Frodo is Cheered by Old Trolls. With a Little Help from a Song by Sam Gamgee.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 197-203

In attempting to keep away from the great East-West Road that runs from Rivendell to the Grey Havens, fearing that it will be upon the road that the Nazgûl will be lying in wait, Strider has taken the hobbits a little too far to the north. It is at this point that Tolkien’s maps of Middle-earth that he drew for The Lord of the Rings give us little guidance about the exact route of their journey. Although it is clear from Tolkien’s wonderfully evocative description that the travellers have to negotiate some difficult terrain with steep climbs and descents the map shows us none of this and we are left to our imaginations to trace their path. Indeed for a long time there is no path. They have to find their way through what is literally a trackless waste until Pippin stumbles upon one.

We remember the paths created by Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest, respectfully even tenderly weaving in and out among the trees following the line of the Withywindle. This path in the wild is a brutal affair “made by strong arms and heavy feet. Here and there old trees had been cut or broken down, and large rocks cloven or heaved aside to make a way. “

Eventually we learn that the heavy lifting machinery is, in fact, three trolls, the very three who years before had captured the thirteen dwarves of the expedition to the Lonely Mountain that had been Bilbo’s great adventure; and the reason why they are now effigies seated on the ground in a clearing in the Trollshaws is that Gandalf had tricked them into continuing an argument about how to cook their prey until the rising sun had turned them into stone.

Ted Nasmith’s evocation of the tale of Bilbo and the Trolls from The Hobbit

Throughout this stage of the journey Frodo has been drifting in and out of a shadowy world. We will not find out until later in Rivendell that a tiny sliver of the Morgul blade that had pierced his shoulder has been working its way inwards towards his heart, slowly but inexorably drawing him into the world of shadows in which his attackers dwell, but the progress of this deadly invader does not seem to be an even one and moments like this seem to stay its malevolent influence, for a time at least.

The person whose wholesome influence has this effect upon Frodo is Sam. I wonder if in this scene Tolkien was recalling the way in which soldiers in the trenches of the First World War would try to cheer each other up with songs like the one that Sam sings here in the shadow of the frozen trolls. Probably some of them were pretty bawdy but some would, as with Sam’s simple ditty, have simply made their hearers smile. And Frodo does smile. In the trenches such songs would have kept at bay a slow freezing of the heart for men, lice infested and surrounded by death. Here Sam’s song slows the progress of the splinter towards Frodo’s heart. Frodo jokingly declares that Sam might “end up by becoming a wizard-or a warrior” and wizards and warriors will both play a vital part in this story.

Alan Lee depicts the travellers amongst the stone trolls in the Trollshaws

But so too will jesters. That is the word that Frodo uses, somewhat dismissively we have to acknowledge, to describe Sam at this point of the story. Frodo does not yet know that the part that this jester is going to play in getting him and the Ring to the Cracks of Doom is going to be absolutely vital. Sam will prove to be a warrior, although never one by choice, especially in his heroic battle with Shelob in her lair and in his storming of the Tower of Cirith Ungol but it is his simple refusal to abandon his cheerful spirit that will play the kind of role that only someone who is learning to see through the eyes of a child will ever come to value. Those who study to achieve a cultured sophistication will never have that vision. Frodo might have been tempted to be such a sophisticate but his terrible suffering in the course of his Ringbearing journey will teach him that it is not cleverness that sustains us in our darkest days but pure and simple goodness.

Ted Nasmith’s tender imagining of Sam singing to cheer his companions

Weary Travellers in a Weary Land. The Hobbits and Strider Journey Through Rhudaur, Hiding From the Nazgûl.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 194-98

In The Tale of Years as recounted in the appendices to the final volume of Tolkien’s tale, the time fourteen days during which the hobbits and Strider journey through the wasteland of Eriador, hiding from the Ringwraiths, is a part of the time known as The Great Years, and indeed these years are great. They are the years of The Lord of the Rings whose readers go back to its pages again and again. But the reality for those who live in such times is that they do not know that the times are in any sense, great. Not even Strider, the one who bears the hope of his people, even as he bears the Ring of Barahir, a gift to the father of Beren by Finrod Felagund of Nargothrond in the First Age of Arda, not even he is able to step away from the suffering and, from the vantage point of his greatness, see the days of that miserable trek as merely a brief period before he finally enters into his kingdom.

Aragorn leads the hobbits through the wild lands

This, of course, is how we all have to live, none of us knowing the significance of otherwise of any particular event. It may be that we are living in “great years” but as we live them we are not able to discern what kind of years they are and in our living of these years our experience may be that of the weary travellers.

“Frodo’s heart was grieved as he watched them walking beside him with their heads down, and their backs bowed under their burdens. Even Strider seemed tired and heavy-hearted.”

Frodo, as we see here, has some perspective but it gives him no comfort because he is wounded and carried by Bill the Pony while his friends have to carry on their weary backs all their supplies for the journeys. He does not even know if he will live to see Rivendell and neither do his friends.

Fifth Day After Weathertop, by Ted Nasmith

All the way through the story Tolkien takes us through a mythological landscape in which the lands that we journey through alongside the protagonists of the story tell us something of the history that they have witnessed and so it is in the wastes of Eriador. The October weather is cold and wet and the land through which they pass is barren and lifeless.

“Here and there upon heights and ridges they caught glimpses of ancient walls of stone, and the ruins of towers: they had an ominous look.”

They are in Rhudaur, once a glorious part of the northern kingdom of Arnor, a land of the Dúnedain, a people descended from the Edain, the ancient allies of the Elves in the wars of the First Age of the world against Morgoth. As a reward for their faithfulness they were granted permission to live upon the great Isle of Númenor in the mighty ocean and in sight of the Undying Lands. Strider bears the Ring of Barahir in token of the memory of that faithfulness because Barahir saved Finrod Felagund’s life in the battle of Dagor Bragollach. That is a noble memory but the presence of the ominous towers and walls tells a different story. They tell of the corruption of the people of Rhudaur, first mingling with a people who had no memory of Barahir or Beren, of Númenor, or of Elendil and Isildur, and then falling under the influence of Angmar and its Witch-king, the lord of the ringwraiths who has wounded Frodo and who, even now, seeks him and seeks the Ring in this barren land.

These are the words that describe both the corrupted kingdom through which the travellers pass and the travellers themselves. Weariness, barreness, suffering, fear. Only after these days are ended will anyone speak of them as great. Frodo will be assailed by memories of his wound and the long miles in which the poisoned fragment of the Morgul blade worked slowly but inexorably towards his heart. It will take both the realisation that without these days the liberation of Middle-earth could never have taken place and Frodo’s slow long years of healing to give to these days a new name, to know them as truly a part of The Great Years.

The Travellers Make Camp on a Weary Journey by Aaloei

On Deadly Wounds and Their Healing. Aragorn Tries to Offer Frodo Some Relief After the Nazgûl Attack.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 190-94)

There are times in a reading of The Lord of the Rings in which it is necessary to know that we are reading is not the kind of history that is a listing of events but a mythology. Doubtless it would do all students of history good to recognise the quasi-mythological nature of every historical narrative but Tolkien was not attempting a historical narrative that we must then seek to demythologise. He consciously sought to create a mythology, a sub-creation that honoured God. And so it is here in this description of the attack upon the camp below Weathertop by the Nazgûl. Could they have seized the Ring, even slaying the hobbits and Aragorn too? We must assume that they could. That they expected that Frodo would gradually fall under the malign influence of the Morgul-blade, a fragment of which was left in his shoulder, is without doubt, but the very nature of Frodo’s resistance to their attack shows that what happened that night was a spiritual battle as much as a clash between two forces of warriors. If it had merely been the latter I fear that the brave adventure of the hobbits would have ended that night and the Ring taken to be restored to its maker.

I know that the Morgul-king’s sword bears no resemblance to the description of the knife in The Lord of the Rings but this painting is a fine expression of the overwhelming power of the Nazgûl

As we saw last week Aragorn’s singing of The Lay of Leithian, the Tale of Beren and Lúthien, took the company into the spiritual milieu of the Elder Days and the songs of Lúthien that overcame Sauron and even Morgoth long ago. Aragorn invokes the same powers as did his ancestors and so the fragile circle of light that the Nazgûl invade is a different place to the simple camp that the travellers had earlier created.

So it is that even though, to his shame, Frodo is unable to resist the command of his foes to put on the Ring, he is able, even while wearing it, to invoke the name of Elbereth, the Queen of the Valar, the angelic beings charged by God to watch over the earth.

This was the name invoked by the company of Gildor Inglorien that drove away the Black Rider on that first encounter in the woods of the Shire .

“Snow-white! Snow-white! O Lady dear! O Queen beyond the Western Seas! O light to us who wander here amid the world of woven trees!”

Elves in the Woody End, by Ted Nasmith

Gildor named Frodo, elf-friend, that night, and such names are not a trivial thing in Tolkien’s world but convey a reality. “More deadly to him was the name of Elbereth,” says Aragorn, speaking of Frodo’s resistance to the Morgul-king’s attack. And just as there is all the difference in the world between the casual naming of Jesus in everyday chatter and a cry to him in desperate need so too the naming of Elbereth by an elf-friend in need has great power, far more power than that of Frodo’s will to resist.

And so the Nazgûl withdraw for a season, ringless for the present but confident that soon Frodo will be a wraith like them and powerless to resist them any longer. But there is another power at work. Aragorn goes off in search of athelas. He knows this land and where he might find what he seeks. “It is a healing plant that the Men of the West brought to Middle-earth… It has great virtues, but over such a wound as this its healing powers may be small.”

Later in the story Aragorn will be revealed to his people through the acts of healing that he will accomplish through the use of this herb but for now he has not yet come into his own, his kingdom, and he can do little more than stay the effects of the Morgul-blade. But perhaps all that he can do as a healer is to assist the healing that another desires. Later Éowyn will be healed, not by Aragorn’s power, but by her willingness to embrace the future and to let the past be at rest. For his part Frodo will be healed by the “Gentle Purgatory” (as Tolkien put it in a letter on the subject) that he will eventually accept and undergo in the Undying Lands. For now Frodo must endure his wound while his foes wait for the opportunity to seize the Ring and so to triumph.

The Tale of Beren and Lúthien Tinúviel. Aragorn Brings Aid at a Moment of Deadly Peril from the Unseen World.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 184-191

Aragorn’s telling of the Tale of Tinúviel is a thing of beauty and draws us in so near that we want to lose ourselves in it as, for a brief moment, are its teller and its four hearers.

“As Strider was speaking they watched his strange eager face, dimly lit in the red glow of the wood fire. His eyes shone and his voice was rich and deep. Above him was a black starry sky.”

Aragorn tells the Tale of Tinúviel

The travellers are sheltering in a dell below Weathertop and, as well as the shining of Aragorn’s eyes and the sky, aflame with starlight, the moon rises above the hilltop. Three shinings on a night of ever present danger. For close at hand, five of the Nazgûl, led by their lord, are stealthily approaching the camp. Soon they will attack and a Morgul blade will pierce Frodo’s shoulder yet, as we readers of the tale listen to Aragorn, even if we have read it many times, we are as glad to be lost in it for a moment.

In Verlyn Flieger’s wonderful study, The Splintered Light, she begins by reflecting upon two apparently contradictory elements within Tolkien’s mind and in his work. One is the eucatastrophe of the fairy tale. The entirely unexpected and yet longed for happy ending that transforms all the suffering that has gone before. The other is the dyscatastrophe, the final defeat suffered by even the greatest hero. In his wonderful lecture, The Monsters and the Critics, Tolkien expresses this with heartbreaking poignancy.

“The great earth, ringed with… the shoreless sea, beneath the sky’s inaccessible roof, whereon, as a little circle of light about their halls, men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Champions With Courage as Their Stay. Beren and Lúthien by Alan Lee.

“A little circle of light.” Was Tolkien alluding to this when he drew our attention to the shinings in that most fragile of “halls” in the dell below Weathertop? Perhaps, and so we might ask if the ending of the chapter that is so menacingly entitled, A Knife in the Dark, is the dyscatastrophe, the inevitable defeat suffered by all heroes. Frodo himself cries out in despair when he first learns that the Ring itself draws the Nazgûl towards him, “Is there no escape then?… If I move I shall be seen and hunted! If I shall stay, I shall draw them to me!”

But the tale itself is an inbreaking of light, so bright, into the darkness, that shining eyes, stars and moon are at most a pale reflection of it. For it is the tale of Beren and Lùthien, the greatest of all Tolkien’s love stories, one so precious to him that he wanted those names to be inscribed beneath his and his wife’s names upon their gravestone. Aragorn, whose eyes shine with strange eagerness in the telling of it, perceives his own story as a kind of retelling of the tale.

Edith and John Tolkien. Lúthien and Beren.

“Beren was a mortal man, but Lúthien was the daughter of Thingol, a King of Elves upon Middle-earth when the world was young; and she was the fairest maiden that has ever been among all the children of this world. As the stars above the mists of the Northern lands was her loveliness and in her face was a shining light.”

The Betrothal of Lúthien and Beren by Rasmus

A theme that recurs throughout the tale is one of the power of word and music. Lúthien is enchanted by hearing the sound of her own name upon the lips of Beren while, first Sauron and then Morgoth himself, of whom Sauron was but a servant, are overcome by Lúthien’s song. Does the chanting of the Lay that tells their tale invoke them at a moment in which “the offspring of the dark” make their attack or, perhaps more importantly even than this, invoke the same powers that aided them in their hopeless struggle with the dark? As Aragorn says to Sam after the attack, “More deadly to him [the Witch-king] was the name of Elbereth.”

The finest minds are those that are able to live with the greatest paradox. Surely at this pivotal moment in The Lord of the Rings the invasion of the desperately fragile “circle of light” and the telling of the tale that invokes a hope that is not broken even by the greatest evil is the coming together of Tolkien’s antitheses of eucatastrophe and dyscatastrophe, of heavenly light and the darkness of hell.

The Attack below Weathertop by Rafael Diaz

At Weathertop With a Long Journey Ahead. Frodo Longs to Go Home.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 180-84

There are moments in any great venture in which its sheer scale becomes all too much. There is no shame in such moments. Who, upon setting out on a great journey, can possibly know all that lies ahead? Modern life seems to require the elimination of as much risk and unpredictability as possible. Those who try to sell us a holiday will brand the experience as an adventure but a true adventure is something in life in which the end is uncertain. A holiday, by comparison, is a distraction from our regular routine.

I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t

Later in the story, after he has had much more experience of adventure, Sam will reflect on this with Frodo.

“The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been landed in them, usually- their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect that they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t.”

And it is upon Weathertop, with the first view of snowcapped mountains ahead of him and long leagues of open country between him and the horizon, that Frodo longs to be safe at home, longs to be able to turn back, wishes “bitterly that his fortune had left him in the quiet and beloved Shire.”

Strider Approaches Weathertop with Frodo and Merry

Frodo and his companions have been landed in a story that is quite simply much too big for them. As Gandalf said to Frodo in the sitting room at Bag End it would appear that, first, Bilbo, and then Frodo, were meant to have the Ring. Why this should be is unknown to either them or anyone else. It is not because of their wisdom or might. Later the story will be told about them that will draw attention to both of these qualities but the hobbits will never draw attention to themselves in this regard.

But what of the other heroes that are mentioned in the pages about which we are thinking here? What of Gil-galad and Elendil? They were kings of Elves and of Humankind who were confronted by the might of Sauron at the end of the Second Age. Gil-galad was the last great elven king in Middle-earth, capable of raising an army to fight the Dark Lord in all his power in open battle. Elendil, whose very name means elf-friend, had remained faithful to that friendship when Sauron had seduced Númenor to the worship of Morgoth. He, his family and followers, were literally carried by a great wave to the shores of Middle-earth. It was friendship that brought the last alliance together just as it was friendship that caused the hobbits to leave the Shire with Frodo.

And so it always seems to be. Something compels us to make a choice, to take an action that we never anticipated. There comes a moment in which the thought that we might have to deny something essential about ourselves becomes intolerable. Merry, Pippin and Sam could not have denied their friendship with Frodo to allow him to journey into the wild alone. Elendil could not have denied the friendship that was the meaning of his very name.

And Aragorn, or Strider as we know him in this part of the story, cannot deny the destiny that he must seek to fulfil, spending the years of his manhood as a homeless wanderer in the lands of Middle-earth, sneered at by people like Bill Ferny in Bree. Despite all of his doubts about the hobbits he has promised to save them by life or death if he can.

And so it is on Weathertop, with the signs of Gandalf’s battle about them and the Black Riders assembling on the road beneath them that the companions must try to go on together, hoping against hope.

Alan Lee’s Wonderful Evocation of the Bleak View from Weathertop

A Journey into the Wild Pursued by Enemies. The Hobbits and Strider Set Out From Bree to Rivendell.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp.169-80

Up until this point of the journey the hobbits have been more or less “looked after”. Even though almost from the beginning their steps have been dogged by the pursuit of the deadliest of enemies in the shape of the Nazgûl of Mordor they have been able to find protection from such mighty allies as the company of High Elves led by Gildor Inglorien or Tom Bombadil in the Old Forest and the Barrow Downs. And as well as the hospitality they enjoyed in the house of Tom Bombadil and Goldberry they have been well fed and watered in the farmhouse of the Maggots and the Prancing Pony in Bree.

But now the nature of the journey makes a sudden change with the attack upon the Prancing Pony in the night. The hobbits lose their ponies and set off with a poor half-starved creature belonging to Bill Ferny, the biggest villain in the Breeland, who is certainly in league with the Black Riders and who makes as much money as he can from their misfortune.

When I say, misfortune, I mean the fact that, from their perspective, that what they thought was going to be a road journey by sturdy pony from Bree to Rivendell, has become a hard march, a yomp as soldiers call it, across hard terrain, carrying heavy loads, with no shelter. Their only pony has to carry as much food as it can take for a fortnight’s journey and the hobbits have to take the rest upon their backs. Only Strider is not much discomfited by this. For him a yomp from place to place is normal life and he has but one extra burden to carry and that is the care of four companions about whose capacity to deal with hardship he has many doubts. Butterbur has already voiced these aloud through his remark that the hobbits are acting as if they are on holiday but even with these doubts in mind Strider has already made up his mind.

Strider Leads the Hobbits through the Wild

“I am Aragorn son of Arathorn; and if by life or death I can save you, I will.”

The journey really begins with the crossing of the Midgewater Marshes. Tolkien never liked boggy country. I was about to say that nobody does but at one time a whole way of life was developed by people living in the fenland of eastern England or the Somerset Levels. Those who know their English history will treasure the year 877 when all that remained of free England was the Isle of Athelney hidden deep in the Somerset Levels when Alfred the Great hid there from Danish invaders. Some call this place the birthplace of England, a place so remote that the Danes could not reach it with sufficient forces to capture the king. Others will remember the last defence of Hereward the Wake against the all conquering armies of William of Normandy on the isle of Ely in the Cambridgeshire fens two centuries later when he too used the natural defence of the bog against his enemies. But a bog makes good defence because it is hard to cross by foot. I remember once having to cross one late in the day. I was grateful for the sturdy stick that I had with me. Every step that I took required a careful use of the stick to find ground firm enough to take my weight and I would often use it to swing across from tussock to tussock hoping that I would not miss my footing and find my boots and then my legs disappearing into the ooze. Recently I learned that in the trenches of the First World War British soldiers feared the mud more even than shells exploding about them and that many of them drowned in that mud.

The Isle of Athelney in 877

Tolkien knew the mud of the Western Front at first hand and hated it. Is it a coincidence that two of the great journeys of The Lord of the Rings begin with a journey across marshland, the journey from Bree to Rivendell and later the journey of Frodo and Sam from the Emyn Muil to Mordor. For Tolkien nothing would better express the hardships that lay ahead. For the hobbits even the companionship of the greatest traveller of his age cannot protect them from the hardships that they must now endure.

The Midgewater Marshes looking towards Weathertop by Anna Kulisz

Not All Those Who Wander Are Lost. Gandalf’s Letter Commends Aragorn to the Hobbits.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 160-168

It is Gandalf’s letter that he had left with Barliman Butterbur that eventually convinced the hobbits to trust the strange man who goes by the name of Strider. Of course, when I say, trust, it must be said that Sam Gamgee did not really trust him. Sam has grown up in a small world,”in a little circle of light,” as Tolkien put it in his essay on Beowulf, The Monsters and The Critics, from which “men with courage as their stay went forward to that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark which ends for all, even the kings and champions, in defeat.”

Not that Sam expects his journey to end in defeat. Sam Gamgee is a happy ever after kind of a man who expects things, even the darkest things, to end well. Much will ride upon this quality in the events that lie ahead. But Sam has grown up in a little circle of light and regards the world outside as dark and hostile. He does not know how to distinguish between the offspring of the dark and the kings and champions; not yet at any rate. But the strange man who now stands before the hobbits knows this world very well indeed. Speaking of the Black Riders who are pursuing the hobbits he says:

“They will come upon you in the wild, in some dark place where there is no help.”

They will come upon you in the wild

This man knows about about the offspring of the dark. “They are terrible!” He has wandered the wild and dark places of the earth for many years having been sent out from the circle of light that is Rivendell by Elrond, its lord, who has been as a father to him. I have written about him and his story in greater detail in other places in this blog over the years and if you click on the tag, Aragorn, at the end of this post, you will be able to read these if you so wish but as this is the first time in The Lord of the Rings in which we meet this king and champion it would be good to say a few things about him.

This is Aragorn, son of Arathorn, chieftain of the Rangers of the North, the last of the line of Isildur, son of Elendil, the hero who cut the Ring from the finger of Sauron with the shards of Narsil his father’s sword. Aragorn still carries those shards, “the blade that was broken”, the symbol of his diminished house. And Elrond sent him out from the circle of light to “that battle with the hostile world and the offspring of the dark” when he was a young man in order that he might undergo an apprenticeship that will lead to this crownless one becoming king.

Sustained by Love

In this apprenticeship he serves in the armies of Ecthelion, Steward of Gondor, and of Thengel, King of Rohan and he befriends Gandalf, aiding him in his long struggle against the dark. Through all these long years he is sustained by hope, hope that his wandering will not end in defeat but in the renewing , not just of the blade that was broken but of his people. And he is sustained by love, for he loves Arwen Undómiel, daughter of Elrond, who returned his love, but he cannot win her hand in marriage except as king of both Gondor and of Arnor, the first to sit upon both thrones since the great founder of his house, Elendil and he cannot achieve his longings unless the Dark Lord, Sauron, is finally and utterly defeated. So it is that he meets a hobbit who does “want looking after and no mistake”, who might be “on a holiday” and not at the heart of the greatest events of his age and he has to base all his longing upon this encounter and because of his friendship with Gandalf he chooses to do so. “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”

I began these thoughts with a quotation from Tolkien’s essay on Beowulf. In it Tolkien describes an heroic but ultimately hopeless world. Despite their courage the heroes, “even the kings and champions” are finally defeated in their struggle against the dark. Aragorn has no idea whether or not his story will end in defeat. He has to place his trust, all the longings of his life in this slenderest of threads. Is this a story of hope fulfilled or of defeat and darkness? Will Aragorn’s wanderings end in a homecoming or will he be lost in the wilderness?

There are Many Strange Men On The Roads. Is this the Real Strider?

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.”

Strider in The Prancing Pony by Anthony Foti

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.

The Rangers of the North

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?

My looks are against me

A Strange-Looking Weather-Beaten Man in The Prancing Pony at Bree. Frodo Meets Strider for the First Time.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp 151-159

The common-room of an inn is not the best place in which to remain unnoticed and it becomes even more difficult if the host is skilled at creating a community within it, introducing locals and visitors to one another so that each becomes relaxed in one another’s company, stays a little longer and spends a little more money. All of which might be regarded by those of a suspicious nature as somewhat manipulative but which most of us are willing to accept because the quality of our visit to the inn has been improved thereby.

In The Prancing Pony a marvellous evocation by Katie https://thefandomentals.com/lord-rings-re-read-sign-prancing-pony/

But put a hobbit like Peregrine Took among a company of people most of whom are strangers to one another and who are only too glad to be entertained by a good teller of stories and soon the need to be discreet is forgotten. Pippin begins to tell the story of Bilbo’s farewell party and soon it becomes possible that he might mention the name of Baggins and even speak of the Ring itself.

“You had better do something quick!” whispers a stranger sitting in the corner of the room to Frodo and for the first time in the story we are introduced to Strider.

He is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall… 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. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face”.

Strider in The Prancing Pony

All that Frodo can see of his face is the gleam of his eyes and so everything about him speaks of mystery. Even Butterbur knows very little about him. Strider comes and goes but keeps himself very much to himself. He is one of the Rangers, a “wandering folk”. It isn’t Barliman’s business to inquire too closely into the lives of others. He allows them to keep their lives a secret as long as they do not bring trouble to Bree. But we have been introduced to the Rangers before and by Tom Bombadil. When Tom freed the hobbits from the barrow wight and brought out the treasure from the darkness he spoke of the Men of Westernesse, foes of the Dark Lord but overcome by the evil king of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl, chief of the very Black Riders who have been pursuing the hobbits.

Tom speaks of the Rangers as “sons of forgotten kings walking in loneliness, guarding from evil things folk that are heedless.” And now the heedless folk, the unwary hobbits feeling quite at home in a warm and comfortable inn, meet one of the guardians who have long maintained them in their comfortable life.

Alan Lee’s mysterious evocation of the Rangers of the North

To speak of a once great people as a company who now walk in loneliness is deeply poignant. We might speak of a person who has become closely acquainted with loneliness almost wearing it like a garment but to speak of a whole people in this manner deepens their mystery and its sadness. Imagine being the child of such a people. Imagine an education in which you begin to learn of your ancestry and as you do so begin to realise that your dignity has been fading away for generations. And what dignity! You belong to a race of king, the people of Númenor, the second children of Ilúvatar after the firstborn, the Elves, who are in the world together in a manner unknown to them both to achieve its healing and yet are so diminished now. As you grow up with only a flickering ember of hope to sustain you, you realise that you can only become one of the keepers of this ember if you will embrace the loneliness that is given to you along with your dignity.

As Tom Bombadil spoke of the Rangers the hobbits saw them in their hidden glory as Men, “tall and grim with bright swords, and last came one with a star on his brow”. But now Frodo sits beside one of them who is alone, weather-beaten and smoking in Bree who speaks roughly to him just as Pippin begins to feel just a little too pleased with himself.

At The Sign of The Prancing Pony. The Hobbits Arrive in Bree.

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.

At the Sign of The Prancing Pony

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.

Everyone is made welcome at The Prancing Pony

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.

The Comfortable Sofa before a Good Fire

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.

Barliman Butterbur

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.