What’s that got to do with the price of mithril in Eregion?


Back in Rivendell, Bilbo gave Frodo his coat of mail, the one that had been given to him by Thorin in The Hobbit. It proves to be a prescient gift, as it saves the Ring-bearer’s life at least twice. Frodo wears it hidden under his outer-clothes, and no one else knows he has it on his back until after they emerge from Moria.


While deep in the halls of Moria, Sam asks Gandalf what inspired the dwarves to brave the dangers and attempt to re-establish a kingdom here. “For mithril,” Gandalf replies, explaining that “here alone in the world was found Moria-silver, or true-silver as some have called it. Mithril is the Elvish name. The Dwarves have a name which they do not tell. Its worth was ten times that of gold, and now it is beyond price; for little is left above ground …” He goes on,

“Bilbo had a corslet of mithril-rings that Thorin gave him. I wonder what has become of it? Gathering dust still in Michel Delving Mathom-House, I suppose.”

“What?” cried Gimli, startled out of his silence. “A corslet of Moria-silver? That was a kingly gift!”

“Yes,” said Gandalf. “I never told him, but its worth was greater than the value of the whole Shire and everything in it.”

Frodo said nothing, but he put his hand under his tunic and touched the rings of his mail-shirt. He felt staggered to think that he had been walking about him with the price of the Shire under his jacket. Had Bilbo known? He felt no doubt that Bilbo knew quite well.

This moment is a rare glimpse into exchange-value in Middle-earth. A single mail-shirt worth as much of the entirety of the Shire? In practical terms, that seems fair—but only in retrospect, insofar as it saves Frodo’s life and thus prevents the Fellowship’s mission from falling into catastrophe. In that respect, the mithril-coat is worth the entirety of Middle-earth.

Wealth and poverty appear in The Lord of the Rings, but only obliquely. At no point is money ever a concern for any of the characters. Indeed, I am hard-pressed to think of any point after the hobbits leave Bree when anyone is shown selling or purchasing goods or services. Not that there are many opportunities: as mentioned here before, Tolkien’s Middle-earth is predominantly large swathes of wilderness dotted with towns and cities that are few and far between. Even so, money plays at best a miniscule role in Tolkien’s narrative furniture.


Smaug and his hoard, as it appeared on my first copy of The Hobbit.

The same, oddly, cannot be said about wealth. As with The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit does not show money as being anything problematic or significant, even though it is strongly suggested that their years in exile have impoverished Thorin’s people. But wealth—vast, huge, stupefying wealth—is the novel’s principal motivating force. Yes, Thorin &co. want to reestablish themselves as the rightful rulers of Erebor, and yes, they were manipulated into the quest by Gandalf, who wanted the dragon dispensed with; but the narrative also possesses an unpleasant undercurrent of avarice, the desire for the dragon’s enormous hoard. In his book There and Back Again, an excellent study of the writing of The Hobbit, Mark Atherton points to Tolkien’s earlier fascination with myths and legends of dragon-hoards, in particular Beowulf’s battle with a dragon, and the story of Sigurd and the dragon Fafnir. In both cases, the allure of the dragon-hoard is a key motivating factor, and one which leads to a hero’s doom (Beowulf in the first instance, and Fafnir himself in the second, who was a man transformed into a dragon by his gold-lust).


Smaug’s hoard as depicted in the film.

Indeed, the dwarves’ song in Bilbo’s parlour at the very start of the novel—the song that wakes something “Tookish” in the hobbit—has little to do with birthright and kingdoms, and much to do with reclaiming the wealth stolen by the dragon. It’s worth watching the scene from the film, as it’s one of the few things Peter Jackson has gotten exactly right this time around:

There’s a small but significant change in the lyrics: the last line of the first verse in the novel is not “To find our long-forgotten gold,” but “To seek the pale enchanted gold.” Enchanted is the key word here, establishing as it does the sense of their lost gold as possessing magic of its own—the power to enthrall and entrap. The first half of the dwarves’ song is indeed preoccupied not with the mountain or the dwarves’ usurpation, but with the varieties of treasure shaped by the dwarven hands:

For ancient king and elvish lord
There many a gleaming golden hoard
They shaped and wrought, and light they caught
To hide in gems on hilt of sword.

On silver necklaces they strung
The flowering stars, on crowns they hung
The dragon-fire, in twisted wire
They meshed the light of moon and sun.

Goblets they carved there for themselves
And harps of gold; where no man delves
There lay they long, and many a song
Was sung unheard by men or elves.

And the song has an infectious quality, for “As they sang the hobbit felt the love of beautiful things made by hands and by cunning and by magic moving through him, a fierce and jealous love, the desire in the hearts of the dwarves.” Though this gold-lust is framed as somehow congenital to dwarves—we learn later that Elrond “did not altogether approve of dwarves and their love of gold,” for example—it is not specific to them, as even the Elvenking of Mirkwood is enthralled by the wealth of Erebor. The people of Laketown fete Bilbo and the dwarves outrageously, principally because they succumb to the fantasy of excessive wealth. And in a crucial moment, when Bilbo beholds Smaug’s hoard, he is enraptured:

Bilbo had heard tell and sing of dragon-hoards before, but the splendour, the lust, the glory of such treasure had never yet come home to him. His heart was filled and pierced with enchantment and with the desire of dwarves; and he gazed motionless, almost forgetting the frightful guardian, at the gold beyond price and count.

The physical scope and scale of such wealth is dramatically reduced in The Lord of the Rings, while the actual value of specific items grows by a magnitude. The staggering value of Frodo’s mithril-coat is itself vastly exceeded by the Ring. Which is a fact that makes The Lord of the Rings quite unusual in the tradition of quest-romance, as the entire point is not the acquisition of wealth and power, but its destruction. As the dwarves’ song and Bilbo’s reaction to it makes clear, wealth and value are closely tied to beauty—there’s no such thing as “filthy lucre” in Middle-earth, but that doesn’t mean that wealth is not a corrupting power. The gold-lust on display in The Hobbit is a foretaste of the Ring’s addicting nature. And though the Ring itself afflicts with ugliness, its destruction will lead to the diminution of the beauty in the world wrought by the Three Elven-Rings, as Elrond predicts: “maybe when the One has gone,” he says, “the Three will fail, and many fair things will fade and be forgotten. That is my belief.”

I’d argue that Tolkien’s treatment of wealth and value in both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings is crucial to understanding how Tolkien depicts the nature of power. Wealth is not portrayed as a means to an end. It is barely portrayed as an end in itself: it mostly just is, and as such is conflated with power. As George W. Bush is supposed to have said of the French, the people of Middle-earth have no word for “entrepreneur.” (Not entirely true, as such a man as Barliman Butterbur obviously runs his inn for the purpose of profit, but he is very much the exception to the Middle-earth rule. Presumably a more careful consideration of such places as Minas Tirith would show a more actively market-based society, but Tolkien does not oblige us on this front). Money and its acquisition, accrual, and deployment play no role in Tolkien’s world—which parallels the acquisition and accrual of power. The Ring, as Gandalf tells Frodo, grants its user power commensurate to his or her abilities. Hence, Frodo could not expect to become anything more than a second Gollum; Aragorn or Boromir would become great leaders and warriors, but little more; whereas Gandalf, Galadriel, Saruman, or anyone already possessing great power would become a new Dark Lord.

Such rigid stratifications are not surprising: Tolkien’s Catholicism, after all, provides a template for divine versus temporal power. In his essay “On Fairy-Stories,” he makes a telling distinction between the “right to power” and the “possession” of power. The former is divinity, and is “the due of worship.” “Possession” is delineated here as the lesser of the two; though he does not expand on this distinction, the suggestion is that one “possesses” power in the same manner as one earns wages, whereas the “right” to power is akin to inherited wealth, especially as it functioned in feudal contexts. Power, in other words, is a transcendent principle.

It is in the shift from Tolkien’s depiction of power as innate and immutable—destroyable but not transferable—to a more fluid and indeed Foucauldian model that underwrites my argument that much contemporary fantasy articulates a specifically humanistic world view. To this end, it is worth contrasting the lack of monetary concerns in Tolkien’s world with George R.R. Martin’s veritable preoccupation with money in A Song of Ice and Fire (second only to his preoccupation with food). The economics of Westeros comprise a crucial and persistent trope: “a Lannister always pays his debts” is the unofficial motto of the most powerful house, but it also points to the fact that debts, both financial and symbolic, pervade the narrative. The cost of things—be those things swords, food, or loyalty—is always at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and “the wealth of nations” determines their power, status, and geopolitical influence. To put it another way, power in Martin’s world is essentially fluid—or, to put it yet another way, and paraphrase Omar Little, money in Westeros doesn’t have owners … just spenders. There’s a reason why the Tumblr page A Song of Ice and The Wire, in which stills from Game of Thrones are captioned with lines from The Wire and vice versa, is so uncannily apt:



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Filed under course readings, Return to Middle-Earth

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