For the first time in ages 10 of us gathered to continue accompanying Frodo, Sam, Merry and Pippin on their dangerous journey into Bree and beyond. Carol joined the quest by email as usual. Some of her comments are in the report, the rest are added at the end.
Angela began our discussion with her remark that the ‘Prancing Pony’ and ‘Strider’ chapters include a good deal of xenophobia with guarded comments among the characters about ‘outsiders’ and ‘Southerners’. Laura wondered if this was Tolkien’s vision of insular reaction to the arrival of the Saxon tribes.
Tim observed that this was an extension of the concept of an insular society which in LotR includes Hobbiton. The insularity there might be compared to the situation in Buckland, although there is very little sign of interaction with the world outside the Shire here too, and even the Old Forest is ‘insulated’ from outside influences. Tim also noted that there are more different kinds of people in Bree but it is still an insular community.
Angela noted that Bree is protected by Rangers, but while the inhabitants of the Shire don’t know about the protecting Rangers, the folk of Bree know the Rangers but not their function.
Ian commented that the Breelanders think the Rangers are vagabonds, and though the Big Folk are part of their everyday lives, they still think of Strider as an outsider.
Eileen remarked that at this first reading (for her) she doesn’t know if the Rangers can be trusted, or Strider.
I raised Carol’s point about topography of Breeland and beyond being the history of Middle-earth, telling obliquely of the Last Alliance. Tim commented that the hobbits experience a ‘Tour Guides’ during this early part of the story as a succession characters lead and educate the hobbits in the wider world and its history.
Ian compared Tom Bombadil, who can tell the hobbits everything, while Strider relates extracts of historical epics to them because he’s part of the ongoing epic, but Tom IS the narrative, having lived it.
Laura observed that we don’t know anyone from 3,000 years ago in England, but in Middle-earth historical figures from that ancient date are known. Ian commented that this is because there are immortal beings able to remember and transmit.
I then mentioned the gatekeeper’s recognition of the hobbits by their Shire dialect, and Angela and Julie both noted that Sam’s suspicions of Strider are in part aroused by the fact that his mode of speech changes during the first evening. Angela wondered whether Sam’s distrust of Strider was due to his limited experience.
In answer to Carol’s wondering who climbed over the gate, we noted that Harry Goatleaf was not a good gatekeeper because both Strider climbed over the gate and the he let Black Riders through.
Ian noted that there are 3 time during which the oddness of the appearance of the Shire hobbits is commented upon, including by the passing fox in the Shire.
Laura remarked that the Prancing Pony chapter is humorous, adding new characters, and Angela cited Butterbur’s observation that ‘There was too much of that Mr. Underhill to go vanishing…’ Ian thought the chapter adds drama.
Tim commented that this chapter is Frodo’s first use of the Ring in public. Angela reminded us that he had used it in Tom’s house, and Tim added that Bree is its first perilous use.
Laura remarked that the Ring has perhaps become a character in its own right now the Black Riders are in the vicinity.
Laura and Tim both turned their attention to the Cat and Fiddle Song, and noted that the song creates its own history, and that Bob, Butterbur’s help, has a cat.
Ian thought the song was a cute way of taking a bit of folklore and appropriating it to his own ends.
Laura then wondered if Fatty Lumpkin could have been the model for the Prancing Pony inn sign, or is Fatty a descendant of the Mearas? Angela remarked that Fatty does not seem to be a mortal horse. Tim raised a possible connection with Orome the hunter and thus the Vala most associated with horses. Then we wondered why Sam called the pony ‘Bill’, and Tim replied that it may have been to signify that Ferny was no better than a pony.
Eileen wondered if Sam throwing an apple at Bill Ferny might not have fired up Ferny even more, considering his apparently wicked character. Tim thought Sam’s reaction to Ferny’s snide insults was the apt response to a bully. Eileen observed that this is the first time Sam fights back.
We then considered the gatekeeper as Julie remarked that the gatekeeper has been consorting with Ferny. Mike commented that a gate implies a different set of rules and someone in charge, like the city-states of ancient Greece. Ian compared the gate into the Old Forest, and remarked that the Bree gate seems to indicate administration and organisation but there is no sign of this, only a general wariness.
I wondered whether Strider’s admission that he has ‘rather a rascally look’ is just a sign of his hard life, or whether it is something he cultivates. Angela replied that he may be intended to give the Breelanders something to look at! Tim observed that it is better to go unwashed in the wild so as not to be noticed.
When I asked Carol’s question relating to Tom’s, and now Strider’s use of the 3rd person when referring to himself, Ian considered ‘Strider’ to be a character guide and he thought that like ‘Tom Bombadil’ it signified that he was not a ‘white knight’ hero, but each was still accepted as a guide. Angela thought it connoted Strider’s vulnerability, while Eileen thought the use of an alias distanced his persona. Mike expanded on this by suggesting that when Strider refers to himself in the 3rd person he is acknowledging this as a persona with a separate role.
Tim suggested it hinted at the affectations of kingship, and I digressed by mentioning that in Elizabethan times the theory of ‘the King’s Two Bodies’ separated the physical body of the monarch from the monarch as head of the body politic and conveyer of the legitimate blood royal.
Ian suggested that Strider’s variable identity reminds us that Tolkien did not know what would come next once the hobbits reached Bree.
Carol’s question ‘why is Bill Ferny like he is?’ produced a variety of replies:
Ian replied that we get our opinion of him from what we are told. Julie said some people are just like it, while Eileen wondered if it was because he was consigned to the margin of the village, living close to one of the gates. Angela remarked that Strider knows Ferny as a spy.
Laura then observed that these chapters are full of ‘sayings’, like Butterbur’s ‘one thing and another …have jogged my memory, as the saying goes.’
Julie than asked a question I had wondered about ‘why do the Black Riders take so long to get from the ferry to Crickhollow? Tim suggested it was because their horses needed to rest. I thought it was because they needed to search Buckland. Tim then discovered Tolkien’s explanation in his Companion to LotR in which Tolkien explains that stealth is needed and the Riders have to wait for night to approach the house.
Laura raised the matter of the Black Breath and wondered how it worked and what it was for? Mike thought it was like a truth drug or a hallucinogenic drug.
Laura also wondered why, when he knew how unreliable Butterbur could be, Gandalf left such an important letter with him to be sent on to Frodo. Eileen wondered if the delay was more than just Butterbur’s forgetfulness. Tim thought it showed the consequences of a simply breakdown in communications, and Laura reminded us that Tolkien had been a communications officer during the First World War.
Tim then wondered whether the Black Riders didn’t like loud noises because they disperse at the sound of shouts and the horn calls of Buckland. Angela noted that these chapters are full of soft sounds associated with the Riders. Pat, who had joined us late but with enthusiasm, compared the magical sound of Tom’s song. Tim observed a future echo in the sound of the cockcrow, and its positive effect both in Crickhollow and in Bree.
In response to Carol’s suggestion that the opening of the ‘Knife’ chapter is the only time the narrative diverts from the main push forward. We considered whether it was a digression but Julie commented that it explains Frodo’s dream in Bree of the horn blowing. Angela proposed that it fulfilled the need for a backstory to Fatty’s heroism. Ian noted that the ‘Fear Fire Foe’ is matched at the end of the chapter by the revelation that the Black Riders can ‘smell blood’.
As we didn’t get very far with our discussion of the ‘Knife in the Dark’ we agreed to finish this next time and read ‘The Flight to the Ford’ so as to finish Book 1 before going any further.
Carol’s additional comments:
Trust a hobbit (Merry) to gain ‘one crumb of comfort’ from the disastrous delay caused by the loss of the ponies – and more than a crumb!
I like this episode with Ferny and Sam – a bit of levity before going into the wild. In the end things will work out proper between Ferny and his ‘poor old pony’.