“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.
– JRR Tolkien, Fellowship of the Ring
Where to start with mithril? Let’s get the daily digression out of the way at the beginning: the term mithril is used widely in fantasy (literature, gaming, cinematography), all stemming from Tolkien. I’m not sure of the exact legal footing of all of this, but supposedly the term was not trademarked by the Tolkien Estate, which means that pretty much anyone can use it with impunity, apparently. Certainly there was a brand called Mithril Miniatures, which you wouldn’t have thought they could have got away with. Perhaps if the Estate had been more litigious in the early days, as modern authors are wont to be, then it would not be such a generic term of magical metal today. In any case, back to the main feature…
Mithril (a portmanteau of the sindarin words for ‘glittery’ and ‘grey’, as translated by Tolkien) is a light metal, apparently relatively easy to work with, but rare even when the Mines of Moria weren’t infested with Orcs and a Balrog. Armour and weapons made from mithril were incredibly tough, prized as heirlooms: Gimli calls Bilbo’s coat a ‘kingly gift’ and thinks that Gandalf’s estimate that it was more costly than the whole Shire and everything in it is an underestimate.
There is some speculation that Tolkien had certain metals in mind when he talked of mithril, with the most obvious contender being titanium. Other contenders just aren’t as light, or as tough, although arguably are rarer and more costly (value, like beauty, being in the eye of the beholder). The argument goes that Tolkien was a learned man, a scholar, which is certainly true, and therefore would have been aware of these metals and minerals. I’m not so sure. There is very little in the writings of the great man, and for someone who made copious notes, this would appear to be something of an oversight. Further, this is someone who was profoundly influenced by myths and legends, languages and the arts. A counterargument might be that by the nature of being an Oxford Don, and to some extent from his experience in the First World War, which we know shaped his thinking, he might be expected to have a good, broad general knowledge, which might encompass at least some metallurgy. If we allow Tolkien knowledge of titanium, how much did he understand of its extraction? This is a difficult metal to extract, requiring either a chemically intense process, or a great deal of energy – more than could be achieved through the kinds of forges used for iron and steel.
Interestingly, mithril appears to be used in the context of the pure metal as well as in terms of alloys. In modern metallurgy there are particular ways of denoting alloying formulations, e.g. Ti6Al4V (i.e. Titanium with 6 % Vanadium, usually referred to by those ‘in the business’ as Titanium 6-4), although it is not uncommon to come across specific names for certain alloys, e.g. duralumin. But there is no sense of that in Tolkien’s writings, with the possible exception of ‘ithildin’ the mithril (metal) based alloy that is used for various magical items including the message and design chased into the doors of the Mines of Moria (“Say ‘Friend’ and enter”), and perhaps the moon-script on Thorin Oakenshield’s Map. Again this perhaps gives us some indications of his expertise in certain areas – he is aware of alloys, but doesn’t go into the kind of detail that he is accustomed to giving elsewhere about how such alloys are formed.
What is also worth noting is that the abilities of Bilbo’s shirt to protect against the full force of a murderous orc are not simply due to the hardness of the alloyed mithril. Dwarves are known to be skilful, and the description of the shirt being as supple as the finest linen really goes to demonstrate this. If it had been the master-craftsman’s dear white-bearded old grandmother who’d knitted the chainmail shirt out of mithril thread, it could hardly have been finer. Each individual link must be tiny, and each link must be shaped and sealed or welded so as to fit to all the adjacent links. When the blow falls, not only does it stop the penetration of the blow, but spreads the energy over a larger area.
Which all leads to hardly a dent on that Hobbit…