CS Lewis, Dorothy Sayers, Eagles, Green Dragon Inn, Hutchinson Family Singers, inn, pub, Smaug, The Eagle and Child, The Green Dragon, The Hobbit, The Inklings, The Ivy Bush, The King's Arms, The Lord of the Rings, The Mitre, The Prancing Pony, The Vulture of the Alps, The White Horse, Tolkien
As ever, dear readers, welcome.
After a very disturbing evening with a group of vengeful and determined dwarves,
Bilbo wakes to a wreck of breakfast dishes and, soon after, the appearance of Gandalf, who prompts him to see that he has a note from Thorin (& Co.). It makes an appointment for 11am that morning at the Green Dragon Inn, in Bywater.
With Gandalf harrying him, Bilbo barely makes it, but, a moment later, the journey eastward of The Hobbit begins.
It is ironic, of course, that a trip which focuses upon removing a dragon
should commence with a place named after one, but, judging by the number of Green Dragon pubs in Britain one might find by googling right now, it may be nothing more than a common name—
although, as Douglas Anderson points out in The Annotated Hobbit, 61, we know that JRRT had been interested in dragons, especially green ones, from childhood, as he wrote to WH Auden:
“I first tried to write a story when I was about seven. It was about a dragon. I remember nothing about it except a philological fact. My mother said nothing about the dragon, but pointed out out one could not say ‘a green great dragon,’ but had to say, ‘a great green dragon.’ I wondered why, and still do.” (Letters, 214, 7 June, 1955)
The countryside east of the Shire and the story itself are empty of pubs (short for “public houses”, originally meaning simply a place open to the general public, but, in time, it came to mean a place licensed by the government to sell alcoholic beverages) after this, but, until we reach Bree, there are a certain number mentioned in The Lord of the Rings. We meet the first, The Ivy Bush, in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “An Unexpected Party”, where we see a group of hobbits gossiping about Bilbo and Frodo. In the next chapter, “The Shadow of the Past”, The Green Dragon makes its second appearance in Tolkien when Sam Gamgee has a verbal tussle with Ted Sandyman on the subject of things seen and unseen, as well as on the sanity, or lack of it, of Bilbo and Frodo, there.
The Ivy Bush will only appear once more, linked with The Green Dragon, in the succeeding chapter, “Three Is Company”, but we will see The Green Dragon (mentioned by Sam in hopes that The Prancing Pony in Bree will measure up to it in Chapter 8, “Fog on the Barrow-Downs”) close to the end of The Lord of the Rings. In The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 8, “The Scouring of the Shire”, it appears as an emblem of the endless ruin by Sharkey and gang of the old ways of the Shire: “When they reached The Green Dragon, the last house on the Hobbiton side [of the Water], now lifeless and with broken windows…”
This is in great contrast to The Prancing Pony Sam worried about earlier
as we see it in The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 9, “At the Sign of the Prancing Pony”. At first, the place seems menacing, especially to Sam, who:
“…stared up at the inn with its three storeys and many windows, and felt his heart sink.”
“As they [the hobbits] hesitated outside in the gloom, someone began singing a merry song inside, and many cheerful voices joined loudly in the chorus. They listened to this encouraging sound for a moment and then got off their ponies. The song ended and there was a burst of laughter and clapping.”
Pubs, and their upscale cousins, inns, would have been vital to people traveling before motels, hotels, and b&bs, as we can see in Book One of The Fellowship, and, for most of the rest of the novel, with the exceptions of Rivendell, Lorien, Edoras, and Minas Tirith, accommodation for the night would have meant a blanket on the ground. For Tolkien and his friends in the writers’ group called The Inklings,
they were vital meeting points—not for the reading of new work, which appears to have been done in one member, C.S. Lewis’, rooms at Oxford,
but for socializing and discussion, which was equally important for such a group of intelligent, educated, and highly-creative men. (No women, alas! One of our favorite mystery novelists and Dante-translator, Dorothy Sayers, 1893-1957, was friends with several members but, with the short-sightedness of the 1930s-50s, was never invited to join.)
They met during the week not only at the best-known of their watering holes, the Eagle and Child,
but at The Mitre,
The King’s Arms,
and at The White Horse.
The one which caught our eye in particular is the first, which, as we said, is probably the one most closely associated with Tolkien and his friends. Here’s its sign—
The explanation of the pub’s name is, to us, a bit murky, supposedly coming from an element of the crest of the Stanley family which portrays an infant stolen by an eagle,
but found alive and unharmed. (Here’s a LINK so that you can judge for yourself.)
For ourselves, the idea of a child stolen by a raptor makes us think of a really awful 19th-century song, “The Vulture of the Alps”, a poem set to music about 1842 by a famous American vocal group of the 1840s-1870s, the Hutchinson Family Singers. The title pretty much says it all.
If you’d like to know more, here’s a LINK.
When we think of eagles and Tolkien, however, we remember them as rescuers—of Gandalf, the dwarves, and Bilbo from the goblins and Wargs
and as providers of air assault in The Hobbit.
And, in The Lord of the Rings, rescuer of Gandalf from Saruman,
as allies of the West at the battle at the Morannon,
and as saviors of Frodo and Sam on Mt Doom.
And it may be a crazy idea, but it makes us wonder—although Tolkien had abandoned The Hobbit unfinished in the early 1930s, he had picked it up again in 1936, just about the time the Inklings were meeting regularly (the first documented mention of them, apparently, is in a 1936 letter from CS Lewis to the novelist, Charles Williams, inviting him to join—see The Collected Letters of CS Lewis, Vol.2, 183—in a letter to William Luther White 9/11/67, JRRT dates the origins of the Inklings as “probably mid-thirties”—Letters, 387). Could he have found his inspiration for these heroic birds and their habit of picking people up from the name of his pub?
As ever, thanks for reading.
If you haven’t read CS Lewis’ wonderful essay, “On Three Ways of Writing for Children”, here’s a LINK.
We have no illustration of Tolkien’s Green Dragon, but here’s a Tudor example from Wymondham in Norfolk which we think would do quite well.