35

While reading descriptions of mithril in The Lord of the Rings, it struck me that its properties might well correspond to a real material, possibly as an alloy with other metals. Is there such a real-world substance?

closed as off-topic by Skooba, KharoBangdo, Valorum, Vanguard3000, Jenayah Mar 14 at 13:00

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

  • 12
    Unobtanium, obviously. – Jeff May 26 '11 at 17:40
  • 1
    gizmodo.com/5824510/… – PearsonArtPhoto Aug 11 '11 at 14:08
  • 3
    From an attempted edit on an answer to a duplicate question: “Most likely, Tolkien was thinking of the new metal that was being used for some of its first applications in WWII. This is Titanium. Titanium, at his time, was heralded as a miracle metal. 60% the weight of steel, polishes to a mirror finish and never tarnishes. It is found in ores that have to be forged as mentioned in his books. Titanium would have come very close, if not an exact fit, to Tolkien's idea of Mithril being that it was quite glorified in his time.” – Molag Bal May 19 '16 at 3:18

10 Answers 10

42

The problem with Mithril as chain mail is not ductility. Even if each link perfectly holds its shape, when a cave troll puts his bulk behind a spear, you have a spearhead-shaped piece of Mithril piercing your chest cavity nearly as deeply as the spearhead would have. Effectively, you have reduced the sharpness of the edge, but the pounds per square inch have not been reduced sufficiently to withstand the mass of a pissed-off cave troll and convert a potential puncture into a mere bruise. Frodo should at least have had broken ribs and crushed organs; squished like a bug. More likely, he'd have had a deep wound with Mithril chain mail stuffed into it.

The problem is the weave. Nothing is both flexible enough to behave as seen in the movie when held up and examined, yet stiff enough to distribute impact over a wide area, which is what armor does. Armor also diffuses kinetic energy through inertia, if it is heavy, but Mithril is light, so it offers none of that protection.

No, the whole point of Mithril is that it is magical. It has physical properties that are impossible in a non-magical world. Carbon fiber or titanium alloys may be light and strong, but weave them into chain mail and you'll still be plenty hurt if skewered with a high-mass spearhead. Nobody mentioned kevlar. In woven form, it's bullet-proof reputation is exaggerated. It doesn't tear, but it also doesn't protect all that well. Plate armor is better, but less flexible and more bulky.

Plate armor has the problem of penetration between the plates, but a hybrid of chain-mail or woven kevlar protecting the inter-plate areas could be effective, though not exactly as light or thin as Egyptian cotton.

  • 2
    look at modern tactical vests (e.g. Interceptors). They address precisely that problem – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 26 '11 at 14:24
  • 4
    SO all they would have had to do is add in some ooblick? ;-) (Ooblick is a mixture of cornstarch and water that has very unusual properties. You can slowly press your finger into a bowl of it with no resistance, but if you attempt to stab your finger into it, the substance appears to instantly harden and you finger only makes a dent.) – Wayne May 26 '11 at 15:14
  • 12
    @Wayne is alluding to the potential use of nonNewtonian fluids, which can become stiff at high strain rates. The personal shields in Dune worked kindof like a nonNewtonian fluid, stopping a high velocity blow but letting a slow blade through. – Omega Centauri May 26 '11 at 16:37
  • 1
    @OmegaCentauri: How about piezoelectric fibers? Along with possibly a structure that combines elastic materials with other materials that are inelastic but normally slack? I would think such a thing could be flexible under conditions of normal use as a garment, and yet be quite rigid when deflected in ways that a garment should not be. – supercat Aug 28 '14 at 2:15
  • 12
    In the book Frodo is not stabbed by a troll, but by an Orc. And under the mithril coat, he is wearing a shirt of 'soft leather.' Entirely plausible, especially since he isn't uninjured: he was very badly bruised, had difficulty breathing, and the mithril rings had indeed been driven through the shirt into Frodo's flesh. Don't need to think about it too much, just discount the movie portrayal of mithril. :) – Shamshiel Dec 11 '15 at 1:47
24

Given the description of mithril's properties:

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.

I'd say its nearest real world analog is some kind of titanium alloy.

  • except that titanium alloys are rather hard to work, and can be extremely brittle depending on the desired tensile strength so using them for impact armour (which they'd need to do to make plate or chain armour to wear) wouldn't be such a good idea. – jwenting May 26 '11 at 12:39
  • 12
    Interesting that this states that the Dwarves could make of it a metal, which suggests that mithril itself is not actually a metal. – JSBձոգչ May 26 '11 at 13:21
  • 7
    I assumed that mithril was a relatively malleable metal, but that the metal made from it which was used for armor, etc, would be an alloy. Aluminum might be a better fit than titanium, since it's workable in pure form, but can be used to create alloys that are lightweight & extremely tough. – Toby May 26 '11 at 18:39
  • @jwenting - interesting. I'm pretty sure the Soviets Navy used a titanium alloy for submarine pressure hulls once - but I guess it all depends on the specific makeup of the alloy for the properties. – HorusKol May 27 '11 at 1:03
  • 1
    They did use it for at least 2 classes, possibly 3. The ill-fated "Mike" (which sank for reasons unknown, speculated is hull failure at depth), and the equally troublesome "Alpha" class (which suffered from many problems with its liquid sodium reactors). These ships were very hard to build, they never achieved the production speed intended. (names are of course the NATO reporting names, I don't know the Soviet names for the classes, just know it's not "Akula" which just means shark in Russian and is a generic name for a submarine for them). – jwenting May 30 '11 at 5:17
14
  1. First, a wonderful in-depth article by someone calling himself "Olog-hai": The Science of Middle-earth -- Making Mithril - provides two plausible alternatives:

    • An intermetallic compound called "yttrium silver", or an alloy of such.

      This seems to be a pretty well-founded theory (see the linked article)

    • Nitinol (Nickel titanium intermetallic)


  2. Second, a slightly whimsical version:

    As per Yeskov's "The Last Ring-Bearer"'s Epilogue:

    By the way, concerning mithril... There is a total of four such coats of mail in the museums of Arda, but the technology of their manufacture remains a mystery. If you want your metallurgist friend to throw something heavy at your head, ask him about this alloy.

    It’s been analyzed to death: 86% silver, 12% nickel, plus trace amounts of nine rare metals from vanadium to niobium; they can measure these proportions to the ninth digit after the decimal, X-ray its structure, and do a myriad other things, except reproduce it.

    Some say (not without a trace of mockery) that the old masters would supposedly forever invest a fraction of their souls in each batch of mithril, and since today there are no souls, but only the ‘objective reality perceived by our senses,’ by definition we have no chance to obtain real mithril.

    The most recent attempt at a solution had been undertaken by the smart guys at the Arnor Center for High Technologies with a special grant from Angmar Aerospace. It all came to naught: the grantor was presented with a plate of some alloy two millimeters thick (86.12% silver, 11.96% nickel, and so forth) and told that this was real mithril and everything else was just legends. As usual, the smart guys then asked for another grant to study this creation of theirs. Without blinking an eye the boss of the rocket men produced a loaded museum crossbow from under his executive desk, aimed it at the project leader and suggested that he protect himself with his plate – if it holds, you’ll get your money, if it doesn’t, you won’t need it. Unsurprisingly, that was the end of the project. I have no idea whether this actually happened, but those who know the CEO of Angmar Aerospace well insist that the joke would be quite in his taste – not for naught does he trace his lineage from the Witch-king.


  • 2
    I don't think this really answers the question. It's not like mixing the given materials together in real life would result in mithril, or anything like it. – user1027 May 26 '11 at 19:05
  • 2
    @Keen - The author is a serious scientist (geologist IIRC), so I wouldn't put it past him to sneak in some fairly metallurgically-accurate nugget of data in there; being that the premise of writing the whole book for him was "Arda as Tolkien wrote it makes no sense from modern tectonic plate theory POV". Then again - it could have been a gag :) I can try to find his contact info and ask if you're really curious. – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 27 '11 at 2:23
9

Mithril is supposed to be relatively easy to work (at least by beating), and yet extraordinarily hard and resistant to cutting. These are contradictory material properties, so no, there is no existing substance that can match.

  • 1
    are you sure about the contradictory part? While I am ot a material engineer, from my limited knowledge I think it may b possible to have such materials . – apoorv020 May 26 '11 at 3:34
  • 5
    @apoorv020 - For the material to be easy to work, it would have to be very ductile. Unfortunately, very ductile materials ooze out of the way when you stab them. Not good for armor. But since HorusKol has found the proper quote, I grant that perhaps mithril itself was ductile, but the dwarves made an alloy that was not. Somewhat doubtful, but then I did upvote HorusKol's answer as a good guess. – Rex Kerr May 26 '11 at 5:47
  • 3
    It could have the property of work-hardening (strain deformation) – WOPR May 26 '11 at 12:30
  • 5
    A material can be easy to work when heated in a forge or in some other conditions and yet be very hard in a normal environmental temperatures. So I don't see it as necessarily being contradictory. – BBlake May 26 '11 at 14:05
  • 1
    @BBlake - I agree, but it specifically said it could be beaten like copper, which can be beaten at room temperature. If it said it could be forged like steel, that would be different. – Rex Kerr May 26 '11 at 14:08
8

It's certainly a metal so the carbon allotropes are out.

Osmium is a possibility. "Osmium possesses quite remarkable chemical and physical properties. It has the highest melting point and the lowest vapor pressure in the platinum family. Osmium has a very low compressibility. Correspondingly, its bulk modulus is extremely high, reported between 395 and 462 GPa, which rivals that of diamond (443 GPa). However, the hardness of osmium is lower than diamond, only 4 GPa.["

It's also the rarest element in the crust, which fits the story.

It's quite brittle though. Possibly an alloy of Osmium and iridium, which is extremely hard and used for things like fountain pen nibs which need to resist high wear.

The only problem is that Osmium is twice as dense as lead. Maybe that's why Frodo was so worn out carrying that mail shirt.

  • Mithril is supposed to be light, though. – Oldcat Aug 27 '14 at 19:51
6

Contrary to the accepted answer, I propose that Mithril is closest to Aluminum.

Tolkien's works are often written in such a way as to create a real world mythological connection; Middle Earth is just our world in the distant past.

In modern times, aluminum and its alloys are used for many industrial purposes due to its light weight -- at 35 to 45% less weight than steel, when built to the same standards, it is considered much stronger per unit weight. It also has a nice silverish gleam when polished and was in use for over a century by the time of Tolkien's writings.

AAC
(source: yimg.com)

It's also important to note that mithril, in the books, doesn't do anything considered magical by today's standards on its own; it is merely stronger and lighter than steel. Frodo is stabbed by an orc, not a troll, and thus his mithril chain shirt, in protecting him, is merely doing what good chainmail does -- and at a much better efficiency than a weaker metal would.

  • It may be stronger per unit weight, but it has to be larger ("around 50% or so larger"). Strength of Aluminum vs Strength of Steel ... "the rigidity of structure (deflection) becomes the limiting design criteria for an aluminum structure, and this forces a higher than necessary overall yield and tensile strength." Size-for-size, aluminum can't even shake a stick at steel's capacity for deflection, yield strength or rigidity. – Mazura Nov 6 '16 at 7:53
3

Other than workability, Graphene seems to match the properties. Graphene is a 2D hexagonal mesh of carbon atoms. It is being actively researched for a number of applications, including electronics.

0

It would have to be some new type of material we have yet to discover or possibly one of the new carbon structures that can be computed.

-1

Sounds more like kevlar to me. Kevlar can be made into fabrics or into something very similar to metal that is very hard. It is used for modern day body armor.

  • Kevlar is definitely wrong by itself. You can't make a chainmail out of it – DVK-on-Ahch-To May 26 '11 at 15:08
  • true, you can do a mesh weave but it would need another material with it to be more metal like. – Justin C May 26 '11 at 15:34
-2

I believe it's real but it must be a mixture of the following elements, Aluminum Gold (in dust form) Silver Zinc Magnesium

Ok I have done much research in this and I have decided this might converge into mithril reason is u mix the silver and aluminum together when melted to form a compact yet slightly weighted material while giving it the great color while the gold dust is sprinkled into the mix to get that glitter effect that mithril needs while adding zink to improve it's durability same with magnesium since the name mithril means "grey glitter" I think it would work although I haven't tried it myself yet this is just a theory by the way.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.