Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Mithril: Gem, or Merely a Precious Metal?

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.

Cheers,
KNS

13 comments:

  1. I guess I was emphasizing the fact that Bilbo's shirt is valuable because it has the properties of mithril, and not because it is mithril. Gimli and Gandalf comment on the value of the vest as a commodity, but the importance of the object is in its ability to protect Frodo.
    But perhaps Tarika is right, that mithril occupies a space between valuable commodity and sacred gem. When the Dwarves lost Moria to Durin's Bane, there was no campaign of revenge as the one carried out by Feanor and his kin. Mithril does not evoke nearly the same degree of reaction as the Silmarils. But you make a good. Even the Palantiri, which are also irreplaceable, do not create the same turmoil when some of them are lost. In comparing it to the Silmarils, the ultimate jewels, perhaps I didn't give mithril enough credit as a jewel in its own right.

    KNS

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  2. I like very much the connection that you draw between mithril, its working by the Dwarves and the importance of the craftsmanship that went into Aaron's breastplate. I also like the point that you make about mithril's association with the earth and the fact that it does not come from Valinor but Middle-earth. I think, however, that you downplay somewhat the significance of mithril to the Dwarves: it brought about the destruction of their greatest city, after all, when they delved too deep and awoke the Balrog. Perhaps it is precisely this association with the Dwarves that needs exploring more: the Silmarils belonged (insofar as they belonged to anyone) to the Elves, but mithril belonged to the Dwarves.

    RLFB

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  3. I’m not sure mithril is as common or mundane as you imply; rather, it seems to be a mortal counterpart/reflection to these more divine jewels. Frodo’s shirt if mithril mail is worth the entire Shire not because of its properties of armor but because of its crafting of solid mithril; at one point its described that he is carrying the value of kingdoms under his clothing.
    Mithril could possibly be considered the pinnacle instrument of mortal subcreation. Elves and Numenoreans have the soul and spark of divine sub-creative fire that Illuvatar imbued into them, while dwarves do not. Consequently, your average elven magical item contains its magic as part of its essence and personality; Narsil is dwarven-forged but elven-enchanted.
    Dwarves, however, do not have this divine spark to invest in the items they sub-create, and so they must seek perfection in other ways. Mithril, being, as you pointed out, purely in the realm of Middle Earth and Numenor, serves this purpose for the dwarves; it allows them imitation sub-creation that, in terms of pure utility, actually outclasses those items of elven and human make, perhaps because the dwarves are more grounded in the world of Middle-Earth.
    -Prashant Parmar

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  4. DISCLAIMER: I originally wrote this comment partly in response to a comment by Prashant. However that comment seems to have disappeared while blogger was down. I am going to post my originally comment anyhow because maybe Prashant will repost his and it still makes some sense out of context anyhow.

    COMMENT:
    First of all, in response to Prashant I disagree that Dwarves to not have to subcreative spark that men and elves do. Although Aule created them, not Iluvatar, it was Iluvatar that invested them with life and free will. Therefore I would argue that Aule created their form and devised of their nature but that it was indeed Iluvatar's "divine spark" that gave them life and will. I see no reason why the sub-creative potential of the free-will of the Dwarves should be inferior or imitative in relation to that of Men or Elves. Indeed, the beauty of their works, including the grandeur of Moria, their fine metalworks, and their songs and traditions seem to be expressly subcreative. Granted, they did not create anything like the Silmarils that possess divine light of their own, but the Silmarils (and I suppose the phial of Galadrial) were unique even among Elf creations in this respect and do not seem to reside within the limits of typical elven subcreation.

    When thinking about Dwarves and gems and mithril it must be noted that the dwarves do not share the same love of light and living things that the elves and some men do, They choose to live in dark underground places where plants cannot grow. Considering that we have noted that one of the prime virtuous of Gems is their ability to contain light and that we have also traced out the connections between trees and light and gems it would seem that Dwarves do not pursue that qualities that gems embody. But on the other hand, they value mithril for its undiminishing beautiful luster (its ability to elegantly and permanently reflect the light of the sun and moon (descended from the trees))! Because mithril is shiny but not at all transparent (like most metals) it can reflect light but it cannot contain it. The dwarves mine and craft the substance of the Earth so that it more greatly reflects the divine light. But at the same time they choose to live in mountains, hidden from the sun and moon. Seems a little contradictory but intriguing.

    I not sure what all this means. Just some things to think about. This post has raised some interesting questions.

    -EKC

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  5. I think that the distinction you brought up between the Silmarils and mithril is a very important one, and could be extended even further. Even other gems in the Legendarium come nowhere close to the Silmarils in terms of beauty and power. These other gems are replaceable as mithril is, but as you pointed out the gems wouldn't necessarily have a "practical" purpose. It makes me wonder if mithril actually can serve two distict purposes, where one purpose is more valuable than the other. For instance, is Bilbo's shirt valuable because of the properties mithril gives it (the weight and strength) or simply because it is mithril in the first place. I always imagined that mithril's PROPERTIES were what was important, but now I'm thinking the gem-significance might be just as important.

    -Reed

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  6. I guess I was emphasizing the fact that Bilbo's shirt is valuable because it has the properties of mithril, and not because it is mithril. Gimli and Gandalf comment on the value of the vest as a commodity, but the importance of the object is in its ability to protect Frodo.
    But perhaps Tarika is right, that mithril occupies a space between valuable commodity and sacred gem. When the Dwarves lost Moria to Durin's Bane, there was no campaign of revenge as the one carried out by Feanor and his kin. Mithril does not evoke nearly the same degree of reaction as the Silmarils. But you make a good. Even the Palantiri, which are also irreplaceable, do not create the same turmoil when some of them are lost. In comparing it to the Silmarils, the ultimate jewels, perhaps I didn't give mithril enough credit as a jewel in its own right.

    KNS

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  7. I like very much the connection that you draw between mithril, its working by the Dwarves and the importance of the craftsmanship that went into Aaron's breastplate. I also like the point that you make about mithril's association with the earth and the fact that it does not come from Valinor but Middle-earth. I think, however, that you downplay somewhat the significance of mithril to the Dwarves: it brought about the destruction of their greatest city, after all, when they delved too deep and awoke the Balrog. Perhaps it is precisely this association with the Dwarves that needs exploring more: the Silmarils belonged (insofar as they belonged to anyone) to the Elves, but mithril belonged to the Dwarves.

    RLFB

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  8. I’m not sure mithril is as common or mundane as you imply; rather, it seems to be a mortal counterpart/reflection to these more divine jewels. Frodo’s shirt if mithril mail is worth the entire Shire not because of its properties of armor but because of its crafting of solid mithril; at one point its described that he is carrying the value of kingdoms under his clothing.
    Mithril could possibly be considered the pinnacle instrument of mortal subcreation. Elves and Numenoreans have the soul and spark of divine sub-creative fire that Illuvatar imbued into them, while dwarves do not. Consequently, your average elven magical item contains its magic as part of its essence and personality; Narsil is dwarven-forged but elven-enchanted.
    Dwarves, however, do not have this divine spark to invest in the items they sub-create, and so they must seek perfection in other ways. Mithril, being, as you pointed out, purely in the realm of Middle Earth and Numenor, serves this purpose for the dwarves; it allows them imitation sub-creation that, in terms of pure utility, actually outclasses those items of elven and human make, perhaps because the dwarves are more grounded in the world of Middle-Earth.
    -Prashant Parmar

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  9. This is doubly in response to KNS and TK, as you both talk about mithril as a metal and as a jewel. I think that both of you do well to bring up mithril as a topic worthy of discussion in our discussion of ‘Jewels’. It is indeed a “Curious Case,” as TK calls it, since it seems to occupy some kind of strange twilight zone between metal and jewels.

    I think the question to ask, rather than “which one is it – metal or gem,” is “how does mithril, a metal, take on jewel-like qualities”. For me, that is the essential process taking place. Mithril is not a jewel: it is metal. It is, in fact, a metal on two levels: firstly, it is a precious metal in its beauty and rarity, and secondly, it is an industrial metal (or a metal of war), for it is strong. But it undeniably has qualities that make it jewel-like, and that thus set it apart from and above both precious and industrial metals.

    One example that comes to mind, to prove this point, is Frodo’s mithril vest. This is a precious metal in its cost (doesn’t someone say that it is worth more than the Shire?!?) and its beauty. It is industrial, for it has the strength to protect Frodo in war. But it is also jewel-like, in its symbolic importance to the dwarves (that Professor Fulton highlighted in her comment), its impenetrable durability, and its light-reflecting qualities (reference goes to TK for those last two aspects).

    In fact, Frodo’s mithril vest reminds me a lot of the reliquaries we looked at in class. It literally encases Frodo, giving him a heightened sense of immortality. If he wore it outside his clothes, it would capture the light, and make him shine like a jewel. Not only does the vest have the symbolic importance associated with the dwarves, it also takes on a symbolic importance in reference to Frodo. It becomes associated with his immortality, or lack thereof. When he is saved from the cave troll’s lance by the vest, the Fellowship sees him as safe, and impenetrable. When the Fellowship is shown the vest outside of the Black Gate, however, they are convinced that Frodo has met his end: he is no longer encased in his impenetrable jewel, but has been exposed to mortality.

    -E.O’B

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  10. Indeed, mithril is a perplexing case. It has affinities both to metals and to gems. It is an exceedingly strong ore, and has a peculiar luster. As you point out, it is not of heavenly origin, but comes from the earth. In fact, the mineral world is full of significance, and is often assiduously protected. Was not Frodo’s mail coat once guarded by Smaug? Does not a balrog stalk the caverns of Moria? The journey into these caves is in some sense a journey into the past, where the ancient monsters dwell, and mithril may hark back to the past as well. I’m not sure that we have to categorize mithril as gem or as metal. But we can describe its use, its narrative place. Another blog post pointed to the dichotomy of iron and gem, and this may suggest a relation to a larger system of imagery in the legendarium. Iron has a particular affinity to Morgoth. But to what extent is mithril put into the hands of the Bad Guys? It does not strike me as being destructive in the same way that the iron works of war are. It seems largely to belong to the defense of Middle Earth, and it even comes to the defense of the ring-bearer in the form of a mail coat. And yet, just as the path to the hoard is blocked by a dragon, it is dangerous business to discover the riches of the earth.
    JCT

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  11. In one of your comments you said you wanted to emphasize "the fact that Bilbo's shirt is valuable because it has the properties of mithril, and not because it is mithril," but the vest has the properties of mithiril because it *is* mithiril. If the vest were made of an alloy, or some other strong metal, and were describes as "as strong as, or almost as strong as mithiril" that distinction would make sense. But in this case, the importance of mithiril is because of its properties, one of which is its rarities.

    I also disagree that mithiril does not incur the same level of emotion as the Simirils. Like RLFB says, the Simirils belong to the Elves, mithiril to the Dwarves. The LOTR is primarily from the Elven/Hobbit perspective, and we get very little information about the history and customs of the Dwarves. They may not have launched a campaign to regain the mine, but that also may have been because they didn't have the ability to do so. As a people they long for their glory days, and I would argue that they "moved on" to other jewels and minerals out of necessity, not because of a "oh well" attitude to loosing their largest source of mithiril.

    I think it's important to keep in mind the very different roles and importance to the larger narrative the Simirils and mithiril have, when comparing them, and to remember that their narrative place may not reflect their actual personal importance to the peoples in the book.

    ACC

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  12. I’ve always thought that the dwarves’ refusal to reveal the true name of Mithril was really cool and mystical... Earthsea, anyone?

    As you've proven, Mithril's place among precious metals and gems is worth examining. I do feel that your post undervalues it in a way, although maybe not in the same way that some of the posters above me suggest. The value of Mithril as I understand it is primarily derived not just from its utility, but from the very fact that it is a "precious" metal, obtained with such difficulty. Gimli's shock when Frodo's mail is revealed is not shock at it the fact that a Hobbit possesses something made of Mithril, but that there is so much of it in one place. When I see someone wearing a necklace made of gold, I may experience a moment of admiration of the way it glitters in the light, but this is nothing compared to what I feel when I visit a museum and see metalwork from centuries ago in which extraordinary amounts of gold or gems are utilized. It isn't so much even the intrinsic value of the gold, or even its beauty, which impresses me, but simply the fact that at some point, that someone thought that the creation of this object was important enough to spend so much making it, when its value probably outweighed the entirety of a wealthy household’s possessions in its time. Whether it's a reliquary or a crown for a king, the consolidation of so much precious material conveys a very significant cultural importance, and one that does command a kind of reverence -- and I think that this is where we can draw a connection to the reverence felt in the presence of the Silmarils.

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