In this series, we take a look at the village of Bree. We start by doing a side-by-side comparison of Tolkien's original version of the Bree-land and the less-than-faithful adaptation in Peter Jackson's movies. From the diversity of its inhabitants to the overall tone, Bree is a much happier, multi-ethnic place in the books than what we get in the on-screen adaptation.
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Hi. Welcome to “The Halfling.” I’m your host, Jaron Pak, and this is Episode 22: The Wonderful World of Bree.
First off, I want to do a bit of housekeeping, starting with thanking you all for your patience. It’s been slow going getting these next two episodes ready. I’ve had to do quite a bit of research, and it’s been hard to fit that in lately. In fact, I literally looked up the bulk of the details for this episode from the comfort of an economy class plane seat in the wee hours of the morning sitting next to a sleeping man who didn’t understand the idea of spatial awareness. Don’t worry, though, I waited until I was back in my home office to smooth everything out and get it to flow better. That said, I’ve had quite a lot of things filling up my schedule lately, including a fun family wedding this past weekend. I’ve also had a lot of things going on with the upcoming “Rings of Power” show — some of which I’m technically not even allowed to talk about. Cryptic statements aside, I’ve been busy covering the show for Looper and I also recently started contributing to the fan site Fellowship of Fans. Hey, guys! Yeah, you should check them out if you have a minute. I also want to add that you can officially follow me on Twitter now at the handle @PakJaron. That’s @PakJaron. I also have some fun guest interviews in the works, so stand by as we get further into the summer. Add all of that up and toss in the fact that I have a family and other freelance work that keeps me very busy, and, well, I hope you understand why this episode took a bit longer than usual to get out. Alright. Enough about all of that. On with the show!
This time, we’re going to dig into an obscure little corner of Middle-earth: the Bree-land. Bree is a fun part of “The Lord of the Rings” story that figures prominently in both the beginning and ending of the larger narrative. It’s where Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin meet Aragorn for the first time. In fact, it’s also where Tolkien himself met the Ranger for the first time. In a famous letter to W.H. Auden in June of 1955, Tolkien talks about how much of the story came to him as he went along. No, literally, like, he discovered it as he wrote it. The letter specifically says, “So the essential Quest started at once. But I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me. Tom Bombadil I knew already; but I had never been to Bree. Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo.”
So, Bree is a fun place that even Tolkien got to discover in those fledgling moments just after the four Hobbits leave the Shire and, in the original books, escape from the Old Forest and Barrow Downs. Before we get too far into the book versions, though, I want to handle things a little differently this time. Rather than casually overlapping original source material and movies, I want to start by dividing them and looking at the adaptation and the original side by side. Why? Well, you’ll see in a minute, because as much as I love Tolkien’s Bree, Peter Jackson’s iteration is, well, interesting. So let’s start there.
In “The Fellowship of the Ring” movie, the Hobbits arrive outside of Bree in the pouring rain. They run up to a wooden wall and knock on the gate. A suspicious gatekeeper lets them in, and they walk through a depressing street with a bunch of rough-around-the-edges fellas — all Men, by the way. That’s important. It’s dingy. Dark. Wet. Muddy. We do get a nifty, carrot-chomping cameo of Peter Jackson, but other than that, there are a lot of things missing here. Like, a lot.
Eventually, the travelers arrive in an inn. The inn. The Prancing Pony, by Barliman Butterbur. They’re greeted by the absent-minded owner, Butterbur himself, who barely remembers Gandalf …and then says he hasn’t seen him in a while. The discouraged Hobbits head to the common room, where many shifty-eyed fellows watch them. Again, all Men here. The Hobbits stand out like a sore thumb. Frodo sees Strider off in the corner. Pippin nearly gives away the quest to his audience. Frodo does give away the quest by accidentally putting on the Ring. Aragorn pulls them aside, they go to the room where he appears to be threatening and bullying them. Then he goes soft ...and magically so do they? They stick with Stick-at-naught Strider. The Black Riders raid the inn, but don’t succeed …and scene. We’re done. No more Bree.
Now, that sounds like a lot of attention for a minor part of the story, and it’s a fun chunk of the movie. But I needed to refresh the details in our minds, because we’re going to see in just a minute just how different the book version of this area is. I know I don’t always go through every bit of the movie and book versions, but in this case, there are so many factors that change here. So many.
So, let’s go through the book version now and compare it to the movie visuals that most of us share. And I have to be honest, I forgot a lot of these details until I went over them carefully. Not because I haven’t read them before. I have. Dozens of times, actually. But it’s easy to let the Bree stuff blend into the Shire part of the Shire, because, we’ll, both areas have a strikingly similar vibe. Like, they’re all part of the same quiet corner of the world. And don’t get me wrong, that’s true in a sense. But, as we’ll see, to be from Bree is very much so different than hailing from the Shire. Let’s start with this short, simple summary of the Men of Bree taken right out of the opening of the chapter “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony” in “The Fellowship of the Ring” book. This is one of the first things we hear about Bree, and it sets the tone in a very different way. As Tolkien sets things up for the exciting events in Bree, he gives us a multi-page summary of the area. This ends up being one of the primary information dumps on Bree in all of Tolkien’s writings. There’s just not a lot outside of the actual story text. Contrary to most of the things we’ve broken down on this show, the in-story description of Bree and its inhabitants is actually the primary source here. But it’s a good one, so we’ll work with it. Right toward the beginning of that description, we get this interesting chunk of text: “The Men of Bree were brown-haired, broad, and rather short, cheerful and independent: they belonged to nobody but themselves; but they were more friendly and familiar with Hobbits, Dwarves, Elves, and other inhabitants of the world about them than was (or is) usual with Big People.”
Okay, so, right away the entire movie version of Bree is blown up. Going off of Tolkien’s own words, Peter Jackson’s moody town with grumpy, soggy inhabitants is originally described with words like “cheerful” and “independent.” We read that they’re actually very chummy and engaging not just with one another, but with Hobbits, Elves, Dwarves, and others that pass through their town — and there are a lot of people doing just that, by the way, because the town is at an important crossroads that we’ll break talk about in a second. First, though, I just need to put a punctuation mark on the contrasting versions here. If you’re picturing Bree from the movies, turn up the brightness on your screen. Add some color saturation. Turn some of those frowns upside down. This place needs to feel a bit more upbeat if it’s going to match Tolkien’s original image. The last example I’ll give here regarding tone is that, in the story, it even says that when Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Pippin arrive outside of The Prancing Pony inn, they’re hesitant about whether to go in or not. What convinces them to do so? Someone starts singing inside — singing. Not fighting or brawling. Not shouting or being loudly grumpy. A bunch of other people join the original singer when he gets to the chorus of the song, too. The sound is so encouraging, it helps our four Hobbits make up their minds, and they go in. So yeah, while I’m a big fan of the movies, the very dark — like, visually and temperamentally dark — representation of Bree has always irked me because, well, it's supposed to be kind of an upbeat place.
The next thing we need to talk about is the other one of the main issues I have with the movie version of Bree: its lack of diversity. All we see are Men in the streets. We get very Mannish vibes in the inn. But in Tolkien’s own words, the gathering is actually large and mixed. He specifically points out that there are multiple Dwarves there when the Shire Hobbits arrive. We also know, thanks to the backstory of “The Hobbit” which you can watch in “The Hobbit trilogy” or read in “Unfinished Tales,” that Gandalf and Thorin meet up at the Prancing Pony. That’s how they get on the same page about Smaug and decide to launch the Quest of Erebor …and pick up a burglar along the way. But even in the version of Bree that we see in “The Hobbit” movie, the moody, dangerous vibes are still there. The place might as well be on the borders of Mordor, for goodness sake.
I also mentioned Gandalf a second ago, and I need to quickly add that the wizard is also definitely a frequenter of the inn …and a fellow that the innkeeper knows very well. That’s right, movie-Barliman Butterbur. You know who he is. Stop denying it. Seriously, though, Gandalf is a name that the innkeeper has no problem whatsoever remembering in the books. Gandalf even trusts him with important tasks, like sending letters …even if that does technically backfire.
Anyway, along with Men, Dwarves, and Wizards, there are also quite a lot of Hobbits in Bree. Yes, Hobbits. Some of these come from the Shire. In fact, Merry informs his traveling companions that many of his relatives head to Bree every once in a while on mini-adventures. But those aren’t the Hobbits I’m talking about. Itinerant Halflings looking for the best beer this side of the Shire are all well and good, but there are also Hobbits who live in Bree. For real. The area is their primary residence, and while they like the Shire-folk, they don’t consider themselves mere “extensions” of the Shire way of life.
In “The Fellowship of the Ring” book, Sam asks what kind of people live in Bree. In response, Merry gives is that “There are hobbits in Bree as well as Big Folk. I daresay it will be homelike enough.” So, along with a lighter feel for the overall tone of the town and the Men that live there, well, there are Hobbits in Bree. Hobbits. Like, Halflings. The same kind — or very similar — to those living in the Shire. In fact, Men and Hobbits happily co-exist with one another in Bree. And if you’re wondering, that is definitely not a normal arrangement. It’s repeatedly made clear in “The Lord of the Rings” that Hobbits don’t like “Big People,” as they call Men. They tend to avoid them and don’t approve of their blundering ways. That’s why, in the text, it sums up the extremely unique situation in Bree by saying “The Big Folk and the Little Folk (as they called one another) were on friendly terms, minding their own affairs in their own ways, but both rightly regarding themselves as necessary parts of the Bree-folk. Nowhere else in the world was this peculiar (but excellent) arrangement to be found.”
As an interesting side note, Tolkien also talks about the relationship between Hobbits and Men in the prologue to the story. Rather than beating around the bush, he comes right out and says that even though they ended up estranged later on, Hobbits and Men are clearly relatives. He points out that they speak the same languages and are obviously closer to one another than they are to Elves or Dwarves. We’ll talk a bit more about this connection later on. But I just wanted to point out that the idea of Hobbits and Men living together is, in general, something that doesn’t happen in Middle-earth. And yet, the two groups are closely related and have many of the same interests and cultural elements. And there’s one place in Middle-earth, one single location, where you can see these two groups living, integrated together into a single society: Bree.
Now, just because Bree has Hobbits and Men doesn’t mean the Big and Little folk do everything attached at the hip. It says that they’re on friendly terms and that both groups mind their own affairs — even though they all consider themselves an integral part of the Bree dynamic — something Peter Jackson clearly didn’t grasp. It’s also interesting that the Bree Hobbits aren’t considered equals by the Shire Hobbits and vice versa. The Breeland Hobbits are called “Outsiders” in the Shire. But the feelings go both ways, too. The Breeland Hobbits claim to be the oldest settlement of Hobbits in the world. Of course, artificial boundaries aside, when push comes to shove, the two groups of Hobbits aren’t all that different. In fact, Tolkien makes it plainly clear that the Brandybucks (that is, Merry’s very large extended family that lives on the edge of the Shire that leads to Bree) yeah, they have Bree blood in them. But that doesn’t stop both groups from claiming superiority as far as Hobbitish ancestry goes. Sometimes civilizations are so predictable.
Alright. We’ll leave it at that for this episode. We’ve seen who lives in Bree and how dramatically it was misrepresented in “The Lord of the Rings” movies. Next time, we’ll take some time talking about the larger area around Bree, known as the “Bree-land” and explore some of the ways that this Third-age village of Men and Hobbits could impact the Second Age “Rings of Power” story.
Until next time, friends.