For the hobbits, there had been many ponies so far on the journey. Though Frodo, Sam and Pippin had left Hobbiton without a pony, once they met up with Farmer Maggot and Merry, ponies became all part of the fun. All four rode ponies upon leaving Crick Hollow, and there was even another for baggage. After Tom Bombadil’s house and the Barrow-wights, they were joined by Tom himself on a pony (after their own were scared off by the wights).
After Tom turned back and the hobbits got to Bree, their ponies were let loose (probably) by Bill Ferny. Though they eventually found their way back to Crickhollow, the hobbits, and now Strider, were without ponies of any sort. But it was through Bill Ferny that they acquired Bill the Pony.
The as-yet-unnamed Bill the pony was “a poor old half-starved creature,” according to Bob from the Prancing Pony. And Bill Ferny was trying to make a quick buck on it. They thought it was a trick, that Ferny was trying to track them or swindle them by training the pony to return to him once they were out of town, but Strider countered: “I cannot imagine any animal running home to him, once it got away.”
And even though the poor pony was at death’s door, they paid the too-high price of twelve silver pennies (he wasn’t worth more than four) and it came along with them. Immediately, Sam took to him, and maybe after he hit old Bill Ferny in the nose with an apple, the pony took to Sam.
It was this pony, still unnamed, who carried Frodo after his wounding at Weathertop. He was “developing an unexpected talent for picking out a path, and for sparing its rider as many jolts as possible.” In fact, the pony was carrying Frodo for so long that even Tolkien referred to him as “Frodo’s pony” as they neared the Trolls. But we all know that in truth, he was Sam’s own. After they met Glorfindel and Frodo was allowed to ride his horse, Sam’s pony was once employed in carrying the baggage.
The company spent two months in Rivendell, and it was during that time that Sam grew closer to the pony. As they were readying themselves to leave for the journey, Bill was once again burdened with the heavy load of their supplies. They apparently had other choices of animals, but “it was Sam who insisted on choosing him, declaring that Bill (as he called him) would pine, if he did not come.” In all likelihood, it would have been Sam doing the pining, though there’s no real indication that Bill wouldn’t have been upset as well.
‘That animal can nearly talk,’ he said, ‘and would talk, if he stayed here much longer. He gave me a look as plain as Mr. Pippin could speak it: if you don’t let me go with you, Sam, I’ll follow on my own.’ So Bill was going as the beast of burden, yet he was the only member of the Company that did not seem depressed.
After leaving Rivendell, Tolkien gives Bill the pony an actual personality. After Sam jokingly admonished him for not staying back in Rivendell, “Bill swished his tail and said nothing.” And then, in the snow, when they could go almost no farther, Sam spoke up saying that Bill could in fact take a bit more. To that, “the pony looked at him mournfully.” During the snowstorm, “Bill the pony stood patiently but dejectedly in front of the hobbits, and screened them a little.” When they were surrounded by Wargs, Bill “trembled and sweated where he stood.”
Of course, just as they were about to enter Moria, it was decided that Bill the Pony could not go with them. It was first discussed between Gandalf, Frodo and Gimli as a matter of practicality.
‘Poor old Bill!’ said Frodo. ‘I had not thought of that. And poor Sam! I wonder what he will say?’
But it’s Gandalf who seems to feel most for Bill: “Poor Bill has been a useful companion, and it goes to my heart to turn him adrift now. I would have travelled lighter and brought no animal, least of all this one that Sam is fond of, if I had had my way. I feared all along that we should be obliged to take this road.”
Gandalf’s last sentiment, that he wouldn’t have brought an animal at all, makes the most sense. Sam brought Bill not mostly because it would be useful to have a beast of burden, but because of his affection for him. Now that affection might cost poor Bill his life. Just as they needed to release him, the wolves began howling.
Sam, of course, was terrified for Bill and angry at Gandalf, but really, it was his own fault. He probably knew this, which made the frustration even thicker. But Gandalf did hit Sam with the practical “well, if you wouldn’t have brought a pony along…” speech. Instead, he approached the pony.
He laid his hand on the pony’s head, and spoke in a low voice. ‘Go with words of guard and guiding on you,’ he said. ‘You are a wise beast, and have learned much in Rivendell. Make your ways to places where you can find grass, and so come in time to Elrond’s house, or wherever you wish to go.
‘There, Sam! He will have quite as much chance of escaping wolves and getting home as we have.’
Did Gandalf cast some sort of protection spell over Bill? Or was he just reminding him of all he had to live for in Rivendell and very possibly later with Sam?
It was Bill, and not Gandalf, who told Sam that it would all be okay: “Bill, seeming to understand well what was going on, nuzzled up to him, putting his nose to Sam’s ear. Sam burst into tears, and fumbled with the straps, unlading all the pony’s packs and throwing them on the ground.”
A Few Notes
- Naming your pony after his previous owner/abuser is a pretty strange thing. No explanation was given, but let’s just assume that Sam was taking back the name, turning it from evil to good. He was reclaiming “Bill” for the rest of us.
- Bill’s actual departure wasn’t really as wonderful as it would have been if he just would have left after the ear-nuzzling, but that’s what you get with Tolkien – a bit of heart-warming fantasy mixed with harsh reality.
- And of course, with that comes a happy ending. Bill returned to Bree and the Prancing Pony. Nob had been watching him and Sam counted himself “born lucky, whatever my gaffer may say.”
- Oh! And we shouldn’t forget that Tolkien allowed Bill the Pony to get back at Bill the Ferny: “As he [Ferny] passed the ponies one of them let fly with his heels and just caught him as he ran. He went off with a yelp into the night and was never heard of again.”
- Bill the pony eventually traveled with Sam and Frodo to the Grey Havens, and went on to live with Sam and Rosie until he died a very happy passing in the Shire (we can assume).
About the Photo
So Bill is a pony and not a camel, but you get the idea. Cambells was a mid-west freight company during the 50s and into the 90s, I think. Their motto was the hilarious “Humpin’ to Please.” This, along with Chicagos “Speed Humps” makes any adult into a middle schooler.