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Butterbur was the owner of the Inn of the Prancing Pony in Bree. He was a fat, bald Man, but as Bree was inhabited by both "Big Folk" and "Little Folk", i.e. hobbits, he had two employees: Nob, a hobbit servant, and Bob, who worked in the stables and whose race is not specified.
Butterbur appeared to have had a rather bad memory. "One thing drives out another," as he put it; "Thing wanted always buried," according to a letter written by Gandalf to Frodo Baggins, comparing Butterbur's mind to a lumber room. He forgot to send that letter to Frodo, leaving the latter uncertain as to Gandalf's fate and causing him to start his journey much later than the letter indicated. He did not remember it until Frodo and his companions arrived to stay at the inn, and even then, it was long before the connection was made. He did, however, hand over the letter in time for Frodo to verify Strider's identity. Even so, he was somewhat put out that the hobbits left Bree with him. When Gandalf met up with the group in Rivendell, he remarked that Butterbur was not a quick thinker, "yet he can see through a brick wall in time (as they say in Bree)."
He seems to have been a very kind character, though, as when he realised his oversight, he did his best to make amends by providing the hobbits with assorted bedding materials (to set up decoys for the pursuing Nazgûl) and money (to buy a replacement pony after all of theirs are let loose from the stables). When Gandalf arrives in Bree fearful that the Black Riders had captured Frodo (or worse) and mindful of the innkeeper's nature, he swears he will "roast him...melt all the butter out of him" and indeed, Barliman is so terrified at the sight of Gandalf that he collapses. Gandalf is so overjoyed to hear that the hobbits are alive and well, however, that he actually embraces the old fellow and puts a blessing on his beer. In The Return of the King, Butterbur was amazed to learn that Strider, a former patron of the Prancing Pony, had become king of Gondor and Arnor.
As with other Men of Bree, Butterbur's surname is taken from a plant—the herbaceous perennial Petasites hybridus. Tolkien described the butterbur as "a fleshy plant with a heavy flower-head on a thick stalk, and very large leaves." He evidently chose this name as appropriate to a fat man; he suggested that translators use the name of some plant with "butter" in the name if possible, but in any event "a fat thick plant".
Butterbur appears in both Ralph Bakshi's animated adaptation of The Lord of the Rings (1978) and Peter Jackson's film The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001), but in both adaptations most of his scenes, including the references to Gandalf's letter, are cut. Alan Tilvern voiced Butterbur (credited as "Innkeeper") in the animated film, while David Weatherley played him in Jackson's epic. Unlike in the book, where Barliman does show a little backbone, he is left cowering in the corner when the Black Riders storm the inn. A character credited as Butterbur, Sr appears briefly during the prologue of Jackson's The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug, portrayed by Richard Whiteside.
James Grout played Butterbur in BBC Radio's 1981 serialization of The Lord of the Rings. In the 1993 television miniseries Hobitit by Finnish broadcaster Yle, Butterbur was portrayed by Mikko Kivinen.
- The Fellowship of the Ring, "At the sign of The Prancing Pony".
- The Return of the King, "Homeward Bound".
- "Guide to the Names in The Lord of the Rings," in A Tolkien Compass, Jared Lobdell, ed., Chicago, Open Court Press 1975)
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