By now you should known I’m partial to hobbits. Between my ramblings on the podcast and my exposition on here, it’s clear that I am a big fan of the halflings. They’re clever, funny, quaint, and idealistic. As such I find I am also drawn to the men of Bree. Really they’re just tall hobbits: their lives revolve around the growing of food and its consumption; they bicker, but kindly; they abide by quaint, rural ways. Being Men, rather than Hobbits, they do have a darker side evidenced by the awful Bill Ferny and the later events preceding comments about ‘thievery and mischief’ (and perhaps a forthcoming Fellowship Event). But, again just like Hobbits, in a pinch they are tough and they are loyal to the core, evidenced by one Barliman Butterbur.
He doesn’t get much play in the books, even less in the movies, but what he does and says are important to the plot itself and to the characters. The huffy, fast-talking barkeeper stays true to his friends and gets downright mean when it comes to the point. Not only that, he becomes the archetype for most innkeepers and bartenders for decades of fantasy novels after him. And, again not unlike Hobbits, Barli represents something tangible that connects us to the heroic struggle of the books; real people, living real lives worthy of freedom from evil oppression.
We are first introduced to Barli by an unlikely source. When the four travelers (Sam, Merry, Pippin, and Frodo) are rescued from the Barrow-downs they get some sage advice from one Tom Bombadil:
four miles along the Road you’ll come upon a village, Bree under Bree-hill, with doors looking westward. There you’ll find an old inn that is called The Prancing Pony. Barliman Butterbur is the worthy keeper.
Upon arrival we’re granted a few hardy pages of exposition about Bree and its people and the importance of the ‘Inn of Bree’, including it’s worthy keeper:
The Inn of Bree was still there, however, and the innkeeper was an important person. His house was a meeting place for the idle, talkative, and inquisitive among the inhabitants, large and small, of the four villages; and a resort of Rangers and other wanderers, and for such travellers (mostly dwarves) as still journeyed on the East Road, to and from the Mountains.
His name is spot on: ‘barley man’. Little could be more appropriate for someone who makes his living selling ale. And I don’t believe it’s beyond the scope of reason to say that every contemporary fantasy trope involving an inn or bar or tavern as the place of happenstance, the point of origin for many an unexpected adventure, began here. But whereas in every D&D inspired universe’s corner pub or Song of Ice and Fire whore house, those being ubiquitous, the Prancing Pony is one of a kind. There are no such settlements anywhere else in Eriador and there don’t appear to be many in the other civilized lands (Gondor, Rohan, Dale, etc.). Bree is at the crossroads of the Greenway (the old north-south road) and the Great Road (that runs east-west) and the Prancing Pony is the one place where all travelers using that road stop and cross paths over a mug and plain food. The coziness it evokes, the dim and the good drink, are why such places became such a powerful part of contemporary fantasy. But the Pony was (probably) the first. It is this very same place where, we learn in the appendices, that Gandalf and Thorin Oakenshield meet and initiate a relationship that will change the course of history.
The proprietary responsibilities of such an operation may then help to explain Butterbur’s haste. He is always on the go, barking orders to Nob and Bob (his hired Hobbits), setting out trays and mugs, declaring, ‘One thing drives out another!’ The stress of operating his establishment, in a eucatastrophic moment, nearly cost the Ring-bearer his life. Gandalf, having been expected back in the Shire months before Frodo and co. depart, left a hasty note with Barli, knowing that Frodo and Sam would certainly stop in Bree after their departure. But Barli is no elephant. ‘Hobbits! Now what does that remind me of?’ But it isn’t until one Strider intervenes and the threat of Black Riders is exposed that Barliman recalls and presents the letter written by Gandalf.
As I said, Barli can get mean in a pinch. Once he comes to trust Strider (a little bit) and to understand that Frodo is in fact the Mr. Baggins that Gandalf told him to watch out for, Barliman and his employees set a determined watch about the Inn. It is not enough, however, to keep off Nazgûl in the night. Though he claims to have kept his eyes open all night long, the hobbits’ room is still trashed come morning. While he did not cower in fear, the busy, exhausted innkeeper may not be the finest watchman if he is a loyal friend. His card represents this well, even if it is limited by having Hobbit heroes; he’s very much like ally Dori, being able to soak damage, but without the limitation of exhausting.
Like other characters in the text are to their respective peoples, Barli is the resident indicator for the Bree-men. Even being friends with a wandering wizard, even hosting dwarves and Rangers and other folks from distant lands, he is still small-minded. He puts no heed or belief in the protective watch of the Dúnedain. He says he wouldn’t leave Bree for ‘any money’. Even upon the return of the heroes a year later, clad in mail and looking as strong as ever from a year abroad, he is still doubtful of what they say, especially the imminent return of the King. He’s more fixated on the quality of his beer (which had been especially good thanks to Gandalf) and the threat of land-grabbing than the high and legendary things going on not too far away.
But it’s folk like him and the Bree-hobbits and the Shire-folk that deserve the world. Legendary heroes and so on have little to fight for, save glory and triumph, without the everyday folk who benefit from their sacrifices.