One of the most appealing things about the fiction of J.R.R. Tolkien is the sense that just about everything in his imagined world has a story, even if you never hear it. Tolkien himself wrote out many of those stories over the course of his Middle-earth saga, weaving together genealogies, history, and magical artifacts into a millennia-long history that made something like The Lord Of The Rings: The Rings Of Power possible.
But The Rings Of Power is not entirely dependent on Tolkien’s writing. The show also gets a great deal of mileage out of what the legendary author didn’t say, dancing between the raindrops of his fiction and his notes to weave more story where Tolkien left blank pages. We’ve seen that a lot over the course of Rings Of Power’s first season, but it’s arguably nowhere more apparent than in the mysterious substance known as mithril.
Introduced in The Lord Of The Rings as an impossibly light and impossibly hard metal that could be made into various objects, like Bilbo’s chainmail shirt, mithril initially appears as little more than a really cool substance, like a magical combination of steel and silver. Eventually, Tolkien reveals that the metal was considered so precious and valuable that it eventually brought about the downfall of the dwarves of Moria, as they dug too deep into the mountain and awakened a Balrog, ending the kingdom of Khazad-dûm as the world knew it.
Tolkien also revealed along the way, though, that mithril was a key point in the relationship between the dwarves of Moria and the elves of Eregion (home of Celebrimbor the great Elven smith), a major jumping off point for the show’s entire first season. Through Elrond (Robert Aramayo), the series takes us deep into the inner workings of Khazad-dûm, where Durin IV (Owain Arthur) has discovered the beauty and allure of mithril and wants to mine it, even as his father Durin III (Peter Mullan) resists risking dwarven lives to keep digging.
Things got more complicated earlier this season when Elven King Gil-galad (Benjamin Walker) revealed to Elrond that mithril was not just valuable, but possibly essential to the survival of the Elves. The magical light, which gives the Elves their immortality and was birthed in Valinor itself, is diminishing, and mithril might be the only thing capable of restoring the light and keeping the race alive. That is, if the dwarves are willing to part with some of it.
This is an incredibly important development to The Rings of Power and to the course of the Second Age of Middle-earth. Tolkien didn’t expound all that much on mithril beyond its properties as a precious metal valued by just about everyone in Middle-earth, but certain key pieces of information in his world-building do establish a precedent for the show to build upon.
For one thing, Tolkien was clear on the connection between mithril and Eregion (the magical mithril moon doors that Gandalf opens in The Fellowship Of The Ring were made by Celebrimbor), giving the show a launch pad for its entire Elrond/Durin storyline. For another, one of the Three Elven Rings which make up part of the show’s namesake—Nenya, traditionally worn by Galadriel—is made of mithril, so the show is helping lay the groundwork for the importance of the Three Rings (made separate from the others and therefore somewhat distinct from the ones Sauron made, which is another story) in the battles to come between the Elves and the forces of the shadows. Then, of course, there’s the eventual fall of Khazad-dûm, something teased by the Balrog reveal at the end of episode seven.
Where The Rings Of Power is willing to go deeper, of course, is in drawing a direct line between mithril and the survival of Elves in Middle-earth. We know that by the Third Age, the elves are diminishing and leaving the continent in large numbers, and by the end of The Return Of The King, the race of men has supplanted them as the dominant people in Middle-earth, but the mithril connection adds a new sense of urgency to that slow, centuries-long decline.
It puts Gil-galad’s back to the wall at a time when he’s already dealing with re-emerging darkness in Middle-earth, and it adds weight to the struggles of the elves who choose to remain behind rather than sail off to Valinor. It’s a fight on two fronts, and it’s clear that the elves are willing to push for their survival even if it means losing some friends along the way.
But there’s another wrinkle to this story, one Durin III alludes to when he mentions the decline of the Elves like it’s been fated, like it was always part of some larger plan in the minds of beings greater than himself. There’s precedent in Tolkien for that line of thinking, too, and it’s called the Doom of the Noldor.
Originally laid out in The Silmarillion, the “Doom” is a prophecy handed down by the Valar known as Mandos on the Noldorin elves (most of the elves who moved to Middle-earth are from the Noldorin line) after their leader, Fëanor (Galadriel’s uncle) went so far as to kill elves from other tribes in his pursuit of defeating Morgoth and reclaiming his precious Silmaril gems.
As we’ve already talked about in exploring Galadriel’s parentage, Fëanor’s actions caused a lot of problems in the lead-up to the War of Wrath, and the war itself claimed the lives of many of those loyal to him. That seemed to settle the Doom of the Noldor question, particularly when many Noldor sailed back to Valinor, but then there are those elves, led by Gil-galad, who stayed behind. Does the Doom still hold sway over them? Is that why they’re diminishing?
If it is, or if the show is exploring some other version of the grand vision the Valar have for the future of Middle-earth, it would seem that on some level Gil-galad’s ambitions for mithril come, in a way, in defiance of the gods themselves. That raises a whole host of other questions about the battle to come, a battle we already know will bring major losses for the Elves and will eventually lead to their mass departure into the West.
In the short-term, though, introducing mithril as a potential superweapon and lifesaving elixir for the elves adds a new layer of urgency to their story in Middle-earth. They’re no longer the eternal overseers of the continent, the distant observers who only reach out to others when absolutely necessary and otherwise dwell in their havens of light and nature. This is a fight for survival on a level that even Sauron can’t reach, an existential threat at the heart of everything they are. That’s a big deal for the elves, a big deal for the dwarves, and a big deal for the entire lifespan of The Rings Of Power.