Tolkien’s “Errantry”: Coral and Ivory

He made a shield and morion
of coral and of ivory…

— J. R. R. Tolkien, “Errantry”

Nowadays, we treasure living coral for its beauty and environmental role. We prefer to see ivory where it belongs – as part of living animals, particularly elephants. Artisans still work with precious coral, but ivory usage and trade are restricted in many countries.

People saw things differently back in 1933, when J. R. R. Tolkien wrote Errantry.

This set of coral jewelry, for example, was made for Egypt’s Queen Farida in 1934:

As for ivory, Tolkien was probably familiar many intricate carvings such as this 11th Anglo-Saxon reliquary made from walrus ivory:


So what did Tolkien have in mind for the hero of Errantry?

Shield and morion

A morion is a helmet like those worn by the conquistadors in the New World. They also used rough shields, but I think our poet would have been more influenced by Cellini than Pizarro.


Benvenuto Cellini did excellent work on a ceremonial chased and silver-plated iron morion and shield for the Medici family of Florence.

Ivory could be carved in such a way.

Coral is way too soft to serve as a shield or helmet, but it would look well in place of the golden-colored metal here as adornment.

Another way to image it is as a solid ivory shield with coral decorations, somewhat along the lines of the ivory and gold shield that was found in the 4th century BC tomb of Philip of Macedon.

So here we have it. Our hero, wearing coral and ivory headgear and bearing an ornate shield, is striding along the road, his habergeon a’glitter with quartz crystals. Yes, you heard him coming long before you saw him.

He is wearing his emerald sword in a chalcedony sheath and brandishing javelins of malachite stalactite.

Sure no character born of Tolkien’s imagination – not even Thorin Oakenshield in the last battle – looked grander.

As J. R. R. Tolkien’s stories developed, of course, the Merry Messenger of Errantry evolved into Earendil the Mariner, on whose brow was bound a Silmaril.

Now, there is no real-world equivalent for a Silmaril (an alternate mythology for the planet Venus) or an Arkenstone. These stones all glowed in the absence of any light source.

Too, Arda’s Silmarils were said to be handcrafted artifacts rather than natural. I have no idea what the Arkenstone of The Hobbit was.

However, I did stumble across an interesting coincidence between ivory and The Lord of the Rings. It would take too much time to describe it, so for you Tolkien fans I will just say that this is really and truly an olifant:

Carolus Ludovicus
It is made of ivory, not “a great horn of the wild ox of the East,” but it is “bound with silver” and the imagination could picture it “written with ancient characters.” Image is from Carolus Ludovicus


Front page image of living coral: Marco Busdraghi


  1. Maybe you should do analysis of all treasures mentioned in Tolkien’s writings, and there’s quite a lot actually. Even minor characters in Tolkien writings wear nice jewellery. Gloin in Rivendell:

    “His beard, very long and forked, was white, nearly as white as the snowwhite cloth of his garments. He wore a silver belt, and round his neck hung a chain of silver and diamonds.”
    All the treasures described in the hoard of Smaug in The Hobbit like the “the great golden cup of Thror, two-handed, hammered and carven with birds and flowers whose eyes and petals were of jewels..” and many more. Some nice descriptions of the most beautiful gates ever, among the seven gates of Gondolin was gate of silver and gate of gold (described amazingly in the Unfinished Tales in Of Tuor and his Coming to Gondolin). Lay of Leithian shows interesting descriptions of Menegroth. There’s just so much hehe. There are of course also various special artifacts with long history: ring of Barahir, Elendilmir, crown of Gondor, Nauglamir, sceptre of Annuminas, Elessar the Elfstone, necklace of Girion etc. and even more nameless random pieces of treasure and adornments like the mentioned silver belt and chain of Gloin, riches of Elves, Dwarves and Men and even Hobbits (the most obscure example is this little reference to the hobbit held treasures: “It was widely rumoured that the attendant was Pearl (Pippin’s sister), though the Tooks tried to keep the matter within the family. At the celebration of Ferumbras’ accession the displeasure and regret of the family was formally expressed by the exclusion of Pearl from the ceremony and feast; but it did not escape notice that later (after a decent interval) she appeared in a splendid necklace of her name-jewels that had long lain in the hoard of the Thains.” :)), or something like Aldarion received as a gift from Gil-galad: “When Ulbar’s wife came forward Aldarion took her hand. “Will you receive this of me?” he said. “It is but little return for six years of good man’s aid that you gave me.” Then from a wallet under his tunic he took a jewel red like fire, upon a band of gold, and he pressed it into her hand. “From the King of the Elves it came,” he said. “But he will think it well-bestowed, when I tell him.”.

      • Heheh well there were various theories in fandom about mithril, though I guess in fantasy there must always be some material completely unique in fictional worlds. A precious metal with beauty of silver but never tarnishing, hardness of steel and light weight and rarest of all precious metals, that might be an element not seen on our periodic table 😉 or maybe it’s the case of special forging. Still it was found in Misty Moutnains in lodes beneath Caradhras, and there was supposedly some of it in Aman. In any case, it would be interesting to analyze all Tolkien texts to find all mentions and references regarding precious metals and gemstones or in fact to catalogue all kinds of gems, precious metals most often mentioned are naturally silver and gold.

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