Mar 7 2021, 5:33pm
Your question got me thinking about the place of mithril as a substance, or ‘matter’, in the fabric of Arda. In the “Myths Transformed” essay in Morgoth’s Ring, JRRT writes of the ‘Melkor ingredient’ forcibly infused in all the physical matter in Arda, outside of Aman. JRRT uses gold and silver to help illustrate the point, with gold being particularly heavily laden with what he calls the “Morgoth-element”. In practice, this means that gold has a specifically “evil trend”, which was a “prerequisite for such ‘magic’ and other evils as Sauron practised with it and upon it” – the link with the base metal used in the forging of most of the Rings of Power being clear. Silver, on the other hand, is said to not include that “evil trend” and thereby is relatively ‘clean’, as I would put it in this context – albeit still subject to the same dissemination of the Melkor ingredient.
mithril as a (relatively) untainted substance in Arda
Taking this typology and cross-applying it to mithril silver, it is perhaps not then surprising to see this metal applied in more positive contexts. Yes, it still inspired greed, eg. the unhealthy obsessions of the Númenórean king Tar-Telemmaitë (more about him below) or the Dwarves of Moria delving “too greedily and too deep”. However, we also get application in protection and warding, eg. Bilbo’s mithril coat; and in relatively positive ‘magic’, eg. the base metal for Nenya, the Ring of Water, one of the three Rings of Power forged by and for the Elves. I use the word ‘relatively’ in deliberate fashion, as JRRT makes clear that even the Three Rings were crafted in hubris. And finally, linking up with the “Song of Eärendil”, as written by Bilbo and ‘polished’ by Aragorn, Eärendil’s ship Vingilótë is described as being built of “mithril and of elven glass”. It doesn’t get any holier, sacred or selfless than Eärendil’s voyage West. Figurative, perhaps, in its context, but also fitting well with what was done with Vingilótë after the Voyage of Eärendil, when it was “hallowed” by the Valar, before setting it to sail the skies. It’s possible that the reconstruction and hallowing of Vingilótë may have used mithril sourced in Aman, and therefore was free of the Melkor taint. Or Vingilótë original construction was where the mithril was first introduced, and therefore featured the ‘tainted’ version of the metal found in Middle-earth. Either way, mithril is being used in a sacral, fundamentally ‘good’ sense.
For the completionists: a quick sweep of the source material throws up a few additional references. Not least that CT notes in the footnotes of the “Disaster of the Gladden Fields” (Unfinished Tales) that JRRT contradicted his own world-building (for a change!) by saying that mithril was found in Númenor, alongside the classic Gandalf-in-Moria quote saying that it was only found in Moria.
The aptly-named 15th king of Númenor, Tar-Telemmaitë (Q: ‘Silver-handed’), was so obsessed with silvery stuff “he bade his servants to seek ever for mithril” ("The Line of Elros", Unfinished Tales). Even if this is taken in the context of Númenor having mithril mines of its own, there’s a hint that Tar-Telemmaitë’s minions may have had some kind of contact with the Dwarves in the Second Age, millennia before Durin’s Folk sorted out a mithril-inlaid gate for that later Númenórean scion, Elessar.
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