When the travellers arrive at Bree they find the gate locked against them and their welcome at first is anxious and even suspicious. But Barliman Butterbur is pleased to see them and after politely listening to the story of their adventures he gets down to the things that really matter, the news of events in Bree.
“There was trouble right here in Bree, bad trouble. Why, we had a real set-to, and there were some folk killed, killed dead! If you’ll believe me.”
And the travellers do believe him because all trouble is real to the one who has to undergo it. It may be that the listeners have done battle with a troll before the Black Gate, with the Witch King of Angmar before Minas Tirith, with the Balrog of Moria, with Shelob in her lair and with the Ring of Doom step by impossible step across the plains of Mordor to the very place in which it was made by the Dark Lord. All this may be true but each violent death is a crime against nature itself and five of the people of Bree died in the struggle against ruffians from the south.
It is the travellers who have seen so much and who have been through so much who have to be the listeners and that is the way of things. Each experience has deepened their understanding and broadened their sympathy and their imagination. Not so Barliman whose knowledge of the world has come only from the stories that he has heard told by travellers staying at his inn. His personal experience has come only from his life within the borders of the Breeland and within them he is a man of some wisdom and courage. We can admire his rushing to the doors of The Prancing Pony armed only with a club ready to defend it against desperate bandits but beyond these narrow limits he could not help much as Aragorn reminded him once when Bree was threatened by the Nazgûl of Mordor.
The travellers have begun to learn a new and a sad lesson and that is that they will find few interested listeners when they return home. Even their wives will be unable to make the kind of sympathetic leap of imagination that is required from a good listener. What I hope the wives will possess will be the quality of listening that comes of a loving heart. They may not fully comprehend what their husbands have experienced but they will care that each thing will have happened to someone that they love. But perhaps in the midst of worries about young children or problems in the household they will not be able to spare much time for listening.
At one time as a parish priest in Birmingham, England I found that I often had to take the funerals of men for whom a major part of their life experience had been service in the military during the Second World War. Two things began to impress me deeply about these men. One was just how young they had been when they were torn away from ordinary life and all that they had seen and done. The other was of a different kind of courage. The courage to return to ordinary life as husbands, fathers and useful members of their communities. As I began to hear these stories I began to develop as much respect for the second kind of courage as for the first.
Now the hobbits will have to learn how to find peace within themselves and not seek it from others. Frodo will pass into the West and find healing there. Merry and Pippin will draw upon the optimism that has been such a source of strength to them and they will draw too upon their friendship with each other. Sam will develop a deep connection to his daughter, Elanor the Fair, to whom he will give the Red Book, the record of the deeds of the Great Years, before he too passes into the West after the death of Rosie Cotton to whom he will remain faithful through the long years.
And Butterbur will find comfort in the turning of the affairs of Bree for the better and after he has learned that the bandits will soon go and peace restored he will go to his bed more comforted than he has been for a long time.
6 thoughts on “Barliman Butterbur Speaks of his Troubles and Receives Some Comfort.”
Thank you for this, Stephen!
I’ve always wondered how difficult it must have been for Frodo and his company to find peace of heart after their return from the quest. It also makes me think of Bilbo, whose adventure, of course, was very different and less dangerous. Still he seems to have struggled with acquiring inner peace after those adventures. Trying to lead an ordinary life after so much happened to him on the road is a real challenge.
Of course Bilbo has the Ring and he starts to feel “stretched”. But he did not have the struggle with the Ring that Frodo did. You must have met people who lived through the war with Germany, both military personnel and also civilians. Britain was not invaded as Russia was. My mother grew up in an area of England where she only saw one German plane throughout the entire war. My father grew up in London which was heavily bombed and he lost family members during the conflict. He was also a soldier who took part in the invasion of June 6th 1944 (the anniversary is today and so I think of him). He never spoke much about the actual war and I think that this was quite common. He enjoyed talking about being responsible for entertainment on his military base in Germany at the end of the war booking well known popular and classical musicians to give concerts to the soldiers. This love of all kinds of music was something that he passed on to me. It is good to remember him today.
Thank you for sharing these memories, Stephen! I didn’t have a chance to meet any relatives of mine who took part in fighting during the war. Some didn’t return, others lived far away and we didn’t visit. My grandmother was a child when the war broke out, and she told me of severe lack of food, poverty they had to face.
There is so much inspiration to receive from their courage in times of such adversity.
I like your ending the most – that the common person, the Butterburs among us, can take comfort because the heroes have done their part in defeating the evil around them. They have faced and defied that darkness themselves and allowed themselves to be touched and for Frodo especially, devoured, by the darkness so it would not devour others. Cheers to all those who throughout the ages fought against such evil to allow us to live in freedom and light.
Namarie, God bless, Anne Marie 🙂
Thank you for seeing this more clearly than I was able to do. One experience that I did not share in this week’s reflection was that of being a returning traveller myself. I spent six years in Africa when in my twenties and it had a profound effect on me. For some years after I did work with other returning teachers, priests, medical staff etc. A common story that they would tell was the inability of the people they returned to to be able to understand their stories. The response would often be something like, “It must be hot out there.” What your thought suggests to me is that while the listener, the Butterburs of the world, may not be able to make the imaginative leap that is a key part of true empathy, or at least sympathy, they do receive comfort from the stories that they hear, and srength to give their best. This week there was a bad road accident in my village. I was struck and moved by the way that the whole community seemed to come out offering comfort, cups of tea, calling the ambulance service and the police etc. doing what practical first aid that they could. We all need to keep on giving and receiving comfort from and to each other.
God bless you Anne Marie 😊