"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.