(Updated on 25/4/15)
The party has arrived in ”Bree-Land”, a little cluster of villages between the Shire and the wilds, “an island in the empty lands about”. I really love the description of Bree that Tolkien takes the time to make, and I think it’s a shame we don’t get to spend more time there than the two (and a bit) chapters we’ll actually get. After all, Bree is fascinating within the universe both as a major nodal point for travellers – a crossroads town, “at an old meeting of ways” –,as a place that is ancient and fiercely independent and as an area where Men and Hobbits live side by side. The bigger inhabitants claim to have a lineage that goes back to the first days of creation, and Tolkien is poetic in the affirmation of this: “when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass”. The description also mixes in that typical countryside sentiment from Tolkien, with the Bree Hobbits, the only ones of their kind to live amongst Men, considered “outsiders” by the Shire, despite familiar connections.
That, and the town’s obvious connection with the Rangers, who are going to start having a much bigger impact on the story from now on, makes it very important. The Rangers are described in vague terms, odd travellers with reams of strange knowledge but with an unwholesome air to them at times too: “the Bree-folk did not make friends of them.”
The scene at the gate begins the atmosphere of suspicion and tension that the chapter brings. It’s clear from the outset that something more than the usual curiosity over four hobbits tramping about at night is going on: the gatekeeper seems rattled and jumpy. “’Hobbits! Four hobbits! And what’s more, out of the Shire by their talk,’ said the gatekeeper, softly as if speaking to himself. He stared at them darkly for a moment…” That sounds like Harry is repeating a description he heard earlier.
More distressingly, for the reader anyway, the party is being followed by a dark shape, a figure who is not actually identified until the next chapter. It could be a Black Rider or one of the upcoming “slant-eyed” foreigners. The identity doesn’t matter though, only the knowledge that the party has not reached another bastion of safety. Danger lurks everywhere.
The titular inn is the main location of the chapter and is set up, initially, as a sort of refuge for our tired group. Butterbur is your atypical fantasy innkeeper, one that has become copied and done to death in all manner of stories ever since: pleasant, fat, rushed of his feet, yet still providing excellent service. The hobbits arrive at the inn unannounced and are housed, their ponies stabled, and themselves fed and wined within an hour. It’s more of the Xenia-like concept, only, of course, it’s a professional job here. I notice that the inns in Middle-Earth seem to operate by a “pay when you leave” system. Awfully trusting, especially from what we learn later in the chapter.
Poor Sam is overwhelmed (again) by the foreign places he’s encountering. It was Elves before, now its Men. The gardeners got a bad streak of homesickness, wanting to stay with local hobbits instead of at the inn. I suppose this is something that’ll never really go away from the Sam character, though he’ll get a better mastery of it as we go on. Moreover, once he’s had a few drinks, Sam doesn’t seem to care anymore. I think this shows the grounded and realistic nature of Sam, who remains nervous and cautious about all the strange new things around him, while retaining that innate cheerful hobbit nature, as well as simple steadfastness.
The Prancing Pony bar (“common room” sounds so old) is the main focus of what is left of the chapter and it’s a friendly place…with an edge. We get a sort of spin-off of the Shire pub scenes, only Bree is closer to the “trouble down south” and is more directly affected. A lot of newcomers in the area, not all of them very nice looking, are threatening the traditions of Bree-Land. A fear of immigration and new faces is something you’ll find in just about every community on the planet, though I don’t think it’s unfair to say it’s more pronounced in rural areas. In that way, this description of the trouble in Bree is very effective though the questions and plot hooks it raises aren’t really going to be answered or implemented until the very last chapters of the story. At this stage, it’s almost impossible to imagine this trouble actually affecting the Shire directly, but that’s where the plot is heading. “If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk…”
The edge to the scene is accentuated by our introduction to Strider, the mysterious Ranger in the corner:
“…a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall…smoking a long-stemmed pipe curiously carved. His legs were stretched out before him, showing high boots of supple leather that fitted him well, but had seen much wear and were now caked with mud. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits.”
That’s all he really is in this chapter anyway. It’s not immediately clear from his dialogue if he’s a good or bad guy – though, I suppose you do get the “good” feeling, one that Frodo so eloquently describes as Aragorn “looking foul” but “feeling fair” in the next chapter. But there are several other figures in the inn of a similar type, and no reader can escape the feeling that the four hobbits are still just a very short space from danger. Strider’s words, subtle in their implications, mark him out as someone to consider important. It’s all the better when you come at the chapter in a second reading: Aragorn, all alone in Bree with Gandalf AWOL, must try and protect the hobbits from both spies inside the town, the Black Riders not too far off and their own stupidity, all without tipping anyone off about his own identity or purpose.
It’s Pippin’s turn to be the stupid one of the group and he takes on the challenge with gusto. His choice to endanger the quest through drawing unnecessary attention seems based on the effects of alcohol more than anything else (played up for laughs big-time in the film – “It comes in pints!?”) and his actions betray his youth and immaturity. But he is still just a hobbit who, in a place with a “drink, fire, and chance-meeting”, loses his inhibitions easily, thoughts of Black Riders, sentient trees and undead spirits far away.
Frodo shows some intelligence in spotting the danger (and realising just why it’s dangerous, for the fact that it would make people think of the name “Baggins”) though it takes some prodding from Strider for him to do anything. He can’t intervene himself, because then everything would be blown, so he tells Frodo to deal with it. Frodo’s choice of method to solve the problem is rather dumb though: all he does is switch the attention of the bar to himself through his song, rather than dissipating it altogether. The Middle-Earth version of “Hey Diddle Diddle” is ridiculous but entertaining, calling back to some of Tolkien’s earliest attempts at writing as it happens, but it’s just preamble for the shocking moment when Frodo vanishes. There are hints of the Ring being sentient in a fashion, slipping onto Frodo’s finger, a nice reminder of the fact that, yes, the Ring is capable of looking out for its own interests and is, as they say a few times through the course of the story, “treacherous”.
Frodo’s disappearing act creates some nice intrigue then, as some of the nastier looking foreigners leave suspiciously quickly afterwards. We’ve got that sense of incoming menace, and it will only grow in the next chapter. Frodo’s terrible explanation isn’t fooling anyone, and Tolkien does well in describing the immensely uncomfortable situation in the bar that results: “Most of the Hobbits and the Men of Bree went off then and there in a huff, having no fancy for further entertainment that evening. One or two gave Frodo a black look and departed muttering among themselves.”
At least Frodo is trying to be more careful and wary than before. That’s something at least. But then two hooks are left to drag the audience along with the narrative into the next chapter: two meetings with Frodo, one with a Strider who knows about both the Ring and Frodo’s real name, and the other with Butterbur, with something important to discuss. What is going on?
This chapter is a bit of an odd one really. It’s transitory, but needs to carry on the momentum of “Fog On The Barrow-Downs”, and maybe improve on it. And I think that it does this, but not in the way you might be expecting. There are no moments of action, no threats to the hobbits made overtly, and nothing much really does seem to happen. But “At The Sign Of The Prancing Pony” still gets high ratings from most readers. It’s set-up is great with the description of Bree, nearly all four of the main characters get decent individual moments to flesh them out a bit more, the mysterious Strider is introduced, and the terrible new peril of local gossip takes the place of the more outwardly dangerous foes we have come up against since the four left Buckland.
More than any of that, the right tone is struck: the Prancing Pony is written at once inviting but also unsettling. The feeling of dark forces, maybe not so obvious as riders in black hoods, surrounding Frodo is made very clear, and these forces can strike anywhere. Like any great bar scene, Tolkien crafts a place where numerous characters take the spotlight for brief moments, and where intrigue and shady dealings come to life before our eyes. The story of the chapter, that of the hobbits blundering as they try and stay incognito, has a suitable climax too, and the reader is left wondering intently how things will turn out the next day. “At The Sign Of The Prancing Pony” is short but sweet, and gets the narrative back onto the mainstream track quickly and in an entertaining fashion.
One last thing: I’ve mentioned the game before, the one based exclusively on the book. That features a scene of Frodo’s “The man in the moon” song that is one of the worst examples of video game acting and cut scene animation I’ve ever seen. Don’t believe me? Check it out.
For more Chapter by Chapter reviews of The Lord of the Rings, check out the index here.