The Bree-lands were little inhabited in the days of the War of the Ring, but they were a special place. The last home of good Men north of Gondor, save the lands where Rangers trod, is a green and pleasant place. It’s myriad lakes and fields, woods and downs, make for one of the more lovely and sprawling zones in LOTRO. It is a land little described in the books. Tolkien said that the land outside of Bree-town and the surrounding villages “was a small country of fields and tamed woodland only a few miles abroad” and so it is wide open for interpretation. The areas west of Bree were not described at all, save for the Road where the four hobbits depart from Bombadil, and Turbine filled in those gaps rather nicely. There are lush, green fields and hills, ancient ruins to tell of its foggy past, all encased in danger; for there are brigands come from the South and evil lurks in the Old Forest so very near. Northwards are more farms yet, active and lively, being encroached upon by invading orcs from the North Downs. Eastwards things seem more familiar: beyond the hamlets of Archet and Combe and Staddle is the Midgewater Marsh, where Strider and the hobbits passed unseen into the Weather Hills and beyond during their escape from Bree. And to the South is the now dangerous Greenway, where ruffians have shut out travel through the vale of Andrath.
It’s said that the Bree-lands were “like an island in the empty lands round about”. Bree was settled long ago and the Bree-landers “were the descendents of the first Men that ever wandered into the West of the middle-world”. Most seem to concur that they were of the same descent as the Dunlendings. Whatever their origins, the Bree-landers have been there for as long as you care to remember and are their own people. They were there where when the Kings came out of the sea, there when the fell, and will still be there when King Elessar brings the kingdoms back. They are independent and proud of their heritage and rightfully so! Had your father and your fathers’ fathers’ fathers kept things locked down through centuries of war and conflict and political upheaval you’d be happy about it, too. In a sense, they are more stable than all of the kingdoms of the Númenóreans combined. This is the Bree we meet in the books, largely through the person of Barliman Butterbur. If he is our exemplar, then the people of Bree and the Bree-lands are kind, open, a little bit defensive and ignorant, but altogether on the side of good. In many ways they are the most “hobbit like” Men we find in the books. They are unaware of their dependence upon the Rangers for defence, fond of food and drink, rural, but, being the most westward of settlements along the Great Road, they are more open to outsiders than the Shire-folk. This is thanks in no small part to the rather large population of hobbits that exist in the Bree-lands, mostly in the village of Staddle. Indeed, Bree is the only place in Middle-earth where Men and Hobbits coexist and the deal seems rather square.Not unlike the Men of Bree, the Bree-hobbits consider themselves, seemingly, the center of the universe. They claim to be the very first settled Hobbits in this part of the world, and think of the Shire-hobbits as “Outsiders”. The insular worldview keeps things simple for them (and the Shire-hobbits as well, truth be told), but who needs more than a quiet life within walking distance of an inn with good talk and better beer?
The road from Bree to the Brandywine Bridge is not a long one: it’s said to take a day’s riding to make the distance, but few ever do save the Buckland hobbits and a few from the four Farthings. Still, the phrase “strange as news from Bree” is bandied about and, though tame by our wider view of the War and the world about, news from Bree is still strange to the Shirelings. As I said, they were friendlier with outsiders because, this being the only settlement between Rivendell and the Sea, Bree gets a lot of interracial traffic. Wandering dwarves and elves, along with the locals and the Rangers, all mingle at the Pony. But their seeming familiarity with the outside world does not prepare them for the forces of Mordor and the town is in terror when the Nazgûl make their brief invasion.
The outside world brings other unwanted things, and the news that begins to arrive at about the time of the outset of the books is the arrival of ruffians from the south. We get a mixed picture, for on the one hand are seeming refugees who are fleeing trouble related to the Dark Lord, and on the other are some pretty shady characters who join the groups with agendas of their own. The Bree-land of LOTRO is littered with these unsavory types. Such characters arrange for trouble at the Prancing Pony and Strider, with his four hobbits, leave under far more attention than they wish for. Knowing they are pursued by spies, Strider takes them off the road east of Bree and into a wooded valley south of Staddle, west of the Midgewater. That is the only other description we get of the Bree-lands in the book (besides a mention of ‘yellow leaves’ in the Chetwood): Strider and the hobbits dipping into a pleasant wood on a nice, fall day, before a shortcut sees them through the wretched Midgewater Marshes. LOTRO follows this description to a tee.Also remember that Gandalf follows the the Road in this same direction, but being on Shadowfax and ignoring the Marshes he storms through eastern Bree like a hurricane and passes Strider and company quickly.
South of Bree-town, it would be safe to assume that the lands are as they’re described in the rest of the region: tame and pleasant and wooded. Turbine has seen to it that they are. But following the Greenway (the North Road) southwards brings us back to the troublesome ruffians we have seen before. The vale of Andrath is completely blocked off. An old fort is there, presumably a holdover from the kingdom of Arnor, and it is occupied by southern brigands. Try as we might, there is no way through their guarded door. Otherwise we might find a shortcut to Enedwaith! This was also a gathering place for the Ring-wraiths as they scoured the West for Frodo and the Ring.
Northwards along the Greenway are more farms, an especially active site called Thornley’s, more brigand camps, a horse farm, and an interesting little cabin. Saeradan (“bitter man”) is a curious Ranger because he hangs around in his cabin instead of wandering the world. This makes sense to me. If the Rangers are tasked with keeping the peace about the civilized northern lands, why not set up shop right there and make yourself comfortable? Saeradan directs us, the players, on how we are to best help the folk of the Bree-lands with their recent troubles, namely orcs.
In the interest of time, I want to close up by making note of a few spots you must explore, starting with Northern Bree-fields. If you haven’t spent any time in those parts, get there quick. It is one of the most lovely and sprawling areas in the game. It’s very open, with only one small quest hub along Nen Harn, and connects to both the Lone-lands and the North Downs off the beaten path. There is also a set of forts occupied by White Hand orcs that you may not have even seen before. It’s one of the few places in the game that escapes the ever present “funnel” that shuttles our movements from one place to the next and, I feel, is a good representation of the wandering places the Dúnedain ranged through. To the west of Bree, up the hill from the Everclear Lakes, is Starmere Lake. This is a secluded spot and leads roundabout to the ruins of Ost Baranor and then to the Brandy Wood. The openness of these areas, free of many enemies and quest hubs and the nuisances of having to have a game in this lovely, virtual world, feels like proper Middle-earth. It is spots like these, the quiet wilderness, that provide the scope of much of Middle-earth, especially the Bree-land. They give space to the world and remind us of peaceful paths in a simpler world with less gray and more green. It shows that there are places in the world worth protecting just because they are good.