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The thief is the first character in the poem who is neither a member of the aristocracy nor a warrior. "He was someone's slave," the poet tells us, reminding us that a society of ordinary people existed outside the great halls and battlefields.
The dragon is guarding a treasure-hoard left by "the last survivor of a noble race," who, before he died, locked his gold and jewels in a stone fortress. "The Lay of the Last Survivor," as it's called (beginning 2247), is one of the most moving speeches in the poem, and recalls Hrothgar's sermon to Beowulf about pride and the transience of fame and wealth. The speech also foreshadows the end of the Geat dynasty, and of all dynasties, and mocks the endless giving of gifts that occurs throughout the first part of the poem.
Notice as you read the second part whether the poet's style is different from the first part. Remember that some readers think that the two parts were composed by two different poets.
After the last survivor of this "noble race" finally dies, his treasure-hoard is discovered by a dragon. In the last survivor's speech, the futility of acquiring material objects is emphasized, so it's no surprise that the treasure-hoard is now guarded by a dragon for whom the treasures have absolutely no use. The stealing of a single cup from the hoard only highlights the pettiness and greed of a society that places such a high premium on material wealth.