There’s in an inn; a merry old inn; beneath an old gray hill.
And there they brew a beer so brown that the man in the moon himself came down one night to drink his fill!At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
I felt it important, early on in the campaign of this quiet blog, to talk a bit about the Prancing Pony.
Surely taverns came before it. The public drinking space spans time and civilization with little jurisdiction. And surely the fantasy inn came before it. Alehouses are mentioned throughout mythology and fairy tale from Asia to Europe. The early “proto fantasy” writers, that industrious breed of western authors that first began to span the gap from mythology and fairy tale to what we now think of as contemporary fantasy fiction, no doubt had taverns in the stew. But none were as important as what Tolkien brought to the mix. What George MacDonald and his kind began to cook, Tolkien solidified into the example that all others followed in the second half of twentieth century English language fiction. And as a proper English gentleman, fond of pubs and strong drink, Tolkien set the inn at the fore of his Middle-earth. At least in the North. And what was at first a place for chance meetings, took on inertia of its own and became the archetype.
All other fantasy inns are direct children, if not step-children or second-cousins, of the Prancing Pony.
So when we talk about the fantasy tavern, in LARP or lit or MMO, it’s hard to find a better starting point. And while it’s made appearances in other Middle-earth games (MERP is good; so is The Third Age), no one has done the Pony justice quite like The Lord of the Rings Online.
Even my little tour over on YouTube grants a pretty clear picture: every expected aesthetic choice is ticked off. The white waddle-and-daub walls, the Tudor beams, wooden fixtures, and stone flooring are there. Moreover the layout delights: all the sundry store rooms and bedrooms and cozy parlors are there. They are strewn with books and drink and food and hearths, ready to create a bit of intimacy and quiet away from the common room — just like the book! The details are all there, including the round side door leading to the quaint room with four hobbit-sized beds (it seems clear that Standing Stone Games, and Turbine before it, made liberal use of the excellent Atlas of Middle-earth).
Even now, 14 years into this game’s death-defying run, the Pony is a treat. As a lower level area it remains, appropriately, a social hub for gatherings, concerts, tale-telling, and casual roleplaying.
However, spending any amount of time snugged away in the Pony leads to a disappointing discovery. The inns and pubs and taverns of The Lord of the Rings Online are, unfortunately, a bit of a theme park. NPCs wander around and spout their scripted banter and there is little to do but sit and admire quietly. And occasionally the similitude is broken by roleplayers or performers. The music is lively and excellent…but there is no denying that the immersion is brittle at best.
So, enjoy your time in the Pony, traveler! Dull as it may be, it’s that quiet sameness of Bree that leads so many other wanderers beyond the sign of the Prancing Pony and into that merry old inn. Say hello to Barli for me. And don’t forget to check out the tour video on YouTube!