Rereading The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien earlier last year, for the umpteenth time (and having listened to the audio tapes of it hundreds of times) it occurred to me for the first time that most of the dwarves are useless and are only there to fill out the numbers, without actually doing much of anything else. Maybe it's been discussed in other criticism, but I've never really read any.
By the end of the story I noticed that there are only four distinct, dwarven roles in the story.
- Balin and Dwalin are interchangeable in the role of the oldest dwarf, and the ones who take the best care of Bilbo.
- Fili and Kili are interchangeable in the role of the youngest dwarf, and the most active and quickest moving.
- Thorin is obviously the leader, the King Under the Mountain.
- Old fat Bombur is the bungler, the one who's appetite and clumsiness get them into situations that only Bilbo can get them out of.
The rest are just filler to get the number thirteen.
Sure, they're used in places, like to make the unexpected party amusing and fun and show us more about Bilbo as a host, or later to get Beorn to accept them. And of course, how would the goblins' song sound "six birds in five fir-trees..." it definitely wouldn't ring as well as fifteen.
Nor would Smaug's observation "why not say 'us five' and be done with it" be nearly as impressive as his distinguishing the smell of fourteen distinct entities. And that would eliminate the title "Mr. Lucky Number" which I suppose is what makes Bilbo, Bilbo.
Still, it's one of my favorite stories anyway...