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There appears to be little defense against them. Is it lack of will to do so? Do dragons not cooperate with each other? Or is there some force that prevents dragons from laying waste to the cities of men and elves?

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    Smaug seems to spend most of his time chillaxing in his den and periodically eating the local peasantry. – Valorum Nov 1 '20 at 21:20
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    Why would they want to go to all that bother? What does it gain them? – DavidW Nov 1 '20 at 21:23
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    Short answer: They are not invincible. There are several Maiar in the Middle Earth. Eagles are Maia as well. Some elves, cough Glorfindel, were strong enough to slay Maiar. So it is not like marching, cough flying, to a lowly developed human city and burning it to the ground. Even then, we saw how it ended. – user65648 Nov 1 '20 at 21:46
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    @DavidW My answer is backed by ending of the hobbit and some parts of the Silmarillion while your answer is backed by what? Smaug sleeping for a long time? – user65648 Nov 1 '20 at 22:28
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    If the dragons rule Middle-Earth then they also control the production of coinage throughout the land, and that just takes the magic out of collecting an enormous horde of the things to swim in. – Steve-O Nov 2 '20 at 14:50
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First, dragons are not all powerful, and the dragons still alive in Middle-earth at the time of LotR are weak compared with the ancient dragons. In "The Shadow of the Past", Gandalf says

It has been said that dragon-fire could melt and consume the Rings of Power, but there is not now any dragon left on earth in which the old fire is hot enough; nor was there ever any dragon, not even Ancalagon the Black, who could have harmed the One Ring, the Ruling Ring, for that was made by Sauron himself.

I note that the only 'contemporary' dragon we know of -- Smaug -- was killed by a mortal man who was not even a Numenorean. Dragons are a terrible foes, but do not completely overmatch Men.

Further, all dragons have a soft spot, a vulnerability:

But Shelob was not as dragons are, no softer spot had she save only her eyes.

Evidently this vulnerability is a characteristic of dragons.

Even the first dragons, while much more powerful than Smaug, have their limits:

There came wolves, and wolfriders, and there came Balrogs, and dragons, and Glaurung father of dragons. The strength and terror of the Great Worm were now great indeed, and Elves and Men withered before him

But the dragon was not the game decider:

Yet neither by wolf, nor by Balrog, nor by Dragon, would Morgoth have achieved his end, but for the treachery of Men.

Even the greatest of dragons can be slain by one of the greater elves:

Before the rising of the sun Eärendil slew Ancalagon the Black, the mightiest of the dragon-host, and cast him from the sky; and he fell upon the towers of Thangorodrim, and they were broken in his ruin.

Second, all we know of dragons says that they are loners. Morgoth can assemble a host of dragons, and Sauron might have been able to use Smaug to good (well, bad) effect, but there's no hint in Tolkien or in fairy tales that dragons work well together. While Smaug was not the last dragon alive, he was the last in the West of Middle-earth and Sauron was not able to procure any others to use in the War of the Ring.

Even if Smaug was Ancalagon the Black, he is only one creature and doesn't seem to be able to organize an empire like Sauron could. To dominate Middle-earth, you need to have organized agents everywhere to exert your will. Sauron had an organization and had people (well, things, anyway) ready to step in and rule newly conquered lands. A single individual, even a powerful one, can't dominate a continent all alone.

Dragons don't seem to do the organization thing. (They do the swoop in and burn and loot thing.)

Finally, Smaug in particular and Western dragons generally seem to have the acquisition of wealth as their main goal in life. Power seems to mean nothing; wealth, especially ill-gotten wealth, is what motivates them. I can see a more powerful dragon than Smaug raiding Gondor and carrying off gold, but I can't see it gaining control and setting up a system of taxation to bring in the cash.

So:

  1. They're not powerful enough
  2. Even if they were, they don't do organization well enough
  3. Power? Yawn. I want gold.
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    Even if Smaug was Ancalagon the Black, he is only one creature Yup. His power extends to his line of sight only, at any given moment of time. Ruling a large geographic area requires a hierarchical organization. – tbrookside Nov 2 '20 at 3:07
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    "While Smaug was not the last dragon alive, he was the last in the West of Middle-Earth" Maybe, maybe not. The appendix mentions "Dain I slain by a dragon" for TA 2589 (Smaug took Erebor in TA 2770). None were as effective as Smaug, but there seemed to be others in that general region. 2570 is when it says the dragons first reappeared and 'begin to afflict the Dwarves'. – suchiuomizu Nov 2 '20 at 3:10
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    @Mark OlsonThe first quote is actually from Chapter Two: "The Shadow of the Past", The Silmarillion doesn't have an omniscient narrator, but is supposedly a compilation of stories by different writers. An Elf might have unfairly blaimed the defeat of Nirnaeth Arnoediad on Men as a warning against trusting them; A Man might have unfairly blaimed it on Human treachery to exaggerate the importance of his species.. There is no evidence that Smaug was the last dragon in the west of Middle-earth, and the Grey Mountains should have had a number of dragons resting on hoards of gold. Continued – M. A. Golding Nov 2 '20 at 15:06
  • @Mark Olson Continued. In the Hobbit the Withered Heath is where "The great dragons breed", and the LOTR map shows the Withered Heath only abut 50 miles from the Lonely Mountain at its closest. It seems rather stupid of Thror to settle so close to the source of dragons. And in some versions of the story of Turin Glaurung had an army of orcs under his command. – M. A. Golding Nov 2 '20 at 15:10
  • @M. A. Golding: I corrected the misattribution -- thanks! (2) You may be right about a possible unreliable narrator, but it's the best info we have. (3) Gandalf was worried about Sauron using Smaug, not about other dragons. He, at least, doesn't think there is much to worry about besides Smaug. (4a) That was an older, bypassed, bit of canon and (4b) Morgoth (and later Sauron) seemed to be able to control his creatures directly so this is not strong evidence. – Mark Olson Nov 2 '20 at 15:27
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Tolkien never wrote on this as far as I know, so one can only speculate. The vast majority of dragons were killed in the War of Wrath at the end of the First Age. Indeed we do not know of any dragon alive in the late Third Age other than Smaug, who was killed by a single arrow shot by Bard, a normal human, albeit a hero and a descendant of a King.

But leaving aside the question of what dragons there are to attempt to rule Middle Earth, ruling does not seem to be what dragons do. We are shown exactly two dragons operating not under the immediate command of Morgoth. Those are Glaurung (father of dragons) and Smaug. Each attacked and destroyed a single underground fortress, amassed a bed of treasure there, and largely stayed put thereafter. True, Glaurung did eventually pursue Turin, but that seems to have been by the command of Morgoth.

Nor is it at all the case that dragons are invincible. Ancalagon the Black was slain by Eärendil at the end of the First age, Glaurung by Turin, and Smaug by Bard. Attacking or defending against a dragon is no doubt hard and risky, but not impossible. The only dragons seen working together are those under the direct and immediate command of Morgoth. Traditional western dragons are solitary, and Tolkien seems to have followed this tradition. Indeed there is no evidence that dragons are able to breed on their own—it may be that all of them were directly created by Morgoth.

There is no specific force that prevents dragons from "laying waste to the cities of men and elves" but the only times we know it happened were to cities that provided underground halls (created or inspired by Dwarves in both cases) suitable for conversion into a dragon's lair, and the revenge attack on Lake-town.

ADDITION: It is worth remembering that in much of Western tradition Dragons are personifications of greed. This is followed in The Hobbit with the comments on "Dragon sickness" and the fate of the Mayor of Lake-town. This is also true of the dragon in the poem "The Hoard", which the fictional editor of The Adventures of Tom Bombadil comments may be a distorted echo of the story of Turin and Mîm (and so the dragon a version of Glaurung). It is surely true of the legendary dragon Fáfnir, which JRRT no doubt had in mind.

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    I like your last point about dragons being focused on attacking and possessing underground dwarvish sites. It's another bit of the dragon character which seems a bit odd to humans. – Mark Olson Nov 2 '20 at 12:15
  • Actually we know about other dragons in Third Era, only Scatha was named, though. – Mithoron Nov 2 '20 at 14:35
  • @David seigel We know about several waves of dragon attacks during the Third Age. Glaurung apparently commanded an army that destroyed the Army of Nargothrond and sacked the city. As for Ancalagon the Black, it is my opinion he was so large that Earendil sailed Vingelot into his ear and the power of the silmaril burned a tunnel through Ancalagon's head and brain so Vingelot sailed out the other ear while Ancalagon fell down on Thangordrim and destroyed it. – M. A. Golding Nov 2 '20 at 15:17
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    @M. A. Golding Yes Glaurung did apparently command the army that attacked and destroyed Nartgothrond, presumably on Morgoth's orders. I suppose that the Orc-captin took orders from the Dragon. As for Ancalagon all we know is that his body was large enough to "break the towers of Thangordrim" when it fell on them. But how Earendil attacked and killed the dragon is unknown. – David Siegel Nov 2 '20 at 16:07
  • @Mithoron Scatha was dead long before the events of The Hobbit, Indeed IIRC Merry's horn came from his hoard, which suggests he was dead before the Ride of Eorl more than 15 generations before LotR. Do we know of any dragons still alive at the end of the 3rd age? Granted there could be some. But Gandalf seems to have felt that the death of Smaug ended the danger of dragons controlled by Sauron. – David Siegel Feb 3 at 16:01

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