At the Sign of The Prancing Pony
Both radio and film dramatizations use the B-B-B pattern – Bag End, Black Riders, Bree, as if this were always the intended destination. The hobbits seem to have had no clear idea how to get to Rivendell. They hoped to have Gandalf join them and guide them.
The chapter begins with Tolkien stepping in as narrator and explaining Bree. It has not been mentioned since the Prologue. But Merry, at least, knows that it exists and has heard of The Prancing Pony. The Bucklanders have had dealings there.
Tolkien mentions that it is a unique instance of two different peoples living together. It is assumed that Big People and Little People cannot or do not interbreed. Among elves, humans and hobbits, intermarriage and merger is the norm where two populations within these groups overlap. Only elves and humans occasionally intermarry. There is also orc-human interbreeding, probably by rape.
We are also told that the Men of Bree interact with elves and dwarves, as well as co-existing with hobbits. And “There was Bree blood in the Brandybucks”. Merry has status. He gets them past the gate-keeper, whom Frodo suspected and who in turn was suspicious. We learn later that he had been ‘got at’ by Saruman’s agents.
They arrive at the Prancing Pony, which Bombadil had recommended they do. It is run by Barliman Butterbur. Frodo announces himself as Mr Underhill. They are being amateur – Merry should take the lead. ‘Mr Underhill’ should seem to be an unimportant underling and little noticed. Even as Frodo Baggins, he would rank below the heir of Buckland if it were not for the One Ring. Merry should have called him ‘uncle’ but act as a superior.
Having learned there are hobbit-sized rooms available, they book in. All very informal. We have perhaps slipped into the 18th century from the Late-Victorian world of The Shire.
Being hobbits, the first thing they do is have a good meal:
“In a twinkling the table was laid. There was hot soup, cold meats, a blackberry tart, new loaves, slabs of butter, and half a ripe cheese: good plain food, as good as the Shire could show, and homelike enough to dispel the last of Sam’s misgivings (already much relieved by the excellence of the beer).”
Whether this is special for Shire folk, or standard for all hobbits, or standard for Big People as well, we are not told. As I said, it has an 18th century feel, and also rustic, so I’d guess they all eat like that. Refugees from the South might find it exotic – the climate is Mediterranean, so logically the food should be similar. Regardless, it is a darkening world. Shire hobbits no longer come to Bree as much as they used to, and Bree itself now feels unsafe. (Was indeed unsafe, we learn much later when the hobbits are returning from their adventures.) But the look in the film maybe makes it look too strange and hostile.
Frodo, an educated hobbit, may feel a little superior to the rustic folk of Bree. Someone made the point to me that he himself later feels rustic and out of place when he encounters Faramir and the ancient traditions of lost Westernesse.
In Bree, they eat in a parlour, ‘a small and cosy room’. The film has them eating something like a pub lunch – a bit too modern, I feel. It also may be a parlour reserved for hobbits, with tables and chairs that suit their size. Certainly, Barliman prevents Strider from going there, and later knocks before entering.
All except Merry then go to the common room, which is like the lounge of a pub. It contains hobbits, humans and dwarves, and they get to meet the hobbits. Interestingly, some of the hobbits have botanical names, which is the human custom in Bree. Others have names on the Shire pattern: places or personal characteristics, with a few like Took unexplained. (Very suitable that the most adventurous Shire-hobbits have what I think is the least explicable family name.) I also heard the suggestion that the Shire names are kennings,[A] in the Norse tradition. But a kenning is meant to be a riddle – Beowulf is bee-wolf, wolf-to-the-bees, bear. When the hobbit names have a definite meaning, I think it is always a clear meaning. Except perhaps Brockhouses: Brock is an old name for badger.
In Bree, the hobbits learn that many of the humans are refugees from the troubles of the south, and some in Bree suspicion of them. This has echoes of the 1930s, which Tolkien would remember, and also sadly of our own time. Tolkien is sympathetic – it is only a suspicious character – later identified as Bill Ferny – is stirring up trouble. If he is sometimes be an agent of Saruman, he also seems inherently bad.
Frodo claims to be writing a book. But some of the hobbits are curious for details about the Underhills, whom they have not heard of. This too is amateur, and this time an error by Gandalf, or rather by Tolkien. Why not pick a real name of a large kindred? Bilbo and probably also Frodo is related to Bracegirdles, Brockhouses, Goodbodies, Hornblowers and Proudfoots, among others. He would certainly know their details well enough to fool anyone in Bree.
It could also be symbolic – Frodo must go into the depths and emerge as a new and stronger person. As Bilbo did in the Misty Mountains. As Frodo perhaps does with the barrow, though no great change is visible. His main ordeals will be wounding on Weathertop, and then later in the orc-tower.
Underhill is also a name implied by Bilbo riddling with Smaug:
“I come from under the hill, and under the hills and over the hills my paths led.”
As ‘Mr Underhill’, Frodo then meets Aragorn, identified to him by Barliman as Strider, who wants a quiet word later. But first advises Frodo to silence Pippin, who is being irresponsible as usual. (But this has an up-side: he will later show himself a cunning trickster, saving himself and Merry from the orcs by pretending to have the One Ring.)
In The Hobbit, Bilbo is a trickster. Now Pippin has this role, he is a Took. Merry has the heroic aspect in fact of normal dangers. Gandalf, while organising a grand deception to destroy the ring, is mostly not the trickster he was in The Hobbit. But he tricks his staff into Theoden’s hall. He urges Pippin to be deceptive with Denethor, though Denethor sees through it. But here, Pippin is just being foolish and provokes something far worse.
Frodo, famously, tells his ‘expanded’ version of The Cat and the Fiddle, which would have been beautiful in the film. One must hope to see dramatized eventually, perhaps in the forthcoming Amazon series.
I also note that Tolkien is playing a game of a sort that might be irritating for historians. If civilisation broke down and got restarted, Tolkien’s version might indeed pass as the original
The poem is a success, but then he accidentally puts on the ring. Or it senses some nearby evil characters and tricks him. We get a description just of him finding he is somehow wearing it. It is definitely growing in power:
“Frodo suddenly felt very foolish, and found himself (as was his habit when making a speech) fingering the things in his pocket. He felt the Ring on its chain, and quite unaccountably the desire came over him to slip it on and vanish out of the silly situation. It seemed to him, somehow, as if the suggestion came to him from outside, from someone or something the room. He resisted the temptation firmly, and clasped the Ring in his hand, as if to keep a hold on it and prevent it from escaping or doing any mischief.”
Having been tricked, he then shows a sound instinct by going towards Strider, despite his earlier mistrust:
“Frodo felt a fool. Not knowing what else to do, he crawled away under the tables to the dark comer by Strider, who sat unmoved, giving no sign of his thoughts. Frodo leaned back against the wall and took off the Ring. How it came to be on his finger he could not tell. He could only suppose that he had been handling it in his pocket while he sang, and that somehow it had slipped on when he stuck out his hand with a jerk to save his fall. For a moment he wondered if the Ring itself had not played him a trick; perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room. He did not like the looks of the men that had gone out.
“’Well?’ said Strider, when he reappeared. ’Why did you do that? Worse than anything your friends could have said! You have put your foot in it! Or should I say your finger?’
“’I don’t know what you mean,’ said Frodo, annoyed and alarmed.
“’Oh yes, you do,’ answered Strider; ‘but we had better wait until the uproar has died down. Then, if you please, Mr. Baggins, I should like a quiet word with you.’
“’What about?’ asked Frodo, ignoring the sudden use of his proper name.
“’A matter of some importance – to us both,’ answered Strider, looking Frodo in the eye. ‘You may hear something to your advantage.’
“’Very well,’ said Frodo, trying to appear unconcerned. ‘I’ll talk to you later.’
Strider – actually Aragorn – is well aware that the ring causes invisibility. And unlike the film, he is being polite. Offering good advice but not imposing it.
Meantime, Butterbur remembers something – actually the letter, but Frodo suspects him. But he agrees to a private conversation with Butterbur in Frodo’s room.
Note that the hobbits have ‘rooms’, not the single room with four beds that both Bakshi and Jackson show. Butterbur says:
“We’ve got a room or two in the north wing that were made special for hobbits, when this place was built. On the ground floor as they usually prefer; round windows and all as they like it.”
Jackson misses a trick by having the windows square. He does choose an 18th century look, correctly, but here he excludes the distinct hobbit element.
I had been thinking of each hobbit having their own room. Butterbur says ‘one or two’, but is not an exact thinker. Or it could be two double rooms.