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Maybe it has to do with the specific and unique circumstances in which the characters we follow in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings find themselves, but it seems to me that everyone always assumes that food is free of charge and that people generously offer them both food, drinks and lodging with no payment whatsoever expected or implied.

It seems like it's "all or nothing"; either they won't even acknowledge your existence/peril at all, or they let you in and give you more than you can handle to eat and drink, and let you stay as long as you feel like it. Oftentimes offering stories and valuable information as well.

Merry and Pippin, for example, "look around" in the camp areas for where "people are eating" when they get hungry. The thought never seems to enter their minds that they would have to pay some sort of money or beg to be allowed to eat. They seem to just organize mass-meals where anyone nearby can just silently slide in and help themselves to all kinds of food and eat with people who barely will notice them.

There never seems to be any scarcity of food, except when they are completely alone in the wilderness. And even then they stumble upon some soldiers who bring them to their hidden cave and fill up their Hobbit-tummies with yummy edibles and allow them to rest in peace, even appointing servants to bring them fresh water and whatnot.

I used to be frustrated by how little money/valuables they bring when they initially set out on their journey, but it seems like they never actually need to buy food or anything. Stuff is just given to them, and even though they seem grateful and polite, it's still somehow "expected". Even at the Prancing Pony, which is literally a commercial establishment, I can't recall that they ever mention money.

Is this just how the fictional world of Middle-earth works? Or do they just get lucky? Was it actually like this back in the day in real life?

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    "Was it actually like this back in the day in real life?" no. Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 14:10
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    "'Leaving the letter aside, I promised Gandalf no less. Barley, he says to me, this friend of mine from the Shire, he may be coming out this way before long, him and another. He'll be calling himself Underhill. Mind that! But you need ask no questions. And if I'm not with him, he may be in trouble, and he may need help. Do whatever you can for him, and I'll be grateful, he says. And here you are, and trouble is not far off, seemingly.'"
    – Valorum
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 14:19
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    Granted the price isn't mentioned but buying food and renting rooms is just assumed to have a cost. It's just not vital that the minutae be covered in the narrative.
    – Paulie_D
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 14:19
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    "He [Frodo] ]suspected now that he had fallen in with a rascal, and he thought uncomfortably that he had brought only a little money with him. All of it would hardly satisfy a rogue, and he could not spare any of it."
    – Paulie_D
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 14:21
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    Everywhere after Bree, they are either entirely on their own in the wilderness, or the guests of someone who has a lot of food and who really, really wants their endeavor to succeed.
    – tbrookside
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 15:37

1 Answer 1

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Firstly, as Lord of the Rings is conceived to be taking place long ago in essentially our world, yes, to some degree, people were expected to provide free food and lodging for strangers. This was known by various names, such as the Xenia in Greece, but it was widespread in the ancient world and well into the Middle Ages, if not later.

But outside of Rivendell and Lothlorien, this is mostly not even what's happening! And in both instances, Elrond and Galadriel have other reasons for feeding and providing for the Fellowship - they want them to succeed and are themselves involved in its mission!

There are only a few instances where the Hobbits need anything from anyone, as they don't encounter many other people:

  1. With Farmer Maggot (zero because I almost forgot him), Maggot is a close friend of Merry and of Pippin, through Merry. He encounters them on the Road, sees they are in some trouble, and out of friendship feeds them and helps them. I don't think anyone, even today, would question this.

    ‘Well, it's time you made it up. Especially if you are coming back to live in Buckland. Old Maggot is really a stout fellow - if you leave his mushrooms alone. Let's get into the lane, and then we shan't be trespassing. If we meet him, I'll do the talking. He is a friend of Merry's, and I used to come here with him a good deal at one time.' (The Lord of the Rings)

  2. In the House of Tom Bombadil, we have an normal example of the relationship between guests and hosts - and besides, Tom has just rescued the Hobbits from mortal peril and doesn't seem to have a high regard for their ability to survive on their own in the Old Forest. Since he's taking them home, of course he's going to feed them! If anything, it would be quite strange to charge people you've invited to stay the night after rescuing, even for us.

    Thank you!’ said the hobbits, one after the other. Tom Bombadil burst out laughing. ‘Well, my little fellows!’ said he, stooping so that he peered into their faces. ‘You shall come home with me! The table is all laden with yellow cream, honeycomb, and white bread and butter. Goldberry is waiting. Time enough for questions around the supper table.

  3. In Bree, the Hobbits paid their way, or at least they were expected to, until Butterbur realized they were the ones Gandalf had told them to look out for.

    ‘How should I know? He's welcome to go where he will, so long as he pays in the morning. There's Mr Took, now. he's not vanished.’

    I would suppose Butterbur did not likely make them pay, as he was told to help them as a favor to Gandalf, whom he feared and respected as a friend, and out of embarrassment over the incident with the wraiths, but they normally would have been expected to.

    ‘Ah! That was Gandalf, if you know who I mean. A wizard they say he is, but he's a good friend of mine, whether or no. But now I don't know what he'll have to say to me, if I see him again: turn all my ale sour or me into a block of wood, I shouldn't wonder. He's a bit hasty. Still what's done can't be undone.’ [...] I'll do what I can to set matters right, and if there's any help I can give, you've only to name it. [...] Mr Butter-bur paid for [a replacement pony] himself, and offered Merry another eighteen pence as some compensation for the lost animals. He was an honest man, and well-off as things were reckoned in Bree; but thirty silver pennies was a sore blow to him, and being cheated by Bill Ferny made it harder to bear.

  4. In Rivendell, the Fellowship is, of course, the guest of Elrond and the Elves, who are supporting them and outfitting them for the destruction of the Ring.

  5. In Lothlorien, the Fellowship was expected after communication with Rivendell, and they are of course eager to do whatever they can to help the Fellowship accomplish their mission.

  6. Among the Orcs, Merry and Pippin were mostly robbed of all they had, and given food to keep them alive. I suppose this counts as a transaction.

  7. Among the Ents, Treebeard takes Merry and Pippin into his home; again, it would seem quite strange for him to then charge him for Ent-draught.

  8. In Isengard, the Hobbits loot Saruman's foodstuffs.

  9. In Rohan, when not direct guests of the King, Merry seems to be eating as part of the military encampment. Although some armies did historically require soldiers to buy their own food, this does not seem to be the case in Rohan.

  10. In Gondor, Pippin is taken into the service of Denethor, and fed rations, which he complains are insufficient.

  11. With Faramir, he is at one point feeding captives, and at another outfitting Hobbits he desperately hopes succeed.

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    Great answer! And it's worth remembering that in those days of no fast communication, the arrival of a non-dangerous stranger was a major break in an otherwise-boring life and meant news and conversation. Food and lodging was cheap payment for all but the poorest.
    – Mark Olson
    Commented Jul 10, 2022 at 20:13
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    I visited a village on the Island of Rennell once, and we were welcomed, fed, and given a place to sleep, and were expected to exchange news. There was no cash payment. A couple of the younger chaps from the village accompanied us next day. There was no suggestion that we would pay them; they were friendly, and happy to go somewhere else for a couple of days. Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 7:36
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    One could add The Green Dragon Inn in Bywater, which presumably charges for its popular food and drink. Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 8:35
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    Will add that Tolkien's academic areas certainly include a lot of cultures with myths that push expectations of hospitality to travellers - Norse, Celtic etc mythologies all contain powerful figures, sometimes gods, rewarding or punishing those who obey or break the requirements to give hospitality free of charge to travellers.
    – lupe
    Commented Jul 11, 2022 at 9:42
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    @DarrelHoffman given how important animals (bees, squirrels etc.) are for plant life I imagine that they have some inkling at least. Commented Jul 13, 2022 at 2:20

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