Mithril is a fictional metal found in J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth writings. It appears in many derivative fantasy works by later authors. It is described as resembling silver, but being stronger and lighter than steel. Tolkien first wrote of it in The Lord of the Rings, and it was retrospectively mentioned in the third, revised edition of The Hobbit in 1966. In the first 1937 edition, the mail shirt given to Bilbo Baggins is described as being made of "silvered steel".[T 1]
In The Hobbit, Thorin Oakenshield described some Dwarven treasures as "coats of mail gilded and silvered and impenetrable" and "a coat of dwarf-linked rings the like of which had never been made before, for it was wrought of pure silver to the power and strength of triple steel."[T 3] A little later the narrator describes "a small coat of mail, wrought for some young elf-prince long ago. It was of silver-steel which the elves call mithril".[T 4]
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.[T 2]
The Noldor of Eregion, the Elvish land to the west of Moria, made an alloy from it called ithildin ("star moon"), used to decorate gateways, portals and pathways. It was visible only by starlight or moonlight. The West Gate of Moria bore inlaid ithildin designs and runes.[T 2] It is implied at one point that the "moon-letters" featured in The Hobbit were also composed of ithildin.
In Tolkien's Middle-earth, mithril is extremely rare by the end of the Third Age, as it was now found only in Khazad-dûm. Once the Balrog destroyed Khazad-dûm, the kingdom of the Dwarves in Moria, the only source of new mithril ore was cut off. Before Moria was abandoned by the Dwarves, while it was still being actively mined, mithril was worth ten times its weight in gold.[T 2] After the Dwarves abandoned Moria and production of new mithril stopped entirely, it became priceless.
The Tolkien critic Paul Kocher interprets the Dwarves' intense secrecy around mithril and their devotion to artistry in metal and stone as "a sublimation of their sexual frustration", given that they have very few dwarf-women and love beauty with a "jealous possessiveness", or (quoting Tolkien) "being engrossed in their crafts".
The mining executive Danièle Barberis notes that Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in a busy mining region. She writes that it is "impossible ... not to make parallels" between Tolkien's descriptions of the deep mines of Moria and the exceptional depth of South African mines, some as much as 4,000 metres (13,000 ft) deep.
The most notable item made of mithril in the works of Tolkien is the "small shirt of mail" that Thorin Oakenshield gave to Bilbo Baggins after it had been retrieved from the hoard of Smaug the dragon.[T 1] Gandalf stated that the value of this mithril-coat was "greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it".[T 2]
Also there is this!" said Bilbo, bringing out a parcel which seemed to be rather heavy for its size. He unwound several folds of old cloth, and held up a small shirt of mail. It was close-woven of many rings, as supple almost as linen, cold as ice, and harder than steel. It shone like moonlit silver, and was studded with white gems.
Bilbo wore the mithril shirt during the Battle of the Five Armies.[T 1] He donated it to the Mathom-house, a museum in Michel Delving. However he later reclaimed it, and took it with him when he left the Shire for his journey to Rivendell. There, some years later, he gave the shirt to Frodo Baggins when the younger hobbit embarked on his quest in The Lord of the Rings. Frodo wore the mail underneath his tunic and other shirt unbeknownst to the rest of the fellowship. The mail saved Frodo's life when he was struck by an orc chieftain's spear thrust during the battle in the Chamber of Mazarbul, and again when orc-arrows struck him while escaping Moria and while crossing the River Anduin.[T 2][T 7]
When Sam Gamgee believed Frodo to be dead outside Shelob's Lair, he left the shirt with Frodo. Frodo was taken by the orcs, who fought over the shirt. Frodo was saved, but one of the orcs escaped with the shirt. In both Tolkien's and Peter Jackson's versions, the shirt was, along with Frodo's other possessions, shown to Frodo's allies at the Battle of the Morannon to imply falsely that he was imprisoned in Barad-dûr. Gandalf took the shirt and other tokens, but refused any offer of parley.
At the end of the story, Frodo wore the shirt at the celebrations and on the trip home. The shirt saved his life one last time when Saruman, who had taken over the Shire, tried to stab Frodo after Frodo spared his life.[T 8]
Searching through the closets of Orthanc, King Aragorn and his aides found the long-lost first Elendilmir, a white star of Elvish crystal affixed to a fillet of mithril. Once owned by Elendil, the first King of Arnor, it was an emblem of royalty there. After Elendil fell in the War of the Last Alliance, his eldest son Isildur ascended to the throne. On his journey back to the northern capital of Arnor, his retinue was ambushed by orcs. Isildur tried to escape by jumping into the river Anduin, but was killed by arrows. Saruman may have found his body there, and taken the Elendilmir from it. A replica was made and used by Isildur's successors up to the re-establishment of the kingdom (reunited with Gondor) by Aragorn. He thus used both.
The guards of the citadel of Minas Tirith wore helmets of mithril, "heirlooms from the glory of old days". As a result, the citadel guards were the only soldiers in Gondor who still bore the emblems of the lost kings during the days of the stewards.
Greatest of all, according to legend, was the ship of Eärendil, Vingilótë, which he sailed into the sky, making the gleam of truesilver visible to the world as the Evening and Morning Star. The "Song of Eärendil", written by Bilbo and Aragorn, contains the lines "A ship then new they built for him / of mithril and of elven-glass".[T 6]
The scholar of English literature Charles A. Huttar writes that mithril was the only mineral that Tolkien invented. He notes that in Tolkien's underworld, whether the caves at Helm's Deep or the mines of Moria, "beauty and terror [were] side by side". Greed for mithril could unleash the terror of the Balrog, by digging too far down into the dark realm, but at the same time, he writes, the metal was prized for both its beauty and its usefulness, yielding the best armour. He compares the Dwarves' greed for mithril with that of the Barrow-wights for treasure, and indeed that of the dragons in The Hobbit and Beowulf for gold. In his view, these symbolise the evil "inherent in the mineral treasures hidden in the womb of Earth", just as mining and metalwork are associated with Satan in John Milton's Paradise Lost (I, 670-751). Huttar sums up with a reflection on Tolkien's moral vision in the story: just as the characters at every point have to decide for good or ill, so objects have the potential to be both good and evil: "Mithril is both the greatest of treasures and a deadly bane."
- Tolkien (1937)
- Tolkien (1954), "A Journey in the Dark"
- Tolkien (1937), ch. 12 "Inside Information"
- Tolkien (1937), ch. 13 "Not At Home"
- Tolkien (1980), part 3, ch. 1 "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields, Note 31
- Tolkien (1954), book 2, ch. 1 "Many Meetings"
- Tolkien (1954), book 2, ch. 9 "The Great River"
- Tolkien (1955), "The Scouring of the Shire"
- Barberis, Danièle (2006). "Tolkien: The Lord of The Mines – Or A Comparative Study Between Mining During the Third Age of Middle‐Earth by Dwarves and Mining During Our Age by Men (or Big‐People)". Minerals & Energy - Raw Materials Report. 20 (3–4): 60–68. doi:10.1080/14041040500504392. ISSN 1404-1049.
- Kocher, Paul (1974) . Master of Middle-Earth: The Achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien. Penguin Books. p. 95. ISBN 0140038779.
- Kocher, Paul (1974) . Master of Middle-Earth: The Achievement of J.R.R. Tolkien. Penguin Books. p. 141. ISBN 0140038779.
- Huttar, Charles A. (1975). Lobdell, Jared (ed.). A Tolkien Compass. Open Court. pp. 137–139. ISBN 978-0875483030.
- "mithril". OxfordDictionaries.com. Archived from the original on 12 April 2019. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937). Douglas A. Anderson (ed.). The Annotated Hobbit. Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 2002). ISBN 978-0-618-13470-0.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954). The Fellowship of the Ring. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 0-395-08254-4.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955). The Return of the King. The Lord of the Rings. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. OCLC 519647821.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1980). Christopher Tolkien (ed.). Unfinished Tales. Boston: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN 978-0-395-29917-3.