Ho! Tom Bombadil, Tom Bombadillo!
I admit, it cheers me up on grey and rainy days...
At the Sign of the Prancing Pony
Today's chapter starts with... info dump! Mega infodump at that! If you have a hankering for exposition, well, this is the chapter opening for you. Over two solid pages of pure information about Bree, its history, its people... and without any attempt whatsoever of rooting it in the present action. Very much the omniscient voice, here, taking a break from the story to provide an insightful lecture. Some of it we don't really need, and the rest could be worked in much more fluidly, I believe.
It also makes me think again of the overall chapter structures. Tolkien typically seems to like the slow opening, a chapter that starts in quiet and then builds towards tension and resolution... and then he looks to do the same thing again in the next chapter. It gives a certain contained quality, I think, to each chapter, a sense of each chapter as a story in and of itself. There's a nice structure to it, I think, a feeling that each chapter has its own meanings and importance. The trouble arises, I think, with some of these transitions. Exposition here, and lots of others where they're waking up, or eating breakfast. Somewhat lacking in hook, and forward motion seems to stall a bit... though the reader might still be riding the high of the previous chapter's conclusion, and so be willing to read on through the slow openings. Makes me wonder, though, if this habit continues, if the chapter structure reoccurs even in the heart of the action later in the story? (And makes me want to go look at patterns in my own writing, too...)
Post infodump, the hobbits finally enter Bree, after the gateman warns them of "strange folk" about. The hobbits take lodging at the Inn of the Prancing Pony, and then three of them adjourn to the common room to drink and to meet the locals (both hobbit and human).
And here we meet Strider/Aragorn for the the first time: a worn and weathered traveller who watches Frodo with keen eyes. And his introduction is framed by the warnings of the innkeeper that he is a mysterious ranger, strange and possibly dangerous. I think this is one of the key moments in the development of the story. Originally, there was no Strider, but rather a wild and rangerish sort of hobbit called Trotter. The difference in those two options is vast, and it is in this character choice that much of the story is shaped. With Trotter you'd have a continued hobbit-centric story, a quaint adventure about how hobbits interact with the great wide world, a la The Hobbit. With Strider, however, you have the whole history and mythos of the Numenoreans brought in, the very history of Middle-Earth. Strider, I think, as the hidden and true King of the West, is the key connection between the story Tolkien had started here (that is, a sequel to The Hobbit) and the stories (the history of Middle Earth) that he had been working on for decades (as laid out in books like the Silmarillion). He brings in the rise of Man and the fall of the Elves, the great Decline. So many of the later plotlines grew out of this moment, this choice: a hobbit called Trotter or a ranger named Strider? The right choice, I think, was made.
It's an introduction that is handled quite well. A mysterious stranger... benevolent or dangerous? And he seems to know far more than he should, which Frodo tries to ignore. Where could he get such information? The hints are played well, and contribute to the tension of the scene. Not only is Pippin doing something foolish, telling a risky story to a crowd... but Strider seems to know where the story is going, and that this story is not one Frodo would want to share at this time.
Frodo, looking to distract everyone, starts to sing a silly song. Interestingly, though, Tolkien acknowledges the silliness here, calling it a "ridiculous song" (though he still happily shows us verse after verse). And the silliness is undercut further by the ending... Frodo slips on the Ring and vanishes. An accident? Or something more? "Perhaps it had tried to reveal itself in response to some wish or command that was felt in the room." The power of the Ring shapes the scene, darkens it. Silly songs do not end well, here... Danger is everywhere and imminent.
Strider speaks again with Frodo, and again displays disconcerting knowledge, hinting at some understanding of the Ring. He wishes to see Frodo privately, as does the innkeeper, who has remembered some important news...
Again, the chapter is neatly wrapped up, though at least here some of the tension is being carried over - what will Strider say (and do)? And what will the innkeeper say?