In the ninth chapter of The Fellowship of the Ring, our party of hobbits arrives at the Prancing Pony, and everything becomes unbearably tense. Intrigued? Then it’s time for Mark to read The Lord of the Rings.
CHAPTER NINE: AT THE SIGN OF THE PRANCING PONY
Okay, I feel pretty good about saying that I’m enjoying this book a whole lot at this point, that it’s absolutely nothing like I expected it to be. Honestly, over the years whenever it’s come up that I’ve not read or seen anything to do with The Lord of the Rings, I’m generally recommended the same thing: Watch the movies first. If you like them, give the book a try. A lot of people I know think this book is boring, verbose, lengthy, and too confusing of a read. (Wow, you know…do people really think I have such poor appreciation of literature? It’s not like I normally read Clifford The Big Red Dog on a daily basis. I mean…if I say I love Dostoevsky, Sartre, Bronte, and Faulkner, how the fuck is Tolkien suddenly way too hard for me.)
I’m simply impressed by how not-boring, not-verbose, not-confusing The Lord of the Rings is at all. Even beyond that, I can see how much this book has affected popular culture, fantasy writing, adventure tropes…damn, it’s just so goddamn good and I’m only nine chapters into it! I’ve got so long to go, and I’m already hooked by the narrative the Tolkien is slowly unfolding. The idea that this is one really long novel is intriguing to me because it’s allowing Tolkien the chance to build up so many of these smaller moments, and chapter nine is a fantastic example of that.
But more than anything, I’m really loving how tense this is. Without giving away what he’s planning for these characters, Tolkien is constantly hinting at the horrors and terrors of the future, and The Prancing Pony is a sign that danger is closer than it’s ever been. Before he gets into this, Tolkien opens chapter nine with a bit of a history lesson. It’s fascinating to me how the very concept of history is totally different than what we’re used to, and it’s an example of how Tolkien even world-builds conceptually. I loved the line that the hobbits in Bree-land insisted they were the oldest settlement of hobbits ever, yet no one could prove it. The way that society is organized in Middle-earth isn’t really comparable to our idea of how history works. Sure, there are probably scrolls, books, and other such things that might document things like this, but the creatures that live in Middle-earth rely so heavily on anecdotal evidence, so to speak. They are an oral society who spread stories, tales, and use elaborate songs to communicate the past. (Also, sweet baby Jesus that song is so long in this chapter.) In fact, if this were not the case for Middle-earth, I actually doubt that the events at the Prancing Pony could ever even happen; that’s how well thought this entire book is. This unspoken detail is absolutely crucial to the story as a whole, a piece of the puzzle that would leave an incomplete picture if it were removed.
The slow tension building begins when the hobbits arrive at the gate to Bree-land, and the man guarding the entrance is not exactly the most welcoming person in Middle-earth to our travelers. From what I understand, it’s a combination of seeing any hobbits from the Shire at his gate and the strange events of the last few days that makes him curious about their business in Bree. Oh, right, and then there’s this:
The man stared after the hobbits for a moment, and then he went back to his house. As soon as his back was turned, a dark figure climbed quickly in over the gate and melted into the shadows of the village street.
Oh, you have to be fucking kidding me. Goddamn it, who is that?
This chapter is the first time I actually had to stop and think about the size of the hobbits. Since I’ve never really seen much of anything from the movies or specials made from any Tolkien material, I guess I never pictured a hobbit standing next to a human. I knew they were much smaller than we are, but now I understand that they truly are tiny. So how does the movie pull this off? Perspective? Are they half the size of the humans? (This is rhetorical. Obviously, when I see the first film, I’ll see it.) I noted that Sam was rather terrified by the massive size of the human houses in Bree. Is this something that’ll afflict him later? Will he be scared when he finally does meet a full-sized human? Just a thought.
The group manages to find the inn that Tom Bombadil recommended them, and it’s there that we are introduced to the glorious Barliman Butterbur for the first time. His very named reminded me of the lovely alliterated names from Harry Potter that J.K. chose for her characters; it’s a detail I loved about that universe, and I love it here, too. I mean, names in general interest me, so I was completely into the entire section later in this chapter where Frodo points out how many of the names in Bree are based on nature. Plus, Barliman has one of those names that makes you feel criminal for not using the whole thing whenever you talk about him, as if BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR is a phrase or exclamation of sorts. GOOD BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR, IT’S COLD OUTSIDE! Yes, this pleases me.
Well, and let’s not ignore that he’s just a pleasant person to be around, one of those folks who radiates energy and positivity because of his joy for what he does. It’s the one big thing I picked up for him: he loves running the Prancing Pony, and accommodating people from all over Middle-earth is deeply satisfying to him. Of course, he’s ecstatic to help out a group of hobbits from the Shire since it’s such a rare sight in Bree-land. Though, one thing he says was a bit disconcerting:
‘Hobbits!’ he cried. ‘Now what does that remind me of? Might I ask your names, sirs?’
It’s something that plays into events at the end of the chapter, but we don’t exactly find out what he’s talking about at all in chapter nine. Do I think it’s a good thing? Of course not. There are too many people talking about hobbits ’round Middle-earth, and none of it is good. Except for maybe Gandalf’s senior thesis THAT IS PERFECTLY ACCEPTABLE.
Can I just say that I love that the Prancing Pony has a section of their inn devoted to housing hobbits? Like, what an adorable thing to provide! Knowing what hobbits prefer and how different their living arrangements are is just a beautiful thing and I just want t stay at this inn and hang out with dwarves and hobbits and the people of Bree and make pies with BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR. I’m capitalizing his name from here on out, just so you know. It’s that important to me.
Yet all this pleasantness couldn’t last long, could it? There’s that mysterious figure about, who I am guessing was actually Strider. (I HOPE.) Leaving Merry behind post-supper, Sam, Pippin, and Frodo head to the gathering that BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR is holding in the common-room, and within minutes, it’s unbearably awkward and uncomfortable. I mean, Frodo thought he could tell them he was writing a book? Hobbits don’t write books! Though I admit it was hilarious when all the hobbits of Bree spoke up at once when Frodo explained it was a book about the hobbits all over Middle-earth. See? This society is based so heavily on story-telling and oral traditions that the very suggestion that Frodo wants to hear about other hobbits, he’s drowned out by all those hobbits voices talking simultaneously about whatever they know of the hobbits of Bree-land.
As Pippin (and really, it couldn’t be anyone but Pippin here) takes over the storytelling to relate tales of the shenanigans in the Shire, Frodo’s attention turns to the ~mysterious~ Strider. BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR refers to him as “one of the wandering folk,” someone who never stays long and always has some queer or disturbing tale from his life of…well, wandering, I guess. As if on cue, he even beckons Frodo to come sit to him, and the notoriously silent Strider starts talking to him. I mean, that would be a red flag in and of itself, but ultimately, I don’t mistrust him. Yes, he’s a bit unsettling, and there might be an ulterior motive, but I think he either truly wants to help Frodo, or he just wants to pass on information.
Before that information comes, though, Strider points out that Pippin has gotten a bit too friendly and adventurous with his storytelling, as he foolishly starts telling the crowd about Bilbo Baggins’s disappearance on his birthday. LIKE WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING, DUDE? Frodo puts it quite plainly:
It was a harmless enough tale for most of the local hobbits, no doubt: just a funny story about those funny people away beyond the River; but some (old Butterbur, for instance) knew a thing or two, and had probably heard rumours long ago about Bilbo’s vanishing. It would bring the name of Baggins to their minds, especially if there had been inquiries in Bree after that name.
No, that is painfully accurate. So Frodo, in a moment of furious brilliance, jumps on the table to distract them all, and gives a short speech, and then sings THE LONGEST SONG EVER KNOWN TO HUMANITY. Okay, I’m sure there’s a longer one later in the book, but these things are usually a page or two long. Yeah, holy crap, this one has a couple million stanzas. Hey, at least it worked to distract those in the common-room, right?
It was now Frodo’s turn to feel pleased with himself. He capered about on the table; and when he came a second time to the cow jumped over the Moon, he leaped in the air. Much too vigorously; for he came down, bang, into a tray full of mugs, and slipped, and rolled off the table with a crash, clatter, and bump! The audience all opened mouths wide for laughter, and stopped short in gaping silence; for the singer disappeared. He simply vanished, as if he had gone slap through the floor without leaving a hole!
OH MY GOD THIS COULD NOT GET ANY WORSE. Somehow, the Ring slipped onto Frodo’s finger. Well, if Frodo wanted to keep his name out of this and wanted people to think they were plain old hobbits, this is surely the last thing that should have happened. Again, it’s another indication that the Ring has this creepy, possessive power over those who own it; earlier, Frodo had to fight a strong urge do put it on when he was feeling awkward. So how did this happen this time? The Ring most certainly is like an entity in itself, at least in some magical or metaphysical sense.
Basically, everything turns to chaos in a way that is so odd and uncomfortable because it’s not like people leap up and start throwing shit around the room. The chaos that this moment causes is quiet. To me, that is a billion times worse. One man leaves with Strider following him, and for a brief couple minutes, I thought that perhaps he was one of the Black Riders, or maybe a scout for them. However, when he returns, he speaks directly to Frodo:
‘Then, if you please, Mr. Baggins, I should like a quiet word with you.’
WELL. WELL, THIS IS NO LONGER FUN AND ADORABLE ANYMORE.
‘What about?’ asked Frodo, ignoring the sudden use of his proper name.
‘A matter of some importance–to use both,’ answered Strider, looking Frodo in the eye. ‘You may hear something to your advantage.’
Oh. So…it’ll help both of them? That’s….good, right? How could this help Strider, though? Who exactly is this guy?
The thing that’s most important about this, though, is that like those in the Shire, it seems the citizens of Middle-earth anywhere generally just don’t like weird things. They don’t want to be tricked, they don’t want to be fooled, and they certainly don’t want people disappearing before their eyes. It’s such an offensive thing to all these characters, and I find that to be a fascinating detail out of all of this. BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR is quick to want to defend Frodo, who reappears for the group and half-asses some sort of explanation for his “disappearance.” But it does seem that some customers were basically so offended they decided to leave the Prancing Pony; BARLIMAN BUTTERBUR isn’t too put-off by this, knowing things will be fine in the future, but then he suddenly remembers what it was he recalled when Frodo showed up at the inn earlier that day.
He wondered how many private talks he would have before he got to bed, and what they would reveal. Were these people all in league against him? He began to suspect even old Butterbur’s fat face of concealing dark designs.
Well, this is fucked up, isn’t it?