Tales from the Prancing Pony

Last Update 16 January 1999

All text and images copyright © Gil Williamson 1998

SW from Caradhras




title page

The title page of the 1888 edition.

Preface to the WWW Edition

Amazon Systems are delighted to bring to you the world wide web edition of "Tales from the Prancing Pony" by A. Scholar. These extracts give a flavour of the complete work which is no longer available except, perhaps, from the antiquarian booksellers. I inherited my copy, the original publisher having been one of my ancestors!

This unique book has been published only once before, in a limited edition in 1888, and is an account of a four-month vacation in Middle Earth by a trio of British gentlemen in the Summer of 1886.

It should be of considerable interest to lovers of J.R.R.Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, and students of Tolkien's work will be fascinated by this comparatively contemporary account of what often seems a mythical region of the World.

Legal stuff
Amazon Systems have obtained the rights to this important book, and are publishing it on the Internet for the entertainment of readers. Any attempt to re-distribute this document, or to use the document or any of its contents for profit, will be treated as violation of copyright, and may result in a number of lawyers appearing on the culprit's doorstep or at the address of his ISP.

scholar pic1

A fragment of a group photograph showing Bill Grimfield (the Scholar) in 1895.

scholar pic2

Grimfield while attending St Andrew's University.

The Expedition Members

Clues as to the identities of the travellers are provided within the book, though they are officially anonymous.

A. Scholar is immediately recognisable as a pseudonym. The author, referred to in the text as The Scholar, is now known to have been W. M. Grimfield, who was at the time an Assistant Secretary at the Foreign Office. Little is known of his history, and the few books he wrote are now becoming collectors' items, especially because of the excellent photographs he took.

Grimfield was educated at Eton and St. Andrew's, where his Chemistry tutor once noted, "I have taught this student all I know, yet he is keen to learn more. I suspect he will become a famous researcher." Yet, when Grimfield graduated, the only branches of science that he was concerned about were those connected with photography. He joined the Foreign Office, expecting to spend much of his time abroad, yet, like many Civil Servants at the FO, he found himself anchored in London and his vacations, rather than his work, were what took him abroad. He participated in a number of amateur expeditions, most of them self-financed.

Rear Admiral Sir Arthur Nettleton RN

The Bosun - Arthur Nettleton. This photograph shows him in 1919.

The Bosun was Lieutenant Arthur Nettleton of the Royal Navy, who later commanded HMS Stalwart, and retired in 1923 as a Rear Admiral.

According to his grand-daughter, Mrs Penelope Field, he seldom spoke of his expedition to Middle Earth, though his possession of a copy of the book, inscribed "To the Bosun from the Scholar", confirms the Bosun's identity beyond reasonable doubt. In addition, Mrs Field owns a number of photographs of the expedition members which were among the Rear Admiral's possessions.

As to the remainder of his career, he seems to have spent most of his service life at sea, rather than at an Admiralty desk. He achieved regular promotion in a Royal Navy which was seldom out of the firing line during his entire service with it.

As was typical of the British Empire at the time, he spent a brief period in mid-career as the Military Governor of a Pacific island group, and on his retirement from the Royal Navy, spent his last few years as a respected official of sorts in the British West Indies.

Boy pic

Keith McAllister (the Boy) - date unknown, but after 1900.

The third member of the group, The Boy, may have been Major Keith McAllister MC of the Highland Light Infantry, as it is known that he participated in one of Grimfield's earlier expeditions. McAllister was later knighted and, as General Sir Keith McAllister, was killed in Belgium during the First World War.

It is known that McAllister's family originated in Prestonpans, a village near Edinburgh, Scotland, where a famous battle of the Jacobite rebellion took place in the eighteenth century. His family owned fishing boats operating from the nearby harbour of Cockenzie. His distaste for sea-faring, frequently communicated to friends, was the spur which drove him to become a soldier, and The Boy's discomfort afloat, as related by Grimfield, lends credence to my contention that The Boy and McAllister are one and the same.

McAllister served in India, the Crimea and South Africa, as well as Belgium.

His mountaineering feats include an early, if not the first, ascent by a non-African of Kilimanjaro; a record-breaking series of Alpine peaks climbed over a two-week period in 1883; and participation in an early Army-based Himalayan expedition which had the bad luck to encounter unseasonable weather which resulted in the death of half the expedition members.

Some Background to the Book

The reason for pseudonymous authorship may be related to the participants' relationships to the British Government. It might have been considered indelicate for an official of the Foreign Office (Assistant Secretary, then, as now, being a much more senior post than it sounds) and two officers of Her Majesty's Armed Forces to be travelling in a country with which Great Britain had neither diplomatic links nor imperial ties, and with which she was officially at war, due to treaty obligations, though nothing more belligerent than a reciprocal trade embargo was undertaken. Indeed, it may well be that the trip was undertaken with official encouragement in prospect of its findings becoming valuable to Great Britain.

From our modern point of view, the interesting feature is that this is an account of Middle Earth in the late nineteenth century. Middle Earth no longer exists as a single country. In addition the account is presented by an author who certainly never had the opportunity to read J.R.R.Tolkien's books, because they were published more than half a century later, and probably had no knowledge of the Red Book of Westmarch upon which Tolkien drew for much of his narrative. Conversely, it appears unlikely that Tolkien ever discovered "Tales from the Prancing Pony" - certainly, it is never mentioned in Tolkien's letters and other writings.

Another remarkable feature is that the book contains a number of photographs. Grimfield was a highly regarded amateur photographer (The Compleat Photographer - W. M. Grimfield - Cassel - 1889). Photographic illustration was very rare at the time. Most books were illustrated, if at all, exclusively by engravings, some of them prepared from photographs, but manually traced and engraved. This was one of the first books to have had photographs directly reproduced in it. The process was called Platinotype. The illustrations in the book were separately prepared and presented as separate sheets, glued into place. The complication and cost of this process probably accounts for the scarcity of the book today, as less than a thousand copies may have been printed. Also, commercial manufacture of gelatin-coated dry photographic plates had just begun, and, for the first time, the photographer did not need to have a darkroom and laboratory within easy reach, but could carry the plates with him for some time.

In any case, in addition to being an interesting sidelight on the Middle Earth of Tolkien's tales, the book has merit in itself, as you will discover.

In particular, the place names that Tolkien uses in the Shire - indeed the name "Shire" itself - are Anglicisations of the real names. Tolkien makes this clear in one of the Appendices to The Lord of the Rings. On my first editing of the book for web use, I used Tolkien's English-sounding names, but I was forced, then, to take liberties with the maps, and I have revised this policy, returning to the local names as used in The Prancing Pony, and to the original maps reproduced in the book.

The Prancing Pony of the title is the actual name of the Inn in Bree that also appears in Tolkien's Fellowship of the Ring. Although this is clearly an English name, it has been in use since medieval days, and it has no native name. I am told that a Heritage Motel of the same name still exists on the site. Another exception is the port of Gråhavn, actually a Norse, rather than a native, name, which foreigners have long called "Greyhaven".

Some of the personal photographs in this section were provided from the personal papers of Grimfield's grand-daughter. The text reproduced from the book has been rendered into html, with photographs and other graphics scanned from the book itself.

Gil Williamson - September 1997, revised August 1998

gil at amazonsystems.co.uk

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An Extract from the Book

Railway Bridge near Arvendel

Railway Bridge near Arvendel
Photograph by W. Grimfield


My two companions tell me it was my idea to take a trip to Middle Earth, and, on balance, I am prepared to take the blame, as, for the most part, we had a very enjoyable time there.

The Bosun is always keen to explore rivers and lakes with a view to catching any fish which might be sufficiently incautious as to take one of his carefully designed and constructed flies and nymphs, and he hoped that the fish of Middle Earth, having been spared these delights until now, might be less critical that the denizens of our English waterways which had been spurning his offerings all year. In addition, though his occupation brings him into contact with the sea, he felt that he spent too little time splashing around in water, and saw our expedition as an opportunity to get thoroughly wet on a regular basis, which objective we all achieved.

The Boy, so called for his fresh-faced, youthful looks, enjoys nothing better than strolling up an Alp, surveying the clouds from above, and descending again in time for supper. He swore that he had ascended all the Alps that were worth scaling, as well as Kilimanjaro and a small Himalaya (which adventure he found insufferably cold), and that he would appreciate a change of cloud to inspect. His penchant for embarking on these expeditions with no more specialist equipment than his warm tweed jacket, a pair of stout walking shoes and a packed lunch may yet lead him into trouble. Accordingly, the Bosun and I felt a responsibility to shield him from his own spirit of lone endeavour by accompanying him at least to the foothills of his next ascent.

As the Scholar of the party, I am interested in the sport of observing my fellow creatures, human and animal, which I can do equally well almost anywhere that creatures may be found. And so it was decided that Middle Earth should be offered the privilege of our presence in the Summer of 1886.

Our plan was to sail from Harwich to Greyhaven, and thence to proceed to Tolfalas, by travelling east to the River Anduin, and navigating downstream to the sea in a generally southward direction, with occasional excursions to places of interest. The first, eastward part of the journey would be undertaken mainly on horseback. The second, on the Anduin, was to be in our own canoes, a new variety imported from Canada and only recently available in London. The Bosun, having been on a journey through Norway using such a vessel, recommended them thoroughly for their sea-worthiness, lightness of weight and suitability in fast-moving, shallow rivers and on lakes. The Boy and I suspected they were also suitable for fishing, but the Bosun did not find it necessary to add this.

The Falls at Rauros

The Falls at Rauros
Photograph by W. Grimfield

The original is very poor, partly due to the long exposure necessary, and partly due to age. Considerable touching up has been performed on this image.


A number of crude maps are included, sufficient to illustrate our travels. Readers with an interest in mere topographical accuracy would do well to treat these with some caution, and should purchase John Bartholomew and Son's excellent map of the country, just as we did. It was notable, however, that while the printed map of Middle Earth shows all the principal towns, coach roads and railway lines, it omits many of the paths still used by travellers on foot and on horseback, and makes no reference to some of the more prominent landmarks.

Moria Gate

Moria Gate
Photograph by W. Grimfield


We made a serious attempt to obtain a comprehensive history of Middle Earth in English before our departure. This proved impossible, and it is now our belief that no such volume exists.

Middle Earth's recent history has been a model of peace, without external wars or civil commotion. Napoleon's brief occupation of the Northern regions did little more than introduce a few modern devices such as a University, some roads, the telegraph and a postal service into the country. Subsequent trade contact with England, France and Germany has resulted in improved port facilities and some railways, but Middle Earth is both wealthy and self-sufficient, and has avoided close cultural contact with external nations.

In the matter of Middle Earth's pre-medieval history, since it is difficult to separate that subject from Myth, I shall restrict myself to reporting only what we were told and what we saw and shall leave the reader to judge its veracity. Suffice to say that we heard and saw much to excite our imaginations.


Many languages are spoken in Middle Earth, and at least two alphabets or scripts are used besides Roman. These dialects may be compared in importance to the Irish, Welsh and Scottish Gaelic languages in Great Britain or to the Basque language in Northern Spain. Among the folk who originated these languages, they are spoken almost exclusively. Our party spoke none of the native languages.

Fortunately for us, the principal language of commerce is English, and many inhabitants speak German or French. However, words from the many native dialects are used in day-to-day speech, even in English. I shall endeavour not to trouble the reader with too much lingual authenticity. Where I use a native word in this book, it will be because there is no direct equivalent in English, and I shall take care to define it before use.

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