The only thing sketchier and more esoteric than an Elf in Middle-Earth is a Dwarf. Tolkien tells us that “strange tales” are told of their beginnings by the Eldar and by the Dwarves themselves. Surprisingly, he doesn’t go into their sordid history here in the Appendices. I can promise you he does dive deep in The Silmarillion and other such sources. Suffice it to say, what he’s not saying here is that the Dwarves predate the Elves. Their creator, Aulë, got caught and was chastised by Ilúvatar, thus the seven Dwarf fathers were laid to sleep until after the coming of the Elves. You just know this causes some friction between the two races, above and beyond anything else they’ve suffered of one another.
Durin was the first of the Dwarf fathers, the first created, the first to rule, and the first to be hailed as a legend. Known as Durin the Deathless and King of Khazad-dûm, Durin would pass his name to several Dwarf-lords through the ages, whom the Dwarves would say was Durin reborn. The riches of Khazad-dûm increased, and Moria’s power endured through the First Age, and throughout the Dark Years of Sauron.
In the Third Age, during the reign of the sixth of the name of Durin, the power of Sauron began to grow, and the Balrog was awakened. It slew Durin, his son the year after, and the glory of Moria passed. The people fled or were destroyed, and those who escaped made it to Erebor, the Lonely Mountain, where the Arkenstone was found. The dragons made war on the Dwarves from the wastes beyond, plundering whatever the Dwarves dug from mountains. Eventually the Arkenstone, which had been removed, was returned to the mountain. The alliance with the Northmen drove back the enemies of the East, and the Dwarves lived fat and happy.
Of course such rumors will eventually attract the enemy you least want, and so it is that Smaug the Golden, greatest of the dragons, descended upon the Dwarves without warning. He destroyed their realm, the nearby town of Dale, and entered the Great Hall with little opposition, coming to rest upon the bed of gold for which he’s known. The Dwarves escaped through a secret door, and the last of the Seven Rings given to them (by the Elven-smiths directly, not actually by Sauron) was passed father to son along with the vengeance against the dragon. Upon returning to Moria years later, Orc-laughter heralded the dreaded warning as the head of the Dwarf-lord was found removed from his body. Carved on his forehead in Dwarf-runes was the name Azog, heralding the beginning of the War of the Dwarves and Orcs, largely fought in the deep places of Middle-Earth.
The Battle of Azanulbizar (or Nanduhirion in Elvish) began as great hosts on both sides collided, and Tolkien goes through the grizzly details here, ending with Dáin Ironfoot killing Azog and taking his head. Dáin was young at the time as Dwarves measure such things, but he would live long and fight many battles, ultimately falling in the War of the Ring. Azog’s head was mounted, but there was no celebration for the dead were beyond number, totally more than half the original size of the Dwarf population.
Thráin, Durin’s heir, declared victory, but the Dwarves knew they couldn’t hope to hold it with so few numbers. Dáin and those who followed him would not enter Khazad-dûm for Durin’s Bane — the Balrog — still dwelt there. The Dwarves dispersed across the land, stripping their dead of weapons and mail to keep it from the Orcs, and burning the bodies. It is said the number of trees felled to create this pyre remains a bare valley to this day, and those in Lórien could smell it.
Dáin led his people back to the Iron Hills, but Thráin and Thorin returned to the anvil (Dunland). What this amounted to was wandering in exile, forging their wares from mere iron, and making a living where they could. Though the Dwarves proved to be untameable, it is believed that the heirs of Durin suffered further misfortune as Sauron discovered who held the remaining of the Rings and worked his malice through it, inflaming their hearts with greed for gold.
Over time, and under this manipulation, Thorin Oakenshield eventually became the heir of Durin. After years of hopelessness, a chance meeting between Thorin and Gandalf reignited Thorin’s fire to end the dragon and reclaim his home. Gandalf feared Sauron might use Smaug in the coming war to terrible effect and manipulated the Quest of Erebor (as chronicled in The Hobbit) from start to finish.
Following the death of Smaug by Bard of Esgaroth, the Orcs came down upon Erebor for further battle. They were led by Bolg, son of Azog. In the first Battle of Dale, Thorin was mortally wounded. Dáin Ironfoot was his rightful heir and restored the Kingdom under the Mountain.
In late summer that same year (2941), Gandalf convinced Saruman and the White Council to attack Dol Guldur, forcing Sauron to retreat to Mordor.
At this point, Tolkien offers up the line of Dwarves of Erebor as Gimli outlined it for King Elessar.
“Yet things might have gone far otherwise and far worse. When you think of the great Battle of the Pelennor, do not forget the great battles in Dale and the valour of Durin’s folk. Think of what might have been. Dragon-fire and savage swords in Eriador, night in Rivendell. There might be no Queen in Gondor. We might now hope to return from the victory here only to ruin and ash. But that has been averted — because I met Thorin Oakenshield on evening on the edge of spring in Bree. A chance-meeting, as we say in Middle-earth.”
With this quote from Gandalf, Tolkien draws tighter the web between The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, demonstrating once more the hand of some unseen power of Light working even in the darkest hours. For me, it’s one of those truly gobsmacking moments when you realize just how big Tolkien’s playing field really is, even after all that back there. At this point in the game, readers have only just scratched the surface.
Tolkien discusses Dwarf-women at this point, stating that they number about a third of the total population, of those only a third marry, and Dis is the only one named in the chronicles. Because of their fewness, Dwarves multiply slowly and are jealous in these matters as they are greedy.
This portion of the text wraps up with word of Gimli. Named Elf-friend, Gimli brought part of the Dwarf-folk of Erebor south and became Lord of the Glittering Caves. In Minas Tirith, his people forged gates of mithril, which you know had to be a sight to behold, to replace those broken by the Witch-king. Legolas, meanwhile, brought the Elves out of Greenwood to Ithilien. When King Elessar passed, Legolas followed his heart and sailed over Sea. According to one of the last notes in the Red Book, Gimli went with Legolas into the West. This is strange enough for the friendship between Elf and Dwarf, but also that a Dwarf should wish to leave Middle-Earth, or that the Eldar should receive him, or that it should be permitted in the first place. But it is said that Gimli went also for the love he bore for Galadriel, and it may be she that obtained this grace for him. “More cannot be said of this matter.”