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Rómenna Meeting Report - January 13, 1985
January 13, 1985
In honor of this month's discussion being about Bree, our hosts had provided for the attending Rómenna members a veritable feast of good hobbitlike fare: bread and cheese, scones both with currants and without, a loaf of spice bread, butter, honey and strawberry preserves, stuffed mushrooms, mulled cider, and root beer (the other kind not being available). After making some inroads on this splendid repast, we settled down to discuss the arrival and sojourn of Frodo and his companions at the sign of the Prancing Pony.
The Bree-folk are described as "decent," which seems to mean more or less that they were similar to the Shirefolk: mostly farmers, country people. Like the Shirefolk they tend to be suspicious of the unusual, though because of their location and history the Bree-folk are a bit more open to strangers. We wondered whether hobbits were inherently parochial. We compared their country with English country towns in the real world, as well as some rural areas in the United States, such as backwoods Tennessee. Per said that Bree reminded him of a village in England he had visited called Thaxton, a back-of-beyond place where everybody knew everybody else and they all came to the pub every night. Similarly, the Prancing Pony has its regular patrons and Butterbur knows them all by name. We wondered whether such small enclaves were a widespread pattern. Middle-earth at this time was fairly anarchic, with few actual nations or states. Gondor was one of these few (like Byzantium in the Middle Ages); it was just about the only one with a standing army, for instance. Even in Rohan when war was at hand the levies had to be called up.
Bree also has the distinction of being a place where Hobbits and Men live peacefully side by side. It was pointed out that the two races are closely related and thus not incompatible. The hobbits live in the hillier parts of the Bree-land and the Men in the flatter areas, and the whole arrangement works out very well. Sam is not used to Men, however, and is dismayed by their "tall houses" (which are all of three stories high). It was pointed out that because of the hobbits' smaller size, even a two-story building in the Shire would probably be able to fit into the room we were in. The inhabitants of the Bree-land tend to go in for "botanical" surnames that sound odd to the Shire-hobbits; even some of the Bree hobbits have them, though others have names similar to or the same as names used in the Shire.
We noted that the village of Bree is protected by a dike (a deep ditch, probably with an earth wall on one side made of the dirt dug out of the ditch) and a hedge. This would probably be adequate protection for the everyday kind of trouble that the Bree-folk might expect: wolves, bandits, and so forth. A thick, prickly hedge is an effective barrier against most things. There are gates in the hedge for the Road to pass through, and gatekeepers at the gates. It was pointed out that the gatekeeper's job was not to defend the gate, but to keep an eye on it, let people in at night after it had been shut, and make a racket if somebody tried to get in who wasn't wanted. At about this point the buzzer rang, heralding a late arrival, and was promptly dubbed "Butterbur."
The buzzer's namesake came in for some discussion after the latecomer had been let in. Butterbur is an important and well-known figure in Bree, being kind of the "inn, general store and postman." His inn is the social center of the four villages, as well as being a convenient meeting place for travelers. Just about everyone who traveled in those parts stopped in Bree, though we noted that there was no mention of the Elves doing so. It was pointed out that there weren't that many Elves left in the Third Age, and they tended to keep to themselves. (The hobbits called them the "Fair Folk"--in contrast to the Big Folk and the Little--much as the fairies are so called in English folklore.) Besides, the hobbits' meeting with Gildor's company proved that the Elves could provide their own good cheer almost anywhere they found themselves. Travelers who wanted to meet with other travelers would often arrange to meet in Bree. Being at an old crossroads, it was easy to find, no mean thing in a time and place with few roads and no road maps. These days it's hard for us to remember how difficult it could be to find places without such conveniences.
When Frodo and his companions arrive in Bree, the gatekeeper regards them with great suspicion, which in turn serves to make them (and the reader) suspicious as well. The innkeeper is welcoming, however. The description of the Prancing Pony recalls an English country inn. The question was raised whether Bob, one of the inn servants, is a hobbit or a Man. We decided that since he's the ostler, he's probably a Man, since the picture of a hobbit trying to handle a full-grown horse is pretty ridiculous.
Frodo's apprehension about Pippin's expansiveness in the common room was discussed. He is afraid both that Pippin will "blow his cover" by bringing to mind the name of Baggins, especially if there have been recent queries in Bree for one of that name, and that he might get so forgetful as to mention the Ring. Prompted by Strider, who makes his first acknowledged appearance here (we saw him climbing over the gate earlier), Frodo intervenes, only to blow it much more badly than Pippin could have. We wondered about the causes of the Ring's trick, and whether the Nazgűl who were present in Bree at the time could have had anything to do with it. None of them could actually have been in the room without anybody knowing it (the miasma of fear they exude makes them rather conspicuous), but their agents were: Bill Ferny and the "squint-eyed Southerner." This Southerner, by the way, is identified elsewhere as originally Saruman's agent, and a Dunlending. He has recently met up with the Nazgűl and has been "persuaded" to help them. On the other hand, the Nazgűl need not have had anything to do with Frodo's "accident"; as shown by the examples of Isildur and Gollum, the Ring is quite capable of mischief on its own. We noted that Frodo's disappearing act made the locals more angry than fearful; they feel they've been made fools of and leave in a huff. One wonders if they remembered to pay their bill. . . Butterbur does not seem unduly put out, however, since he knows that they'll all be back for many nights to come in order to discuss the phenomenon thoroughly.
We then passed on to a discussion of Strider (with David taking up at this point a suitably long clay pipe for "atmosphere," though he refused suggestions that he don cloak and boots). Strider's manner in the common room is "cloak-and-daggerish," and he continues to act mysterious during part of his interview with the hobbits. Once he has used this ploy to make them aware of their danger, he has to try to convince them to trust him so that he can help them. In speaking of the Black Riders he says he knows more of them than the hobbits do; we wondered if he had actually had contact with the Nazgűl. After searching through the available sources we had to leave the question undecided. Gandalf's letter helps the hobbits to accept Strider, but Sam is still suspicious, whereupon the Ranger switches to what we called "Aragorn mode," the proud, kingly manner that he evidences occasionally (and which in later appearances is often accompanied by long strings of his names and titles): "If I wanted the Ring, I could have it--now!"; and he seems to grow taller. Sam is at length convinced. At this point Merry reappears, having gone out for a walk and had a run-in with a Nazgűl. The hobbits and Strider prepare for the night and a possible attack as the chapter closes.
So where has Gandalf been all this time? We made a brief excursion into the chronology of Gandalf's escape from Saruman. There are two versions in the Unfinished Tales, but they both agree that he escaped on the 18th of September. At this point in the story he has just about reached the Shire after visiting Rohan and making friends with Shadowfax, and has presumably found Frodo gone only a few days ago, since Butterbur never got his letter delivered. The logistics of getting a letter from Bree to Hobbiton were mentioned: Butterbur would either have to find someone who was going to the Shire on business of his own, or send someone; he apologizes later that he couldn't find anyone willing to go to the Shire at first, and that he couldn't spare any of his own people for that long (it would be two days at least, there and back). Once the letter got to the Shire, of course, the Shire postal service was available.
At that point we left off the discussion and again attacked the food, after settling on time, place and topic for the next meeting.