I mean, it's not like this party is.... unexpected? You could even call it... long-expected. Right? Because those are the first chapters of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings? Thank you, I'll be hear all afternoon.
Okay, that's enough of the Bazooka-Joe level jokes (for now), let's talk Bombadil. Now: I'm well aware of the rules, and I don't want to stir up any drama, so I'm not going to call anyone out here, but you know who you are you Bombadil-haters. Don't think I've forgiven you. I guess you think the book would be better off without him? I guess you're just okay with the Hobbits getting eaten by that tree or strangled by the disembodied arm in the barrow wight, which were essential to the plot because.... because... well, Tolkien wrote it, therefore it must be great, right? Um...
The truth is, the first book of LOTR is not very well-written. It gets off to a good start, with a big party and Bilbo acting oddly and Gandalf rushing off for some urgent errand and then.... well, there's Bilbo's living will full of sniping jokes at his relatives, and Frodo sort of dicking around for fifteen years or so while Gandalf does some research, and eventually concludes that yes, this is that one ring that is PURE EVIL. As a former grad student, I gotta say: Gandalf needs to work on his research methods. I mean, I understand that there was no inter-library loan in Middle-Earth (although the Eagles could really get into that), but still: Gandalf's reaction is just bizarre. "Hmm, Bilbo is acting strangely Gollum-like. I wonder if this is the most dangerous and evil object in Middle Earth. I'd better do a decade and a half of research before letting anybody know. I wouldn't want to cause a ruckus." You'll notice the movie elides this quite a bit: Gandalf confronts Bilbo, tells Frodo he has to run, and gallops down to Gandalf. In a few (years? months? days? The timeline is unclear there) Gandalf comes galloping back, just ahead of the Nazgul. Keeping in mind that it will later take the party two whole movies to make a journey to Gondor. Gandalf has a really fast horse.
If the story picked up there, it wouldn't be so bad, and it sort of does: chapter 3, "The Shadow of the Past" is a great piece of writing, as Gandalf unveils the history of The Ring in bits and pieces. But this tension goes nowhere, or rather goes to a romp through the countryside, something about stealing mushrooms, and a not-at-all homoerotic group bath scene (I would say that it is exactly as non-homoerotic as the volleyball game in Top Gun). And then Frodo, who we've been led to believe is a pretty bright guy, takes a shortcut through a dark, evil forest that once attacked (!!!) the Shire. Yes, these trees are belligerent, news which Frodo receives without so much as batting an eye. And then it's sort of a surprise to them when they all almost get eaten by a tree? And then come a (perhaps literal) deus ex machina in the form of an all-singing, all-dancing weirdo in full-on Ian Anderson mode, hopping around and singing gibberish like some burnout who got lost on his way to Burning Man one year and decided to settle down in this evil forest.
Like I said, I like Bombadill. He's a fairy-tale archetype; he's the flipside of the darkness of nature represented by Old Man Willow; he's possibly big-G God (I can't remember where I heard that theory, but I kind of like it). But he has no place in this story. This isn't a violation of Chekov's gun: this is Chekov's BIG FUCKING CANNON. As one of the commenters on my last post pointed out, he has no impact on the rest of the story. You could really skip straight from "A Shortcut to Mushrooms" to "At the sign of the Prancing Pony" with essentially no loss to the story (granted, the Hobbits pick up some +1 Swords of Nazgul slaying (oops, I guess I should have said "Spoiler Alert"), but seeing as how Numenorian and Elvish blades are apparently just lying around everywhere in Middle Earth, they surely could have picked them up on the road somewhere. You will notice, in fact, that the skip I suggested above is essentially what Peter Jackson chose to do with the movie, and the film is much better for it.
In the Prancing Pony (if you skip over Frodo's absolute idiocy in doing a stupid song and dance as a diversion from his cohorts doxxing him), the story really gets going, though, and that's because of one man: Strider. Strider, as Aragorn is called by the Breelanders is a Ranger: a total two-blade wielding, talking to animals, shooting arrows a fucking mile to hit a squirrel in the eye, studded leather armor wearing, tracking an orc across a hard rock surface Ranger (okay, he doesn't actually do any of those things, but it's clear that he's high enough level that he could). Strider is happy to take the scorn of the townfolk, the very people who would be eaten by wolves if he and his buddies weren't tramping around in the woods, because he knows that no one else can and no one else will. He's Batman of Middle Earth: aristocrat in "real life," dark and sinister vigilante in his avocation. But Strider's character doesn't really take shape until Book II, so I'll just leave this lying here for now. Look for a Book II open thread sometime this week, unless I get eaten by a bear or just don't get around to it.