In the opening chapter of The Hobbit, we get a wonderfully piecemeal introduction to Thorin Oakenshield and his twelve companions as they each arrive unexpectedly at Bilbo’s doorstep in dribs and drabs. They are each described in turn, with particular attention paid to the colour of their hoods and, in a few instances, their beards.
- Balin: white beard, scarlet hood;
- Kili and Fili: yellow beards, blue hoods;
- Dori: purple hood; unknown beard;
- Nori: purple hood; unknown beard;
- Ori: grey hood; unknown beard;
- Oin: brown hood; unknown beard;
- Gloin: white hood; unknown beard;
- Bifur: yellow hood; unknown beard;
- Bofur: yellow hood; unknown beard;
- Bombur: pale green hood; unknown beard; and
- Thorin: sky blue hood (with long silver tassel); unknown beard.
Among those with described beards, Balin’s beard is white and Kili’s and Fili’s beards are yellow. The yellow beards may stand out at first, but can easily be accepted as another way of describing blonde hair.
But there was one more dwarf, the first dwarf to arrive, and that was Dwalin, brother of Balin.
It was a dwarf with a blue beared tucked into a golden belt, and very bright eyes under his dark-green hood. As soon as the door was opened, he pushed inside, just as if he had been expected.
He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and “Dwalin at your service!” he said with a low bow.” [J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, Ch. I, ‘An Unexpected Party)]
This description of a blue beard can be somewhat jarring. It will likely make the reader imagine what such a beard might look like. It may make them question how such a hair colour came to be, and indeed to question the believability of such an occurrence.
In casual conversation, the theories I have personally heard mooted are essentially one of the following, each of which I’d like to examine in turn:
- The Hobbit is a children’s book, and Tolkien was being whimsical. We should not put a great deal of stock in the colour of one dwarf’s beard.
- The term blue when used to describe hair often refers to a blackish silvery-grey colour (e.g., the Blue Bay Shepherd … for more info: https://bluebayshepherds.weebly.com/history.html)
I believe we can throw out the first theory straightaway for two reasons:
- There is no other instance within the legendarium of which I am aware where a character is described as having whimsically-coloured hair.
- Most importantly, Tolkien went back to The Hobbit as late as 1960 and began to re-write it in the “style” or “tone” of The Lord of the Rings. In doing so, he eliminated many of the so-called whimsical elements we know and love (e.g., gone is the invention of the game of golf by Bullroarer Took). It is true that he did not make it very far before abandoning the project. Still, he worked on the first three chapters of the book, ceasing just before the party arrived at Rivendell. Yet, despite this effort, Tolkien changed almost nothing about the passage cited above:
It was a dwarf, with a blue beard tucked into a golden belt and very bright eyes under his dark green hood. As soon as the door was opened, he pushed inside, just as if he had been expected. He hung his hooded cloak on the nearest peg, and ‘Dwalin at your service!’ he said with a low bow.
[J.R.R. Tolkien/John D. Rateliff, The History of The Hobbit, Fifth Phase, ‘The 1960 Hobbit’, ‘New Chapter I, A Well-Planned Party’]
Apart from a couple of punctuation changes, the passage reads exactly as it does in the published version of The Hobbit. If Tolkien were concentrating on making the book more serious in tone, and if he considered Dwalin’s blue beard to be too whimsical, this was the opportune time to change it. But he didn’t.
It’s true that there is precedent for characters being described as having blue beards in fantasy literature. Charles Perrault’s Bluebeard, for example. According to Wikipedia, Maria Tata theorises that in the case of Bluebeard, the colour suggests ‘otherworldly’ origins. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on here. Why do none of the other dwarves have outlandish hair colour? One would think that the trait would be more widespread if that were indeed the case, and it would especially include the chief and most important dwarf, Thorin. Besides, dwarves are not otherworldly.
The second theory, that of ‘blue’ referring to a blackish, silvery-grey colour, I find to be much more tenable. We can, of course, look to the OED (I have highlighted the relevant definition below):
1 of a colour intermediate between green and violet, as of the sky or sea on a sunny day:
the clear blue sky
the blue silk shirt
deep blue eyes.
- (of a person’s skin) having turned blue as a result of cold or breathing difficulties:
Ashley went blue and I panicked.
- (of a bird or other animal) having blue markings:
a blue jay.
- (of a cat, fox, or rabbit) having fur of a smoky grey colour:
the blue fox.
- (of a ski run) of the second-lowest level of difficulty, as indicated by blue markers positioned along it.
- (Physics) denoting one of three colours of quark.
2 (informal) (of a person or mood) melancholy, sad, or depressed:
he’s feeling blue.
3 (informal) (of a film, joke, or story) having sexual or pornographic content:
a blue movie.
4 (British informal) politically conservative:
the successful blue candidate.
Whilst it may sound unusual to use such a term of a person’s hair, this was not always the case. According to ‘Uncle John’:
From the 1930s through to about the mid-1970s (or so), it was common to see women with silver hair streaked or dotted with blue.
The product used was called a blue rinse, a dilute hair dye. Brands like Roux and Fanci-Full promised to turn gray or white hair, which can often adopt an undesirable yellow hue, into something more attractive. If it was done correctly, it gave graying hair a distinguished silvery tint, something close to the platinum blonde color of classic Hollywood movie stars like Jean Harlow. It was also favored by Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. When applied poorly, as it was often done, it turned hair blue, purple, or bluish purple.
The term has since fallen out of use both in the US and Great Britain. Yet in the 1930s (whilst The Hobbit was being written, in fact), it was not so uncommon a term.
This is not to say that I think it feasible that Tolkien thought Dwalin might have used a bottle of blue rinse on his beard. But it does add some credibility to the idea of silvery-grey hair being referred to as blue, and not just in animals.
But there’s another interesting bit of history I’d like to present you with. In the latter half of the 19th century, a doctor by the name of Hermann Beigel literally wrote the book on human hair. In it, he devotes an entire chapter to colour. And yes, blue hair does get a mention. But this time, the causality seems a little ‘closer to home’ in terms of our blue-bearded dwarf:
According to Borillus, the labourers in copper mines or copper factories are distinguished by green hair, those of cobalt mines by blue hair; the workmen of brass-factories, particularly such as are engaged in pointing needles, by bluish or greenish hair. It is necessary to know, says Eble, that the colour in these workmen is not merely superficial, but penetrates the whole substance of the hair in such a manner as not to be wiped off the hair’s surface.
[Hermann Beigel M.D., M.R.C.P., The Human Hair: Its Structure, Growth, Diseases, and Their Treatment (1869), Ch. VII. ‘The Colour of the Hair — The Phenomenon of Sudden Bleaching of the Hair’]
I have so far been unable to find any real-world examples of blue hair caused by cobalt mining. And I certainly have no idea if Tolkien was thinking of such things when he wrote the passage in question, or indeed whether or not he was even aware of Dr Beigel’s book.
But I think it offers a really interesting and possibly credible explanation for why a dwarf might have a genuinely blue beard.