Jan 9, 2017

Let's Read Tolkien 28: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony

Bree was the chief village of the Bree-land, a small inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about.

The chapter starts off with several pages of exposition about the Bree-land, made up of four villages nestled on or around the Bree-hill, the chief of which is Bree itself. Hobbits live in Bree, but most of the population is "Men", i.e. humans. We get a brief description of the Men of Bree, and also of the other humans who hang around these parts, the mysterious Rangers, followed by an account of Bree and its famous inn. Bree stands at the crossroads of the East Road and what used to be the North Road but is now the Greenway, on account of having become overgrown, and the inn is a relic of the time when there was much more traffic. Now, only Rangers and dwarves travel on the East Road, apart from the occasional hobbit making the trip between Bree and the Shire, but they all still stop at the inn.

In case you're wondering, Bree and its inn aren't mentioned in the Hobbit, Tolkien presumably not having come up with it yet, but it's hardly a stretch to imagine Bilbo and the dwarves staying there for at least a night. In her Atlas of Middle-earth, the late Karen Wynn Fonstad tried to work out the discrepancies in travel time between Thorin Oakenshield's traveling circus and Frodo & co., where the dwarves seem to have taken absolute ages to get anywhere compared to Frodo and his bunch (pp. 97-101). I'd point out that when Bilbo and the dwarves did their con little song-and-dance routine about dragon-slaying and gold at Lake-town, they got a fortnight's free feasting out of it. If you figure they pulled the same act at Bree, and maybe some version at the Green Dragon too, I'd suggest that easily accounts for most of the discrepancy. As we're about to find out, the bardic talents of Frodo and company are, well, different.

The village of Bree itself is encircled by a ditch and a hedge, the first of which the road crosses on a causeway before being blocked by a gate in the hedge. This is where Frodo and company make their appearance in the lands of men. The gate is shut, but the gatekeeper is still on duty; he comes over to let the hobbits in, and subjects them to a bit of an interrogation. Frodo identifies himself as "Mr. Underhill", but is distinctly cagey about why they're there. I can't help thinking that some kind of cover story would really have been a good idea, but then again, these are young gentlehobbits on an adventure, so what can you expect? After the hobbits move on, a dark figure slips over the gate behind them.

Entering Bree, the hobbits, Sam especially, are somewhat intimidated by the tall buildings. Having always thought of Bree as very, well, rustic, I was a little surprised to find that it's described as consisting of a hundred stone houses. No wonder Sam finds it all a bit foreign! The door to the inn is open; apparently they don't have many nocturnal insects in Bree because to me, that feels like a properly bad idea. However, there's a sign with a fat pony and the words "The Prancing Pony" written on it, and light and song inside, so clearly the hobbits have found what they were looking for (for once!).

Inside, they encounter a comical fat innkeeper, Barliman Butterbur - a very sensible name for an innkeeper - and his comical hobbit assistants Nob and Bob, amidst the hustle and bustle of their trade. He leads the hobbits into a parlour where they refresh themselves and eat, and invites them to join the company in the common-room. Frodo, Sam and Pippin decide to do just that. In what seems to be a startling anachronism that would be more at home in the Hobbit, Merry reminds them to "mind your Ps and Qs". It turns out that the phrase might not be as anachronistic as I'd thought, but it's still a little jarring; if Tolkien had some opinion on its origins, I don't think it's been preserved for posterity. However it's phrased, though, it's sound advice: the last thing Frodo and company want to do right now is cause a commotion. Unfortunately, you must know by now what that means will happen next.

Frodo and company make their way to the common-room, where they're enthusiastically welcomed by the Bree-folk. Pressed for some reason why he's there, Frodo comes up with the notion that he's writing a book about hobbits, and is especially interested in the hobbits of Bree. This leads to an avalanche of anecdotes from the Bree-hobbits, but when Frodo fails to actually start writing a book on the spot, they return to swapping news, mostly with Sam and Pippin, who are soon right at home in the crowd.

Apart from the merry hobbits, the common-room is populated by men and dwarves, talking about unrest to the east and south and people on the move. One particularly strange-looking man catches Frodo's eye; Barliman Butterbur identifies him as a wandering ranger known as Strider. Strider waves Frodo over, and warns him about his friends: Sam and Pippin are perhaps beginning to feel a little too much at home, and in fact, Pippin is already telling the story of Bilbo's last birthday-party and disappearance - not exactly a story Frodo is keen to have people reminded of there and then. Strider prods Frodo to do something.

On its own merits, this isn't necessarily a bad idea, but the problem is that the intervention is going to be carried out by Frodo Baggins. He jumps on a table and starts improvising a speech, which not unreasonably gives his audience the impression that he's had far too much to drink. He does succeed in ruining Pippin's story, and when the crowd starts calling for a song, Frodo sings them a silly song Bilbo had written about the Man in the Moon getting drunk at an inn. Intensely uncomfortable at first, Frodo fingers the Ring in his pocket, quite understandably wanting to disappear, but the song is well received and he starts feeling good about his bardic acumen. During the encore, he punctuates the bit where the cow jumps over the moon with a leap of his own, loses his footing - and accidentally puts the Ring on.

The merriment is cut short as the crowd is shocked by the disappearing hobbit. Sam and Pippin are shunned as the disreputable companions of some kind of travelling warlock, and while several locals loudly complain to Butterbur, some others including the gatekeeper slip outside. Frodo, feeling like an idiot, crawls back to the dark corner where Strider was sitting, and takes off the Ring. Strider chastizes him, and calling him Baggins rather than Underhill, suggests they might have a word later. Frodo agrees, and tries to dispel some of the remaining crowd's suspicions by reappearing, claiming he'd simply tumbled under a table or something. This is given the credence it deserves, and the crowd breaks up in a huff. Frodo gets a talking to from Butterbur as well, who also wants to talk to him. The chapter closes with Frodo having made one hell of a commotion and a fool of himself, dreading the private conversations to come, and suspecting that everyone in Bree is in league against him.


This is really a very straightforward chapter: it tells the mercifully short story of a hobbit covert operation, and theoretically unbeknownst to us but actually almost certainly beknownst to everyone and heavily suggested by the title of the next chapter, introduces us to a key character. What I quite like is that while doing this, Tolkien also gives us both background information about a new place, Bree, and both a snapshot of the lands around it and its past, without collapsing into exhausting exposition. This chapter would actually almost work on its own as a short story. As part of the bigger story, the hobbits have now definitely left their home turf and are venturing further out into the wide world, something they really hardly seem ready to do. With the chapter closing on Frodo beginning to suspect everyone around him of being in on a conspiracy, one definitely gets the idea that they're in over their heads. There's a sharp contrast between the insular hobbits nattering about family gossip and the dwarves and men concerned with the wider world around them. Frodo and company are now moving firmly into the latter, with shall we say mixed success.

For all of Tolkien's high-church Catholicism, there's a definite Puritan streak in him as well: unlike, say, Patrick O'Brian's works, I don't think very many people have come away from a Tolkien description of a meal feeling hungry.

Next time, parlour games.

1 comment:

Leon said...

"short story of a hobbit covert operation"

I'm going to have to remember to use that. I think we can agree that four upper-class (hobbit) twits are definitely not 'high speed low drag' operators.