I was watching The Hobbit: Desolation of Smaug last night, and the vastness of Smaug’s hoard of gold got me wondering how plausible it was.
I mean, that’s a pretty large amount of bullion that dragon is controlling. I don’t know enough about the world of Lord of the Rings to know whether or not there were a currency crisis caused by that much precious metal being taken out of circulation, but I’m pretty sure one wasn’t mentioned, so this can’t be that large a proportion of the world’s metal. Although it would be interesting if the hoarding of gold by dragon’s accelerated the adoption of paper currency…
The first question to answer, then, is how much gold is there? It’s a few years off, but in 2013, Thomson Reuters GFMS estimated that there existed 171,300 tonnes of gold in the world, with another 52,000 tonnes remaining to be mined, according to the US Geologic Survey, for a total of approximately 223,000 tonnes of gold on earth. At a density of 19.32 g/cubic centimeter, that produces a cube 22.6 meters along each side, or 74 feet.
But that isn’t what would be available to Smaug. More than half of the world’s gold has been mined in the past 50 years, and only about 24,000 tonnes had been mined prior to 1900.
Despite our associations of gold with Egyptian pharaohs, pagan temples, and medieval kings, the vast majority of gold only came into use in the modern age. By the time Columbus sailed to the New World, only about 13,000 tonnes had been mined, by GFMS’s estimate. A cube 8.8 meters to a side is sufficient to hold such an amount of gold, or, to put it another way, you could fill a football field, sans end zones, in six inches of gold. This amount, I feel, is the best estimate of what a medieval-era earth can hope to have extracted.
Unfortunately, that doesn’t really leave much per dragon. Even if fully half of all earthly gold were under draconic control, and there were a small population of, say, twenty dragons, each dragon would only have a small 24 ft X 24 ft plot of gold one foot deep to hoard ever. Obviously, they could bulk it up with alloys and other precious metals, like silver, but it’s not really the same. Gold just isn’t as common as we imagine it to be.
Unless Middle Earth has vastly more gold than our earth, or unless their mining ability is vastly beyond what their technology level indicates, Smaug shouldn’t have nearly that much gold to hoard over.