The Lord of the Rings – Book 1, Chapter 9: “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”

The village of Bree is a crossroads of sorts for the big folk and the little folk, but also a crossroads for history and legend in the form of the rangers, whose origins are shrouded by time.  Tolkien tells us these rangers are taller than most men, and bear strange powers of sight and hearing, and carry with them tales that capture their audiences wherever they go.  Makes me wonder how many of these rangers there are.  Further lore suggests there are at least two such groups who descend from the Dúnedain, but that’s getting way ahead.

The hobbits make their way past the village gates and to the Prancing Pony, where they meet Barliman Butterbur, who sees to nearly every imaginable need they have in spite of his obvious haste to keep all of his tasks in progress.  From there, Frodo dispels curiosity by informing all concerned that he’s interested in history and geography, and that he’s writing a book, but the other hobbits there stop being quite as chatty and forthcoming when they realize he’s not taking notes.  Merry and Pippin become the main attraction, telling of Shire events and generally being their typical, sociable selves.

Off to the side, the newcomers are being carefully observed… by a ranger called Strider.  He’s helpful in his cautious advice right from the beginning, but at this point in the story, our hobbits don’t know who he is.  All we know is his warning to “Mr. Underhill” to keep his friends quiet is heeded when Frodo sees them telling the story of Bilbo’s birthday party, and all that implies.  The name of Baggins cannot be on the minds of people, to say nothing of the Ring.

Frodo, assumed to be drunk by the masses, gains the room’s attention (with the Ring firmly in hand to help him fight the urge to just slip it on) to make a speech.  He’s encouraged to sing a song, and he chooses one that Bilbo made up.  We’re given the full lyrics by the narrator, which are quintessentially Bilbo in their silliness, but we’re also told Frodo didn’t get to finish the song the second time through.  Caught up in the moment during his encore performance, he falls off the table and disappears as the Ring finds its way to his finger.  Some would call that “convenient.”  I call that “the Ring attempting to make itself known.”

Strider pretty much takes control of the situation and tells “Mr. Baggins” that he’ll have a word with him alone, calling him out.  The spectators debate his magical powers and then back away, despite how Frodo explains himself.  Mr. Butterbur warns him to warn others, and says that he’ll be needing a word in private as well.  Of course, those conversations and what they reveal are the subject of the next chapter.

As much as this chapter makes me plenty happy as the introduction of Strider, who is a character I very much admire as the leader and warrior he proves to be, there is a far bigger idea in this chapter that resonates through out Middle-Earth: Frodo’s song.  Back on The Hobbit, Professor Corey Olsen taught me to look to the songs and poems for the world building.  So is this song the silly nonsense as we think?  If you reference The Silmarillion, not so much as it turns out.

The song speaks of The Man in the Moon, silver, the white horses of the Moon… these are all references to Tilion, the Maia who steers the island of the moon.  He’s a huntsman with a silver bow.  There is also a reference to the sun being a “she.”  The she being referred to is Arien, the guardian of the sun with whom Tilion is often said to be in love.  Tilion follows an irregular schedule (perhaps due to the drinking in the song), and as such the moon is sometimes in the sky at the same time as the sun, sometimes behind it, or sometimes blocking it out.  His wavering path is due to the fact that as a Maia of fire, she’s literally too hot for him to handle.  It’s said that he flew too close to her once in his pursuit of her, which is why his face is scarred.

It’s interesting to note that in many early European mythologies, the roles of Sun and Moon are reversed from this, with the sun being male and the moon being female.  You can find both in ancient Egyptian myth, but that’s because there’s literally over 3,000 deities in the Egyptian lexicon, so I won’t go further on that front.  More importantly to this topic, you also find both in the Celtic lexicon, and you’ll find the parallel to Middle-Earth in the Norse lexicon.  This is where we run right into Tolkien’s scholastic backyard, with Norse being the precursor to the Anglo-Saxon that would develop across medieval Britain.  Essentially, in following the Norse version (as would be expected of him), Tolkien is perhaps acknowledging the superior power of the sun as feminine, both in her warmth and ability to make things grow, and in her scorching wrath, while the moon is just a pale reflection of her, always in pursuit of her.  Hence the mythos Tolkien gives us with Tilion and Arien.  Such a romantic, that Tolkien.

According to Tolkien, the song survived to our time in the form of the nursery rhyme “Hey Diddle Diddle,” with few of its words remembered now.  We know from Tolkien’s “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” that this song eventually reached its peak form, entitled “The Man in the Moon Stayed Up Too Late.”  While “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil” was published in 1962, Tom Shippey, one of the leading Tolkien scholars, cites this poem and its companion “The Man in the Moon Came Down Too Soon” as dating to 1923, a good 14 years before the publication of The Hobbit.  Shippey also argues that many such poems are Tolkien’s way of trying to explain certain passages in Old English and Old Norse mythology, especially from Beowulf, which Tolkien himself translated, thus allowing us to read it today.

What this all comes down to is that this poem is one of the foundational building blocks of Middle-Earth!  Not bad for a silly nonsense poem, eh?  I truly love exploring the scholastic rabbit hole all of this creates.

It’s also fun to consider that Bilbo and Frodo might sing this song to Tilion himself once they reach Tol Eressëa, off the coast of Valinor.

As an aside, The Man in the Moon also appears in Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas, written between 1920 and 1942 to his children.

Also, it can be noted that Bofur sings a version of the song in Rivendell in Peter Jackson’s film version of The Hobbit.  How or why he knows it is a bit of a mystery, but whatever.  We all know there’s a great deal of “just go with it” in those movies, don’t we?  Such is always the nature with adaptation, which is why I largely concern myself here with just the texts.  That’s difficult enough, fun as it is to revisit the films from time to time.  I leave those masterful comparisons to Libromancer’s Apprentice.

And finally, if you’re interested, the Tolkien Ensemble has a great rendition of Frodo’s song, which you can find here.

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