J.R.R. Tolkien once commented that the dwarves of his fictional world were loosely modeled on Jews. As Michael Weingrad explains in a series of four articles, Tolkien drew on a long history of British writers of fantasy and historical romance who put Jews—sometimes disguised, sometimes overt—into their works:
While the band that shows up at the home of Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit has roots in northern European sources such as the Poetic Edda, Tolkien also gives [their leader] Thorin Oakenshield and company a story of exile and a powerful yearning to return to the homeland from which they were dispersed. Thorin recalls how the dwarves who survived [the dragon] Smaug’s devastation “sat and wept” by the side of the Lonely Mountain, echoing Psalm 137: “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion.” He continues: “After that, we went away, and we have had to earn our livings as best we could up and down the lands.” The Jewish experience of diaspora, the persistence of Jewish memory, and the Jewish determination to win ancestral sovereignty once again—these resound in Tolkien’s portrayal of his dwarves.
Weingrad traces this literary tradition from the 19th century, and the works of Benjamin Disraeli and Walter Scott, through the 1960s. Among the earliest examples he cites is Edward Bulwer-Lytton’s 1838 Leila, or the Siege of Granada:
This novel focuses on the Jew Almamen and his daughter Leila during the final stages of the Christian reconquest of Spain in the late 15th century. Like Ivanhoe and other works of the period, it attempts to square the opposed conceptions of Jews as, on the one hand, a noble, biblical warrior people, and, on the other, a devious and clannish commercial people. Bulwer-Lytton’s anti-hero Almamen embodies the passions of Jewish nationalism under conditions of exile.
Under less impossible conditions Almamen might have been able to achieve political success, and provide his people with the security and dignity they lack. However, it is all Almamen can do to try to win some modest legal rights and protections for the Jews, a minority without territory or army, struggling for survival between the contending powers of Christendom and Islam.
With its mix of philo-Semitic admiration and anti-Semitic stereotype, Bulwer-Lytton’s Almamen is a precursor to Tolkien’s dwarves and especially Thorin Oakenshield.