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Mithril

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Mithril by John Howe

Mithril is a precious silvery metal, stronger than steel but much lighter in weight, which was mined by the Dwarves in the mines of Khazad-dûm. The name mithril comes from two words in Sindarinmith meaning "grey", and ril meaning "glitter". Mithril was also called "true-silver" by Men, while the Dwarves had their own, secret name for it.

The wizard Gandalf explained mithril to the Company, passing through Khazad-dûm, the Mines of Moria:

"The wealth of Moria was not in gold and jewels, the toys of the Dwarves; nor in iron, their servant... Its worth was ten times that of gold, and now it is beyond price; for little is left above ground, and even the Orcs dare not delve here for it.

Mithril! All folk desired it. It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim."

The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Journey in the Dark")

For the literal-minded reader, it can be unclear whether or not mithril is a real metal. Candidates for a possible real-world equivilent of mithril have been diverse, but the one metal that has by far the greatest similarities with described mithril, is titanium. Titanium has half the density and weight of steel, has a lustrous silver-white color, is one of the strongest of metals, and is chemically inert such that it does not corrode over time. Like mithril, titanium was also exceptionally rare and precious, as it does not typically occur as a workable metallic form in nature—the ore is actually extremely abundant, but the practical technology to extract titanium metal from the ore has only been widely available and economical since the 20th century. Titanium also has remarkable strengthening effects on other metals when alloyed with them.[1] Other metals have been proposed as candidates for mithril:

  • Platinum is silver-white in appearance and extremely resistant to corrosion, but is simply far too heavy to be mithril.
  • Aluminium and magnesium have been a candidates for similar reasons as titanium, and aluminium is indeed the single most abundant element in the earth's crust. These metals are also far too chemically reactive to naturally exist as a workable metal, which originally made them as precious and scarce as mithril. (Famously, Napoleon III of France once bought dinnerware made out of aluminium because it was more expensive than gold at the time.) But they are also less lustrous and not as strong as titanium, though they are each also lighter than titanium.

Certainly Tolkien, being highly educated, would have had knowledge of these metals and the difficulty in preparing them. In Tolkien's universe, mithril metal also does not typically exist anywhere except in specific localized deposits, with the only known deposits in Middle-earth being found in the mines of Khazad-dûm. If mithril was indeed titanium and titanium does not tend to occur naturally as a metal, then mithril deposits may have possibly been a result of Melkor's original formation of the Misty Mountains, with the mithril either being intentionally refined as a workable metallic form when the mountains were risen, or being coincidentally formed as a chemical by-product of when Melkor so quickly formed the mountain chain to fend off the Valar. However, probably because nobody is known to have asked Tolkien about "mithril", it will never be known with an absolute certainty whether mithril is based on any real metal.

Mithril is extremely rare by the end of the Third Age, as it was found only in Khazad-dûm. Once the Balrog destroyed the Dwarven Kingdom of Khazad-dum, Middle-earth's only source of new mithril ore was cut off. Before Moria was abandoned by the Dwarves mithril was worth ten times its own weight in gold. After the Dwarves abandoned Moria and production of new mithril ore stopped entirely, it became priceless. The only way to obtain a mithril-object at the end of the Third Age was to either use heirloom mithril weapons and armour that were produced before the fall of Moria, or to melt down these existing weapons to forge new ones. The Noldor of Eregion made an alloy out of it called ithildin ("star moon"), which was used to decorate gateways and portals. It is visible only by starlight or moonlight. The Doors of Durin bore inlaid ithildin designs and runes.

While Moria is the only known source of mithril, there are indications that it was also found in Númenor and in Aman in smaller quantities.

Contents

The Mithril Coat

The coat as depicted in the movies

Of all items made of mithril, the most famous is the "small shirt of mail" retrieved from the hoard of the dragon Smaug, and given to Bilbo Baggins by Thorin Oakenshield. "It was close-woven of many rings, as supple almost as linen, cold as ice, and harder than steel..."

"'It's a pretty thing isn't it,' said Bilbo, moving it in the light."
The Fellowship of the Ring, "The Ring goes South"

A kingly gift, the mithril-coat was actually worth more than the entire worth of the Shire (Bilbo probably knew this, but he didn't care). Bilbo later gave the coat to his nephew Frodo, who wore it during the Quest to Mount Doom. It saved Frodo's life when he was nearly skewered by an Orc in the Mines of Moria. (In the film adaptation of The Fellowship of the Ring, the attack was by a Cave-troll.) It was later taken by the Orcs who captured him in the pass above Cirith Ungol, and passed on to the Dark Lord's servants at Barad-dûr. When the coat was displayed before the hosts of Aragorn at the Gates of Mordor, many despaired, thinking Frodo had been captured or killed, and the Ring taken. Gandalf reclaimed it from Sauron's lieutenant, and was later able to return it to Frodo after the battles were won.

Other Mithril Objects

  • Galadriel possesses one of the three Elven Rings, Nenya. It is wrought of mithril with a white stone.
  • Poking through the closets of Orthanc, King Elessar and his aides found the long lost Elendilmir, a white star of Elvish crystal affixed to a fillet of mithril. Once owned by Elendil, the first King of Arnor, it is an emblem of royalty in the North Kingdom.
  • The Dwarves' beloved metal appears in Gondor too, the Kingdom of the South. The Guards of the Citadel of Minas Tirith wear helmets of mithril, "heirlooms from the glory of old days."
  • As Aragorn's ships sail up the Anduin to relieve the besieged Minas Tirith during the War of the Ring, the standard flying on his ship shows a crown made of mithril and gold.
  • After Gimli became lord of Aglarond, he and his Dwarves forged great gates of mithril to replace the gates of Minas Tirith which were broken by the Witch-king of Angmar.

Tolkien's Inspiration

In the Hervarar saga, which was a cycle dealing with the magic sword Tyrfing (and from which Tolkien borrowed, for instance, the names Dwalin and Durin), the hero Orvar-Odd wore a silken mailcoat which nothing could pierce (Oddr svarar: "ek vil berjask við Angantýr, hann mun gefa stór högg með Tyrfingi, en ek trúi betr skyrtu minni, enn brynju þinni, til hlífðar").

References

  1. Re: Mithril and Orichalcum, Titanium on Wikipedia

See also