I’m just crazy about the smaller villages of the Bree-lands (‘hamlets’, I like to call them). They, in and of themselves, create this quaint, rustic possibility outside of the Bree we read of in the books. They are quiet little hamlets where nothing much happens and, to get news, you have to walk over to the slightly larger village of Bree. In short, and not unlike the Shire, these three towns are a kind of idyllic, rural existence out in the English Midlands somewhere. Basically prime material for a BBC period drama.
Turbine utilized this thought in creating their own versions of the undescribed locales, where everybody knows everybody and the people live a nice, quiet life. Until trouble arrives, of course. And that’s the real tangent that LOTRO takes from the books. For all we know, absolutely nothing happens in Combe, Archet, or Staddle directly, and nobody wishes for anything to happen. That’s unlikely, but possible.
It seems most folk would be quite content to have all the action focused safely on Bree, which they could watch from afar or make the short walk over to see the issue for themselves. The example is the very public departure of Strider and his four hobbit companions after the Black Riders have their midnight raid on Bree and the Prancing Pony. Folk from all over come and see what’s going on and we kind of have to imagine that the same thing occurred when brigands attempted a takeover of Bree. It’s not said whether or not the smaller hamlets were troubled, but it’s safe to say that the people of those villages likely came to Bree to help if they managed to leave their quiet homes at all. Hopefully they didn’t just stand there and gawk as ruffians ransacked Bree-town.
In LOTRO, all Men and Hobbits begin their adventures in the town of Archet. Set in an odd little valley in the middle of the Chetwood, Archet is the most remote of the Bree-land settlements. According to sources, the name basically translates from Celtic to ‘near the wood’. Fitting, because it is the nearest of the towns to that dominant wood of the Bree-lands. But we don’t get a lot of that in LOTRO. As I said, the Chetwood is around Archet. Once we venture out into the Bree-lands one can loop over to the west and then northwards and, coming through the wood, stumble upon the steep valley where they have placed Archet. There are trees but it’s not in the forest directly.
In the introduction, a conspiracy is unmasked but too late: the little town is burned down by the Angmarim. This sets into motion the story of the first Epic book and leads up to Thievery and Mischief, the skirmish in which Bree-town is put under siege. Of course this doesn’t happen in the text until much later: upon their return to Bree in the Homeward Bound chapter, Barliman explains that the bad guys who attacked Bree went to hide out in the Chetwood after they were driven off. But the anachronism (if it needs to be called such) serves as a great impetus for us adventurers to help the inhabitants to root out the cause of all their troubles. I still await the day when we get to see Archet rebuilt, ala Hytbold.
Even in the little town of Archet, though, we get glimpses of the past. The Arnorian ruin of Bronwe’s Folly is the first ancient ruin we see in the game, assuming you’re playing a Man or Hobbit, and bespeaks a little of the history of the area during the old days of the North Kings (it’s important to note here that Archet was probably there during the reign of Arnor. It’s said that Breelanders claim to have been right there in the Bree-lands before and well after the Kings came out of the Sea). While we never get a proper description of what it was, several things fall into the realm of possibility and some can even be deduced by the name. Bronwe translates from the Sindarin as ‘endurance’. So, I wonder if (1) this is the name of some Arnorian noble, perhaps at the time of Arthedain, or (2) if it’s simply a message. Whoever ‘endured’ (or was named for that trait) ended in folly. This structure, which looks to me like a fort, was probably overrun in the countless wars between the three kingdoms, or by the forces of the Witch-king and Sauron. We see even more of these ruined forts in Midgewater.
Combe simply means ‘valley’ (remember when ‘Deeping-coomb’ comes up at Helm’s Deep?) and the Combe of LOTRO is accurately set in a deep valley between Archet, Staddle, and Bree village. It’s a very quaint town; I really enjoy the architecture of this place, most especially the large central building that houses the training hall and the Come & Wattle Inn. Trouble has not passed over this place either, and we quickly learn that many of the townsfolk have been taken in by the Blackwold gang. Families are torn apart and plots are uncovered and none of this is in the text. Again, no matter. It’s one of the more likely scenarios in the game.
The word ‘staddle’, according to the Professor’s Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings, is an Old English word (staðol) that still pops in modern [English] English. A simple Something search will show that it’s a platform or a stone meant to serve as a support or foundation for something. Wikipedia provides a few photos of how these stones can be used. I don’t necessarily think the homes in Staddle were meant to look like this, in Tolkien’s mind. More likely he was thinking of the upright, ‘mannish’ brick homes that hobbits build and perhaps used the term to differentiate them from the Shire-hobbits, who still made their holes as often as not.
In Staddle we get the best look into the lives of Bree-hobbits. Hobbiton or Bywater or the Marish may as well have been scooped up and plopped back down right here, just to the east of Bree-town, because Staddle feels very much like a spot in the Shire. When they come to Bree the first time in At the Sign of the Prancing Pony, Master Samwise is very concerned about attending an inn that’s run by and for the Big Folk. He wonders if they oughtn’t see if they can get hobbit family to host them for the night. But his fears are unfounded, as the ‘excellent arrangement’ described in that chapter applies to the Pony as well. The Big Folk and the Little Folk live together in almost perfect peace and harmony. The Pony has hobbit-sized rooms and there are many kindly hobbit patrons in the main room of the inn from both the higher side of the Hill in Bree, and from Staddle. As I said, Staddle feels just like the Shire, right down to the quest content. We help neighborly hobbits with their love lives, find a cure for a sick dog, look after crops and the like; but things take a dark turn when the brigands show up again. Even Staddle is, apparently, not completely free from the hard times of these days.
So these little hamlets in the Bree-lands show that life exists outside of Bree. While that larger village gets all the glamour and sunshine in the films, and most of it in the texts, LOTRO does a fine job of showing that these little spots are alive and well, with a few modifications of their own.