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Mithril is a fictional metal found in the writings of J. R. R. Tolkien, which is present in his Middle-earth, and also appears in many other works of derivative fantasy. It is described as resembling silver but being stronger and lighter than steel. The author first wrote of it in The Lord of the Rings, and it is retrospectively mentioned in the third, revised edition of The Hobbit in 1966. In the first 1937 edition, the mail shirt given to Bilbo Baggins is described as being made of "silvered steel".
Mithril! All folk desired it. It could be beaten like copper, and polished like glass; and the Dwarves could make of it a metal, light and yet harder than tempered steel. Its beauty was like to that of common silver, but the beauty of mithril did not tarnish or grow dim.
The Noldor of Eregion made an alloy out of it called ithildin ("star moon"), which was used to decorate gateways, portals and pathways. It was visible only by starlight or moonlight. The West Gate of Moria bore inlaid ithildin designs and runes. It is implied at one point that the "moon-letters" featured in The Hobbit were also composed of ithildin.
In Tolkien's Middle-earth, mithril is extremely rare by the end of the Third Age, as it was now found only in Khazad-dûm. Once the Balrog destroyed Khazad-dûm, the kingdom of the Dwarves in Moria, the only source of new mithril ore was cut off. Before Moria was abandoned by the Dwarves, while it was still being actively mined, mithril was worth ten times its weight in gold. After the Dwarves abandoned Moria and production of new mithril stopped entirely, it became priceless.
The most notable item made of mithril in the works of Tolkien is the "small shirt of mail" retrieved from the hoard of the dragon Smaug, and given to Bilbo Baggins by Thorin Oakenshield. Gandalf says the value of this mithril-coat was "greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it".
"Also there is this!" said Bilbo, bringing out a parcel which seemed to be rather heavy for its size. He unwound several folds of old cloth, and held up a small shirt of mail. It was close-woven of many rings, as supple almost as linen, cold as ice, and harder than steel. It shone like moonlit silver, and was studded with white gems.
Bilbo wore the mithril shirt during the Battle of the Five Armies,. He donated it to the Mathom-house, a museum in Michel Delving. However he later reclaimed it, and took it with him when he left the Shire for his journey to Rivendell. There, some years later, he gave the shirt to Frodo Baggins when the younger hobbit embarked on his quest in The Lord of The Rings. Frodo wore the mail underneath his tunic and other shirt unbeknownst to the rest of the fellowship. The mail saved Frodo's life when he was hit by a spear thrust from an orc during the battle in the Chamber of Mazarbul, and again when an orc-arrow struck him while escaping Moria. Later, it protected him from another orc-arrow while crossing the River Anduin. In the Lord of the Rings film, Frodo is speared once (wielded by a cave troll) but survives much to the disbelief of the Fellowship. Upon opening his tunic he reveals the mithril mail much to the amazement of Gimli and Aragorn.
When Sam Gamgee believed Frodo to be dead outside Shelob's Lair, he left the shirt with Frodo. Frodo was taken by the orcs, who fought over the shirt. Frodo was saved, but one of the orcs escaped with the shirt. The shirt was, along with Frodo's other possessions, shown to Frodo's allies at the Black Gate to falsely imply that he was captured. Gandalf took the shirt and other tokens, but refused any offer of parley. In the film Return of the King the shirt is presented by the Mouth of Sauron as false evidence that Frodo was killed.
At the end of the story, Frodo wore the shirt at the celebrations and on the trip home. The shirt saved his life one more time when Saruman, who had taken over the Shire, tried to stab Frodo after Frodo had spared his life.
Other mithril objects in Tolkien's writings
Searching through the closets of Orthanc, King Elessar and his aides found the long lost first Elendilmir, a white star of Elvish crystal affixed to a fillet of mithril. Once owned by Elendil, the first King of Arnor, it was an emblem of royalty in the North Kingdom. After Elendil fell in the War of the Last Alliance, his eldest son Isildur ascended to the throne. On his journey back to the northern capital of Arnor, his retinue was ambushed by orcs. Isildur tried to escape by jumping into a river but was killed by arrows. Saruman may have found his body there, and taken the Elendilmir from it. A replica was made, which was used by Isildur's successors up to the re-establishment of the kingdom (reunited with Gondor) by Elessar. He thus used both, using one or the other on certain occasions.
The guards of the citadel of Minas Tirith wear helmets of mithril, "heirlooms from the glory of old days". As a result, the citadel guards are the only soldiers in Gondor that still bear the emblems of the lost kings during the days of the stewards.
Greatest of all, according to legend, was the ship of Eärendil, Vingilótë, which he sailed into the sky, making the gleam of truesilver visible to the world as the Evening and Morning Star. From the Song of Eärendil, written by Bilbo and Aragorn, "A ship then new they built for him of mithril and of elven-glass".
Outside Tolkien's writings
The name "mithril" or similarly spelled variations (mith, mithral, mythril, and others) is present in other fictional contexts influenced by Tolkien. Since 2003, mithril has been the "inspiration and metaphor for the MIThril project", a "next-generation wearables research platform" at MIT. Heavy metal music with expressly fantasy-themed lyrics is sometimes called "heavy mithril". Mithril is also used as a metal tier in the online MMORPG RuneScape and its old school variant.
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1937), Douglas A. Anderson (ed.), The Annotated Hobbit, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 2002), ISBN 0-618-13470-0
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "A Journey in the Dark", ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Unfinished Tales, Part 3, Ch 1, The Disaster of the Gladden Fields: Notes, Note 31
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "Many Meetings", ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1954), The Fellowship of the Ring, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "The Great River", ISBN 0-395-08254-4
- Tolkien, J. R. R. (1955), The Return of the King, The Lord of the Rings, Boston: Houghton Mifflin (published 1987), "The Scouring of the Shire", ISBN 0-395-08256-0
- "mithril | Definition of mithril in English by Oxford Dictionaries". OxfordDictionaries.com. Retrieved 12 April 2019.
- "Frequently Asked Questions". MIThril project. Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Retrieved 19 November 2012.
- Gibbons, William (2018). "Little harmonic labyrinths: baroque musical style on the Nintendo Entertainment System". Recomposing the Past: Representations of Early Music on Stage and Screen. Routledge. Chapter 8. ISBN 978-1-315-26825-5.