Return of the Kings at the Prancing Pony

I posted a few days ago on the hints Tolkien gives us along the way of the existence of the hobbit “Conspiracy” long before it is “unmasked” in ch. 5 of book 1 of the Fellowship. In a similar fashion, before the reader even meets Strider at the Prancing Pony, Tolkien has already given some clues as to his identity. When Frodo first notices Strider, what he sees is “a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, [who] was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk…. A travel-stained cloak of heavy dark-green cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face.” It’s not clear whether we are supposed to suspect, or at least wonder, whether this man is himself a Black Rider, but there doesn’t seem to be anything to rule it out as a possibility, except that Frodo is able to see the “gleam of his eyes.” Perhaps Tolkien wants us to wonder whether he is a Black Rider while simultaneously giving us the evidence–whether we recognize it as such or not–for why he can’t be. At the very least, it would be reasonable for the (attentive) reader to wonder if this mysterious figure is at all connected with the “dark figure” who, when the hobbits turn their backs from speaking to the Bree gatekeeper, “climbed quickly in over the gated and melted into the shadows of the village street.” For as it turns out, this figure, whom we are led to wonder if it is a Black Rider, is in fact Strider.

When Frodo asks Butterbur who the man is, however, he tells him that he “don’t rightly know,” but that “He is one of the wandering folk–Rangers we call them.” Butterbur goes on to say describe Strider in the following words:

He seldom talks: not but what he can tell a rare tale when he has the mind. He disappears for a month, or a year, and then he pops up again. He was in and out pretty often last spring; but I haven’t seen him about lately. What his right name is I’ve never heard: but he’s known round here as Strider. Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks; though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry.

What Butterbur says here of Strider, however, is merely a particular instance and illustration of the reader has already learned about Rangers at the beginning of the chapter. As Tolkien writes there:

In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin. They were taller and darker than the Men of Bree and were believed to have strange powers of sight and hearing, and to understand the languages of beasts and birds. They roamed at will southwards, and eastwards even as far as the Misty Mountains; but they were now few and rarely seen. When they appeared they brought news from afar, and told strange forgotten tales which were eagerly listened to; but the Bree-folk did not make friends of them.

Strider, then, is simply one of these “Rangers,” a “mysterious,” dwindling and wandering folk who are “taller and darker” than other men, had “strange powers of sight and hearing and are able to commune with animals. What is important to note, however, is that the Rangers are only introduced after–immediately after, mind you–a discussion of the ancient kings of Númenor. The Men of Bree, we are told, counted themselves the “descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoils of the Elder Days: but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.” What this passage says is that the Men of Bree who were there when Númenórean kings first returned from over the sea are still there now, whereas the memory of the kings themselves has become forgotten. What the passage carefully does not say is that the Númenórean kings themselves were no longer there, for of course, the reality is that, while they may be forgotten, they are not gone.

As I say, it is immediately on the heels of this discussion that the narration turns to the Rangers. “In those days no other Men has settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers, and knew nothing of their origin.” The reason the Bree-folk knew nothing of their origins, it turns, is one that we have already been told: these are the descendants of the Númenóreans from over the sea whose memory has now “faded into the grass.” And this is who Strider is.

Thus, long before the reader gets to the third part of The Lord of the Rings and its theme of the “return of the king,” he is introduced to those ancients kings who long ago “returned” to Middle-earth over the Great Sea to find men living in Bree, kings whose identity has since become forgotten, but not, as it turns out, because they are no longer present. And it is the descendent and heir to these kings who has made yet another “return” to Bree and whom we meet with Frodo “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony.”



Immigration Policy in Bree-Land

I’ve written before on the relative libertarianism of the Bree-landers. In another passage in the chapter “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony,” we get a sense of their ambivalent views on the prospect of a large number of immigrants to their area:

The Men and Dwarves were mostly talking of distant events and telling news of a kind that was becoming only too familiar. There was trouble away in the South, and it seemed that the Men who had come up the Greenway were on the move, looking for lands where they could find some peace. The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. ‘If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk,’ he said loudly. The local inhabitants did not look pleased at the prospect.

Addendum: the pro-immigration squint-eyed fellow is, it should be noted, is Bill Ferny’s companion whom Strider suspects as a spy and whom Butterbur suspects of being a horse-thief.


Bree-land, enclave of Libertarianism

A post on what might be described as the “libertarianism” of Tolkien’s Bree-landers. I have commented before on Aragorn’s “laissez-fair love of Bree.” Yet what first prompts Gandalf’s remark about the King of Gondor’s affection for Bree, it is worth noting, is Butterbur’s concern that the new monarch should at once restore order and yet “let Bree alone,” an anti-interventionist outlook that Barliman seems to share with many of his fellow Bree-landers. Much earlier in The Lord of the Rings, when Bree-land is first introduced, her men are described as “brown-haired, broad, and rather short, cheerful and independent: they belonged to nobody but themselves…” Upsetting the stereotype, this independent spirit, rather than making them especially isolationist, segregationist, and prejudiced, seems rather to have made them more, not less open and cordial to those different from themselves: “they were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants of the world about them than was (or is) usual with Big People.” This libertarian tendency, moreover, seems to be connected with (interestingly enough) their pioneer, frontiersman origins:

According to their own tales they were the original inhabitants and were the descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world…. [W]hen the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Breemen still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass. In those days no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire.

For most readers, of course, it is not the comparatively more commercial and cosmopolitan Bree, but the secluded, idyllic, rustic, bucolic, and semi-anarchic Shire (Tolkien describes it in one place as “half republic half aristocracy”), that stands out as the political ideal in The Lord of the Rings. Yet the Shire’s original founding as a colony of the hobbits of Bree-land implies that the latter may in part, if not in large, be responsible for whatever passion for limited-government and responsible self-rule that the Shire-folk inherited (similar, and perhaps not wholly unrelated to, their inheriting from the comparatively more innovative Bree-hobbits the noble practice of pipe-smoking). As the unique political situation of Bree-land is further described, “The Big Folk and the Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk. Nowhere else in the world was this peculiar (but excellent) arrangement to be found.” Clearly, for the narrator, if not for Tolkien, in some ways it is the unique polity (such as it is) of Bree-land that represents a kind of political ideal, one from which the comparatively insular and isolated Shire-folk have to some extent unfortunately departed. More than mere accidental participants in this remarkable situation, moreover, this enlightened perspective seems to be essential to the identity of the Bree-hobbits in particular: “There was Bree-blood in the Brandybucks by all accounts.” It is thus with more than a hint of irony and understatement that we are told how the Shire-hobbits regard their distant relatives in Bree as “Outsiders,” “dull and uncouth,” when the latter were in fact “decent and prosperous, and no more rustic than most of their distant relatives Inside.”

Given the Shire’s later political misfortunes toward the end of The Lord of the Rings, we might wonder, in conclusion, what role (if any) the apparent failure of her hobbits to achieve the Bree-lander’s delicate balance–a synthesis between spirited independence and a cooperative symbiosis of heterogeneous groups–may have played in the Shire’s eventual vulnerability, first, to the capitalist aggrandizement of Lotho Baggins, followed in turn and replaced by the socialist tyrannies of Saruman-cum-Sharkey.

Other posts on Tolkien’s political/social philosophy.