Patrons have been kind enough to say that my above painting of Buckland makes them wish they could vacation there. Let's do that today and learn something from our visit. We may think we know hobbits from our time spent in the Shire, but if we could take up a stout blackthorn stave and go on a walking party to Buckland, our picture of halfling folk would be greatly enriched by the diversity we found there.
One of the best qualities of the sub-created world of J.R.R. Tolkien is that he never takes the shortcut of making a particular type of people all alike. There is immense diversity amongst the elves, the men of Rohan are quite unlike the men of Gondor, and amongst the hobbits, there are significant differences not just of individual character, but also of modes of living. The hobbits, themselves, recognize this and think of their counterparts in other districts as having "queer" ways. For readers, these queernesses add much to why Middle-earth feels so deep and so real, and today, we'll sit on the banks of the Brandywine River and enjoy getting to know Buckland and the Bucklanders together.
What's Special About Buckland
This detail from a map I drew decades ago will help orient you to the geographic relationship between Bilbo and Frodo's home in the The Hill above Hobbiton and the region known as Buckland where Meriadoc Brandybuck lives. Buckland's northernmost corner is spanned by the Brandywine Bridge, it is bordered on the west by the Marish and on the east by the Old Forest, and to the south we have Haysend at the end of the big hedge called the High Hay. The big Brandywine River is the dominant feature of the region.
Brandy Hall is the seat of the Brandybuck family and the principle residence of the Master of Brandy Hall. J.R.R. Tolkien left us this faint but invaluable sketch (pictured at left in the pages of J.R.R Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator by Hammond and Scull) of the Bucklebury Ferry which the hobbits board in The Lord of the Rings and of the great hall with its three front doors and hundred windows. While I worked attentively from this sketch on my own depiction of Brandy Hall, I found myself wondering what all the upper-storey rooms must be, since we know that hobbits don't sleep upstairs. They might be parlors, pantries, store rooms, wardrobes, kitchens, dining halls, bathrooms, and perhaps even ballrooms for dancing the Springle-ring .
Brandy Hall was built within Buck Hill more than 700 years after the founding of the Shire, when Thain Gorhendad Oldbuck left the East Farthing, crossed the river, and began delving in the uninhabited region. Gorhendad becomes the first Master of the Buckland, a title which is subsequently hereditary and grants nominal authority as the leader of Buckland and parts of the Marish, and which, in the Fourth Age, makes the bearer one of the Mayor Counsellors of the North Kingdom under King Elessar. Gorhendad changes the family name from Oldbuck to Brandybuck in the new delving and, because he has left the Shire, his thainship then passes to the Tooks.
We learn that, eventually, even this huge smial isn't large enough to comfortably contain all its inhabitants and that it's such a bustling place that residents sometimes retreat for a little peace and quiet to remote houses like the one Frodo takes at Crickhollow when he leaves the Shire in The Lord of the Rings.
Tolkien describes the remote house at Crickhollow as having a turf roof, and if you look at the above painting, you can see the mutli-colored blocks of turf along the edge of the ceiling of Frodo's bathroom.
I owe inspiration to author John Garth for pointing to the turf houses of Iceland in his wonderful book The Worlds of J.R.R. Tolkien and you can see how I have referenced this architectural design in the houses along the Brandywine in my own painting of Buckland. Other named places within Buckland include the villages of Bucklebury, Newbury and the curiously-named Standelf, which derives from the Old English words for "stone" and "delving", hinting that, perhaps, hobbit holes with abundant stone-built features might be common there due to rocky soil. But the two features of Buckland that tell us most about its residents are its river and its hedge.
What's special about the Bucklanders?
The Bucklander we may feel we know best is Meriadoc Brandybuck. We get to know him as the hospitable friend who creates a warm welcome at the house in Crickhollow, the loyal conspirator who won't let his cousin go questing alone, the survivor of the Barrow-downs who comes away with a critical weapon, the stalwart member of the fellowship who seldom loses heart, the sword-thain of Théoden King, and the unlikely but courageous victor over the Witch-king of Angmar. How can one little hobbit be so doughty, and so fierce?
Perhaps a pattern starts to emerge when we remember that another Bucklander we know even better is Frodo Baggins. Frodo, who, despite coming from a people who like quiet, gardens, and eating, becomes the number one threat to the enemy and a chief instrument of the destruction of his Ring. Following the the untimely loss of his parents, Frodo spends many years in Buckland until he is adopted by Bilbo, and it's worth speculating on how passing his formative years amongst the "queer" Bucklanders may have shaped his unusual degree of courage. This is a good time to review the cousinship between Merry and Frodo:
So, Frodo's mother is Merry's great-aunt. She is the sister of Old Rory, who becomes the Master of Brandy Hall. Frodo and Merry are one generation apart in age, but very closely related. Frodo is just as much a Brandybuck as he is a Baggins. And these are quite unusual hobbits.
We learn that, unlike their Shire kinsfolk, Bucklanders like the water. They go boating and some of them can even swim. They sometimes wear boots because of the muddiness of their riparian homeland. The Brandywine River has a notable affect on their daily lifestyle, but these characteristics are also rooted in the fact that the Brandybucks have a large portion of Stoor heritage. This branch of the hobbit kindreds once lived around the watery vales of the Anduin in a matriarchal society until a series of migrations brought some of them to the East and South Farthings. They had their own dialect, had larger-than-average hands and feet, and were the only hobbits who typically grew beards. This connection between the Stoors and Brandybucks means that Frodo is, in some degree, related to poor Gollum, whom we first meet paddling a little boat across a subterranean lake.
The comfort level of the Brandybucks with water comes to mind when we see Frodo and Merry having to paddle the elven boats down the Anduin near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. Their shared background would have given them a little more courage in this scenario.
And then there is the High Hay. On the one hand, we may picture hobbits as peaceful gardeners, but they also use their horticultural skills to plant this long hedge to defend Buckland from the dreadful Old Forest. The ill-spirited trees attack the hedge, and the Bucklanders react ferociously, felling hundreds of trees and burning them in a great bonfire. Bucklanders like Merry and Frodo know very well that huorn-like trees are their nextdoor neighbors, and you'd think they would stay as far from them as possible, but Merry surprisingly reveals this information about the Old Forest:
"The Brandybucks go in - occasionally when the fit takes them. We have a private entrance. Frodo went in once, long ago. I have been in several times: usually in daylight, of course, when the trees are sleepy and fairly quiet."
"Respectable" Shire hobbits might never step foot into this weird wood, but "fits" take Brandybucks there. Whether this makes them braver-than-average, or merely foolhardy, they are not immune to seeking thrills, suggesting an uncommon degree of stout-heartedness. I see clues to Frodo and Merry's capacity for necessary fierceness in this and in the Bucklanders' wild attack on the encroaching trees. The more time we spend in Buckland, the better we understand that they are no strangers to the existence of peril. After all, they have the Horn-call of Buckland, which is sounded in times of danger, such as the incursion of white wolves during the Fell Winter of 2911. Fredegar sounds this horn call when Black Riders appear in Crickhollow, and it is very fitting that Merry receives a horn from the Rohirrim, which he winds to rouse the country for the scouring of the Shire near the close of The Lord of The Rings.
In our visit to Buckland, we've seen a variety of reasons for the Shire-hobbits to gossip about the Bucklanders as being "half-foreign", but Tolkien narrates that, in essentials, they share the love of peace and plenty which we so enjoy about all of the Little Folk. When we see Melilot Brandybuck get up on the table at Bilbo's eleventy-first birthday to dance the Springle-ring with Everard Took, we instantly intuit why any Brandybuck might earn the nickname "Merry". We would love to visit their homeland, with its bright river, doubtless filled with the songs of waterfowl. We would like to dine with Master Rorimac in Brandy Hall, famous for its bountiful table. I very much like my patrons' idea of taking a vacation at Buckland, letting a turf house on the Branydwine and watching the neighbors pass by in their boats.
Again and again, Tolkien's writings teach us to embrace the great joy of diversity. Not all hobbits are the same, and their differences make them interesting! Homogeneity is against nature, and it is the rich, deep variety of the peoples of Middle-earth that brings us back, again and again, for yet another read.