IX. At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
Bree-land is an island of habitation in the midst of an empty and wild land. There are four other towns besides Bree itself: Staddle, Combe, Archet, and Chetwood. It is inhabited by brown-haired, rather short people who are cheerful and independent. There’s no one around to govern them, after all, and there hasn’t been a king in the North for a long, long time. Hobbits live here too, and consider their communities to be the oldest Hobbit settlements around, with the Shire being something of an erstwhile offshoot. All sorts of people pass through Bree– Hobbits, Dwarves, and Men of all kinds including a collection of wandering vagabonds they call Rangers. These Rangers, its said, have greater powers of sight and hearing and can speak with birds and other animals. They wander all over and bring news back, but as much as the Bree-landers like hearing this news, they don’t make friends with the Rangers. Their loss.
Frodo and company make their way toward Bree’s western gate, but first Frodo tells them not to call him ‘Baggins’. He is ‘Mr. Underhill’ if they have to use names at all. They don’t know it, but someone is listening in, and it’s not Harry the Dubious Gatekeeper whose job it is to ask questions after nightfall. It is apparently not his job to get answers for these questions, though, and he lets them in without a fuss. He wonders at their presence, and while old Harry’s watching the hobbits go down the street, he misses the shadowy figure slipping over the wall. Harry’s not a very good night watchman. But anyway. Frodo and the other hobbits find their way to The Prancing Pony. It’s an impressive three storeys tall and quite frightening to Sam, who is used to hobbit-holes and houses no more than one storey. He imagines black figures watching them from those high windows and is uncertain about staying there. But Frodo is determined to go where Gandalf told him to, and so they head inside.
They find a crowd inside and it takes a minute to get the landlord, a Mr. Barliman Butterbur, to stand still long enough to ask for what they need– beds for four hobbits and stabling for their five ponies. Frodo gives Butterbur his false name of Underhill, which gives the innkeeper pause before he’s onto the next subject. Soon enough the hobbits are shown to a couple of hobbit-sized rooms (by another hobbit, no less!), and they decide what to do with the rest of their evening. Frodo and Pippin decide to go to the common room and Sam tags along because Frodo’s going. Merry makes the wise decision to stay in their room. They should have followed Merry’s example or at least his advice to mind their Ps and Qs, but alas. No one listens to Merry when they should.
The appearance of hobbits from the Shire causes quite a stir in the common room. The Bree hobbits want to know why they’re there, and Frodo has to make up a reason. He claims he’s writing a book about geography and genealogy. This garners more than enough information to write a book, but when Frodo doesn’t start writing it on the spot, the Bree-hobbits get bored and wander off. Pippin starts telling funny stories about goings-on in the Shire, while Frodo notices that a dark, weather-beaten stranger with an interesting pipe has been staring at him. Barliman says that the man is a Ranger who wanders in and out as he pleases, though he’s been around more often lately. No one knows his real name, but everyone in Bree calls him ‘Strider’ on account of his long legs and many travels. Frodo tentatively strikes up a conversation with this Strider’, and that’s when they notice a problem: Pippin is talking again.
Poor Pippin catches a lot of grief for his foolish ways, but he is the youngest member of the company. Hobbits live longer than Men, and so their maturation is lengthened out, too. They come of age at 33, and when a Hobbit turns 100 it’s equal to a Man turning 80. Later on in the books, Pippin will state his age at 29, so he’s not yet of age. He’s equal to a 16 or 17-year old. He hasn’t had much experience in his life, and suddenly he’s thrown into world-changing events alongside experienced warriors and loremasters. It’s no wonder he appears to be a bit dim-witted in comparison. He’s just a kid.
Buuuut…. Being the outgoing kid that Pippin is, he likes being in the center of attention and telling funny Shire stories puts him right in the middle of it. He’s telling the Bree-landers about Bilbo’s disappearance when Strider and Frodo realize this is a bad thing. There are nefarious strangers who might put two and two together and send word to the black riders who are still out there somewhere. So Frodo interrupts him. But with all eyes on him, Frodo has no idea what to say. He stammers out his thanks for the warm welcome and falls silent until someone demands he sing a song. There’s no Netflix or cable news in Middle-earth, and wandering bards don’t wander this far West. Apparently, new people must also be entertaining. And so Frodo sings a song about a dish, a spoon, a fiddling cat, and a cow that jumps over the moon (the song has survived all this time, but is now a much shorter children’s rhyme). The people of Bree enjoy it so much they demand Frodo sing it again so they can learn it, and Frodo gets so caught up in the song he leaps off the table he’s been standing on.
Jumping off tables is a bad idea. You might break your ankle. Or you might end up putting on a secret, magic Ring of invisibility in front of a room full of people who like to gossip. Bad move, Frodo. Everyone’s freaked out by his sudden disappearance. The shifty-eyed people head out into the night, and everyone else complains to Butterbur about it. Butterbur is unimpressed, stating that, “He’s welcome to go where he will, so long as he pays in the morning.” I have to wonder what sorts of things go on in the Prancing Pony that Frodo’s disappearance doesn’t faze Butterbur.
Frodo, in the meantime, crawls over to sit by Strider and takes the Ring off. He wonders if It has played some sort of trick to draw attention to Itself, and Strider admonishes him for his foolish behavior, then tells Frodo that he wants a word with him when the fuss dies down. Frodo agrees, makes his apologies for the disturbance to Butterbur, who also wants a word with him in private. Then Frodo heads back to their room, wondering if everyone is plotting against him.
It’s dark when Frodo, Sam, and Pippin return to the parlor. Merry’s not there, but no one thinks anything of it while they stir up the fire. Then they realize that Strider’s sitting calmly sitting by the door, and suddenly they’re not thinking about Merry at all. Strider tells them he has some information that will be useful to them, but it will come at a price. No more than they can afford, he claims. Frodo is suspicious. He doesn’t have much money, and it won’t satisfy this ruffian. But Strider doesn’t ask for money. Instead, he demands that the hobbits take him along with them.
Frodo is surprised and suspicious. He demands to know more about this odd man, and Strider is cheered by this news. “Excellent!…. You seem to be coming to your senses again, and that is all to the good. You have been much too careless so far.” He goes on to tell them that, he spied four hobbits coming out of the woods with Tom Bombadil and that he was most interested in the fact that one of the hobbits told the others to use the name of ‘Underhill’, not ‘Baggins’. He slipped into town after them because he was looking for a hobbit named Frodo Baggins, who was carrying a secret that concerned him. He warns them to watch every shadow because the black riders have already been through Bree.
Frodo rues his decision to go to the common room, and Strider agrees. Strider is sensible like that and would have warned them against it, except that Butterbur wouldn’t let him in. Butterbur’s not an agent of dark powers, he’s just suspicious of vagabonds disturbing his guests. Is it weird that an old innkeeper can thwart Strider’s plans after he’s taken the trouble to sneak into town and before he slips into the parlor before the hobbits? Strider can slip through the Enemy’s traps, but an old innkeeper can keep him at bay? What’s up with that? Maybe Strider’s being polite.
Frodo wonders if they’ve slipped past the Black Riders, but Strider warns him against thinking this. The riders might have gone for the moment, but they have spies. And there are people in Bree itself who are untrustworthy– Bill Ferny, for example, has a bad reputation. Once again, Strider asks Frodo to let be their guide. He has wandered all across these lands. He’s older than he looks. He might come in useful. Besides, he knows what these Black Riders are, and he knows the hobbits don’t fear them enough. Strider knows things.
But will Frodo accept his help? Sam advises him not to. This Strider is from the Wild, and everyone knows people like that are bad news. Pippin looks uncomfortable. Frodo is hesitant to say yes without knowing a good deal more about Strider.
There’s a knock at the door. Butterbur has brought candles and, he nervously admits, a letter he was supposed to have delivered a long time ago but forgot about. It was from Gandalf, who will likely now turn him into a block of wood for forgetting the letter, but there’s nothing to be done now. He didn’t mean any harm, but couldn’t find a messenger to take it to the Shire, and then he forgot all about it. He’s a busy man, after all. But now the letter’s intended recipient is here, and trouble’s not far off.
Strider stands up then and takes Butterbur to task for not letting him in to see Frodo. It would have saved them all trouble if he had. Butterbur, meanwhile, warns Frodo not to take up with Strider.
This aggravates Strider to no end. “Then who would you take up with?’ asked Strider. ‘A fat innkeeper who only remembers his own name because people shout it at him all day?…. They have a long road before them. Will you go with them and keep the black men off?” Butterbur recoils at this. He can’t imagine leaving Bree, but Strider has put the fear of Mordor into the innkeeper. Even here in Bree, far from that dark land people still fear the name of Mordor. Butterbur promises to do whatever he can to help the hobbits and tells them he’ll have everything ready for their departure early the next morning. Then he hurries off, and everyone turns back to the letter.
Gandalf wrote it back in June (it’s late September by now, remember), and warned Frodo to get out of the Shire by July at the latest. He had business of his own to attend to and would follow when he could. A man named Strider could be trusted if they met up with him, and so could Butterbur. He writes that Frodo should head for Rivendell, and if Gandalf didn’t arrive, Elrond would advise him. Then comes a poem that pretty much everyone has seen at least part of. It shows up on bumper stickers everywhere:
“All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost;
The old that is strong does not wither,
Deep roots are not reached by the frost.
From the ashes a fire shall be woken,
A light from the shadow shall spring;
Renewed shall be blade that was broken,
The crownless again shall be king.”
The poem is about Strider, whose real name, according to Gandalf, is Aragorn. With that, Frodo knows Strider is a friend. But why didn’t he tell them all that he was a friend of Gandalf? I think that’s a valid question. If your friend has told you to look out for his friend, wouldn’t it make sense to tell his friend he sent you?
Then again, would they have believed? Maybe not. At any rate, Strider knew nothing of the letter and didn’t know he could count on Gandalf’s belated proof of identity. Strider also had to make sure of the hobbits. They aren’t the only ones being hunted. The Enemy has set traps for Strider before. And besides, he says, a lonely and hunted man gets tired of being lonely and hunted and seeks friendship. I have to admit, though, that showing up in a person’s hotel room and demanding they take him on their trip is an odd way to make friends. But Pippin and Frodo relax, but Sam is still suspicious. Sam is often suspicious. His other nickname could be Samwise the Suspicious. I mean, how do they really know this is Strider? What if this guy killed the real Strider on the road and stole his clothes? But Strider makes a good point to counter that– if he wanted the Ring, he could kill the hobbits and take it now, and there would be nothing they could do about it. Fortunately for the hobbits, this is indeed the real Strider. He is Aragorn, son of Arathorn and he declares that “If by life or death I can save you, I will.”
Frodo is relieved. “I believed you were a friend before the letter came…or at least I wished to. You have frightened me several times tonight, but never in the way that the servants of the Enemy would, or so I imagine. I think one of his spies would- well, seem fairer and feel fouler…” Perhaps not the best way to compliment someone, but Strider gets it. He looks scraggly, but he has the broken blade the letter spoke of and he shows it to them, saying that the time is coming when it will be forged anew.
Sam is finally satisfied, and Strider calls the matter settled. He will lead them to Rivendell via Weathertop, a hill with a view. They wonder at Gandalf’s disappearance. Strider hasn’t seen him for months, and didn’t hear about Frodo’s being on the road until Gildor Inglorion wold him of it. Have the Black Riders done him in? Strider thinks only the Enemy could have done that. The SHirefolk have no idea how powerful he truly is, and as this business with the Ring is the Reason Gandalf is there, nothing minor will put him off the trail. Pippin yawns then. In spite of everything, he needs to go to bed or sleep in his chair. That’s when the hobbits suddenly realize that Merry still isn’t there. I realize there’s been a lot of excitement tonight, but to totally forget your cousin and friend? Rude, guys. Really rude.
They don’t have to wonder long, though. A door slams and Merry bursts in, followed by one of Butterbur’s employees, Nob. Merry declares that he has seen the Black Riders in the village. He’d gone out for a breath of fresh air, then felt that some horrible shadow was near. He was drawn to it as it went down the Road and he followed it until sheer dread made him pass out. Nob had gone looking for him (nice of the hired help to do what his friends did not) and found a pair of dark figures lifting something. He shouted and scared them off, and found Merry lying there, apparently asleep. Merry woke, mumbled something about falling into water, and took off back to the inn.
Strider says the feeling that overtook Merry was ‘the Black Breath’ (this will come up later) and that the Black Riders will certainly know that the hobbits are there. Will the inn come under attack? It’s hard to say. There are lights and people here, and it would make more sense for the Riders to attack them in the wilderness. Still, he advises them not to stay in their assigned rooms tonight. They lock the door, turn out the lights, draw the shutters over the window, and settle in for a long night.
Next week: Things get serious; Strider takes them on a short cut through a long patch of wilderness, and Frodo has an unfortunate meet and greet with the Witch-king of Angmar