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Mithril

This article is about the precious metal of J.R.R. Tolkien's legendarium. For the the real-world producers of metal mintiatures, see Mithril Miniatures.
Mithril by John Howe
" 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."
Gandalf[1]

Mithril was a precious silvery metal, stronger than steel but much lighter in weight, which was mined by the Dwarves in the mines of Khazad-dûm. Mithril was also called "true-silver" by Men, while the Dwarves had their own, secret name for it.

Mithril was rare and was found in Númenor and perhaps also in Aman.

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[edit] History

Before Moria was abandoned by the Dwarves mithril was worth ten times its own weight in gold. The Gwaith-i-Mírdain also created objects of mithril, thanks to trade with the Dwarves of Moria; one of the Three Rings of Power, Nenya, was made of mithril. 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.

The Star of Elendil was a gem set on mithril fillet that was a heirloom of the Lords of Andúnië of Númenor.[2]

After the Downfall of Númenor, the only source of mithril was Moria. In Gondor, the Guards of the Citadel of Minas Tirith wore helmets of mithril. The smiths of Rivendell also created a second "Star of Elendil" of mithril, after the first one was lost with Isildur.[2]

Once the Balrog destroyed the Dwarven Kingdom of Khazad-dum, Middle-earth's only source of new mithril ore was cut off. Production of new mithril ore stopped entirely, and it became priceless. The only mithril-objectss at the end of the Age were only heirlooms, or new weapons forged out of existing ones. The mithril helmets worn by the Guards of the Citadel were considered "heirlooms from the glory of old days".

During the War of the Ring Arwen prepared for Aragorn a banner with the Livery of Elendil in mithril, gems, and gold. Aragorn used this during the Battle of the Pelennor Fields to herald the Return of the King.[3]

After Gimli became lord of Aglarond, he and his Dwarves forged great gates of mithril to replace the Great Gate of Minas Tirith which were broken by the Witch-king of Angmar.

[edit] 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.

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. 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.

[edit] Etymology

The name mithril consists of the two Sindarin words mith ("grey, light grey") + ril ("brilliance").[4]

[edit] 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").

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.[5] 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 metallic 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.

[edit] See also

[edit] External links

[edit] References

  1. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Journey in the Dark"
  2. 2.0 2.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields"
  3. J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
  4. J.R.R. Tolkien, "Words, Phrases and Passages in Various Tongues in The Lord of the Rings", in Parma Eldalamberon XVII (edited by Christopher Gilson), p. 47
  5. Re: Mithril and Orichalcum, Titanium on Wikipedia