"dwarves are not heroes, but calculating folk with a great idea of the value of money; some are tricky and treacherous and pretty bad lots; some are not, but are decent enough people like Thorin and Company if you don't expect too much"
Yeah, the dwarves of The Hobbit are in no way heroes. Over the course of the story, they repeatedly prove that they are mostly just self-serving regular folks who are on a fool's errand to reclaim what was taken from them. They are not particularly brave. They are certainly not very well prepared. The most that they have going for them is that an old wizard saw merit in their adventure and convinced them to bring along an extraordinarily lucky and resourceful hobbit.
As someone who is used to their portrayal in fantasy role-playing games, I continue to find this fascinating. Until they have recovered their treasure and are faced with losing it again, these dwarves are nothing like the axe-wielding heroes that have become the norm in recent years. They are certainly nothing like Gimli in The Lord of the Rings. Yet they would seem to be perfectly suited for a really old-school game that featured scruffy and disreputable treasure seekers.
And about that hobbit...
Bilbo reaches the fullest of his potential in this chapter. Venturing down that passage was "the bravest thing he ever did". And it wasn't like he just popped the ring on and sauntered down to the dragon's lair. He legitimately struggled to overcome his fear, even when the signs of the dragon were unmistakable.
I love how Tolkien introduces us to Smaug through a string of sensory impressions. First, there was a red light. Then the temperature rises. Then there is throbbing heartbeat and a "gurgling noise of some vast animal sleeping."
And then there is the mound of treasure...
Aside: There was an article not too long ago about what the net worth of Smaug's hoard would be in modern terms: read about it here.But without fine manipulators, how on earth did the dragon gather all that treasure to himself? And how did he fit into the smaller treasure vaults in the mountain? My annotated version of the Hobbit mentions that Tolkien derived the name for Smaug from the past tense of the primitive German verb "smugan" (to squeeze through a hole), which makes me think that Tolkien considered this issue as well.
It occurs to me that I've never had an encounter with a dragon like this scene, where a lone character sneaks in and steals an item of treasure from something that is so hopelessly out of their league. Man, dragons needs to be scary and I herebye resolve to use them in a proper fashion the next time they appear in a game of mine! It would be super cool to use a sleeping dragon more as problem to be solved and an obstacle to be passed than a creature to be fought.
Finally, there is Bilbo's iconic dialog with Smaug, which relates nicely to his dialog with Gollum in "Riddles in the Dark". As in that chapter, Bilbo uses his wits to get the better of a nasty opponent... though, in this case, his victory is of the pyrrhic sort - Bilbo barely escapes with his life and Smaug will later go on to wreck fiery vengeance on Laketown.
- I love how Smaug sows dissension in the ranks. Most of the great villains can do this.
- The fact that Bilbo "was in grievous danger of coming under the dragon-spell" is really intriguing. It shows that the Smaug had magical powers of persuasion as well and that Bilbo was able to resist them somehow.
- The old thrush is a return to the theme of talking animals, which gives The Hobbit so much more of a fairy tale feel.
- Who the King Blandorthin and why is he not mentioned anywhere else in Tolkien's writings?