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This is as much a question as it is a thought that I've had. You see, folding mountains (as in made by tectonic plates movement) are very poor in heavy minerals like metals, and they seem to be the ones we most often see dwarves.

It is probably because of the Hephaestus myth and the "volcano as a forge" kind of thought that this aesthetic set off, but I seem to remember many stories where it was not a volcano but a regular mountain.

To me it would seem fun to explore other possibilities, like a mine in the middle of the desert and all that that would mean in terms of food/water supply and caravans routes. Some good stuff that you don't see a lot in the usual medieval European fantasy. Open-pit mining is also a thing.

So, just a few thoughts about Dwarves and Mines. Please correct any mistakes.

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    $\begingroup$ Hi, and welcome to WorldBuilding.SE. It seems you've already answered your question about why dwarves are traditionally depicted as living in mountains. You've proposed some more accurate mining scenarios that could be interesting (and have been explored in many a game of Dwarf Fortress). Sooo... what are you asking? What's the world you're building and what would you like answered about it? $\endgroup$
    – Schwern
    Jun 28 '17 at 1:00
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    $\begingroup$ Mines are most usually to be found in the mountains, or at least in mountainous areas, at least in western Europe. For example, see the Ore Mountains with the famous mining center at Joachimstal where Georgius Agricola wrote De re metallica mid-16th century. And western European dwarfs are traditionally miners. Other cultures may have they own dwarfs, but it is the western European dwarfs who made it to the silvery screen. $\endgroup$
    – AlexP
    Jun 28 '17 at 1:08
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    $\begingroup$ @Vincent: No, because Tolkien apparently knew where the ore was :-) $\endgroup$
    – jamesqf
    Jun 28 '17 at 3:54
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    $\begingroup$ @AlexP why isn't it an answer? $\endgroup$
    – Mołot
    Jun 28 '17 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because I don't think "why is X done in books" is about world-building. Clearly there is no reason one could NOT put dwarves in mines. Snow White's seven dwarves did not live in a mountain. It is just a trope, like why wizards and witches have wands, there is no real reason other than some ancient author's choice that resonated. $\endgroup$
    – Amadeus
    Apr 17 '18 at 18:10
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Hephaistos (or, as the Romans would have written his name, Hephaestus) of the Greeks and Vulcan of the Romans were metal-working gods. Hephaestus was said to be rather ugly, and lame in a leg; but they were not dwarfs by any measure. (Hephaestus managed to arrange it so that, although ugly and lame, he ended up married to Aphrodite, lucky god as he was.)

Hephaestus giving the arms of Achilles to Thetis by Anthony van Dyck

Hephaestus giving the arms of Achilles to Thetis by Anthony van Dyck (17th century) on Wikipedia.

The dwarfs of fantasy novels are modeled after the dwarfs of western European folklore, mostly of Germanic origin, and those dwarfs are miners and hoarders of treasure; for example, the dwarf Alberich from whom Siegfried stole the Nibelung treasure. (In Wagner's opera cycle, the Nibelungs themselves are dwarfs.)

Now they being miners they naturally lived in the mountains, because in western and central Europe most mines are in mountainous areas. See, folding mountains are usually less rich in minerals than volcanic mountains, but usually does not mean always and anyway volcanic mountains are usually dotted here and there in the folded ranges; and the mountains are almost always richer in minerals than the plains.

For example, in central Europe there are the Ore Mountains, which have the richest silver deposits in Europe, and which have been mined since the middle of the 3rd millennium before the common era; there, in Joachimsthal, beginning in the 16th century, were minted the well-known silver coins named joachimsthalers, a name first shortened to thaler and later mangled into dollar; there, in the 16th century, Georgius Agricola wrote his famous book De re metallica, the first serious book about mining and minerals written after the fall of the classical civilization. A very good place for a tribe of dwarfs mining precious metals, isn't it?

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Mountains are much more defensible than plains or hills. It only makes sense that dwarves would build their fortified cities in the mountains and then if there is a lack of minerals at the city site (and really, who wants to live in a mining site) go down to the foothills to mine.

Also it's probably easier to carve your huge halls and gigantic statues out of a big mountain than to dig through the silt on the plains down to the bedrock.

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  • $\begingroup$ "who wants to live in a mining site" I present thee... Kiruna, of Sweden. $\endgroup$
    – user
    Jun 28 '17 at 15:13
  • $\begingroup$ Point taken though I'm from up north and know people who were born and grew up in Kiruna. My point still stands ;) Also, the fact that the entire city is being moved because it may fall into the mine also kind of speaks against the wisdom of living that close to the mining site. $\endgroup$
    – Doomfrost
    Jun 29 '17 at 7:32
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In our own world, native populations that live in high altitudes tend to be of short stature. This is an adaptation since a shorter height leads to reduced surface area for heat loss. Of course, this only answers the inverse of this question, which would be "Why do people who are native to mountains tend to be dwarves slightly short?". Still, if we believe natural selection to be a thing in fantasy worlds, then this would at least somewhat explain why mountain races tend to be Dwarves.

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    $\begingroup$ Two things: 1. In mountains vs on mountains. 2. It gets hot underground. $\endgroup$
    – rek
    Mar 20 '21 at 14:09
  • $\begingroup$ "The people of the Dinaric Alps are on record as being the tallest in the world, with an average adolescent height of 185.6 cm (6 ft 1.1 in)" en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dinaric_Alps#Human_activity $\endgroup$ Mar 20 '21 at 23:24
  • $\begingroup$ @rek Oh, my bad. I guess my reply is irrelevant then, and perhaps incorrect anyway. $\endgroup$
    – balefire
    Mar 22 '21 at 12:50
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The reputation of dwarves for metal-working is vastly overrated. If not unjustifiable, because it's what's traded the farthest. If you actually go near dwarven regions, you find they are also noted for their wood carving, and their cheeses. There are many accounts of how they were forced into the mountains by giants, for their defensive superiority, but they adapted so well they do not want to leave.

They practice transhumance, although they bring the animals into the caves and feed them hay during the winter. They raise crops. They live outside in wooden houses. They are also noted for their mercenary forces, which contributes to their metal working reputation, because they make their own and make them very well.

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Dwarves are well-adapted for mining Ores occur in seams, many of which are a thinnish layer between layers of non-productive rock. It is not a coincidence that pit-ponies were a small tough breed and short in stature. When mining you don't want to burrow through solid rock if you can help it and so the height is determined for you by the geology. Over generations, shorter people will be selected for.

You can see from the following picture that shorter people would be much more at home in these conditions.

enter image description here


Why in mountains? Because access to seams is much easier on a fault line where an upraising or erosion has exposed the ores at the surface. Here's an example enter image description here


Dwarves and palatial caverns?

Caverns occur naturally. Now and again the dwarven burrowings will uncover such a place. When their underground kingdom is established they can start to carve and build in a more artistic fashion.

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Because dwarves love to mine.

We are talking about a low technology situation--pumping water out of a mine will be exceedingly hard, especially since you can't suck water up very far--you have to bring your pump power down the mineshaft.

Thus dwarves will make mines that self-drain--dig sideways, not down.

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Well maybe your Dwarves sunburn very easily. In which case they would want to stick to dark areas. Underground and when they had to go above, then they could take advantage of the massive shadows of mountains to reduce light levels hitting them(or you know, just become nocturnal) Bring in the Vampire Dwarves!

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You see, folding mountains (as in made by tectonic plates movement) are very poor in heavy minerals like metals, and they seem to be the ones we most often see dwarves.

You got it the other way around. The world was initially flat. The ancestors of the modern homo Hortorum decus (i.e.: dwarf) dug most of the surface. The dwarves you see are digging up the last leftovers of an ancient layer of rock and dirt. When they are done, the dwarves of the future will dig up the next layer.

And if you are curious about where all that rock and dirt went...

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