A Journey in the Dark
“The wealth of Moria was not in gold and jewels,” says Gandalf, but instead in the substance whose secret name the Dwarves will never speak: mithril, true-silver, the material of kings. Considering its properties, its value comes as no surprise: malleable and yet impervious, beautiful and yet untarnishable, radiating the light of moon and yet as rare as a fallen star. Elves and dwarves loved it dearly, and all folk desired it, including more foul things. However, it did not take Sauron’s direct influence to manipulate mithril to his ends, for it was the dwarves own desire for the precious substance that led them to delve “too greedily and too deep, and disturbed that from which they fled, Durin’s Bane.”
Precious – another object has been called that before, but not by dwarves. Each race of Middle-earth has its one desire that embodies their frailty and weakness, their common “One Ring.” For the dwarves it is mithril, bringing out their greed. For men it is power, bringing out their folly and fickleness. For the elves it is knowledge, especially that knowledge that would lead them to keep things from fading (especially embodied by the rings of power that they forged), bringing out their pride. The One Ring amplifies each of these longings, which is in part what makes it so tempting to wield. Each material in moderation has its natural beauty and goodness, but each when covetted in excess brings out the worst in created beings. The Ruling Ring simply lays out each desire more starkly.
Ages have passed, and the lands of Middle-earth have been molded beyond recognition, and still there remain deep veins of mithril. These desires allow for great feats and marvels, wonders of great beauty and actions of great benefit for all. Yet each also temptingly leads to folly. The resources and energy of the earth power our communities and raise women and men out of poverty and need, and yet bring out our greed, rousing up ecological disasters that rival the likes of Durin’s Bane. The goods we produce empower men in their abundance, yet such wanton consumerism brings out man’s folly and fickleness, casting aside fellow human beings as unproductive and insignificant garbage. Scientific accomplishments and technological progress, especially the knowledge that would lead us to keep things from fading (embodied perhaps best by the digital domains we craft), allow us to create new worlds in our image. Yet such knowledge brings out our pride, corrupting the very features that ground us in the world and make us human. We are not so different from dwarves and ancient men and elves.
Though such musing often trend toward global considerations, each of us individually too possess mithril, tempting us towards excess. Lent offers the opportunity to think seriously on the mithril in our own lives: the beautiful and good things that in their abundance or unchecked expression lead to our ruin and the ruin of others. We all possess that secret longing or desire that we dare not name too loudly: every man and woman holds in their mind a treasure sought for which we can possibly delve too deep. No mithril, however marvelous, is worth our own destruction.
2015’s Reflection: “On Darkness”