Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Curious Case of Mithril

"Mithril! All folk desired it...the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.” —Gandalf

In our discussion of jewels in class, I think we rather unjustly overlooked mithril. Perhaps the most obvious jewels in Tolkien’s world are the silmarils and other gemstones. These are indisputable because they fit our conventional conception of jewels. However, there are also some “hidden” jewels, treasures that perhaps not in appearance but in their nature and representation could be argued to be jewels, such as trees. And then there is mithril. Mithril presents a rather curious case because while it possesses all the properties of gemstones, it is in fact a metal, which is the “anti-jewel”.

Mithril was discovered by the dwarves and mined in Khazad-dum. This gives it an unnatural quality that we associate with iron and steel, which indeed emerge as the ugly opposites of the gemstones. Tolkien links the use of iron to ‘evil’ throughout his work, such as with Morgoth’s iron fortress Angbad. He also links it to negative ideas such as warfare and the destruction of the natural world, as represented through the cutting of the trees of Fangorn by Saruman for the construction of metal weapons.

Mithril, being a metal should instinctively invoke similar links. Yet I find myself not only hesitating but actually rejecting its categorization with other metals and instead considering it as a jewel. Is this simply because its nature and appearance separate it from the negative imagery associated with iron? Or is it because those who adorn it are “good”?

Before delving into these questions let’s first examine the properties of gemstones and why they qualify as jewels. Apart from being rare and beautiful, an essential aspect of their appeal, particularly in Tolkien’s world, lies in their durability and their ability to reflect light. This is the defining element of the silmarils and other gems. When Bilbo shows Frodo the mithril coat, Tolkien describes it as “harder than steel” and writes, “it shone like moonlit silver”. These descriptions reflect both those properties of jewels along with it being extremely rare, as it was found only in Khazad-dum. Mithril therefore, possesses all the properties of gemstones and this distinguishes it from the other metals.

An integral narrative tool of a story is the use of imagery and its association with themes and characters. For instance, we cannot envision the elegant bow of Legolas being used by an Orc. The One Ring, gold and beautiful as it is, seems treacherous and evil on the hand of Sauron, while on the hand of Bilbo, it seems like a wonderful treasure. The character of the wearer certainly influences how we perceive the jewel. In that context it is quite significant that mithril is always adorned by characters that are “good”. Nenya, Galadriel’s ring, is made of mithril and the symbol of high kingship for Elendil is a diamond bound to the brow by a mithril fillet.

An almost inevitable consequence of the discovery of a jewel is the desire to obtain it. Temptation and greed have driven numerous wars and in Tolkien’s world, treacherous deeds. It is ironic that jewels, the symbol of purity and good, are often the center of so much evil. The silmarils become the object of desire of many and this desire drives Morgoth to steal them and Ungoliant to demand them. Arguably, the silmarils also corrupted Feanor and brought about the fall of the Noldor. Mithril invoked a similar greed and gave a rise to a different evil. It is said that the dwarves mined too deep in Khazad-dum and as a result they awakened Durin’s Bane, the Balrog. Mithril, like other jewels, was thus very much an object of desire and importantly, brought forth the corruption and evil that often accompanies their obtainment.

Mithril, though dichotomous in its creation, quite clearly emerges as one of the jewels of Tolkien’s world. It is extremely significant as it is a bridge between the “man-made” and the natural, between metals and gemstones. It is also important here to not that it is a fictional substance, which makes its unique properties even more crucial because Tolkien specifically ascribed them to it. He writes, “It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass”, giving it the quality both of metals and of gemstones. Technically, it could placed in either category. Yet the fact that we place it in the latter compels one to consider how important perception is to the value of an object. A prime example of this is the trees, which were invaluable to the Galadhrim but not necessarily to others in Middle Earth. Tolkien in fact writes in Letter 339, “Lothlorien is beautiful because there the trees were loved”, suggesting that the trees of Lorien were almost like jewels not just because of their inherent form but because of the way the Elves perceived them. It is on this basis therefore, that I propose that apart from their rarity and beauty, one the “qualifications” of a jewel must be the way it is perceived, and this applies as much to gemstones as it does to the rather curious case of mithril.

—TK

6 comments:

  1. I am intrigued by the association you make between mithril and jewels. I think the most telling evidence is the passage that you cite about the way mithril could be both beaten and polished "like glass." And yet, does this mean that other metals, like silver and gold, should also be considered gemstones? Certainly, they are used as settings for gems and the Silmarils hold the light of the silver and gold of the Trees, but it seems to me that there is also something of the way in which gems are described as bodies that needs to come into the picture. Could mithril contain fire in the way that the Silmarils do? A good puzzle to think about and a very good way of testing what it is that makes jewels jewels!

    RLFB

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  2. I think it’s important to keep in mind that even though Mithril can be “beaten like copper, and polished like glass,” it doesn’t seem to have the inner fire, the ‘spirit’ that other gems tend to have. For example, Tolkien describes the Silmarils as housing the radiant light of the Trees of Valinor, an inner fire comparable to the soul of the Children of Iluvatar (pg 59, illustrated Silmarillion). In addition, the Silmarils’ creation is the result of Feanor’s summoning of lore, power, and skill; in a sense the Silmarils are the direct consequence of Feanor’s inner fire—his spirit. Gems or jewels in Tolkien seem to have a strong correlation with light, life, and spirit, which makes me hesitant to call Mithril a jewel. Like the sapphire scepter of the Sky Father Manwe (which reflected and radiated the blue “fire” of his eyes) or the crystal Phial of Galadriel (which “caught the light of Earendel’s star”), gems—while representing wonder and majesty—are alive. Mithril however, while possessing external qualities (radiance, durability, rarity) that it shares with gems, is merely an external substance, ornamenting and augmenting the power of its user, but possessing no soul. Mithril is simply a vegetative substance. It can reflect light, but it cannot perform active functions; it cannot—like the Silmarils—receive light, and “give it back in hues more marvelous than before.”

    Andrew Manns

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  3. I am intrigued by the association you make between mithril and jewels. I think the most telling evidence is the passage that you cite about the way mithril could be both beaten and polished "like glass." And yet, does this mean that other metals, like silver and gold, should also be considered gemstones? Certainly, they are used as settings for gems and the Silmarils hold the light of the silver and gold of the Trees, but it seems to me that there is also something of the way in which gems are described as bodies that needs to come into the picture. Could mithril contain fire in the way that the Silmarils do? A good puzzle to think about and a very good way of testing what it is that makes jewels jewels!

    RLFB

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  4. Although I'm certainly convinced that there is something other about mithril that lends itself to be separate from simple metals, I don't know that you could necessarily group it definitively with jewels either. Jewels seem to be beings in themselves, they exist to contain whatever light or body or soul they possess and for the sake of their beauty and rarity they are precious. Metals on the other hand have a way of needing to be made into something else before they are truly valuable, in that metal is only as important as it is when it is crafted and formed into a useful object or tool. Gems seem to possess there true shape when they are formed in nature while metal is in fact malleable and humans etc can thus exploit that changeability for their own purposes.

    This is very apparent for me in the way that Frodo's mithril coat is "as valuable as the whole Shire and everything in it," since it saves him many times from death. Thus although it is true that the metal itself is valuable, this truly stems from the possibilities it holds for productive use, rather than value of jewels for jewels sake. The qualities of mithril for sure set it in its own category from other metals, but I would argue that it is not a jewel either. Perhaps if you were to picture a spectrum of metals to true gems in Middle Earth, mithril would simply fall in an interesting place on that spectrum.

    ~KeCa

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  5. Good observation about the link between iron and evil: Iron Prison/Hell (Angband), Iron Mountains (Ered Engrin), Melkor’s iron crown which imprisons the silmarils – there seems to be no end to the antagonists’ use of iron. However, I think it’s not the distinction between metals and jewels that indicate, respectively bad and good, but rather, as with many things in Middle Earth, the use to which they are put. Metal can be used to imprison and hack down, but it can also be made into beautiful things and useful tools, as gold, silver, and steel are used throughout the legendarium. The One Ring is made of a kind of gold, normally associated with good, but, here, perverted to evil use. When Bilbo gives Frodo the mithril shirt, as you point out, he likens it not to stone, but to other metals to which it is superior.

    Courtney

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  6. You do a great job of pulling in many examples of the different interpretations of mithril. If I may add my two cents, I personally believe that mithril is purely of this world. It is a coveted object because of its divine-like qualities, but there are small differences between it and jewels like the Silmarils. Feanor, the greatest of the Noldor, created the Silmarils. In this creation, part his own essence went into the jewels. Thus, they were not just metals, but organic, and produced their own light in addition to the light they reflected. Mithril was created as part of Arda. It has qualities that are exceptional to other objects, but is nonetheless an earthly substance that the Valar chose to keep hidden deep within Arda. I do agree that it does appear divine when worn by Frodo. It acts as a magical shield, protecting his body from what would otherwise decimate him. Durin’s Bane was awakened by greed and this action could be read as a comment of Tolkien, but it is problem of greed for earthly items, not anything purely good. So I see mithril as another object, one of great power that can be used by any force.

    Alex Allen

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