On Barliman Butterbur

At the Sign of the Prancing Pony & Strider


Barliman Butterbur (Source)

A frequent criticism of The Lord of the Rings centers on Tolkien’s depiction of the dichotomy of good and evil. Elves and hobbits are always “good,” while orcs and trolls are always “evil.” While men are split in their orientation, nevertheless they remain rooted in their morality throughout the tale. Occasionally this critique has veered into accusations of racism (light-skinned Elves and men vs. dark-skinned orcs and Easterlings) or into geographic pre-determinism (the East associated with darkness, the West with hope), but most generally the complaint lingers on the lack of “morally ambiguous” or “conflicted” characters that are popular with modern audiences: anti-heroes, rascals, or relatively neutral creations that perform good or evil actions dependent on their mood or need.

Setting aside the questions of pigmentation (which a brief overview of the prideful Elves and swarthy heroes of the Silmarillion will quickly dispel) and of cartography (which likely stems from Tolkien’s reading of European history, where invasions and disasters often arrived from the south and east), nevertheless examples could be shown to counter this bimodal perception. Whether considering cases such as Boromir, Denethor, Saruman, or Gollum, flawed characters, tempted by light and darkness, often falling to their vices, appear over the pages of the War of the Ring. Yet this criticism must be rooted in some aspect of reality to occur so frequently from so many varied perspectives.

Certainly very few of Tolkien’s actors straddle the clear line of good and evil, and this mostly occurs when they have a certain association with the One Ring, the embodiment of sin and temptation of the tale. However, this does not leave the other persons of Middle-earth without choice; instead, most wrestle with the decisions of good and banal tepidness. Take as an example the keeper of the “Prancing Pony,” Barliman Butterbur. As Gandalf testifies, Barliman is “a worthy man, but his memory is like a lumber-room: thing wanted always buried.” Butterbur has a good heart and a willingness to help, but he is so overwhelmed by his cares and tasks that he is forgetful, absent-minded, and long-winded to the point of absurdity. His flaws and vices would be merely humorous had they not most likely almost gotten Frodo killed by prompting him to not set out earlier, to trust in Strider more immediately, and to be more wary of the Ring. He comprehends the importance of Frodo’s quest and the threat that Sauron plays, but his concerns are local and mundane. When sized up against the keen and perceptive Aragorn, it is no question whose support one would rather have.

Barliman Butterbur should not be singled out, for this tendency toward mundanity has also flashed up in Frodo’s choral pride, Pippin’s blustering gossip, and Merry’s reckless curiosity. For most of Tolkien’s characters most of the time, the temptation is not toward monstrous villainy, but instead intemperate shortcomings. In this, Tolkien has reflected upon the world. Most men and women are neither angels nor devils, but neither are they renegades or morally unanchored spirits. People wrestle not with murderous deeds and unconscionable sins, but petty vices and unassuming flaws. Most of mankind imitates poor Barliman Butterbur than either a Strider or a Black Rider: good-intentioned but distracted, fairly moral but molassed by life.

There is wisdom, then, in considering Barliman Butterbur. Good and evil do exist, and ultimately every person must declare their allegiance: whether to stand against Sauron or join him. Yet real men and women are not the morally ambiguous or entirely neutral caricatures that the cinema and television would suggest: real men and women are more like Barliman Butterbur, balancing worthy virtues with shabby vices. For most of us, then, the choice is simple: be distracted by the busy business of our lives, or arouse ourselves to note the small acts of goodness we can perform.

2015’s Reflection: “On the Problems of the Man in the Moon


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