The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.146-151
After a two week break enjoyed in the land of my father-in-law in Wales it is good to return to the journey from the Shire to Rivendell in the company of Frodo, Sam Gamgee, Merry and Pippin. And it is good to arrive at the inn in Bree that is the sign of The Prancing Pony. Good because there are few places on earth more hospitable than a really good English inn or pub and because I also want to use this week’s post to honour the wonderful podcast created by Alan Sisto and Shawn E. Marchese that is entitled The Prancing Pony (https://theprancingponypodcast.com) which, like the best wine, seems to get better and better with age and which received The Tolkien Society Award in 2020 for the best online content. The last edition that I listened to was a fascinating interview with one of the world’s leading Tolkien scholars, Dr Verlyn Flieger, and I learnt so much from it.
I said just now that the English pub is one of the most hospitable of places on earth. Sadly I fear that I need to add that although this remains true it is becoming increasingly difficult to find one. If I were to take, for example, the pub that I can see from my bedroom window on the banks of the canal by which my cottage is situated I would be able to tell you that the old sign is there, the building is still as it would have been many years ago apart from the modern extension but that it has become a restaurant as have so many in recent years.
I ought not to complain too much. There is no doubt that the beer is better than it was when I used to sneak out of my English boarding school to the pub down the road. Many pubs either brew their own beer nowadays or buy excellent crafted beers from small breweries. But what is lacking in so many pubs is the right kind of place in which to enjoy it. All too often all the space is taken by tables at which food is served and there is nowhere to sit and talk with a pint in your hand by a good fire on a comfortable chair or sofa.
Tolkien’s description of The Prancing Pony and of its excellent host, Barliman Butterbur, evokes so many memories of the best of the English pub. The beer is good and after Gandalf puts a spell of excellence upon it becomes even better. The food is simple and served in substantial quantities. It takes the hobbits three quarters of an hour to finish it. And above all everyone is made welcome. There are rooms that are just the right size and design for hobbits and Sam’s misgivings when he first looks at the size of the inn are soon put aside. It is the genius of the best kind of inn that there whether you are a local resident or a traveller there is a space just for you and you are all treated as if you are a personal guest of the proprietor. On the night on which the hobbits arrive there are travellers from the south. Are they refugees from trouble or are they bringers of trouble, the thugs who will eventually make up Saruman’s army of occupation in the Shire? At this point in the story nobody knows and so Barliman makes them welcome. And then there are the locals themselves, the residents of Bree, who feel at home in The Prancing Pony even as they make space for strangers.
Barliman makes them welcome. He is the key to the wonder of this place. Tolkien describes him as a man of important in his community and rightly so. To feed and house so many visitors at such an important crossroads requires a local economy. It also requires a generous spirit. Barliman is at the heart of both.
In medieval Europe the inn and the monastery were the two great places of hospitality. The latter offered this believing that in serving the guest they were making Christ welcome. The inn did not proclaim this in the same way but I think that they were closer than might appear obvious and I think that the catholic Tolkien recognised this too.