FOTR: Bk 1, Ch 9
At this point in the story, the hobbits are definitely out of their element. But Tolkien takes care not to thrust them too quickly into too strange a world. Instead he uses the village of Bree as a kind of weigh-station where men and hobbits live together in harmony. While "outsiders" from the Shire are a novelty, they are not seen as on oddity the way they will be in other lands, where "halflings" are only the stuff of legends. The Prancing Pony is an inviting place that projects a welcoming sense of safety and security. But we will soon see the shady characters that inhabit its dark corners. The hobbits are so unaware of the danger all around that they get a little careless. But they also come into contact with an important ally.
Like the Shire, Bree is a place where its inhabitants pretty much keep to themselves and maintain a focus on their own affairs. But the people of this village (along with those of the three others nearby - Staddle, Combe and Chetwood) take an interest in hearing about the goings-on of places far away from traveler's who pass through, unlike the Shire folk. While Bree is fairly isolated, it does come more into contact with the outside world - including with those who keep it protected from the sort of evil things that they are unaware of.
One thing that is important to note is that by this point in the story, Tolkien had spent no less than 20 months writing and re-writing the chapters that would ultimately become Book One. And for all of his work, so little up to this point actually made it into the films. On the other hand, while we have thus far covered eight chapters and almost 150 pages - slightly less than one third of the entire "Fellowship of the Ring", the exact same point of the story in Peter Jackson's film of the same name has also reached one third of its running time (in the Extended Edition). It kind of gives you an appreciation for the constraints that Jackson had to work with. If Gildor, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil and other elements of the story we have just reviewed ended up in the film, it would likely be going into its third hour right about now.
As the hobbits finish their questioning by Harry the gate-keeper and head into town, we notice a bit of danger lurking nearby.
"As soon as [Harry's] back was turned, a dark figure climbed quickly in over the gate and melted into the shadows of the village street."
Of course, the reader likely takes this to be a Black Rider. We will see, however, that someone else has taken an interest in "Mr. Underhill" and his errand.
More than just a place to grab an ale and spend the night, The Prancing Pony was an outpost of sorts where travelers along the East Road and to some degree the Old North Road (known as the Greenway as it has become overgrown with grass from lack of use) could gather and catch up on the latest information about lands in all directions. "News From Bree" was a term synonymous with "up-to-date information" and the Inn found many a diverse guest - from dwarves to men of the South - congregating for such conversation.
Sam, being the most wary and suspicious of the four hobbits makes it clear to Frodo that he'd just as soon find logging in a house of fellow hobbit-folk. Frodo reassures him that it was Tom Bombadil's recommendation that brought them here. In the PJ film, it is Gandalf that directs Frodo to meet him at the inn, though he gives so such specific instruction in the book. It's just kind of assumed that if they made it this far, this lonely outpost would be a logical point to meet up with the wizard.
We are introduced to the inn-keeper, Barliman Butterbur, who at that moment quite has his hands full tending to all his guests. Often the harried fellow mentions that something the hobbits say reminds him of something that he can't quite remember. The fact is that Butterbur is in the possession of some important information for Frodo - in only he could recall what it is. Up until the very last draft, Butterbur's first name was Barnabas. This change to "Barliman" was a last minute one by Tolkien in the final version.
After a pleasant supper in a quiet parlor, Butterbur encourages them to mingle afterwards with the other guests in the common room (the main part of the tavern). While Frodo, Sam and Pippin feel refreshed enough to join the mixed company, Merry decides to go outside for a walk and a "sniff of air". The hobbits enter the common room and, needing a pretense for their presence away from the Shire, Frodo decides to tell the guests that he is thinking of writing a book (an idea inspired by Bilbo no doubt) and he was gathering information about hobbits in other lands. Once the astonishment of the crowd dissipates (hobbits are not generally known for their interest in the literary arts, outside of their own genealogy), a chorus of voices breaks out to share with him all the stories he could care to hear.
Much of the conversation focuses on the recent influx of men coming up from the South, where there was "trouble" about. Even though the Bree folk were unenthusiastic about these events, one of these travelers makes it clear that more will be coming in the near future: "If room isn't found for them, they'll find it themselves." The first-time reader is not yet aware of the activities of Saruman and the dire effect it will very soon have on the Shire.
At this point, Frodo notices a "strange-looking weather-beaten man, sitting in the shadows near the wall". The man seems keenly interested in the business of the hobbits and Frodo inquires to the inn-keeper about this stranger's identity. He's a "ranger", explains Butterbur, "one of the wandering folk". Little is known of the business of these rangers who travel swiftly through the Northwestern lands of Middle-Earth, coming and going quite suddenly. This particular ranger is known as Strider, because he "goes about at a great pace on his long shanks. He was in fact the dark figure who climbed over the gate to follow them.
Before Tolkien had a handle on who exactly Strider was supposed to be, he named the character Trotter and in his earliest form was a hobbit who wore wooden shoes (hence the name). Tolkien had a difficult time deciding how this Trotter was going to fit into the story at first, but he knew that without Gandalf (and even his whereabouts hadn't been fully worked out yet), the hobbits needed a guide to shepherd them through the wilderness. So despite his mysterious appearance, he comes off right away as someone that Frodo feels he can trust (even if Sam doesn't).
Strider motions for Frodo to come over to him and he introduces himself - though he had already found out the hobbit's pseudonym of "Underhill" from overhearing Frodo at the gate tell the other hobbits that this is the name by which he was to be called. Strider immediately warns Frodo this isn't the Shire and that he and his friends need to be careful that they don't talk too much as there are odd folks about. As a reader, I immediately get a sense from Strider that there is nothing malevolent about him. Just at that moment, Strider notices that Pippin is recounting to some of the guests the story of Bilbo's party - and is approaching the incident with his disappearance. It is clear that he knows more than he has let on.
Frodo fears that Pippin's story will bring about inquiries into the name "Baggins" and that the young hobbit might go as far as to mention the Ring, be he is at a loss as to how to interrupt Pippin and finally jumps up on the table and makes a bit of a speech, thanking the other guests for their hospitality. They call for a song, so Frodo decides to sing one that Bilbo wrote. It tells of the Man in the Moon, who one night decides to drive his lunar chariot down from the sky to get his fill of a "beer so brown" at an inn much like the Prancing Pony. In the song, Frodo introduces such characters as a fiddle-playing cat, a dog with a fond sense of humor, a prancing cow and animated tableware that dance with each other. You can easily guess that this is a rather long version of the rhyme we all hear as children (and share with our own children) called "Hey, Diddle, Diddle, The Cat and the Fiddle". Being a professor of languages and their history, Tolkien though it would be cool to present this commonly spoken nursery rhyme as a derivative of something written back in the days of Middle-Earth - by Bilbo Baggins, no less. At least this version makes a bit of sense out of what we have only known as nonsensical.
During the second performance of this little song, Frodo falls off the table (as the cow is jumping over the moon, parked outside the inn) and finds the Ring has slipped on his finger. He disappears under the table, to the surprise and annoyance of most of the guests. Here is an important deviation in the film. In Jackson's Fellowship of the Ring, the circumstances of the Ring ending up on Frodo's finger is different. Certainly, PJ thought that Frodo dancing on the table, singing a ridiculous song, seemed out of place in that particularly tense scene at the inn. However the biggest difference is that the Ring goes up in the air and falls down onto Frodo's finger. In the book, Frodo is handling it in his pocket when he falls.
While being quite different in "how" the Ring gets on Frodo's finger, the "why" is still the same question. Did the Ring manipulate itself onto his finger? Or did Frodo subconsciously put it on himself - despite the danger - to make himself disappear from the situation? Or was it a combination of both? We don't really get a straight answer from Tolkien in the book:
"How it came to be on his finger he could not tell. He could only suppose that he had been handling it in his pocket while he sang, and that somehow it had slipped on when he stuck out his hand with a jerk to save his fall. For a moment, he wondered if the Ring itself had not played him a trick; perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room."
Both of the ways the Ring gets on Frodo's finger (in the book and the film) seem implausible, but on the other hand why not give Frodo the benefit of the doubt? Anyway, it's certainly food for thought.
Certain suspicious looking folk in the common room suddenly leave as if this turn of events had caused them to go spread the word. Two of these men, Billy Ferny of Bree and a squint-eyed man from southern lands, are spying on behalf of an unknown employer. Strider takes a hold of Frodo and chastises him for the damage he has just done. For now it is revealed that he does indeed know Frodo's true identity and has some knowledge of his business. At Strider's request, Frodo agrees to speak with him later in private. And, as it turns out, Butterbur has remembered what he has been trying to recall this whole time and asks to come to his room later to share some information with him. Frodo agrees.
In the meantime, Frodo's use of the ring has alerted the Black Riders of his presence in Bree. They are coming...
[Chronology: September 29th 3018 T.A.]