I’d like to revisit then what we do know about Bree and Breeland. To start, this is a lovely treatment, drawn largely from the FOTR text:
Now let’s look at that text itself - all quotes from FOTR, Chapter 9 At the Sign of The Prancing Pony:
Bree was the chief village of the Bree-land, a small inhabited region, like an island in the empty lands round about. Besides Bree itself, there was Staddle on the other side of the hill, Combe in a deep valley a little further eastward, and Archet on the edge of the Chetwood. Lying round Bree-hill and the villages was a small country of fields and tamed woodland only a few miles broad.
I find the description of the Bree-land as an “island in the empty lands round about” very interesting. It implies a few things I think -
1. Although most of the population of the Bree-land is in the named villages, if the settled area extends a few miles in each direction, it’s reasonable to assume that there’s scattered farmsteads farther out, probably primarily along the main east-west road, and to a lesser extent up the Greenway. I suspect that those smaller habitations would be on the English model, still followed in New England today: a few neighboring farmhouses close together surrounded by fields, rather than each farmhouse off alone in the middle of its own property. (The latter is a habit more seen in southern and midwestern America, deriving I assume from Scots-Irish tendencies)
2. The comparatively small population compared to the wilderness around it implies a greater wealth of timber and game compared to the real medieval England, assuming some hardy men of Bree are willing to risk the foul things beyond their borders to get them. This in turn affects construction choices (more on that in a moment).
The village of Bree had some hundred stone houses of the Big Folk, mostly above the Road, nestling on the hillside with windows looking west. On that side, running in more than half a circle from the hill and back to it, there was a deep dike with a thick hedge on the inner side. Over this the Road crossed by a causeway; but where it pierced the hedge it was barred by a great gate. There was another gate in the southern comer where the Road ran out of the village. The gates were closed at nightfall; but just inside them were small lodges for the gatekeepers.
NOW we’re getting interesting. A hundred stone houses, give or take.
I find this particularly interesting, given that the common mental conception of Bree in the Tudor fashion. Peter Jackson definitely pushed this conception, but I don't think it started with him. Bree has been painted with a “generic fantasy Tudor style” brush for years -
There’s an interesting thing about that Tudor style though - it’s essentially a materials saving technology. Older Saxon-era buildings were entirely wood-sided - the post-and-beam / wattle-and-daub look we associate with the medieval era (and fantasy) grew out of a relative scarcity of good timber and the need to make do with coppice wood and earth.
That’s presumably not an issue for the Men of late Third Age Breeland, their settlement being an “island” in the wild.
There’s more though-
Down on the Road, where it swept to the right to go round the foot of the hill, there was a large inn. It had been built long ago when the traffic on the roads had been far greater. For Bree stood at an old meeting of ways; another ancient road crossed the East Road just outside the dike at the western end of the village, and in former days Men and other folk of various sorts had travelled much on it. Strange as News from Bree was still a saying in the Eastfarthing, descending from those days, when news from North, South, and East could be heard in the inn, and when the Shire-hobbits used to go more often to hear it. But the Northern Lands had long been desolate, and the North Road was now seldom used: it was grass-grown, and the Bree-folk called it the Greenway.
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.
I don’t know how many times I just read over that paragraph, but there’s some fantastic information buried in that quickly tossed off bit of exposition.
“The Inn of Bree was still there” implies the Pony - or at least AN inn - had stood at the crossroads since the roads were more travelled. When was that?
Let’s look at the timeline of some notable events:
- Division of Arnor into the three kingdoms: Third Age 861
- Destruction of Amon Sul / fall of Rhudar / razing of Cardolan: TA 1409
- Founding of the Shire: TA 1601
- Fall of Fornost, Arthedain’s capital: TA 1974
- Kingship of Arnor effectively ends, Aranarth becomes first Chieftan of the Dunedain: TA 1974
- Destruction of Dale by Smaug: TA 2770
- Events of The Hobbit: TA 2941
- Frodo leaves the Shire: TA 3018
Given that the Greenway originally went to Fornost, I think we can safely say that the “more travelled” period must date to the time of that city at latest: meaning that when Frodo steps foot in the Pony, it - or its predecessors on the same site - are well over a thousand years old.
At first thought it sounds absurd: and yet as a 20th c. Englishman Tolkien himself could visit pubs several centuries old, and see the remnants of far older buildings yet dating back to the Roman era. So… it’s plausible.
Here’s another fun thing about Bree -
The houses looked large and strange to them. Sam stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many windows, and felt his heart sink. He had imagined himself meeting giants taller than trees, and other creatures even more terrifying, some time or other in the course of his journey; but at the moment he was finding his first sight of Men and their tall houses quite enough, indeed too much for the dark end of a tiring day.
THIS is interesting - these are no stone roundhouses or small cottages then: “Men and their tall houses” implies it’s not just the Pony itself that makes an impression of great size on Sam, but the “tall houses” of Men generally.
I think we can safely infer then that while perhaps not every one of those some-hundred stone houses of Bree are multi-story, a fair number are.
Well and good. Multi-story stone buildings with windows. What did they look like? Christopher Tolkien mentions that Bree was based on the town of Brill in the UK:
"Bree ... [was] based on Brilll ... a place which he knew well"
- Christopher Tolkien (1988), The Return of the Shadow (being vol.VI of The History of Middle-earth), ch.VII, p.131, note 6, ISBN 0-04-440162-0
via [url]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bree_(Middle-earth)]Bree(Middle-earth) on Wikipedia[/ur]
Very well, I thought. We live in the age of Google Earth! Let’s have a look at Brill. The results were I have to say a little disappointing:
Perhaps it might have looked better in Tolkien’s time, but the images I see of Brill now look remarkably pedestrian. Where is the village of lovely English stone houses?
Interestingly - about 70 miles away in the (coincidentally named) Castle Combe. How’s this look?
And of course you can explore a bit these days with Google Street View. Note as you travel up the hill, if you bear left you see a structure overhanging the road, not unlike the “wide arch leading to a courtyard” of the Pony.
Do I think Christopher Tolkien is wrong? No - I think Christopher is remembering accurately his father’s emotional connection to the real Brill. But I do think it likely the stone houses of Bree are in his father’s mental image very much like those of Castle Combe.
There’s even a bit of post and beam for those who want a taste of the familiar.
So.. I suppose I’m updating my mental image of Bree. A lot like these last photos - cobblestone instead of pavement in the heavy traffic areas, dirt farther out. Perhaps some very-old Arnorian foundations here and there. Still mostly well-kept, but much more obviously a working community than the more sedate Castle Combe (I think PJ got that part right). Mostly stone construction in Bree proper, but with scattered clusters of (perhaps timbered?) farmhouses - and hobbit holes of course - dotting the fields and woodlots of the Breeland.
Gosh I wish I could afford a trip over to the UK to explore for real - but this is an age of miracles for doing it from your living room.