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The passage is from the end of "Fog On the Barrow-Downs" when the travelers are taking leave of Tom Bombadil. Tolkien writes:

They would soon now be going forward into lands wholly strange to them, and beyond all but the most vague and distant legends of the Shire...

yet in the opening pages of the next chapter, "At the Sign Of the Prancing Pony" Tolkien relates that

It was not yet forgotten that there had been a time when there was much coming and going between the Shire and Bree.

There are other passages as well that describe or allude to Shire residents visiting Bree.

So my question is, why are these lands just west of Bree "wholly strange to them" when by all accounts the Shire folk and the Bree population had a long history together, an ongoing relationship based on commerce and maybe even friendship? Tolkien seems to describe a part of the world no hobbit had ever set foot in when he says "all but the most vague and distant legends of the Shire" but apparently these lands are well-known and well-traveled by both Hobbits and Bree folk.

  • The Prancing Pony still maintained accommodations for Hobbit folk as if Hobbits were common enough to require them. – Major Stackings Nov 1 '15 at 18:09
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    Yes there's that too, though of course the Pony might've maintained those accommodations solely for the use of Hobbits indigenous to Bree. – Ric Nov 1 '15 at 18:44
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    Did you really intend to ask about the lands west of Bree, i.e., between the Shire and Bree? Because I'm fairly sure Tolkien was talking about the lands on the other side of Bree, en route to Rivendell. – Harry Johnston Nov 1 '15 at 20:37
  • no he's plainly describing the lands just ahead for the hobbits, and they are standing on the East Road heading toward Bree (leaving Bombadil at the borders of his land). – Ric Nov 4 '15 at 12:20
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    As Matt's answer points out, you've misinterpreted the passage. If Tolkein had mean the lands between the Downs and Bree he'd have written "they would now be going" rather than "they would soon now be going". – Harry Johnston Jan 30 '16 at 22:17
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There's really no reason for Hobbits to travel east of Bree. The next settlement in that direction is Rivendell; which no 'respectable' Hobbit would have reason to visit. They would have to cross relative wilderness, a dangerous road just to get to an elvish city that most of them would mistrust anyway.

There's also the nature of Shire legends. Hobbits seem to prefer local lore, such as stories about Bullroarer Took or family histories, to the affairs of the wider world.

So, we have fewer Hobbits going to Bree, the lack of incentive to go east (and risk being considered as odd as old Bilbo), and the general culture of the Shire being less likely to retain stories of the outside world. Together, I think these factors could pretty easily result in the lands even a short distance beyond Bree being practically unknown.

  • West of Bree is the Shire. East of Bree is Rivendell. Lots of wilderness between each though. – Radhil Nov 1 '15 at 18:59
  • Ugh...well, that's embarrassing- I choose to blame last night being Halloween...that said, I think my general reasoning still holds up – VapedCrusader Nov 1 '15 at 19:10
  • Taken care of now! – Matt Gutting Nov 1 '15 at 21:36
  • the lands in question lie between the Shire and Bree - actually the Downs and Bree. Thanks for giving it some thought! – Ric Nov 4 '15 at 12:18
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Tolkien doesn't specify just exactly what these "lands strange to them" are; but from the fact that we're told they are "beyond all but the most vague and distant legends of the Shire", it seems reasonable to conclude that they are not the lands of or around Bree.

It's not explained precisely how Merry and Pippin came to know, but all the hobbits certainly know that their aim is Rivendell, of which they've all heard. None of them, though, not even Frodo, have actually been there or anywhere near; there's nothing in the books to indicate that even the Bree-folk had ventured far east of Bree, let alone anyone from the Shire. It seems most reasonable, then, to conclude that the "lands wholly strange to them" are the lands east of the Bree-land, up to Rivendell.

  • Merry and Pippin must know because Sam told them. He was told during "a shadow of the last" and he was listening in when Frodo was chatting to Gildor. – user46509 Jan 26 '16 at 21:21
  • @ATB That's a reasonable guess (although Sam seems to have been asleep during most of the conversation with Gildor); still, it's not specifically explained in the text. – Matt Gutting Jan 26 '16 at 21:24
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    he was pretending. ‘I don’t deny it,’ said Frodo, looking at Sam, who was now grinning. ‘I don’t deny it, but I’ll never believe you are sleeping again, whether you snore or not. I shall kick you hard to make sure. – user46509 Jan 26 '16 at 21:26
  • He might have been pretending; but do we really have evidence to support that he was? We're certainly not told that he was. In fact, we're told that after he was caught by Gandalf, he stopped fishing for information. This however is better discussed in chat. – Matt Gutting Jan 26 '16 at 21:31
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The lands east (and north and south!) of Bree have been wild and untamed for millennia. They were the wild lands that were beyond the knowledge of the Shire-Hobbits

Aside from the occasional Brandybuck or Bree-hobbit, and the odd adventurous Took, it was really only the Dwarves heading to the Blue Mountains, and Rangers like Aragorn that used the East Road west of Bree.

Dwarves had always used [the East Road] on their way to their mines in the Blue Mountains. They were the Hobbits' chief source of news from distant parts - if they wanted any: as a rule dwarves said little and hobbits asked no more.

--- The Shadow of the Past (The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2)

 

"How far is Rivendell?" asked Merry...

I don't know if the road has ever been measured in miles beyond the Foresaken Inn, a day's journey east of Bree," answered Strider... "But I know how long it would take me on my own feet, with fair weather and no ill fortune: twelve days from here to the Ford of Bruinen."

--- A Knife in the Dark (The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 10)

There was simply no reason for anyone else to go east from Bree.

The North-Realm of Arnor had been destroyed over a thousand years before the War of the Ring, and its people had long since passed into legend for the residents of Bree and The Shire; featuring only in half-remembered sayings like when the King returns for an unlikely event.

Bree stood at an old meeting of ways; another ancient road crossed the East Road just ouside the dike at the western end of the village, and in former days Men and other folk of various sorts had travelled much on it. Strange as news from Bree was still a saying in the Eastfarthing... But the Northern Lands had long been desolate, and the North Road was now seldom used; it was grass-grown and the Bree-folk called it the Greenway.

--- At the Sign of the Prancing Pony (The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 9)

In fact, (aside from Bree) there were no settlements of men within 500 kilometres of The Shire. The Dunedain patrolled the wild lands that had once been Arnor, but they weren't telling tales of their exploits in Bree - they were talking of the old days, or bringing news from afar.

In those days, no other Men had settled dwellings so far west, or within a hundred leagues of the Shire. But, in the wild lands beyond Bree there were mysterious wanderers. The Bree-folk called them Rangers... when they appeared they brought news from afar, and told told strange forgotten tales which were eagerly listened to

--- At the Sign of the Prancing Pony (The Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 9)

I suspect that this is both because of how they were perceived in the town, and also there was nothing to be gained from telling the Breelanders of the dangers that lurked in the empty lands that surrounded them

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