Apologies to TK for following your post with another one on mithril. It was completely unintentional! I'd be interested in discussing our different opinions in further detail, if you'd like.
After class on Monday, I wanted to consider the relationship between mithril and the jewels found in Middle-Earth. mithril decorates the door of Moria, and protects Frodo during the Fellowship’s travel into the demolished mine. In Book II, Chapter IV, Journey in the Dark, Gandalf says that the metal has three names, Moria-Silver or true-silver in Common Tongue, mithril among the elves, and a secret name undisclosed by the Dwarves. Returning to our discussion on the importance of languages and names, the Dwarves refusal to reveal their name for mithril belies the central role of the mineral in Dwarfish civilization. The Dwarves hide the name, and therefore a large part of the history and description of mithril, from the knowledge of other races. In doing so, they insure that only Dwarves may hold mastery of the metal.
The Dwarves’ relationship with mithril partially reflects the role of jewels in Exodus and Revelation. As something inaccessible to non-Dwarves, mithril and anything wrought with mithril bears the mark of the might and skill of dwarfish civilization. In Exodus, it says, “And he put them on the shoulders of the ephod, that they should be stones for a memorial to the children of Israel; as the LORD commanded Moses/ And he made the breastplate of cunning work, like the work of the ephod; of gold, blue, and purple, and scarlet, and fine twined linen.” (Exodus 21:7-8). The works of jewelry and precious metals are made to represent the twelve tribes of Israel, and these works are a sacred endeavor. After their completion, the works increase the glory of the tribes. Likewise, mithril serves to display the greatness of the dwarves. Other metals like iron, are servants to the Dwarves, while gold and other jewels are they toys. (Book II, Chapter IV, pg. 356 Delrey Edition, 1994) Like the jewels on Aaron’s breastplate for the tribes of Israel, mithril represents the dwarf race’s mastery of craft, and makes the dwarves praiseworthy.
As we discussed, the Silmarils and the light of Earendil display the light of the Trees of Valinor. Because of their otherworldly origin, the Silmarils and their light are sacred. Mithril, on the other hand, has an earthly origin. The only place that contains Mithril are the mountainous roots of Middle-Earth and Dwarves, a race that awakens from the stone of Middle-Earth, bear it from the earth and shape it with their craft. In the Unfinished Tales, Tolkien mentions that the Numenoreans sought out mithril also, and that mithril could be found on Numenor (Unfinished Tales, 232). However, no mithril exists in Valinor, and it remains a thing of the mortal realm.
On this point, mithril makes a departure from the Biblical jewels. The glory of the jewels in Exodus 39 is because the work of the Israelites is sacred. Similarly, in Revelations, it describes the city of light founded on twelve jewels, “And the city had no need of the sun, neither of the moon, to shine in it: for the glory of God did lighten it, and the Lamb is the light thereof” (Revelations 21:23). The jewels of the city channel a sacred and eternal light. Mithril, on the other hand, reflects only a mundane light. As Gandalf describes it, “Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim” (Book II, Chapter IV, 356). Mithril is certainly more special and even more permanent than other precious metals, but it is still only like common silver in luster. No preternatural light is associated with it. The alloy ithildin contains mithril, and can be seen only by moon- and starlight. This alloy contains no inner light, and displays no holy light. Ithildin’s relationship with light is so tenuous that the ithildin door to Moria remains nearly invisible, if not for the fortunate illumination from the moon.
The terrible history written by Feanor and his sons occurs because the Silmarils are irreplaceable, and coveted by Feanor, his sons, and Morgoth. If more Silmarils could be made, then the whole story after the Kindslaying would have been nonexistent. Feanor would have moved on, and all the tragedies that followed may have been avoided. Mithril, while rare and precious, is not irreplaceable. The Dwarves have continued their civilization after the loss of the mines of Moria. Unlike Feanor’s quest for the Silmarils, the loss of Moria does not incur the same wrath or vengeance in the dwarves. Aside from Balin’s group, most of the dwarves seem to have shifted their attention to a non-mithril based society. They search for new sources of mithril, but in its absence weaker metals may be substituted, and the work of the Dwarves, though less impressive without the precious metal, continues. Furthermore, already existing pieces of mithril are not themselves prized. Tolkien makes no mention of an item of mithril that is as prized as the Silmarils, or even as wondrous as the Star of Earendil. The one exception for this is the Star of Elendil, which Elessar found in Orthanc Tower after the War of the Ring (Unfinished Tales 290). The Elendilmir, as Tolkien calls it, consisted of a great gem laid in mithril. But this item is cherished by the King because of its lineage from Numenor, and not because it contains mithril.
Perhaps because it is rare, but not unique or irreplaceable, mithril is described as a commodity and as a currency, something which the Silmarils are never considered to be. People want to possess the Silmarils and keep them for themselves. Feanor resents the request of the Valar for the Silmarils, even though their light might restore the lost Trees. Mithril, on the other hand, is commonly regarded as an exchangeable item. It is described as the source of the Dwarves’ wealth, and as a currency for trade for food and other essential items. In any case, the importance of mithril is not in having the metal, but in having the metal so that one may doing things with the metal, whether it is forge new tools and works of art, or trade. Even the most impressive example of mithril, Frodo’s vest, is not coveted by other characters. It is twice given as a gift, from Thorin to Bilbo to Frodo. Prior to the story, it sits in Michel Delving before Bilbo takes it to Rivendell. The vest remains insignificant until the journey into Moria, when it protects Frodo from a deadly spear. Once the vest is revealed to the rest of the Fellowship, the reaction consists of two parts: Gimli’s amazement at the value of the vest, and Aragorn’s relief that Frodo is well protected. The vest is viewed in terms of how it might serve Frodo. The envy and greed aroused by the Silmarils is absent from the exchange.
Mithril as a substance bears great value for what may be done with it, but aside from its practical uses and applications, it does not command a sacred reverence. Unlike the Biblical jewels, it neither emits light, nor glorifies a deity. Rather, the mithril serves the earthly purposes of the dwarves. As impressive the accomplishments of the dwarves may be, these purposes still remain mundane, and not sacred. Despite being a precious and extremely valuable metal, mithril does not have the same sacred and light-giving qualities of other gems, and is not a jewel in the same sense as the Silmarils.