Bree is a meeting place for the two very different worlds of the Shire and the rest of Middle-earth. Both Hobbits and Big People (humans) live there in relative peace, and there is always a steady stream of travelers of all kinds. Frodo, therefore, feels uneasy when the gatekeeper guarding the entrance to Bree takes a curious interest in the hobbits. The hobbits enter the Prancing Pony, the local inn, and announce themselves to the innkeeper, Barliman Butterbur. The hobbits seem to remind Butterbur of something, but he cannot quite place it.
The innkeeper sets the hobbits up in their room. After dinner, Frodo, Sam, and Pippin go into the main drinking hall while Merry rests in the room. The hobbits quickly become the center of attention in the hall, as the Bree folk rarely get news or travelers from Hobbiton anymore. Frodo worries about some suspicious-looking characters watching the hobbits from dark corners of the room.
Butterbur points out to Frodo a particularly weather-beaten individual called Strider. The innkeeper says that Strider is a Ranger, a wanderer among the northern lands. Strider makes some pointed comments, and Frodo begins to wonder how much the man knows. Frodo suddenly notices that Pippin, who has had too much beer, is telling the crowd about Bilbo’s birthday party—and getting very close to telling the part about the Ring.
To distract the audience from Pippin, Frodo gets up on a table and sings a rollicking song. His ruse works, but as he sings a second time, he falls off the table and accidentally slips the Ring on his finger. The crowd is shocked to see Frodo vanish, and everyone suddenly becomes quiet and suspicious. Frodo slips into the corner and reappears, where Strider, addressing Frodo by his real name and implying that he knows about the Ring, asks to see Frodo later. The people in the hall are not convinced when Frodo steps out of the corner and claims to have simply rolled over there as he fell. They all return to their rooms, and rumors fly.
All that is gold does not glitter,
Not all those who wander are lost. . .
Strider follows the hobbits back to their room. He begins to talk, hinting that he knows much about their journey. The hobbits, especially Sam, are inclined to distrust Strider because of his vagabond appearance. However, Strider does indeed seem to know much about the Black Riders, who have recently been seen in Bree. In fact, he saw Black Riders speaking to the gatekeeper a few days ago. Strider also warns that others in Bree, including Bill Ferny—a “swarthy sneering fellow” who was in the drinking hall earlier—are not to be trusted.
Just then, Butterbur knocks and enters. He long-windedly explains to Frodo that he has a letter to Frodo from Gandalf. The letter was supposed to be delivered three months ago, but Butterbur forgot it, and only remembered it when Frodo showed up.
Reading the letter, the hobbits are frightened to learn that Gandalf had sensed imminent danger and wanted them to leave Hobbiton by the end of July, two months before they actually left. The wizard writes that he would catch up if he could, but that they should make for Rivendell as quickly as possible. Finally, Gandalf writes that Strider—whose real name is Aragorn—is a friend who can help them. The wizard quotes a few lines of an ancient poem that is somehow related to Aragorn. Sam is still somewhat dubious, but Strider soon convinces Sam by saying that he already could easily have killed them and taken the Ring had he wanted to. The hobbits agree to take Strider on as their guide.
Merry finally returns, bursting with the news that he has seen a Black Rider while out on a walk. Strider immediately decides that the hobbits must not spend the night in their room. They arrange pillows under their blankets to make it look like they are sleeping in their beds—an attempt to deceive anyone who tries to kill them in the night. The hobbits roll out their blankets in the parlor and go to sleep as Strider keeps watch.
Strider dominates these two chapters, though his modest entrance belies his great importance to the novel. At first, his dark, shrouded appearance and knowledge of Frodo’s business inspire suspicion rather than confidence. However, we soon see that Strider’s downtrodden appearance is due to long years of hard travel, and we learn that his knowledge comes from Gandalf, his own keen ears, and his many years of fighting the Enemy. Moreover, the grandness of the poem that Gandalf ties to Strider’s name—Aragorn—hints at the Ranger’s greater destiny. In Strider, as in the hobbits, a humble outward appearance hides inner greatness. As we continue to see throughout The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien prefers his heroes that way. Even Gandalf, Strider hints, is much greater than the mere clever old wizard the hobbits take him to be.
At this point, then, there are at least two surprisingly powerful figures aiding the hobbits. This fact is not only comforting, but it also suggests that Tolkien’s conception of a hero or great man includes the old-fashioned chivalric concern for those who are less powerful. Certainly, the fate of the Ring concerns all of Middle-earth, but Gandalf and Strider have been protecting the Shire since long before the identity of Bilbo’s ring was known for certain. For all their involvement in great deeds, neither Strider nor Gandalf loses sight of the fact that he fights the evil power of Sauron in part to protect seemingly inconsequential people such as the race of Hobbits, with their somewhat bumbling, ignorant ways.
In Bree, we continue to see the corrupting power of Sauron and his servants. Both the gatekeeper and Bill Ferny have, it seems, been enlisted by the Black Riders to keep an eye out for Frodo. The gatekeeper appears to obey because the Black Riders have threatened him, whereas Bill Ferny appears to have been bribed. Those who fight against Sauron must have the strength and will to resist both greed and fear, which together make for a powerful combination of incentives.
The general atmosphere of suspicion in these chapters introduces a recurrent motif in The Lord of the Rings as a whole. Trust is hard to come by in Tolkien’s world. It was not always this way in Middle-earth, however. Characters mention later in the novel that strangers used to be welcomed and trusted before the rise of Sauron’s threat and the dark times that his power has brought to Middle-earth. But now we see that even Hobbits from one region distrust those from another. Strider, who later emerges as one of the greatest and most noble heroes in the novel, is distrusted as a vagrant and a scoundrel at first. The notion of trust is made even more complicated by the lies that are necessary to fulfill the mission, including Frodo’s deception about possessing the Ring. When Frodo vanishes as he puts on the Ring, the others in the tavern become understandably suspicious of this guest who has powers greater than he has acknowledged.