You know, because I usually read Lord of the Rings in big chunks, I'd never had a strong opinion on the pace of the opening before now. But I've been looking at Chapter 5 for weeks now, and just not feeling like talking about it (and then work got busy). I think this is a sign that it's slow after all. =>
But here we go, back to it.
What Happens: Merry brings the other three hobbits across the Brandywine by ferry and to Crickhollow; as they reach the other side of the river, they see a Black Rider snuffling on the far bank.
After a bath and a meal, Frodo decides to confess to his companions, but Merry forestalls him. He, Pippin, and Sam have known for quite a while about the Ring and Frodo's need to leave the Shire, and are determined to come with him. Frodo gives in after a brief resistance, and resolves to leave the next morning by an unexpected direction, heading into the Old Forest. Fredegar "Fatty" Bolger is going to stay behind at Crickhollow, to impersonate Frodo and give a message to Gandalf.
That night, Frodo dreams of the sound of the Sea.
I think the most significant thing about this chapter is that it starts the characterization of Merry, who comes off as the cool head and rather the leader of the conspiracy. At one point Frodo rather thoughtlessly comments that "it does not seem that I can trust anyone"; Sam looks hurt, but Merry gets at what Frodo's really saying, degrees of trust. He takes the lead in talking about the conspiracy and has very efficiently organized materials for their getaway.
Pippin remains, to my reading, young and a bit thoughtless; he's the one who soaks the floor while bathing, and he's still making jokes at Sam's expense: "Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon's throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet; but you will need more than one companion in your dangerous adventure." Sam is still provincial but game:
Sam was the only member of the party who had not been over the river before. He had a strange feeling as the slow gurgling stream slipped by: his old life lay behind in the mists, dark adventure lay in front. He scratched his head, and for a moment had a passing wish that Mr. Frodo could have gone on living quietly at Bag End.
Generally speaking, this is a domestic interlude of relative peace. There's only a faint glimpse of a Black Rider, the dark reasons for Frodo's flight are alluded to but not re-hashed, there are civilized things like the furniture fron Bag End, baths (while I agree with Pippin that hot water is a wonderful thing—though I'd amend it to hot [*] running water—I don't know that I'd sing songs in its favor), and food. To me, the chapter reads like a faint and less-weighty echo of "The Shadow of the Past."
[*] And is it really practical that they could have enough hot water for three baths at once? I've never had to heat water for my own bath before, I don't know.
And then there's the hints of danger and non-domesticity at the end, through the (unnecessary) authorial foreshadowing of danger to Fatty, and through Frodo's dream:
Eventually he fell into a vague dream, in which he seemed to be looking out of a high window over a dark sea of tangled trees. Down below among the roots there was the sound of creatures crawling and snuffling. He felt sure they would smell him out sooner or later.
Then he heard a noise in the distance. At first he thought it was a great wind coming over the leaves of the forest. Then he knew that it was not leaves, but the sound of the Sea far-off; a sound he had never heard in waking life, though it had often troubled his dreams. Suddenly he found he was out in the open. There were no trees after all. He was on a dark heath, and there was a strange salt smell in the air. Looking up he saw before him a tall white tower, standing alone on a high ridge. A great desire came over him to climb the tower and see the Sea. He started to struggle up the ridge towards the tower: but suddenly a light came in the sky, and there was a noise of thunder.
I suspect that the full significance of this is not comprehensible on the first time through. I read it as a message that Frodo's got a lot of obstacles to overcome before he can travel over Sea for peace, but that looking toward the West for help is a good idea.
More action in the next chapter, at least!