The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp160-68
It was only after posting last week’s blog that I really began to ponder Tolkien’s description of the man in the corner of Barliman Butterbur’s common room. Let me take you back there again.
“Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. He had a tall tankard in front of him, and was 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.”
Apart from a sudden desire to know in what way his pipe was “curiously carved” it was those words, “strange-looking”, that caught my attention. In what way, strange? Those who come to know Tolkien’s work quite well know that he is never a lazy writer. There will be a reason why he will have chosen this description. To describe the man sitting in the shadows as weather-beaten is obvious enough. He is a man who has walked many miles in those boots and in all weathers. Not for the men of his time the artificial protection of the ton of metal about him that keeps us and the weather separate from each other. Now if we meet someone who is truly weather-beaten it is something that is worthy of note, even strange, but not in those days. The faces of even quite young men would be wind-darkened and their hands tough and leathery. No, this is not what makes this man strange.
Nor is it the fact that he is not a regular fixture of the common room of The Prancing Pony that makes this man strange. There are many strangers in the only place of comfort on the long journey between Rivendell and the Shire or on the Greenway that runs northwards from Dunland and Rohan. Some of these are strange enough to be a cause of concern to the Breelanders. One of these southerners, “a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future”.
No, this is not what makes the man in the shadows strange, and, in any case, Butterbur tells Frodo that he is a fairly regular visitor to Bree. No, what makes him strange is that he is not one of the usual kind of people who visit The Prancing Pony. He is neither a local farmer or artisan nor the usual kind of wanderer upon the road. The quality of his pipe and his boots should be a clue to an identity that is different from others. Everything about him speaks of mystery.
But Frodo who, after the highly disturbing incident with the Ring after his comic song on the table top, is starting to see everyone as a potential threat, and soon begins to think that this man is a rascal, a rogue. And when the hobbits meet the stranger in their room after the events in the common room Frodo is not much comforted by his words.
“You must take me along with you, until I wish to leave you.”
Eventually it is Gandalf’s letter left in the hands of Butterbur that convinces Frodo and his companions to put their trust, albeit with some reluctance, in this man. And such is the way with decisions that have to be made in unfamiliar situations. When we are at home, surrounded by the familiar, our choices are more often than not a weighing up of possibilities about which we have some knowledge. But ever since Gandalf revealed to Frodo that the ring that Bilbo had left behind on the day of the Long-expected Party was in fact the One Ring made by the Dark Lord to rule all things, Frodo has lived in a world that is unfamiliar and in which he has to make choices with little to go upon that he fully understands. This Strider, this strange man who is sitting in his room as if he owned it, may be a rogue. Frodo is risking his life in the decision that he makes. Is Strider the man that Gandalf’s letter speaks of or is he one of the “many strange men on the roads”? A strange man he most certainly is. His looks are against him. What decision will Frodo make?