Reading Middle-earth — Chapter 9: At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
Frodo and the hobbits arrive in Bree and lodge at The Prancing Pony. Bree is unfamiliar to the hobbits, who aren’t comfortable in the world of “big folk”, but the town isn’t unwelcoming. In fact, the inn, with its generous meal of simple food and drink, is more like the world they’ve left than any of their experiences on the road so far.
After dinner, Frodo draws the eye of Strider, a rough, hooded ranger—a group held in both awe and disrepute by the locals—and soon finds himself the centre of attention. The Ring works its subtle will and the hobbits once again find themselves out of their depth.
The Inn at the Crossroads
I like Bree. It’s not very well developed as a setting, but I like the idea of Bree. It’s a town on a crossroad; the inn is the centre of social life, bringing in locals and wayfarers; Bree also exists in the shadow of the old northern kingdom. At Bree, the overgrown “greenway” from the north runs down to meet the road that swept first Bilbo and then Frodo into the wide world. Bree even has men and hobbits living side by side.
And although Bree isn’t the wide world, the wide world passes through Bree. The Pony’s common area is full of parties from far away: dwarves bringing their business from mountain to mountain, men from the south fleeing trouble, and hobbits from the Shire—a rarity, according to the innkeeper—flying from danger into danger, though their host is unaware. The hobbits are glad to have news, but it’s hard to get news without being noticed. Going unnoticed is even harder when Strider is the one watching.
A Ranger of the North
I enjoy gradual revelations that maintain tension, and despite Strider’s quick transition from potential foe to friend I like the ambiguity in Frodo’s initial interactions with him. Strider’s weatherbeaten appearance and worldweary manner present him as more than a rogue but not quite an uncomplicated champion.
But in the common room of The Prancing Pony he isn’t the king-in-waiting yet. He’s vaguely threatening and makes Frodo uneasy with his knowledge—who is this mysterious stranger. Even if I already know, I love finding out all over again!
"Suddenly Frodo noticed that a strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall, was also listening intently to the hobbit-talk. 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 cloth was drawn close about him, and in spite of the heat of the room he wore a hood that overshadowed his face; but the gleam of his eyes could be seen as he watched the hobbits."
Chapter 9 introduces readers to yet another form of Evil. The barrow-wights in were a a dark hand reaching out of the past; a very real but bounded force of elemental malice. The wights hate life; a man like Bill Ferny likely loves his too much.
“But there was one swarthy Bree-lander [Bill Ferny], who stood looking at them with a knowing and half-mocking expression that made them feel very uncomfortable. Presently he slipped out of the door, followed by the squint-eyed southerner: the two had been whispering together a good deal during the evening. Harry the gatekeeper also went out just behind them.”
These are men looking to profit from the loss of others, whether they enjoy it or ignore it doesn’t matter because they’ll benefit either way. Chapter 10 paints a fuller picture of Ferny’s common viciousness and how, without excusing evil, even bad things can work themselves out for good—at least for one pony.
Keep Reading Middle-earth
In Chapter 10: Strider, we learn more about the mysterious ranger, of the danger closing in, and finally get some news from Gandalf.