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.
“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.
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 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.