In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment takes a look at Meriadoc Brandybuck, hobbit of the Shire and squire of Rohan.
I don’t remember Merry Brandybuck leaving much of an impression the first few times I read The Lord of the Rings. He’s quiet, unobtrusive, and does nothing quite as eye-catching or memorable as many of the other characters. Apart from his (relatively) accidental heroism at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields, Merry tends to recede into the background. But, the more I read The Lord of the Rings, the more I am struck by Merry’s quiet constancy, his willing to do the task at hand. Merry is, if anything, competent. Merry is prepared.
For example, Merry prepares Frodo’s new house for him in Buckland, all the while knowing that Frodo will likely turn around and leave the next day. All the same, he takes care to make sure that the little house is as much like home for his cousin as possible. Indeed, he spends days, even weeks, ensuring that Frodo’s last memories of the Shire are pleasant and homelike. And when the secret comes out, and Frodo admits that he must leave immediately, Merry is there, prepared as always, so that they might leave within the hour. He has even taken the time to get to know the path they must follow, and though the Old Forest defies the knowledge of everyone (apart from Tom Bombadil, perhaps), Merry still respects it for its mystery and age. In fact, in the epilogue that Tolkien ultimately decided not to include in The Lord of the Rings, it’s said that Merry is busy writing a book about the fantastical lives of plants (Sauron Defeated 124).
We often hold up Sam’s loyalty and love for Frodo as being something exemplary, as it certainly is. But what about Merry? Merry offers us a picture of more achievable friendship, of a friendship that, while extraordinary in its own right, is very much a goal that we might all reach. Merry may not save Frodo from the fiery effusions of Orodruin; he may not give up his last bites of food and last swallows of water to Frodo as they both drag themselves through the gasping wasteland of Mordor; he may not offer to carry on his own shoulders the greatest burden Middle-earth knows in this late age—but he does assure Frodo that he will be there no matter the cost. He does not intend to desert Frodo, and despite everything that happens, Merry fulfills that promise. It’s the promise he makes in the little house in Buckland:
You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin—to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours—close than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. […] We are horribly afraid—but we are coming with you; or following you like hounds. (LotR 104-105)
If you said that all of Merry’s actions in the story are an attempt to keep this key promise, I think you’d be absolutely correct. He fully intends to honor his friendship with Frodo, even when it means placing his own life at risk to help the enemies of Sauron. He carries out his place in the mission as well as he can. Even upon finding himself stranded in the vastness of Fangorn with only dear, clueless Pippin by his side, Merry doesn’t falter. He studied maps in Rivendell, it turns out, to prepare for just this eventuality, and he leads and protects his young friend to the best of his ability. Though his devotion to cousin Frodo inspires his early actions, his friendship with Pippin deepens considerably over the course of the story, and shouldn’t be discounted.
But of course, Merry’s ability to be reliable and constant isn’t born out of nowhere; he has to practice. We can see that growth in the way the character developed over time. Tolkien’s drafts show us a character who, even in the beginning, is trustworthy. He’s there with Frodo (or, in the early days, Bingo) despite all that attempts to divide them. In some cases, Meriadoc Brandybuck—or Marmaduke, as he was then called—is the only one to accompany Frodo on his great exodus out of the Shire.
In the first draft, “Marmaduke Brandybuck” is simply a friend of Bingo who receives the majority of the latter’s wines upon his unexpected departure (The Return of the Shadow, hereafter RS, 33). But, once Tolkien decided that Bingo was to be accompanied by others, Marmaduke was immediately one of the party, despite many question marks and vague notes about characters who, ultimately, were never realized (RS 42). Soon thereafter, Tolkien wrote into the narrative Marmaduke’s special role in riding ahead to Buckland to prepare Bingo’s house as a diversionary tactic (RS 51). He has it ready when Bingo and his companions arrive; and even this early in the drafting process, the memorable bath scene has emerged. In the earliest drafts, however, Marmaduke is accompanied by Gandalf, a few dwarves, and a handful of Elves and prepares the guest-house of Brandy Hall rather than a free-standing residence (RS 101).
It was more difficult to decide whether or not Marmaduke already knew about the Ring. Tolkien waffled on this point considerably, even playing around with the idea that Bingo had already taken a few friends (the Merry prototype included) into his confidence concerning it (RS 83). Of course, Tolkien ultimately decided on the “conspiracy” narrative: Merry knows far more than Frodo suspects.
The names Meriadoc and Merry first appear in a draft that would become “In the House of Tom Bombadil” (RS 76). As it turns out, the name suited him. Merry has neither the lackadaisical lightheartedness of Pippin nor the dogged hopefulness of Sam, but rather a steady (there’s that word again) cheerfulness that carries him through. Of course, Tolkien would be disappointed if we didn’t observe that Meriadoc’s true Hobbit name was the “high-sounding and legendary name” Chilimanzar (The People of Middle-earth, hereafter PM, 50). Choosing a Welsh name to stand in for such a unique and unwieldy Hobbit name seemed fitting, Tolkien wrote, because “Buckland in many ways occupied a position with regard to the Shire such as Wales does to England”—and because, conveniently, the nickname of Chilimanzar meant “gay or merry” (PM 50).
This hardy cheerfulness emerged in stages. The original Marmaduke is decidedly snarky. Upon meeting his friends on the Road and observing their fear, he does not sympathize but rather asks, “Are there some big bad rabbits loose?” (RS 99). Later, when his friends are taking too long in the bath, he calls in to them, exclaiming, “there is such a thing as supper. I cannot live on praise much longer” (RS 102). Some of these remarks survive into the published Lord of the Rings, but on the whole, Merry becomes significantly more good-natured and long-suffering.
Upon reaching Rivendell in his drafts, Tolkien paused. He was facing some serious difficulties and questions about the progress of the story thus far, and they simply had to be address. There were just “too many hobbits,” he lamented, and Bingo was a stupid name (RS 221). He suggested instead that perhaps only Bingo/Frodo and Merry “ride into exile—because Merry insists” (RS 221, emphasis original). Here is the seed of Merry’s great promise in the little house in Buckland, the tenacity that ultimately plays an important role in his character.
The worry that hobbits were overpopulating the narrative drove Tolkien to make radical cuts in the story. Because of that, Merry takes on (for a time) characteristics that we later see in Sam and Pippin: he is often shown as treating Frodo with the quiet solicitude and offering him service just as Samwise Gamgee will; and many of the hasty and thoughtless actions later attributed to Pippin also fall to Merry’s lot.
After a serious and intense re-writing period, however, it looked like Merry’s role in the story was coming to an end. He was going to be left behind at Rivendell. “Merry will be grieved, it is true,” Gandalf says, “but Elrond’s decision is wise. He is merry in name, and merry in heart, but this quest is not for him, nor for any hobbit, unless fate and duty chooses him. But do not be distressed: I think there may be other work for him to do, and that he will not be left long idle” (The Treason of Isengard, hereafter TI, 115).
If Merry was not “left long idle,” it was because Tolkien quickly abandoned his decision to leave the hobbit behind. Still, it wasn’t until Tolkien reached Moria that Merry and Pippin began to have any real agency in the story. According to Christopher Tolkien, the notes containing the “story foreseen from Moria” constitute the first time that Merry and Pippin are conceived of as having a “central position in the story” (TI 214).
Originally, Merry and Pippin were simply meant to wander off, distraught by the loss of Frodo and Sam, to encounter Treebeard and other Ents in the “Topless Forest” (TI 210). Perhaps surprisingly, it took Tolkien quite a while to reach the idea that Merry and Pippin were the ones captured by Orcs and taken towards Isengard (it was Legolas and Gimli at first) (TI 346). Once he did reach this decision, however, the shape of Merry’s narrative quickly emerged (TI 409).
At this point in the drafting process, Merry Brandybuck begins to receive more depth and greater purpose as a character. We learn that “he loved mountains, and the desire to see and know them had moved him strongly when he and his friends had plotted to go with Frodo, far away in the Shire” (The War of the Ring, hereafter WR, 241). He also looses many of the qualities, mentioned above, that we now instinctively identify with Pippin and Sam. He becomes more thoughtful and noticeably more competent; though he makes mistakes, he endeavors to be prepared and informed before throwing himself headlong into dangerous situations. Essentially, Merry’s tendency towards introspection, along with his stubborn commitment to honor and duty, increases.
We can see this by looking at the role Merry plays among the Rohirrim. At first, there is no indication that the small hobbit will play a part in the slaying or unhorsing of the Witch King on the battlefield (WR 263), and the complications in his service to Théoden have not yet appeared. When he pledges his sword to the King of Rohan he is armed by Éowyn (WR 317) and it is taken as given that Merry will ride into battle seated behind Théoden or another Rider (WR 317-318). Indeed, Merry is repeatedly, and in multiple drafts, given express permission to ride to war (for example, WR 343).
But as Merry’s ability to question his own motives and actions deepens, the situation itself develops unforeseen complexities. Part of the way through a draft that would become “The Ride of the Rohirrim,” it occurred to Tolkien (after imagining Merry’s forlorn realization that he wouldn’t be much use on the battlefield) that Théoden would never consent to send a helpless, untried hobbit into battle as a soldier. It would not only be unwise, but downright cruel. He immediately abandoned the draft and rewrote the chapter (WR 347).
This decision rocks Merry’s world, as it were. If we examine the finished scene in which Théoden orders the hobbit to stay behind, I think we can see both Merry’s character and his dilemma in clearer terms. When Théoden formally declares that “I release you from my service, but not from my friendship,” Merry is nonplussed. He speaks to Théoden in terms that the king ought to understand: in the language of honor: “I should be ashamed to stay behind.” Of course, Théoden still refuses. Merry becomes desperate. “Then tie me on the back of [a horse], or let me hang on a stirrup, or something,” he cries. “It is a long way to run; but run I shall, if I cannot ride, even if I wear my feet off and arrive weeks too late” (LotR 801).
Even considering his role in defeating the Witch King, I believe that this is in fact Merry’s finest moment. These words are powered by his faithfulness, his tenacity, and his constancy. In the face of direct orders and blatant dismissal, Merry longs to fulfill his promise. He seems to understand that for all Théoden’s pleasantness and genuine affection, the king doesn’t think much of the vow that passed between them. Théoden would not cast off the formally-sworn word of a Rider in this fashion; vows in this culture are not so easily broken. Merry’s words are a desperately plea to be taken seriously, to be allowed to give as much, to fight as hard, and to face the enemy with as much bravery and fear as the men he’s surrounded by.
For me, this scene only increases the power of Merry and Éowyn’s partnership. Éowyn has, perhaps for her whole life, faced the same sort of assumptions about her courage, commitment, and competency. She has been told to stay behind more often than she can count, left to prepare the house for the heroes’ return, much as Merry prepares the little house in Crickhollow for Frodo. Seeing how distraught and hurt Merry is, she immediately steps into the breach caused by this betrayal and fits Merry out with armor and weapons despite her uncle’s orders. And then, perhaps even inspired by Merry’s passionate words, Éowyn Dernhelm rides into battle with the little castaway at her back.
It would be unfair to both characters to suggest that Merry and Éowyn don’t know what they’re getting into. Both are thoughtful and introspective, and Éowyn at least has lived in a war-driven culture long enough to understand death. As for Merry—well, his travels have taught him more than most about the fear of battle. Faced with the most powerful foe on the battlefield, neither one fails their promises. In the end they walk similar paths to healing and are brought back into the embraces of the people who love them best. They are rewarded beyond what they ever anticipated, in large part because they both give without thought of receiving in return.
Merry’s is a steady sort of friendship, one that you can count on. He isn’t one to be taken by surprise by what his friends need; he is always there ahead of time, sometimes before they are aware of the need themselves. Merry is reliable. He is loyal. He is the friend who always makes you feel at home, no matter how strange the ground beneath your feet. And that, I think, makes him one of the more quiet and poignant heroes of The Lord of the Rings.
Merry’s example is an important one, especially in our current day, when constancy is not the first impulse. We’re forced to live fast-paced lives that don’t always leave room for us to be like Merry, anticipating the needs and desires of our friends and carrying out our duties with fierce determination. We struggle to be present and to support those around us who are suffering, to offer home to others—in part because we ourselves are deep in the tangled woods of our own pains and difficulties.
In such a time, Merry’s example offers us hope. If a small hobbit could do such things in the midst of such great darkness and doubt and fear—why not you and me?
Megan N. Fontenot is a dedicated Tolkien scholar and fan who loves, almost more than anything else, digging into the many drafts and outlines of Tolkien’s legendarium. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!