- " 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
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 and could be beaten and polished without being weakened or tarnished. Mithril, also known as silver-steel and Moria-silver, was admired and treasured by all the races. The Men called it "true-silver" while the Dwarves, who loved it above all things, had their own, secret name for it.
Mithril was extremely rare by the end of the Third Age, as it was found only in Khazad-dûm. Once the Balrog destroyed Khazad-dûm, 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. After the Dwarves abandoned Moria and production of new mithril stopped entirely, it became priceless.
The sole mithril-vein of the Misty Mountains made the Longbeards wealthy. The Gwaith-i-Mírdain settled Eregion because of it and 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.
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.
Even before Moria was abandoned by the Dwarves mithril was worth ten times its own weight in gold.
The mithril-vein reached Barazinbar, where the Dwarves mined and by T.A. 1980 they released the Balrog from the Elder Days which destroyed the Dwarven Kingdom. 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-objects at the end of the Age were only heirlooms or new items 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.
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. From the Song of Eärendil, written by Bilbo and Aragorn, "A ship then new they built for him of mithril and of elven-glass".
The Mithril Coat
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 had it decorated on a stand-in Bag End until he donated it to Mathom-house but he took it back before leaving the Shire for Rivendell. Years later, he gave it to his nephew Frodo, who wore it during the Quest to Mount Doom. It saved Frodo's life several times; the first when he was nearly skewered by an Orc in the Mines of Moria and the second when he was hit by an arrow while on the river Anduin. 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. After the Battle of Bywater, the coat once again saved Frodo's life after Saruman attempted to assassinate him at Bag End.
Other versions of the legendarium
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 equivalent 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 colour, 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. 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 candidates for similar reasons as titanium, and aluminum 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 aluminum 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 rose, 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 absolute certainty whether mithril is based on any real metal.
- ↑ 1.0 1.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "A Journey in the Dark"
- ↑ 2.0 2.1 2.2 J.R.R. Tolkien, Christopher Tolkien (ed.), Unfinished Tales, "The Disaster of the Gladden Fields"
- ↑ 3.0 3.1 J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Fellowship of the Ring, "Many Meetings"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix A, "Durin's Folk"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Battle of the Pelennor Fields"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit, "The Last Stage"
- ↑ J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, The Return of the King, "The Scouring of the Shire"
- ↑ 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
- ↑ Re: Mithril and Orichalcum, Titanium on Wikipedia