• Will Sherwood

LOTR 10: There’s an inn of old renown

The introduction of Bree is synonymous with a few entertaining moments for Tolkien fans: we meet the blundering Barliman Butterbur, Frodo’s performance of ’There is an inn, a merry old inn’, his first experience of the world of the Ringwraiths, and the introduction of the mysterious Strider.

The history of Bree saw Tolkien alternating between a couple of ideas until he made up his mind on what worked best. Who inhabited the village? What are their names? The manuscript for Phase One is described as ‘exceedingly complicated’ because Tolkien shifted from pencil to ink and the corrections do not correlate with specific temporal points (Return, p. 133). It is also in Phase One where we see the most development.

1 - Bree-folk

As was common at this point, Tolkien had no working title for what would become ‘At the Sign of the Prancing Pony’. Christopher mentions that ‘my father continued on into a description of the Breelanders without a break’, it was only when he ‘reached Bingo’s song at the inn he realised that he was well into a new chapter' (Return, p. 132). He struck out his first attempt at historicising Bree but in it we see the otherness of Bree start to bloom. Not many ‘Big People’ ‘lived as far West as [Bree] in those days, and the Bree-folk . . . were an odd and rather isolated community’ (ibid), They are accustomed to interacting with a diverse range of races and are themselves radicalised as ‘brown-faced, dark-haired, broad, shortish, cheerful and independent’ (ibid). From the start Tolkien established Bree as a location that attracted an assortment of peoples from across Middle-earth.

He would come back to these descriptions but in the same Phase he toyed with the prospect of Bree being a hobbit settlement, with no men in sight (Return, p. 133). It would accompany the idea that ’there were probably a good many more [hobbits] scattered about in the West of the world in those days than the people of the Shire imagined’ (ibid). Mr Butterbur himself (first called Timothy Titus - of course Tolkien kept the alliterative name! - then changed to Barnabus) became the largest hobbit (Return, p. 140). But this would not last, for in the ‘Queries and Alterations’, written before Phase Two, Tolkien resorted back to Bree having a mixed population of men and hobbits (Return, p. 223). Because Phase Two stopped before Bree, the changes were incorporated into the Phase Three.

It was here that the chapter title was added. With Phase Three also came an intriguing brag on the parts of the Bree-folk, for they referred to themselves as the ‘descendants of the sons of Bëor’ (the first man to enter Beleriand in the First Age) (Return, p. 331). This translates roughly in the published version as ‘according to their own tales they were the original inhabitants and were the descendants of the first Men that wandered in to the West of the middle-world’ (Lord, p. 147). From the first drafts it is clear that Bree relies on the oral tradition rather than the written text, allowing them to claim in an Ossianic fashion that their blood has a nobility and purity that they have achieved through living farther West than most men.

2 - Trotter to Strider

The textual history of Aragorn is one of those facts that has been widely shared in the Tolkien community. It is no secret that Strider started his life as Trotter, a ‘queer-looking, brown-faced hobbit’ who wore ‘wooden shoes’ (Return, p. 137). This is very far removed from the description of Aragorn we read in the published version: ‘strange-looking, weather beaten’ (Lord, p. 156). Beyond making a fashion statement, Trotter is wilder and more mysterious than Strider and has the air of a gunslinger as Butterbur says ‘you can hear him coming along the road in those shoes’ (Return, 138). His ‘keen dark eyes’ emphasise his extreme differences from the well-to-do hobbits of the Shire.

(Trotter, by Nenuials - reproduced with permission)

In a similar fashion to the Bree-folk, Tolkien played with the idea that the rangers of the north were also hobbits. However, he did not entertain the thought for long as he noted in ‘Queries and Alterations’ the following:

Rangers are best not as hobbits, perhaps. But either Trotter (as a ranger) must

be not a hobbit, or someone very well known: e.g. Bilbo. But the latter is

awkward in view of “happily ever after”. I thought of making Trotter into

Fosco Took (Bilbo’s first cousin) who vanished when a lad, owing to Gandalf.

Who is Trotter? He must have had some bitter acquaintance with Ring-wraiths

(Return, p. 223).

Trotter could have been another example of a hobbit who had left the Shire and had prospered, like Bilbo. If Trotter became a man before Tolkien came back for Phase Four then I have not yet encountered it (remember I am reading chapter by chapter, not whole Phase by whole Phase). He was by Phase Four a man but he still maintained the racial descriptors given above. It will be interesting to chart the progression of Trotter/Strider/Aragorn over the coming chapters.

As a side note to Tolkien’s progress with Strider comes the linking of the rangers to the men of Númenor. In Phase Three, ‘we find the statement (in draft versions) that Rangers are “the last remnant of the kingly people from beyond the Seas"’ (Return, p. 332). The use of ‘last remnant’ reminded me strongly of Fiona Stafford’s monograph The Last of the Race (1994). From its sinking in the Second Age and slow decline in the Third Age, Tolkien turned his Númenóreans into the myth of the last race that Stafford explores (Last, p. 4):

The imaginative appeal of such remnants and chance survivals derives from

something deeper than a mere nostalgic interest in the vanishing past. The

same mysterious reverence is accorded to last works and last words, in the

belief that they must have special significance, must somehow provide the

definitive statement. It suggests a desire to find at the close of a life some

revelation of purpose—an ‘end’ in both senses of the word. When an

individual represents the end of a race, there is thus a sense of expectation, as

if some explanation will be forthcoming to justify its disappearance and very

often, the last survivor feels compelled to memorialize the vanished group.

(Last, p. 3).

Stafford's words help us see that Tolkien was starting to work towards Aragorn being the heir of Isildur. The ‘revelation of purpose’ is found in Aragorn’s blood but it is clear that Tolkien took a while to get here.

3 - The Troll jumped over the Moon

I remember (when I first read this chapter) thinking that Tolkien had actually written the original nursery rhyme and what I had learnt from tapes was a derivative version. Oh how I played into the Professor’s hands!

It is worth noting that ’There is an inn, a merry old inn’ was not the first verse that Tolkien used in this chapter. In Phase One he used ’Troll Song’ that was given the title ‘The Root of the Boot’. It is the song Sam would later sing when the hobbits and Strider encountered the trolls from The Hobbit. Tolkien later included the song in his The Adventures of Tom Bombadil volume of poetry, noting that it was composed by Sam Gamgee (Perilous, p. 170). Based on a ‘well-known tune’, Christopher notes that it ‘went to the tune of The fox went out on a winter’s night’ (Return, pp. 141 - 142). It was also included in Songs for the Philologists during Tolkien’s time at the University of Leeds. According to Christopher, the song in Phase One of The Lord of the Rings was ‘almost at once’ substituted for ’The Cat and the Fiddle’ (Return, p. 142). By Phase Three, the new song was ’now exactly in the final form’ (Return, p. 336).

It is mentioned that the change of song is predominantly because of the ‘inn’ theme of the latter. But recall what I said two paragraphs above about me being in firm belief that Tolkien had actually composed the song and was the original author of the lyrics. Beyond being a variation of the well-known nursery rhyme, Tom Shippey does argue that Tolkien had a tendency to reconstruct ‘“ancestors” for much later works’ and links this predominantly to his work in Songs for the Philologists (Author, pp. 277 - 278). To a degree this is what Tolkien is doing: reconstructing what were songs for children so that they became part of the grander, mythical Faerie that he wrote deliberately for adults (Letters, p. 249).

Now, I can’t end a blog post on Bree without referencing The Lord of the Rings musical. For all its short comings as a theatrical production, the musical gave a new voice to Tolkien’s work while adding new lines of verse. Composed by A.R. Rahman, Christopher Nightingale, and Värttinä with lyrics by Matthew Warchus and Stephen McKenna, the musical gives to Frodo’s song a powerful folk feel that does indeed draw the audience into singing along. The lyrics are rewritten heavily to fit the tradition ballad quatrain with an AABB rhyme that allows for more dramatic pauses in the performance. Beyond the infectious music, I imagine Tolkien would have appreciated the alliteration that compliments the intense internal rhyme to give the song the feel of a tongue-twister that is performed at a swift and entertaining pace.

The Lord of the Rings musical (2006)

Here is a link to the song on YouTube. The lyrics can be found below the song by clicking ’SHOW MORE’. Enjoy!


Shippey, T. (2001). J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. London: HarperCollins.

Stafford, F. (1994). The Last of the Race. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (1988). The History of Middle-earth: The Return of the Shadow. [Ed. Tolkien, C.]. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien, J. R. R. (2006). The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien. [Ed. Carpenter, H.]. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien. J. R. R. (2007). The Lord of the Rings. London: HarperCollins.

Tolkien. J. R. R. (2008). Tales from the Perilous Realm. London: HarperCollins.

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