Spoiler Alert

The Lord of the Rings fans know both the value and danger of mithril. That beautiful, elusive silver— lighter yet stronger than any other metal—will one day keep Frodo safe. Yet it’s also destined to cost dwarves their home in Khazad-dûm. Greed will push them to dig too deep, unleashing a balrog, and much of their sacred mithril will end up in Sauron’s hands. But The Rings of Power‘s fifth episode added its own lore to the story of mithril. And that history explains why it might be the only thing that can save both elves and all of Middle-earth.

Mithril’s Rings of Power Origin Story

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J.R.R. Tolkien never provided an official history of where mithril comes from. But The Rings of Power‘s “Partings” gave that special silver a backstory that traces its origins to the very beginning of the world and its creator.

King Gil-galad had Elrond tell the obscure, possibly apocryphal legend known as “The Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir.” The tale says long ago, high amid the peaks of the Misty Mountains where Khazad-dûm stands, an elven warrior pure of heart once battled with a balrog of Morgoth over a tree.

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The Rings of Power has already shown how elves value trees and the forces of evil do not. But this tree was far more important, for some believe it contained the last of the lost Silmarils.

What Is a Silmaril?

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Galadriel knew the world before the sun ever rose. But it wasn’t a land of darkness. It’s light came from the Two Trees of Valinor, both of which the evil Morgoth destroyed. Before he did, though, the great elf craftsman Fëanor made three Silmarils with the light of the trees. Those priceless jewels of unmatched beauty helped lead many elves to abandon the land of the gods after Morgoth stole them. The Silmarils were among the primary causes of the centuries long conflict of Middle-earth’s First Age, which ended with the War of Wrath.

One Silmaril ended up back with the Valar who placed it in the sky as a star. One ended up deep in a chasm of Middle-earth. And the other was tossed into the sea. But “The Song of the Roots of Hithaeglir” says at some point during the First Age one of the silmarils ended up inside a tree atop the Misty Mountains. And it is the source of all mithril in the Misty Mountains.

Lightning Forges the Power of Light and Darkness Together

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That legendary battle saw the noble elven warrior “pour all his light into the tree” to protect it. Just as the balrog “channeled all his hate into the tree to destroy it.” Then, amid their unending duel of good and evil, lightning struck the tree. (A strike that very well might have come from the Valar, or even the supreme deity, Ilúvatar.) The result was the forging of a power that seeped down into the very depths of the mountain.

Gil-galad said the metal, which Elrond named mithril, is as “pure in light as good” as it is “strong and unyielding as evil.” All of which fits with what we know about mithril, which is both priceless and dangerous, same as the Silmaril from which it comes from.

And that’s why the elves want it so badly now that darkness is threatening the very light that gives them eternal life.

What Does the Decay of the Elven Tree at Lindon Mean?

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Elves are ageless. They can die, but not from natural causes or disease like men. Once elves reach a certain stage of adulthood they remain in that form forever. But now a great tree of Lindon where Gil-galad rules from has shown every elf in Middle-earth is at risk.

The tree has begun to decay. Gil-galad thought he could stop the spreading rot by sending Galadriel and the “last vestiges of war” away, but that only quickened the tree’s demise. (Maybe that’s a sign not to ignore evil, your grace?)

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Gil-galad and his closest advisors believe the tree is a sign of a coming catastrophe. Darkness is not only returning to Middle-earth, it’s threatening to make elves very existence. If Gil-galad’s fears are right, though, there’s reason to think mithril could not only save elves, but everyone on Middle-earth.

The Fading Light of the Valinor

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Just like the Two Trees and the Silmarils, mithril possesses the Light of Valinor, the land where elves can return to live for eternity with the Valar. Mithril is the physical manifestation of the very thing that makes elves ageless and wise. The rotting tree is merely the “outer manifestation of an inner reality” that the light of the elves—the Light of the Valinor—is fading within them.

If they can adorn themselves in mithril they might stem the decay that will soon overtake them. Without that special silver, Gil-galad believes elves’ “immortal souls will diminish into nothing” until they are “but shadows swept away by tides of time, forever.” And he says their demise will happen as soon as spring.

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To avoid an eternity of nothing they’ll have to abandon Middle-earth entirely and return to Valinor. But if they do, they will doom Middle-earth to darkness. Men and dwarves cannot stop Sauron without the help of the elves. Mithril might not only be the elves only hope to stay and fight without destroying themselves, it might be the hope of everyone.

The Future of Mithril and Elves

We don’t know if Gil-galad (who has already shown questionable judgment) and Celebrimbor are right about what mithril can do for elves. Although in the seventh episode of The Rings of Power, we see mithril heal the damaged leaf of the tree of Lindon when the two come into proximity.

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We do know though that the future of their race—which involves an estrangement from dwarves—is tied to the metal, for both good and bad. Celebrimbor will soon forge three rings of power for elves and one will be made of mithril. That ring is known as Nenya, the Ring of Water/Adamant.

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Galadriel herself will wear it. And she will have it on when Frodo and the Fellowship of the Ring come to her, a meeting that will mark the beginning of the end of elves time on Middle-earth. When Galadriel helps Frodo she will do so knowing that the destruction of the One Ring will cause the beauty of the elves—the beauty of the light of Valinor—to fade on Middle-earth.

But The Rings of Power has shown that fate was likely unavoidable. Mithril was a power forged from both good and evil. As soon as elves turned to it for help it came with a great cost. Because mithril takes just as much as it gives.

Originally published on September 22, 2022.

Mikey Walsh is a staff writer at Nerdist. You can follow him on Twitter at  @burgermike. And also anywhere someone is ranking the Targaryen kings.