In the second half of our time in Bree, we dive into the larger Bree-land, its four towns, and why the area is such an important place in northern Middle-earth. We also investigate how long the ancient Men of Bree have inhabited the area, and we explore some of the ways the show could influence the "Rings of Power" story.
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Hi. Welcome to “The Halfling.” I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 23: Ancient Bree and the Prancing Pony.
Okay. So far in our mini-series, we’ve talked about the tone and people groups of Bree. Last time we dug into how Men and Hobbits lived in Bree together, and how the entire dynamic of the town was much more upbeat than is depicted in Peter Jackson’s trilogy. We’ve also focused pretty heavily on the single town of Bree itself. But is that all there is to the ramshackle collection of homes and the little area of land surrounding the village? Why, no it isn’t. So, let’s investigate.
As far as the official geographic area is concerned, usually, Bree is brought up as a single town. And it’s definitely the primary part of the area that comes into the story. But Bree is actually the chief town in an area called the “Bree-land.” This is a small stretch of rural country that includes Bree and three other towns, all scattered around or on a summit called “Bree-hill.” The towns are called Archet, Combe, and Staddle. These four municipalities and the little tracks of land that surround them make up the Bree-land. The area stands out like a sore thumb — or more accurately, a green thumb — in a vast wilderness of wild country. Why? Because it stands at an important crossroads.
By the time of The Lord of the Rings, Bree is less busy than it used to be. In its heyday, though, the town was filled with a lot of visitors passing by. Some of these came on the East Road. The rest came on an ancient highway called the North Road that, by the time of “The Lord of the Rings” is overgrown and referred to as the “Greenway.” This crossroads made Bree an important point for travelers, which gave it the ability to endure a lot of traumatic events with uncanny sustained success.
Tolkien puts it this way, “According to their own tales they were the original inhabitants and were the descendants of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world. Few had survived the turmoils of the Elder Days; but when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there, and they were still there now, when the memory of the old Kings had faded into the grass.” Those “kings?” Yeah, we’re talking about the Men of Numenor, Aragorn’s ancestors. They came over the sea over three thousand years before “The Lord of the Rings.” For more on that, you can revisit our Isildur series from last year. For now, we’re talking about Bree, and the crazy thing is, throughout all of the chaos that happens over the years, the Men of Bree, at least, seem to continue to be a factor. They dwell around their tiny crossroads. At some point along the way, they’re joined by some Hobbits, and together, they continue to provide a place for weary travelers to take a break from journeying and eat, drink, eat, and be merry.
In the spirit of doing this entire Bree series a bit out of order from our usual programming, I want to stop here and talk about how Bree has the potential to impact the “The Rings of Power” show — and it starts with this idea that the Men of Bree are around for a very, very long time. They’re literally ancient by the time of “The Lord of the Rings.” In fact, let’s look at part of that quote I just read one more time. It says, “when the Kings returned again over the Great Sea they had found the Bree-men still there…” Okay, a couple of things here. First, the statement clearly implies that the Men of Bree are there when the kings come back. I can’t tell if there’s a definitive statement about what event that’s referring to, but if I had to guess, it would be one of two times. First, there’s the point when Isildur and his family and followers arrive in Middle-earth after the destruction of Númenor and they set up Gondor and all that stuff. That’s a bit more than a century before the end of the Second Age. My other thought is quite a bit earlier. See, Númenor is settled at the beginning of the Second Age, about 3,500 years earlier than when Isildur arrives on the mainland. Eventually, though, the Númenóreans start to adventure back out and explore the mainland of Middle-earth again. In the appendix to “The Return of the King,” it says that 600 years into the Second Age, “The first ships of the Númenoreans appear off the coasts.” If that’s when they find the Bree Men “still there” than that would mean they were there when the kings first headed over to their island nation in the first place. The other key wording is the earlier part of the quote where it points out that, while few Men survived the turmoils of the Elder Days, the Bree Men manage to do so. And if you’re wondering what the Elder Days are, that’s usually anything happening in the First Age or earlier. So, if you glazed over with all of this speculation, that’s okay. I get it. The point I’m trying to make here is that, if the Men of Bree are there during the Elder Days, that would mean by the time of “The Lord of the Rings,” their quaint, independent little community has been in existence for a staggering 6,500 years at the least.
Now, to be clear, the text seems to primarily be talking about the Men of Bree for all of this ancient history. Where Hobbits come into the picture is unclear. Still, the Shire is technically less than 1,500 years old during “The Lord of the Rings,” so the odds that the Hobbits living in Bree — which is at least 5,000 years older than that — are the oldest settlement of Hobbits seems to be more likely.
There’s one more thing about the Rings of Power that I want to talk about here. It has to do with what they’re doing with Harfoots. For those who aren’t aware, the showrunners and writers have developed a new “proto-Hobbit” group for their Second Age show called Harfoots. For the record, this is a legitimate group of Hobbit ancestors, although nothing is technically known about even Harfoots during the time of the show. That leaves this gap in knowledge that the show needs to fill — and I think Bree can play a critical role in that process.
In the prologue for “The Fellowship of the Ring” it says “It is plain indeed that in spite of later estrangement Hobbits are relatives of ours: far nearer to us than Elves, or even Dwarves. Of old they spoke the languages of Men, after their own fashion, and liked and disliked much the same things as Men did. But what exactly our relationship is can no longer be discovered.” Okay. So, there’s clearly a connection there, but then it goes on to explain how murky it is. Neither group has Elvish immortality, so they can’t remember. Most of the stuff Tolkien wrote was from an Elvish perspective, too, which tended to naturally focus on the Elves. Men show up once in a while, but not in much detail — and Hobbits aren’t even there at all until the War of the Ring. So it’s hard to figure out where to draw inspiration for a Second Age group of Halflings.
But the fact that the history doesn’t exist doesn’t mean Hobbits themselves don’t exist. In fact, at one point in the prologue, we get the line, “ The beginning of Hobbits lies far back in the Elder Days that are now lost and forgotten.” It also says that, “it is clear that Hobbits had, in fact, lived quietly in Middle-earth for many long years before other folk became even aware of them.”
What am I trying to say with all of this? Just the simple fact that the hints and riddle of early Hobbit history tend to point to Halflings that feel a lot more like Bree Hobbits than Shire ones. They’re in the wild. Their culture is heavily influenced by Men, too. If Amazon wants to get early Hobbits right, I think they should look at the Hobbits of Bree more than those of the Shire.
Alright. Enough about the “Rings of Power” show. Let’s wrap things up with the Bree-land. Before my epic offroading into adaptive speculation, we were talking about how Bree is made up of four separate towns. It existed for a really long time, with Men living there from the get-go and Hobbits likely joining them at some point along the way. The Bree-land is at the intersection of two very important highways, too. While all of the four towns of the Bree-land take pride in their collective autonomy, the actual town of Bree is clearly the most important one of the bunch. It’s in Bree itself that the two major roads cross. These go right into the town, which isn’t surrounded by a wooden wall, like we see in the movie. Instead, there’s a giant semi-circle ditch that runs around village with a big hedge on the inner side of it. There are two causeways built across this ditch, with each one guarded by a man-made or, I guess Hobbit and Man-made gate. So, the wooden gate part, at least, is accurate. Behind this barricade is roughly a hundred houses made out of stone. There are a few Hobbit holes, too, but the Little Folk mostly live in other areas of the Bree-land.
Of course, the most important building in the region is The Prancing Pony. It inn is a meeting of ways for travelers in a region that literally exists because of the international traffic that it attracts. This naturally means the inn’s owner has a huge reputation in the region. In fact, Barliman Butterbur isn’t just a random dude who serves beer and hosts weary travelers. He’s widely respected in the Bree-land community. He can read (which is a big deal in Middle-earth) and even Gandalf points out that he’s a very wise person when Frodo says the opposite later on in the story.
Butterbur runs his inn with the help of two furry-footed Hobbits called Nob and Bob — who are also conspicuously absent from the film version. To finish our comparison of the movie-to-book stories, when Frodo first arrives and tells him that he’s “Mr. Underhill,” it immediately jogs Butterbur’s busy mind — because Gandalf has already told him at an earlier date that Frodo would be traveling under that name. In the book, Butterbur ends up having a talk with Frodo after he accidentally puts on the Ring — Oh, which also happens when Frodo is singing a song with everyone and dancing on a table, so again, even the bad parts of the story are more upbeat. Anyway, the innkeeper ends up helping Frodo out quite a bit. He gives Frodo a letter from Gandalf that he accidentally forgot to send him earlier. He helps the Hobbits find a pony after their own mounts are scared off by the Black Riders, too. He even pays for the beast himself. Butterbur and Aragorn butt heads a bit, but only because, to the innkeeper’s mind, Strider is a mysterious stranger that might be luring the Hobbits to the dark side. It isn’t until later, when he finds out that Aragorn has become the King of Gondor, that Butterbur changes his mind on Strider’s allegiance.
As we wrap things up, it’s worth noting that Bree isn’t just ancient. It definitely goes on thriving after the events of “The Lord of the Rings.” In fact, the story of Frodo disappearing by using the Ring and the Black Riders attacking the Prancing Pony is such an aberration from the normal state of peace and quiet that, in “The Fellowship of the Ring,” it says, “By that time the whole of Bree was buzzing with excitement. Frodo’s vanishing trick; the appearance of the black horsemen; the robbing of the stables; and not least the news that Strider the Ranger had joined the mysterious hobbits, made such a tale as would last for many uneventful years.” When you think of the happier, more upbeat version of Bree, it’s encouraging to know that the inhabitants have such a peaceful time after the War of the Ring that a disappearing Hobbit and a few raiding theatrics are the best things they have to talk about for a long time afterward.
The last thing I’ll say about Bree has to do with pipeweed. Hobbits love to smoke, and the Hobbits of the Shire are proud of their pipes and their pipeweed. Even wizards like Gandalf and Saruman get hooked on the potent fumes of the burning plant. But it turns out that the most likely origin of pipeweed isn’t the Shire. It’s Bree. In the prologue, it says that the original Hobbit to discover pipeweed was Old Toby, and “It is said that in his youth he went often to Bree, though he certainly never went further from the Shire than that. It is thus quite possible that he learned of this plant in Bree, where now, at any rate, it grows well on the south slopes of the hill. The Bree-hobbits claim to have been the first actual smokers of the pipe-weed. They claim, of course, to have done everything before the people of the Shire, whom they refer to as ‘colonists’; but in this case their claim is, I think, likely to be true. And certainly it was from Bree that the art of smoking the genuine week spread in the recent centuries among Dwarves and such other folk, Rangers, Wizards, or wanderers, as still passed to and fro through that ancient road-meeting. The home and centre of the art is thus to be found in the old in of Bree, The Prancing Pony, that has been kept by the family of Butterbur from time beyond record.” And it’s on that note that we’ll leave the Bree-folk to their quiet, peaceful, and cheery lives.
Until next time, friends.