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.

Wisdom From The Lord of the Rings

My first encounter with The Lord of the Rings came when I was 13 years old and a pupil at The Royal Grammar School in High Wycombe, England. The Royal Grammar Schools were originally founded by Queen Elizabeth I and so are younger than J.R.R Tolkien’s alma mater, King Edward VI School in Birmingham, but only by a few years. When I arrived at the RGS in 1967 it had not long since celebrated the 400th anniversary of its original foundation.

My introduction to Tolkien’s great tale came through two sources. One was my English teacher, Mr Roger Humphries and the other was my classmate, Jonathan Flint. Jonathan was the son of the commander of RAF Akrotiri in Cyprus, the Royal Air Force’s largest overseas base, and still very much in active use today. I will be forever grateful to him for sharing his love of The Lord of the Rings with me and for selling me my first copy of the book, a paperback in a single volume, for 25 shillings. For me that represented five Saturday mornings’ work on the farm nearby that my father ran for a member of the Rowntree family (the famous confectioners originally of York). That was how I earned my pocket money back then. It was worth every penny then and now. Jonathan also shared his love for poetry with me which has been another lifelong gift for which I will always be deeply grateful.

I think that Jonathan got to know Mr Humphries at Tylers Wood house, a house once owned by a Nobel Prize winning scientist and which was lived in by about 25 boys at the school between the ages of 11 and 18 many of whom, like Jonathan, were the sons of senior military officers posted overseas. At the end of each term they would fly out to different parts of the world to rejoin their families. Mr Humphries had achieved legendary status at Tylers Wood when a group of boys had barricaded themselves into a room and resisted all demands to open the door. Mr Humphries gloriously put his shoulder to the door, smashing it from its frame and hinges. The boys within the room surrendered immediately and Mr Humphries was adored forever after. It was the kind of display of masculinity that boys both aspire to and worship.

I was one of the worshippers but sadly he did not think much of me. He regarded my work as mediocre at best and I think he was right. Jonathan was his favourite pupil but as I was an admirer of Jonathan too I never resented it. I only wished that he would notice me too.

Over the next 40 years or so I read and re-read The Lord of the Rings and later The Hobbit, greeting the publication of The Silmarillion with great excitement. I came to share Tolkien’s Christian faith when an undergraduate at university although not his Roman Catholicism. Like C.S Lewis and Charles Williams I found my home within Anglicanism and was eventually ordained as a minister in The Church of England in Birmingham in 1988. I have stayed in that part of the world ever since, marrying a doctor who at that time was working in one of the city hospitals, and we have had two daughters together and now live in a cottage (our Crickhollow) in the Worcestershire countryside just a few miles from the farm that was once owned by Tolkien’s aunt and called Bag End.

I think that it took me a long time to develop a confidence in my own voice. For too long I tried to imitate somebody else’s. I think that is why Mr Humphries did not think much of me. There wasn’t much of a me about whom he could actually think.

It was about ten years ago that finally I began to think that I might have something worth saying about the book that I had loved for so long. I began to try to write about it but nothing seemed to quite work. The breakthrough came in 2012 when I first discovered blogging. I realised that although I struggled to write the kind of lengthy sustained argument that would form a chapter of a book I could write a short piece of about 500 to 700 words and I started to do so. My first efforts were published on a website that I created after buying a package and they were read by just a handful of people. A friendly press officer of my acquaintance suggested that I learn to use Twitter to publicise my work and it was there that providentially I met Brenton Dickieson   https://apilgriminnarnia.com and Sørina Higgins https://sorinahiggins.wordpress.com , both of whom have encouraged my work ever since.

It was through Brenton’s encouragement that I first published my blog on WordPress in October 2013. I had just completed my reflections on The Fellowship of the Ring, reflections that hardly anyone read, and was starting to write about The Two Towers. I began to write a short piece each week learning how to write by just doing it. By the end 2015 my readership had grown to about 15 a day. I think that what kept me going were the comments that people around the world were leaving. I began to develop a correspondence with people, most of whom I had never met, about a book that I loved. I am grateful to every person who has left a comment on the blog. You have no idea how much your encouragement has helped me to develop my writing.

Towards the end of 2016 a kind of breakthrough was made when I had more than 1,000 views in a month for the first time. This is now over 2,500 and it is still growing. Thank you to everyone who reads my work.

Last week I wrote a piece entitled, Well I’m Back, Tolkien’s famous “flat ending” to The Lord of the Rings. It was the end of a six year project. What I hope to do now is to relaunch it. As I said, hardly anyone read what I wrote about The Fellowship or The Two Towers for that matter and I have been developing my style all the way through that time. I have also been learning a lot about what Tolkien was doing through his work. I have never wanted to write a scholarly work with footnotes and all but I can’t ignore the scholars either, nor do I want to. I think that we might be at the beginning of a quiet revolution in scholarship today. Those of you who listen to Alan Sisto and Shawn Marchese’s excellent podcast https://theprancingponypodcast.com will have heard an interview with the great Prof Tom Shippey recently in which he said that he thought that Signum University might be the way forward in scholarship. By the way, Sørina Higgins is Chair of the Department of Language and Literature at Signum. Brenton Dickieson also teaches there. I would be honoured to make a small contribution at what I deliberately wish to be a popular level of writing.

So please do come back dear readers when I start at the beginning of The Fellowship of the Ring next week. You will see a few changes and one or two innovations but just as I know that many of you do, after you have finished a reading of The Lord of the Rings, I hope that you will start again at the beginning and that we will read it together.