Reading “The Lord of the Rings:”At the Sign of the Prancing Pony” and “Strider”

We’ve now come to the point where the Hobbits move to the last vestige of their knowledge, the village of Bree.  Once they go beyond this town, they know, they will be entering a world with which they are utterly unfamiliar, and that adds to these chapters a heightened sense of thrill.

My favourite part of the Bree chapter, however, is the song that Frodo sings in order to distract the fellow bar patrons from Pippin’s foolish prattling.  It is, in my opinion, one of the most brilliant compositions in the entire novel.  What’s more, I think that this poem (unlike, say, some of the loftier concoctions that succeed it), connects to readers in a very personal way.  This is good old-fashioned hobbit poetry and, because of its elaboration of a quite familiar nursery-rhyme, it gives us as modern readers a stronger sense of the connection between this lost era and our own modern world.  Furthermore, it also sheds light on Tolkien’s intense love for literary and philological excavation, as he reverse engineers a rather silly nursery rhyme into a longer (and infinitely funnier) poem.  (Indeed, so catching is the rhythm that I often find myself singing the first stanza to myself without entirely realizing what I am doing).

And of course there is the enigma of Strider, and the way in which Frodo gradually comes to trust him reveals much not only about his character, but also about how Character works in these novels.  There is, it would seem, an essential essence that people bear, something that speaks out from even the most ragged of appearances.  Though he may look foul, he feels fair, as the novel puts it.

At the same time, Strider is also the last, rather tarnished, scion of a once-great people.  As so often in Tolkien, there is a sense of the great passage of time, of the decline of the pride of the Numenoreans, until they are a scattering of tribes wandering in the wilds, mostly mistrusted by the very people that they spend the vast majority of their lives protecting.  However, the novel also takes great pains to show us that that even now, with the fading of the great line of kings, there still shines with a bit of that old glory and wonder, a beacon of hope even in these later days of decay and decline.

Now, to raise a few hackles.  One can sense at least a bit of (possibly) Orientalist overtones with his description of the “squint-eyed southerner.”  Of course, how one interprets this particular sequence depends on how generous one is prepared to be when reading Tolkien.  As a generous reader, I don’t want to see echoes of World War II racial stereotypes of East Asians (particularly the Japanese), but it’s hard not to read at least a little of these echoes into the phrase “squint eyed.”

Racist?  Not quite.  However, it’s hard to miss the racial overtones of this description, especially taken with the rest of the novel and its racial politics.  I don’t necessarily want to wade into the maelstrom of the discussion of race in the novel, but I do want to show that there is at least good reason to press this language and uncover the sort of assumptions that it relies upon in its presumed audience.

I love these chapters for how they manage to gesture toward so many of the issues that will come to dominate the rest of the novel:  the presence of an ancient past intruding on the present, the constant and unrelenting sense of danger and pursuit, but above all the loyalty of friends and stalwart bravery even in the face of gravest danger.


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