diamonds and gold could be got there. Do you cut down groves of blossoming trees in the spring-time for firewood? We would tend these glades of flowering stone, not quarry them. With cautious skill, tap by tap — a small chip of rock and no more, perhaps, in a whole anxious day — so we could work, and as the years went by, we should open up new ways, and display far chambers that are still dark, glimpsed only as a void beyond fissures in the rock.”

Dwarves did not really like to destroy mountains out of ego. They were devoted to their rocks and treated them with so much respect, no matter what treasure they could find inside. But then again, they caved and caved Moria, way too much for their own good – and this bring us to their huge halls. It is possible that they already found some of them already caved underground, beautifully and majestic by nature, and “only” crafted their own world in there, built their cities around the amazing gifts of the earth and emphasise their beauty; but they were miners first of all and my guess is that those huge halls once were the richest parts of the whole mountain, full of gold, silver, mithril or other precious metals, that they caved year after year, until they had to look somewhere else – and what to do with the voids if not big halls fit for kings and cities flooded with life and activities?

Erebor, movie version.

The passage twisted round a few turns, and then began to descend. It went steadily down for a long while before it became level once again. The air grew hot and stifling, but it was not foul, and at times they felt currents of cooler air upon their faces, issuing from half-guessed openings in the walls. There were many of these. In the pale ray of the wizard’s staff, Frodo caught glimpses of stairs and arches, and of other a journey in the dark passages and tunnels, sloping up, or running steeply down, or opening blankly dark on either side. It was bewildering beyond hope of remembering. (…) The Mines of Moria were vast and intricate beyond the imagination of Gimli, Glóin’s son, dwarf of the mountain-race though he was.” (The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, book 2, chapter 4, A journey in the Dark)

Examples of underground dwellings in our world can be found in Georgia, Jordan and Turkey (Vardzia, Petra, Kaymakli and Derinkuyu some of them), but also in China, Afghanistan, Colorado, etc.

Cave monastery – Vardzia, Georgia

Derinkuyu, Cappadocia (Turkey)

Petra, Jordan

Don’t get fooled if we now can see the corridors and halls from the outside: those dwellings were completely underground (you can see them now because they were destroyed by earthquakes and other natural calamities). These pictures show an intricate number of multi-level tunnels, which was the base for a great defense system: few well-guarded entrances, stone doors, dark passages and many ways to get lost – and so many ways to get the enemy by surprise; Derinkuyu, for example, could shelter 20,000 people (!) with livestock, food stores and stables, and had miles and miles of tunnels connected to other underground cities.

Dwarves built their halls using more or less the same structure, but thanks to the depths of the mountains, they managed to excel this system: their defenses, in fact, lied also in the narrow bridges all over the cities, but in particular close to the main entrances – the Bridge of Khazad-dûm is an example – for if enemies were to break in, they would have to cross them in single file lines, without any sort of defense against the arrows of the Dwarves.

Bridge of Khazad-dûm, movie version.

But how did they shaped them? In the movie version, everything about Dwarves is regular and geometric – and this might be chosen to be the opposite of the organic and flowing shapes of the Elves. But let’s think of their cities. They had secret entrances that worked under strict circumstances (regardless of any magic involved), with detailed mechanical locks; surely they had very complicated ventilation and hydraulic systems to provide air, light and water to each level; most important, they knew how to carve the stone into new caves without taking the whole mountain down with them. The fair conclusion is that they were engineers and architects at most, and so experts of mathematics and geometry – which brings us to their style: sharp and geometric. Even their runes and the language itself is as sharp as their architectures.

An example from our times comes from the Art Deco patterns and decorations (opposite to the Art Nouveau for the Elves). This artistic movement was characterized by a massive use of zigzag or chess shapes, “V” motifs and sunrays (and we can see these patterns not only in dwarven architectures but also in their clothes – as we see in the movies, of course), and it was a kind of synthetic style, but at the same time also volumetrical and opulent.
One of the first things we see in the movies, both in Moria and in Erebor, is the particular shape of the columns and the arches – although I’m not sure I can call them arches. An arch is formed by voussoirs, precisely cut so that they press against each other and conducts loads uniformly down to their vertical supports. We don’t see any voussoir in those structure, as you can see in the pictures above; on the contrary, it seems a monolithic block, carved directly in the mountain, like also the capitals, pillars, plints and bases themselves.

Erebor’s pillars, movie version

Now, look at this entrance. It looks familiar, does it not?

Chrysler Building’s entrance (clearly Art Deco style)

This trapezoidal shape appears almost everywhere: balustrades, windows, stairs; while pillars were boldly cut sometimes with compositions of truncated pyramids, triangular parallelepiped. The decorations are essential and minimalist: few (deco) patterns, sometimes runes and menacing sharp statues.

Details in Erebor, movie version

In some future articles about Dwarven architectures, I will try to explain ventilation systems inside their kingdoms, how the cities were organised and maybe a short comparison between their massive architecture and… nope, not yet – it will be a surprise haha. But if you have questions, or you would like to read about a topic in particular, feel free to ask. In the meantime, I wish you all a very good day and thank you for reading!

Again, sorry for the long delay. Life happens.

Credits: x x x x

5 thoughts on “Something about dwarven architectures

  1. Ahh I *just* subscribed to your blog in hopes that you’d post another article and I feel so lucky right now! Thanks for your wonderful, insightful content.

    1. This is amazing hahah! Thank YOU for your words and support!

  2. Thank you for this! I started reading your blog years ago when I was still a student, and this made my day!
    It would be interesting to sit Elven and Dwarven architecture side by side to make a detailed analysis, since I very much agree that Dwarven architecture was explicitly designed to contrast the other. Although I agree that both Art Deco and Art Nouveau are visually related to Dwarven and Elven architecture respectively, it’s also interesting to note that neither of them could have actually influenced Tolkien’s writing, even if they could have influenced the Art Department for the movies, since both movements were born out of industrialization, a time in the world were Tolkien was feeling left behind and a bit disgusted by the new technologies. So what was the starting point for both of these cultures?

  3. Pretty good article.

  4. This is the blog I never knew I needed. I hope to see more of your work! Thanks for putting these out.

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