LotRFI Pt. 7–Signs in the Prancing Pony

We have finally arrived at Bree! As the first non-Shire settlement, there is much for the hobbits to adapt to and many new avenues of experience for them. Perhaps the plethora of innovations that the hobbits experience impacts the way that this scene can be interpreted in different ways.

In his Exploring the Lord of the Rings podcast, Dr. Corey Olsen suggested that Peter Jackson did not accurately portray the Prancing Pony in his film. According to Olsen, the great peril of the Pony is that it was so warm and inviting that it would put the hobbits off their guard, which could trick them into revealing more about their errand than they should. He denounced Jackson’s interpretation as far too scary and dark.

Image copyright Greg and Tim Hildebrandt

Personally, my own experience echoes Jackson’s interpretation more than Olsen’s, although I do see parts of the hobbits’ experience at the Pony as pleasant. While I can appreciate Olsen’s perspective, I always saw the common room at the Pony as in intimidating place because it is the first time that the hobbits encounter the Big People, if you will. Reading the scene as child, it resembled my own experience of entering a room of adults. The feelings of uncertainty and unease that occur to anyone who enters a room where they can assume that they are the least knowledgeable about the world and other people. This connection is obviously an extension of my reading of the hobbits as children.

While the common room unsettled me, I understood that the hobbits were at ease for part of their time there and relaxed for most of their time before going to the common room. Perhaps a more accurate assessment of my response would be that I thought the Pony was, to paraphrase Aragorn, both fair and perilous. The warmth of the caretaker and his staff were more than enough to allow any weary travelers to rest and be at peace. The inclusion of hobbit rooms at the Pony was certainly an unlooked-for balm for the hobbits as they relaxed from their travels. Once the hobbits are refreshed, they confront the world of the Bog People without being properly prepared. While the hobbits felt ease in the beginning of their encounter in the common room, it quickly became a source of intimidation and fear. Just as Frodo was aware of the danger before his fellow hobbits, so I, as the reader, was aware of the danger upon entering the common room.

This is partly because of the warnings that Merry and Pippin bandy back and forth before going to the common room. In Olsen’s opinion, most of these warnings are friendly ribbing among the hobbits. As a young reader, though I took them all very seriously. This put me on guard as they entered the common room, and Frodo’s misgivings only acted as a confirmation of my presuppositions. I do not think that the disagreement in interpretation here changes much of the characterization of important people moving forward. Therefore, it seems to me that this episode supports either of these two interpretations because later developments do not necessitate one interpretation over the other.

Where Do we Go From Here?

I would like to take a post to reflect on Aragorn-as-Strider and then probably move on to Weathertop and the lore that breaks in there.

What do you think?

What were your first impressions of the Prancing Pony or of Bree?
When, if ever, did you begin to mistrust the Big People?
What were your impressions of Butterbur, Hob, and Nob?

LotRFI Pt. 5–Farmer Maggot

I feel like my first impression of Farmer Maggot was typical. At first, I did not like Maggot because I took Frodo’s account as accurate. I believed that he and Maggot had a history of clashing and were at odds with one another. This made Frodo’s reaction to being on his land seem logical.

“One trouble after another!” said Frodo, looking nearly as much alarmed as if Pippin had declared the lane was the slot leading to a dragon’s den. (FR, I, iv, 91)

It was not until Maggot offered food and shelter to the young hobbits that I began to trust him. So far, I think that most readers would agree with this impression, though some of them may have tempered their opinion of Maggot earlier, when Pippin began to push back against Frodo’s characterization.

Interestingly, I was recently listening to a podcast (Corey Olsen’s Exploring The Lord of the Rings, episode seventeen) which highlighted a disagreement that my perspective may have with others. In this podcast, Corey Olsen presents his belief that Maggot’s account of his interaction with the Black Rider is a rather objective recounting. Here is the passage in question:

“Good-day to you!” I says, going out to him. “This lane don’t lead anywhere, and wherever you may be going, your quickest way will be back to the road.” I didn’t like the looks of him; and when Grip came out, he took one sniff and let out a yelp as if he had been stung: he put down his tail and bolted off howling. The black fellow sat quite still.

‘“I come from yonder,” he said, slow and stiff-like, pointing back west, over my fields, if you please. “Have you seen Baggins?” he asked in a queer voice, and bent down towards me. I could not see any face, for his hood fell down so low; and I felt a sort of shiver down my back. But I did not see why he should come writing over my land so bold.” (FR, I, iv, 94)

Olson contends that, because Maggot’s account is objective, the Rider’s use of “yonder” is an attempt for him to blend in to the local dialect to collect information. My interpretation, however, has always been to treat this passage as reported speech. That is, Maggot is conveying the general sense of the interaction using his own idiomatic way of speaking. I never considered, then, that the Rider actually uses “yonder.” Instead, I always thought, and still believe, that Maggot is putting that word into the Rider’s mouth instead of trying to recount the interaction verbatim. This approach to the dialogue seems probable to me because it is a way of retaining the established characterization of both the Black Rider and Maggot. In that the Black Rider is not going to demean himself to try and fit into the dialect of the hobbits, and Maggot has no qualms about paraphrasing other people in his own dialect when it suits him. Also, I think that had Tolkien meant for readers to treat this scene has objective dialogue then he would have embedded the interaction into the text in a different way. As it stands in the published text, however, the entire episode is intended to be reported speech from Maggot’s perspective.

A second manner in which my approach to Maggot was very different from the norm is that he served as a proto-Bombadil encounter to me. My experience of Bombadil was very similar to the pattern that most people adopt with Maggot. It began with distrust but gradually evolved into respect and amiability. I know that this is very different from the opinion of others (as I recounted in my first post), but the pattern established by the Maggot encounter served as a template for many of the meetings that followed it in LOTR.

Where do we Go From Here?

Next we will visit the Barrow Downs, and then on to Bree!

What Do You Think?

How do you approach this passage which recounts dialogue between Maggot and the Black Rider?
Did the Maggot episode serve as a template of encounter for you as a reader?


LotRFI Pt. 4–The Hobbits as Children

It is still very clear in my mind that I considered the hobbits to be children during my first reading of LotR. In fact, I remember the animosity I initially felt toward the portrayal of the hobbits in the Peter Jackson films because they showed the hobbits as (what I deemed at the time) weak adults, instead of as an inexperienced, sheltered, child-like race. I will readily admit that I probably adopted this viewpoint to better relate to the hobbits as a reader, but it seems to be a very supportable perspective. I want to go into more detail with the character of Pippin in a separate blog post, he has long been my favorite hobbit, but I want to give just a small vignette of each hobbit here that bolster this approach to the hobbits as a group. Now that I am older, I can read into the nuances of characterization much more than I was able to in my first reading. I am not saying that the analysis that follows is the only way or the right way to approach the text, in fact I would explicitly say that some of the analysis is the wrong way to approach the text, but in my first reading I assumed that the hobbits were child-like, and so many aspects that otherwise would contribute to a different understanding of the group only served to validate that perspective in my first reading.

One of the shortcomings in my understanding of LotR as a young reader was that I did not understand the class distinction among the hobbits. I knew that they were on unequal social footing, what with Sam working for Frodo, but I did not really have an appreciation of how this impacted the interactions between the hobbits. Most of the instances where Sam adopts a deferential or submissive attitude which many adults would discern as a marker of his lower-class status, conveyed a much different meaning to me. I saw in these instances the actions of a young boy who was uncertain of the world and his place in it. Therefore, Sam’s appeal to Frodo in his first scene with dialogue, his “Don’t let him hurt me, sir!” (FR, I, ii, 63), struck me as a plea to someone with more understanding of the situation, not as a petition to someone of higher social distinction. This interpretation pairs well with Sam’s expressions of unbridled joy and sense of adventure in a way that makes him seem young and naive. In the same scene, Sam’s ability to change to “Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!” in just a few lines is very characteristic of the way these two currents of Sam’s personality intersect to make him seem young (FR, I, ii, 64).

In a similar fashion, I interpreted the other hobbits using this same lens. Merry’s “know-it-all” personality came across as a child whose ignorance enabled their over-confidence. Pippin’s joviality struck me as a “cut-up,” someone who was always trying to make others laugh and be the center of attention. The best scene to quickly illuminate both interpretations is the exchange between them in the Prancing Pony just before Frodo, Pippin, and Sam head into the common room. Merry warns the others to “mind your Ps and Qs, and don’t forget that you are supposed to be escaping in secret, and are still on the high-road and not very far from the Shire” (FR, I, ix, 154). To which Pippin responds “Mind yourself! Don’t get lost, and don’t forget that it is safer indoors” (FR, I, ix, 154). Merry’s warning comes from a place of superiority. He feels like he knows more than the other hobbits, and it is his burden to keep them in-line, even though he has never been much farther than they have and has only heard tales of Bree. Pippin’s response starts with a rebuttal. He starts indicating that Merry should be as wary as they are, and goes on to give his own warnings. Pippin’s warnings are a mockery of Merry’s in that they expose the unnecessary statements of common sense for what they are. This shows Merry’s high self-regard and Pippin’s playful way of bringing him back down to hobbit stature.

The final scene I want to talk about is the interaction in “Three is Company” where Pippin orders Sam to prepare breakfast for the others after their first night camping in the Shire. The following exchange takes place:

[Frodo] stretched. “Wake up, hobbits!” he cried. “It’s a beautiful morning.”

“What’s beautiful about it?” said Pippin, peering over the edge of his blanket with one eye. “Sam! Get breakfast ready for half-past nine! Have you got the bath-water hot?”

Sam jumped up, looking rather bleary. “No, sir, I haven’t, sir!” he said.

Frodo stripped the blankets from Pippin and rolled him over, and then walked off to the edge of the wood. (FR, I, iii, 72)

I choose this scene for a couple of reasons. Again, remember that I was unaware of the class distinction as a young reader. This scene, then, demonstrated the kind of hierarchy of joking that can persist within a friend-group. Pippin’s entitlement leads him to order Sam around and Sam, as the stereotypical member of the group who is seeking belonging, is quick to accommodate the demand. In a sense, I considered this a joke from Pippin that he took too far. This crossing of a line is what compels Frodo to stick up for their mutual friend and check Pippin, much like Pippin does to Merry in the Prancing Pony scene discussed above. It would not have surprised me, in my initial read, if Pippin directed this command at Frodo; though I would have expected Frodo to stand up for himself had that been the case.

The only exception to this form of stereotyping was Frodo. Frodo was a very difficult character for me to understand as a young first-time reader. He was very complex, too complex for me to really grasp much of until I read the book a second time as a teenager. While he was on the same level with the other hobbits, meaning they treated him as an equal, he was altogether more grave and serious than the rest of them. I almost want to say that I approached Frodo as the “straight man” of the group. He was the one who understood the larger situations so he endured the colorful expressions of delight and humor without engaging in them himself very often. I was much more engrossed by Frodo’s character later in the book, but I did not particularly like him this early on—even though I probably identified more with him on a personal level than any of the other hobbits. His reserved demeanor and aloof personality among the inhabitants of the Shire were very relatable for an introverted middle-schooler.

Where do We Go From Here?

I hope to stop by Farmer Maggot’s pretty soon, then explore the Barrow Downs!

What Do You Think?

Did you equate the hobbits with a specific age when you read LotR? If so, what age were they?
How has your mental-image of the hobbits changed over your experience rereading/discussing LotR?

LotRFI Pt. 3–Shire Trees and Old Man Willow


Since I read the books as a child, I had no real concept of what different kinds of trees looked like. Growing up in Southern United States, the most common trees around me were birch, maple, oak, and ash. Tolkien only uses two of these species in his descriptions (oak and ash), but I undoubtedly pictured The Shire with the same trees that I encountered every day.

Tolkien Included:

Oak Trees

Ash Trees

I added:

Birch Trees

Maple Trees

At first, this may seem like a trivial matter, but it can have a very large impact on the visual landscape in the reader’s mind. For example, in Chapter three, the travelers (Frodo, Sam, and Pippin) stop in a “fir-wood” and make camp for the night:

“Just over the top of the hill they cam on the patch of fir-wood. Leaving the road they went into the deep resin-scented darkness of the trees, and gathered dead sticks and cones to make a fire” (FR, I, iii, 72).

Tolkien describes the hobbits setting up camp under a group of trees similar to this:

However, I had never seen fir trees. Using the context clues, I assumed that it had to be a kind of tree that had “cones.” Well, I was certainly familiar with one of those, we had dozens of pine trees in my back yard! So I pictured the three hobbits sitting in a group of trees that looked something like this:

Now I know that many readers are saying, “They are all evergreen conifer trees, this really isn’t a big deal!” But I would ask you to look closer. Here is a close comparison of branches from each (images from http://www.finegardening.com/fir-vs-spruce-vs-pine-how-tell-them-apart):

Fir Needles

Pine Needles

This view shows you the very different appearance of each tree. Also, if you grew up with pine trees (or used one for your Christmas/Yule celebration) then you know that they have two very unique characteristics: they shed their needles and their sap is very sticky and odoriferous. This means that in order to start a fire under the pine trees, the hobbits would likely have had to clear a space among the fallen, dead needles of a pine so as not to start a larger fire than they intended! So while this distinction of trees is very small, it makes a very large difference in the impression it leaves on the reader.

In the end, The Shire that I pictured as a child had a few more birch and maple trees than Tolkien probably envisioned, and all of the fir trees were replaced with pine. This leads to a very different mental image and also changes the associations that the reader has with the trees. These differences of experience lead to different individual interpretations and responses to the text.

Old Man Willow

This actually explains why many of the artists who have portrayed Old Man Willow have made the dangling limbs shorter than I always imagined them. I had always thought that it was largely artistic license, since a curtain of dangling limbs is less appealing than a clear view of the action,. Perhaps this latter consideration still plays a role, but the fact that the types of willow in England ​and that many of them have characteristically shorter limbs than a Black Willow certainly reaffirms their decision.

Where Do We Go From Here?

I intend to have the first reflection on the character of a hobbit soon. I also want to look at the events with Farmer Maggot and the Barrow Downs before we head on to Bree.

What Do You Think?

What trees have you always pictured in the Shire?
Do you think that the kind of trees you imagine change the way you think about the setting?
How have you always pictured Old Man Willow?

LotRFI Pt.1–Intro and Tom Bombadil

Introduction to the Project

My first read of The Lord of the Rings (LOTR) was similar to many in my generation, but distinctly different from the first readers of the text and those after my generation who likely watched the movies before they approached the books. I was introduced to the series as a child who was just beginning to read independently, not as an adult who had prior knowledge about the fantasy genre. Therefore, I formed my first impressions of the text in a vacuum and they were uninfluenced by larger discussion or criticism surrounding the primary work until the next year, when I wrote a school report on Tolkien’s biography. With the rapidity that only insecure children are capable of, I realigned my own to reflect the established interpretations after exposure to other’s thoughts on LOTR. It was not until recently, that I decided to revisit and write about this earlier “misreading” of Tolkien in order to flesh out these first impressions and perhaps give a glimpse into the mind of an underrepresented reader in discussions of Tolkien: children.

Initially, I should note that I read The Hobbit before I read LOTR, so this invariably impacted the way that I read the work. I was preconditioned, so to speak, to view the hobbits as children and to see their acts of adventure as juveniles traversing into the adult world. This being said, I always approached the hobbits in LOTR as if they were adolescents. This interpretation loomed large in my first read-through of the book, and greatly influenced my interpretation. The main aspects in which this influenced my reading were that I saw the quest of the hobbits as a quest for maturity, and I saw many of the episodes outside of the Shire as far more threatening than my subsequent conversations with others lead me to believe was the general consensus. For this analysis, then, I will focus on the character arcs of the hobbits as I first interpreted them, focusing primarily on Frodo and Pippin. Then I will use two early episodes outside of the Shire, the encounter with Tom Bombadil and the events in the Prancing Pony, to attempt to convey the perspective with which I approached the majority of the text and discuss how this changes important aspects of the text.

fullsizerenderOne of the most significant aspects of my first exposure to the work was that I saw each of the hobbits as undergoing a process of maturing. This lens highlighted the fact that Frodo was just “coming of age” in the reckoning of the shire-folk (as a youth, I often equated this age with becoming a teenager).

Perhaps the most interesting impact of this vantage point is the fact that I most closely identified with the story arc of Pippin. This is probably because he most clearly undergoes the kind of bildungsroman that I was looking for in these characters.

Tom Bombadil

One of the most unique aspects of my initial approach to the text that I had to revise almost immediately was my fear of Tom Bombadil. As a child, I took very literally the warnings that there are dangers outside the Shire and that no one was to be trusted. Adults tend to express immediately trust for Tom. It is as if they recognize him as an elemental or good fairie spirit from their past experiences of fantasy. I had no such prior knowledge as a child. At the very least, adults trust Tom as soon he frees the hobbits from the clutches of Old Man Willow. As a child, though, I was still very wary of Tom. How did I know for sure that he and Old Man Willow were not in league?

If you take a moment to carefully reread the Tom Bombadil passages, you can surely see the evidence that a distrustful reader could find to support the case of a dishonest Bombadil. My initial observation was that he lives in the Old Forest. He is undoubtedly associated with the characteristics of those woods; especially if, as Goldberry claims, he is the “master” of the woods. Doesn’t that mean that this area would take on somewhat of his personality? Next, there were the terrifying dreams that each of the hobbits have. Tom promises them they they are safe, yet each hobbit except Sam awakens in fear in the night. While they are ultimately soothed, these incursion with the realm of nightmares leads a distrustful reader to one of two conclusions: either Tom is not the complete master of these woods or Tom intentionally allows these dreams to infiltrate his home in order to terrify the hobbits.

Combine this with the fact that Tom exhibits power over the One Ring while he is conversing with the hobbits in his front room and it is easy to see how a child could believe that Tom represents a very scary and powerful evil.

Where we go from here

In future posts, I will be exploring how this approach shaped my understanding of Frodo and the other hobbits, as well as how it impacted my experience of the Prancing Pony, and the interactions with elves!

What do you think?

How old were you when you first read The Lord of the Rings?
Could you see Tom as an intimidating character?​​