Frodo returns to the road, and Tolkien returns to the plot. Also, worldbuilding.
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. 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.
I’m of two minds about Tolkien’s worldbuilding. On the one hand, it provides a straightforward glimpse into the incredible mythology he invented, but on the other, there HAD to be more graceful ways of incorporating that information than several paragraphs at the beginning of a chapter (and even footnotes). Call it the birth pangs of a new genre, if you will, but I can’t blame people for being put off by it.
‘Our names and our business are our own, and this does not seem a good place to discuss them,’ said Frodo, not liking the look of the man or the tone of his voice.
‘Your business is your own, no doubt,’ said the man; ‘but it’s my business to ask questions after nightfall.’
‘We are hobbits from Buckland, and we have a fancy to travel and to stay at the inn here,’ put in Merry. ‘I am Mr. Brandybuck. Is that enough for you? The Bree-folk used to be fair-spoken to travelers, or so I had heard.’
Yet more evidence that Frodo is terrible at keeping secrets and he wouldn’t have made it without his stubborn friends.
One thing that they left out of the movie is that there’s a sizable Hobbit population in Bree. They don’t really affect the plot much, though, unless you count putting Frodo & co a little too at their ease in the Prancing Pony.
‘Barliman’s my name. Barliman Butterbur at your service! You’re from the Shire, eh?’ he said, and then suddenly he clapped his hand to his forehead, as if trying to remember something. ‘Hobbits!’ he cried. ‘Now what does that remind me of?’
Spoiler: He forgot something important.
Frodo, Sam, and Pippin decide to hang out at the inn’s common room, where in addition to the regular Bree-folk, there’s a company of traveling dwarves and a band of refugees fleeing “trouble” in the South.
The Bree-folk were sympathetic, but plainly not very ready to take a large number of strangers into their little land. One of the travellers, a squint-eyed ill-favoured fellow, was foretelling that more and more people would be coming north in the near future. ‘If room isn’t found for them, they’ll find it for themselves. They’ve a right to live, same as other folk,’ he said loudly.
So this is when Tolkien’s casual racism starts to show. In addition to his tendency to describe unsavory characters as “squint-eyed” or “swarthy” or things like that, he never actually addresses this very legitimate concern (because good people stay and fight for their land…?). The way he fails to account for problems like this in a world that is in many respects so well-developed is only a symptom of a worldview that can’t see how some people groups can be failed by the system through no fault of their own.
Anyhow, Frodo runs into a shady character known as Strider (but he has “keen gray eyes”, not squint-eyes, so clearly he’s one of the good guys!), who takes an unusual interest in hobbits for a vagabond.
‘Goes about at a great pace on his long shanks, though he don’t tell nobody what cause he has to hurry. But there’s no accounting for East and West, as we say in Bree, meaning the Rangers and the Shire-folk, begging your pardon.’
It’s so much fun when Tolkien can just throw in a made-up adage like that, and it almost characterizes the people of Bree better than the infodump at the top of the chapter.
Strider invites Frodo to sit and chat a bit, but Frodo is understandably defensive when the man tries to pry into his business…and then Strider warns Frodo when Pippin starts telling the story of Bilbo’s disappearance to the Bree-hobbits. And so Frodo jumps on a table and starts singing to divert their attention (yes, this is actually a thing that happens, and poor Frodo is just as embarrassed as any not-actually-drunk person would be).
With a ping and a pong the fiddle-strings broke!
the cow jumped over the Moon,
And the little dog laughed to see such fun,
And the Saturday dish went off at a run
with the silver Sunday spoon.
And this is how Tolkien explains the origins of “Hey-diddle-diddle”, because that clearly demands an explanation! Then Frodo has another drink and sings it all again.
He capered about on the table; and when he came a second time to the cow jumped over the Moon, he leaped into the air. Much too vigorously; for he came down, bang, into a tray full of mugs, and slipped, and rolled off the table with a crash, clatter, and bump! The audience opened their mouths wide for laughter, and stopped short in gaping in silence; for the singer disappeared. He simply vanished, as if he had gone slap through the floor without leaving a hole!
A few unsavory fellows sneak out of the room after that, while most of the rest have been officially scared off by the sudden and unexpected “conjuring”.
‘Well?’ said Strider, when he reappeared. ‘Why did you do that? Worse than anything your friends could have said! You have put your foot in it! Or should I say your finger?’
After he’s done chewing Frodo out for his stupidity, Strider asks to have a private talk with him for as-yet-undisclosed reasons – and then Mr. Butterbur asks to have a word with him, too…