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.

The Grey Company Come to Aragorn

As Théoden and his escort ride toward Edoras they are overtaken by a company of horsemen riding hard. After initial fears that it is an attack they learn that the riders are Rangers of the North who have come to give aid to Aragorn, their kinsman and that with them have come also Elladan and Elrohir, the sons of Elrond of Rivendell. Aragorn is delighted. Only thirty have come but, as Théoden declares, “If these kinsmen be in any way like to yourself, my lord Aragorn, thirty such knights will be a strength that cannot be counted by heads.”

And Théoden is right. This is a mighty company of knights hardened in battle and loyal to their lord. The peaceful communities of Bree and the Shire have long been their care and little peace would they have known without it. So careful have they been to hide what they do that they have received little honour from the peoples that they have protected. Aragorn’s name of Strider by which he first introduced himself to Frodo and his companions at The Prancing Pony in Bree, is no affectionate pet name but a dismissal of one who is little regarded.

And yet the Rangers of the North are Dunedain, sons and daughters of Númenor and the once proud kingdom of Arnor. Over the long years since the wars against the witch kingdom of Angmar they have dwindled and their lord can no longer call himself, king, but only their chieftain, yet they have not shrunken into themselves as Saruman does after the fall of Isengard, who, even when he becomes lord of the Shire, is found to be living in miserable squalor. Their numbers may be few but they are a people who know their own greatness.

And this is because of Aragorn, their lord. Some years ago I came across some words of the 16th century Anglican theologian, Richard Hooker, that made a deep impression upon me then and still do today. “How are the people to know that they are faithful unless their captains tell them?”

To know myself as faithful is to know that my life has a purpose, a meaning and a value because it has been given to something greater than itself and it has been given well. The reason why the Rangers do not need the praise of the Shire and of Bree is because they have the praise of one that they honour far beyond them. Aragorn, their lord, named Estel, or Hope, by Gilraen his mother, raised by Elrond of Rivendell, befriended by Gandalf the Grey, loved by Arwen Undomiel, who fought with Rohan and Gondor as a young man is one whose praise is to be sought above any that they know. Think of Aragorn’s first words when he greets them.

“Halbarad!” he said. “Of all joys this is the least expected!”

Then think how you would feel if someone that you greatly respect spoke words like that to you. This is a people who know that they are faithful because their captain has told them and in knowing it they grow into the knights that Théoden speaks of. They are not simply a band of horsemen but a company of knights errant who have come to follow their lord wherever he goes even if it is unto death.

How much we need leaders like that today. Leaders who are praiseworthy in themselves because we know that they are willing to make great personal sacrifice for the sake of those who follow them and who make their followers as much a part of the enterprise that they share together as they are themselves. Too often it seems that the true purpose of an enterprise is to enrich a small number of people while many within it make great personal sacrifice simply to earn enough to get by. When things go wrong it is the loyal followers who must pay the price while the leaders walk away enriched by what others have given to them.

Aragorn is not such a leader. There are some that I have met who have something of his quality but not many. And it is a challenge to me to give thought to how I can be such a leader to others. My sphere of influence may not be great but I can make a difference within it.