A Most Unusual Picnic
A prequel to The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien
Author’s note: The characters and setting belong entirely to Tolkien — only the words are mine. This work is not behind the paywall, I will not profit from it, and will take it down immediately if so requested by the copyright owners.
Over The Hill and across The Water there lived a Took. Not the Great Took, you understand, the exceptionally grand and important hobbit who was the head of that family, but a very young Took, who was small and not in the least important. No one ever considered he would amount to anything of note, least of all his father, the Great Took.
This hobbit, whose name was Bandobras (although all of his friends called him Brandy, because Bandobras is such a large name for so small a hobbit), was given to walking in the woods of The Shire and fishing in its rivers and lakes, but most of all he liked to daydream, and adventures are what he dreamt of.
This was all long ago, before the hobbits of The Shire had time to grow as fusty and hidebound as they are today, and that means it was a long time ago indeed, because it takes many years to become old-fashioned and fusty and hidebound — and the hobbits of The Shire are very old-fashioned hobbits. But in those days, before such things were as frowned upon as they are today, it was still known for a hobbit of good family and gentle manner to go off on an adventure, and the best of these, the most adventurous of adventures, were organised by Gandalf the Wizard.
This is the tale of one such adventure: a particularly dangerous and exciting affair that began, though he was not aware of it at the time, shortly before Bandobras Took’s fifteenth birthday (a tender age for a hobbit), and which was the making of him — much to the relief of his father, the inestimably grand and important Great Took.
It so happened that one day when Brandy was relaxing on the banks of the little stream that ran past his home, and had just caught a fish so big it threatened to break his favourite red fishing rod in half, a large and gnarled hand clamped down on his shoulder so suddenly that he quite forgot himself, let go of the pole, and lost fish, line and rod all three to the swift waters of the stream.
“Bebother and bedevil you, whoever you are!” Brandy spluttered, too startled and angry to notice quite how large, and quite how gnarled that hand was.
He couldn’t help but notice, as he turned to greet his assailant, quite how huge were the great black boots the stranger wore, for they were almost as tall as he was. And he couldn’t help but notice, as his eyes rose further still, how tall was the long stick the stranger bore, for it was taller than he by far, and made of stout ash to boot.
For a moment Brandy was too terrified to speak, and when he did force words from his mouth, all he could think to say was, “Good day!” — and this in a thin, squeaky voice that trembled as much as he did.
The stranger didn’t seem to notice, but turned and peered downriver, and up at the late morning sun, and all about the rolling green hills surrounding them.
“So it is,” he said at length, drawing a clay pipe from his cloak and placing it in his mouth between the curls of a long grey beard. “And I believe I shall share some of it with you, since you have luncheon enough for two, and I have a spare pipe.”
So saying, he sat himself down beside the startled hobbit and began to blow smoke rings across the water, until the rings formed a circle themselves, and a circle within the circle, and then hung stock still above the stream despite the breeze. And so relieved was our hobbit that the stranger seemed friendly, he took the proffered pipe (although he did not smoke) and opened the hamper beside him, and altogether forgot to wonder that the Man’s pipe had lit itself, or else been drawn smouldering from the folds of his cloak.
Instead, he laid a wide, chequered blanket across the grass for them both to sit on, offered the Man a china plate and a glass, and a knife and fork, and a fine linen napkin for the crumbs, and began to unload the luncheon his mother had packed for him that morning.
This being a hobbit luncheon, which is to say an ample one, the Man was soon rubbing his hands together, and his bushy eyebrows lost their fearsome quality and drew back like his mouth, which was smiling in contentment.
“You are a most hospitable hobbit,” he said, puffing smoke and helping himself to a freshly baked pork pie.
“Thank you,” Brandy replied dutifully, for he was also a well-brought-up hobbit and always remembered his manners, except when he was startled and had lost his favourite red fishing rod. He took a ham and lettuce sandwich from the hamper and began to eat.
“Have you any chutney?” the stranger asked. “There are few things finer in all the world than a pork pie with apple chutney. And I should know,” he added mysteriously.
“Indeed I have,” our hobbit replied, taking a jar of his mother’s apple and gooseberry chutney from the hamper and passing it to his companion.
“A most hospitable hobbit.” The stranger measured out a generous spoonful and smeared it on a thick slice of pie. “And I see now you were lucky I happened along, for there is altogether too much food in this hamper for so small a fellow to finish all by himself.”
Brandy couldn’t help but bridle at this since he had been looking forward all morning to doing just that. He began to notice that while his companion had both a lit pipe and a plateful of food, he himself had only an empty pipe and a plate that was not nearly so full as it might have been. But before he could raise the courage to mention it (he was, after all, only a little hobbit, and the stranger was a very tall Man), his companion looked him up and down and said (around a mouthful of cinnamon scones),
“Do you know, I am not entirely certain you are fully grown? Pray tell me how old you are, my good hobbit?”
To which Brandy replied promptly, “Tenty-four and three quarters.” He knew this by heart because he had been counting the days until his next birthday.
The stranger raised his eyebrows. Regarding the hobbit from beneath the brim of his hat, “Then you are altogether too large a fellow by half, to be so young a hobbit,” he said — which pleased Brandy considerably, as his mother and his father and his older brother were all taller than he was.
The stranger fixed him with a piercing stare. “Are you quite sure,” he said suspiciously, pipe waggling up and down as he spoke, “that you aren’t tenty-five? Some hobbits, I know, would be tenty-six and not reach such a height.”
Brandy adopted his most earnest expression. “My birthday is in September,” he said as though that concluded the matter.
The stranger nodded solemnly. “Then it must be as you say. I believe you may be the tallest hobbit that ever was, once you are grown all the way up.” He tilted back his head and regarded the hobbit down the length of his immense nose. “Is there any Dwarvish in you, do you suppose?”
Brandy shook his head, too surprised for words, as Dwarves are fearsome creatures and far larger than hobbits.
The stranger blew a puff of green and purple smoke. “I do believe there may be something to you.” And he swallowed the last piece of bilberry pie.
As Brandy scrambled to finish a scrap of blackcurrant jam tart he had managed to rescue while the stranger was busy speaking, the Man gave a sudden start and clutched at his hat, and his pipe fell out of his mouth and went “plop” into a tub of chocolate custard.
“Bless me,” he exclaimed, fetching it out again and wiping it on the white linen napkin Brandy’s mother had laundered that morning, “but this won’t do! Won’t do at all!”
“Whatever is the matter?” Brandy asked, taking the last of the fairy cakes while his companion was thus distracted.
“Why, I cannot fulfil my part of our bargain.”
“Bargain? What bargain?”
“The bargain for my lunch, of course! For I have eaten,” he said, patting a much-enlarged stomach, “and delicious it was too, but you were to have a pipe in return. And whilst you have my spare pipe (do be careful, dear boy, it’s my second favourite), you are too young to smoke.”
This thought had crossed Brandy’s mind, as the hobbit would be the first to admit, but now he saw how sorry it made his new friend, he felt suddenly ashamed.
“No matter,” he said. “There was plenty for both of us.” Which is a brave thing for a hobbit to say, since they are fond of their lunches and do not care to share them.
“‘No matter’, you say? But it does matter,” his companion insisted, “it matters greatly. Now that I cannot pay you according to our bargain, I must pay you thricefold instead, according to the ways and customs of these parts.”
Now, Brandy knew of this custom, which was a sacred thing in those places where such courtesies are still held to, and not to be taken lightly by any Man or hobbit. But he was a kindly soul at heart and had enjoyed having company while he ate (although he would perhaps have preferred less hungry company), and so he was about to stop the Man and assure him that he didn’t need paying — and certainly not thricefold or even twicefold — when he remembered his fishing rod, and how it had been his favourite, and then he thought, just for a moment, that perhaps he would like some payment after all.
And so he paused and that gave the Man time to speak.
“Firstly,” he declared, “I shall pay you in gold,” and he took from his pocket a fat golden coin that caught the sun and shone like firelight on winter evenings, and gave it to the hobbit.
Brandy could scarcely believe his eyes and felt himself the luckiest hobbit alive, and quite forgot to say that it wasn’t necessary.
And so, “Secondly,” said the Man, “I shall pay you in song.”
He took from his pocket a tiny flute of the kind given to children at parties, and blew upon it a wondrous tune that filled Brandy’s mind with images of the moon and the stars and merry laughter, of Elves and Men, of mountains and the sea and days long lost to memory. When he took the flute from his mouth, it kept on playing, filling the air with the sweetest sound Brandy had ever heard.
The Man sang then. His voice was tremulous, as might be expected for one of his years, but rich as an old oak cask in which honey mead has been left to age. It was a sad song of the world that was before the breaking of the world, and Brandy did not understand it all, but this is how it went.
In elder days beneath the sun,
Before this Age had e’er begun,
Came Beren to the woods one eve,
Where beauty danced between the leaves.
O Morning Star, the sweetest flower
To leap and dance beneath the bower;
Daughter of the Elvenking,
Fairest of the Sindarin.
He sought her there among the trees
’Til winter raged the woods to freeze,
And far he journeyed, hope ne’er lost,
Whose heart defied the Angband host.
Ah! Lúthien Tinúviel! The sweetest flower
To leap and dance beneath the bower;
Daughter of the Elvenking,
Fairest of the Sindarin.
There were many verses, telling of great deeds and greater still, of love and heartbreak, of life and death and life renewed. Before long, Brandy began to drowse and the words drifted into one another. When the song was finished and the Man fell silent, he woke with a start, filled with a terrible sorrow, but also a gladness that such things could be in the world.
He considered he had been quite repaid for a share of his lunch — even the coffee cake, of which he had tasted not one crumb — but before he could speak up, the Man had tucked away his little flute and,
“Thirdly,” said he, “I shall pay you with a wish.”
This took Brandy’s voice away completely, as you can imagine, because it is not every day you are offered a wish of your very own.
“Truly?” he managed when he could speak again.
The Man nodded gravely. “You must be careful what you wish,” he said, staring at the hobbit sternly, “for wishes do not always turn out as you would wish them to. And you must not tell me what it is,” he added quickly as the hobbit opened his mouth, “or it won’t come true.”
“But how will you grant my wish if you don’t know what it is?” Brandy asked, afraid and delighted all at the same time.
“If I told you that,” his new friend said, “you might learn the trick yourself, and then where would we be?”
With that, he would say no more, however many times Brandy asked. “Do not tell me!” he insisted, each time the hobbit offered. “Or any of your friends and family. If you tell anyone at all, it will not come to pass.”
So Brandy kept silent, though he could hardly bear it and could not see at all how the Man would grant his wish without knowing what it was.
His companion rose and finished the jug of lemonade Brandy’s mother had made specially that morning, and bade him “Good day!” and “Give my regards to your father! and to your good mother, Donnabella,” and was away almost before Brandy knew it — and quite before he could think to wonder how the Man knew his family.
It was only afterwards he realised he had not asked the stranger’s name.
“Well!” he thought to himself. “What a strange and entertaining fellow.”
And when he turned around, there was his beautiful red fishing rod lying on the blanket behind him, next to a fish the length of his arm, and not a drop of water on either.
Adrian Bagley is a writer and poet from the south of England. He is currently working on his debut science fiction novel, Case in Point. He writes serious and humorous fiction in a variety of styles, matching the prose to the needs of the story.
He has severe M.E., which he combats with a strict regimen of blaspheming and coffee.
If you enjoyed “A Most Unusual Picnic”, please feel free to share via a link to this page.
I will write more if sufficient people shout loudly enough. I have a story mapped out (with elves and dwarves and adventures galore) but will require much badgering to write it, due to other projects and the lack of financial incentive.