Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Family: Frodo and Sam as Parent/Child

In her excellent essay, “Frodo and Aragorn: The Concept of the Hero,” Verlyn Flieger makes an astute comparison between the characters of Frodo Baggins and Aragorn son of Arathron, drawing from their experiences to label them as distinctive heroes of The Lord of the Rings, albeit heroes on distinctly opposite and intriguing paths. Aragorn’s quest is a quest about personal growth and fulfillment: as the rightful ruler of Gondor, he must transform from the shadowy figure met in Bree into the regal, decisive character of King. Simultaneously, Frodo undergoes the opposite effect: exposed to the draining powers of the Ring, he becomes weaker and weaker as the Quest* progresses, eventually transforming from the grounded, capable hobbit in The Fellowship of the Ring into a shadowy remnant of his former self, hardly able to walk much less resist the overwhelming dictates of the Ring in the end. In the end, Frodo emerges broken while Aragorn becomes triumphantly whole.
Both stories “happen at the same time, and each because of the other” (Flieger, 145). Frodo’s Quest to destroy the Ring ultimately gives Aragorn the chance to reclaim his throne, and Aragorn’s decisions on the road to kingdom turn the Eye of Sauron from the hobbit at precisely the right time. This interweaving of fates fascinates me because it is clearly not a one-time affair but a pattern we’ve seen elsewhere in Tolkien’s mythology. Aragorn grows stronger as Frodo diminishes; so do mortal men as the Elves pass out of being, and, perhaps most strikingly, so is Samwise Gamgee’s destiny ultimately wrapped up in his Master’s.
We mentioned in class the relationship between Sam and Aragorn—how the two characters develop in remarkably similar ways, such that by the end of the story, the parallel structures of their fates are glaringly obvious : Both wind up rulers of their communities (Sam as Mayor, Aragorn as King), both plant important trees linked to Valinor (Sam the Mallorn from Galadriel, Aragorn the new White Tree of Gondor), both marry their love interests (for Sam, Rosie Cotton, and for Aragorn, the Lady Arwen) and settle down. What we failed to cover was how Sam’s, like Strider’s, growth into his leadership role over the course of the book is even more directly linked to Frodo’s personal decay because he and his Master ultimately share the same physical journey to the Cracks of Doom.
This physical aspect accentuates the spiritual bond between the two hobbits, such that in a way, it seems as if the two of them are linked in a strange, inverse relationship of power. When Sam is childish, Frodo is mature and capable; when Frodo grows physically and emotionally weak, Sam is the strong one who helps him see the Quest through. We said in class that the relationship between Sam and Frodo was much like a batman and his officer in WWI. In fact, comparing their parallel journeys in this way leads me rather to compare the hobbits’ relationship instead to that of a Parent and Child. Initially, in a Parent/Child relationship, the Parent takes control and directs both their paths, but as both mature, the Parent falls back into the second-childhood of old age and it’s up to the Child to carry their combined burdens. Frodo, in the role as Parent, initially directs the Quest, but as he grows burdened with the Ring, needs Sam, as the Child, to help him and to carry on his fight if he falls. Simultaneously Sam, child-like, grows and matures into an Adult as (and perhaps because) Frodo slips away. It becomes clear that only when Frodo falters can Sam truly come into his own.
The best way to summarize Sam’s story without falling back to the typical Hero language we used in class is as a story of emotional maturation. When Frodo and Sam are initially to leave the Shire, Frodo acts as the adult, the Master, the capable one between the two: educated and relatively cognizant of the gravity of his mission. Sam, meanwhile, appears enthusiastic but ignorant: he “[springs] up like a dog invited for a walk,” giving the impression of a childishness or immaturity that Frodo lacks (LOTR, 63). This springing Sam has evolved by the time the pair reaches the Cracks of Doom. Their roles are reversed: Sam is strong, capable one, carrying a physically and psychologically-broken Frodo like “a hobbit-child pig-a-back in some romp,” up the mountain (LOTR, 920). What happened?
This shift of power occurs gradually but traceably throughout the books, perhaps most clearly as Frodo begins to slip farther and farther into darkness once he and Sam have left the rest of the Fellowship. As Frodo lapses, Sam begins to pick up more and more of the routine journey tasks. He carries more of the baggage, attempts to lighten Frodo’s spirits through stories, poems, or general lightheartedness. Especially as Frodo begins to physically feel the effects of the Ring once in Mordor, Sam seems to grow psychologically stronger—perhaps distinctly for Frodo’s sake. This recognition of Frodo’s weakness and Sam’s own strength signals his initial transformation in the relationship from Child, uncomprehending of Frodo’s struggles, towards Adult, where he can help Frodo cope with them.
The chapter “The Choices of Master Samwise” in The Return of the King makes particularly clear the themes of the potential Parent/Child bond. Following the battle with Shelob, Sam believes Frodo to be dead and dithers over what he should do. “Why am I left all alone to make up my mind?” Sam laments (LOTR, 715). While the grieving Sam in this sequence is still clearly the same old Sam who has been with his Mr. Frodo all along, his thoughts take on a new gravity as he shifts from his role as Servant—from his Child role—into a role as his own Master. Frodo’s “death” forces him out of his own comfort zone, forces him to make up his own mind, make his own choices—effectively, to accept a role as an active participant, a full Adult. Sam transforms: “A new strength grew in him” (LOTR, 716). He grows up.
That “new strength” (along with Galadriel’s light) makes Sam appear to be an elf-warrior to the Orcs when he goes to rescue Frodo from the Tower—strength he would not have known he possessed were it not for how Frodo’s deterioration required him to step up to the task.
This concept of a Parent/Child relationship between the two also gives a whole new meaning to Frodo’s departure for the Grey Havens after the Scouring of the Shire. In departing from Arda entirely, he completes the shift of power to Sam by removing himself from the picture. “You cannot be always torn in two,” Frodo says, referring to Sam’s internal division between his care for Frodo and his family life, “You will have to be one and whole, for many years” (LOTR, 1006). Frodo’s departure allows his former Servant to fully become himself in a way he never would were his Master still present, even peripherally, in Shire life—just the way moving away from home in our society traditionally allows children to finally grow and live to their fullest potential.
I find it interesting that this final transfer of responsibility for material things finishes the Parent/Child replacement cycle in a concrete way. When Sam effectively inherits Frodo’s role, he also inherits it in a literal sense when he takes over management of the Baggins’ estate: “[Y]ou are my heir,” Frodo says, “All that I had and might have had I leave for you” (LOTR, 1006). This final blessing and transfer of material goods are parting gifts symbolic of Sam's final transformation into a full, complete person, now forced to be as independent of Frodo as he thought he was after Shelob. As Aragorn found his kingdom in Gondor, so Sam, no longer Servant or Child but Master and Parent in his own right (thirteen children!), found his happiness in the end.

* I capitalize Quest specifically in reference to Frodo's mission to destroy the Ring.
All LOTR citations come from my Houghton Mifflin Company copy of the book, first published 1994.

~Carolyn Hoke


  1. I think that you do an excellent job tracing out Sam's transformation from Child to Parent (particularly in the transition from Sam as leaping dog to Frodo as child carried piggy back), but what then does this suggest about the Ring as the agent (if it is an agent) of Frodo's regression from Parent to Child? Is Tolkien trying to say something about the desire for domination as being fundamentally childish? Or is it only in his physical and psychological weakness relative to Sam that we should see Frodo's "dematuration"? What do you think?


  2. The question about the Ring as an agent in this (very well-chronicled) transition between Child- and Parenthood is especially interesting when one considers what the Ring has done to its various "owners." Even as Gollum and Bilbo were granted extraordinary physical longevity, it was obviously not without cost. While Gollum and Bilbo were almost suspended in time thanks to the Ring, it became debilitating when closer to its original Master and seemed at times to sap the life from Frodo as he fought to maintain control. Frodo’s deteriorating condition, physically and mentally, reflects a strange kind of simultaneous aging and regression—both of which must result in Sam, the “Child” maturing and taking over.

    I was initially confused about whether you were suggesting a complete role-reversal, portraying Frodo as the child as Sam matures. With Frodo as the master, the officer, it seemed to me that both were progressing forwards: Frodo towards death, (completely skipping over his prime,) and Sam into complete maturity. But at the same time, the Ring has clearly disrupted Frodo’s “growth” in a devastating way. Upon further reflection, I realize that it does not necessarily need to be one or the other. Perhaps it is appropriate that Frodo’s transition into tainted weakness—constantly fueled by the Ring and its destructive influence—defies the aging process to which we are accustomed.


  3. Good point about the inverse relationship between Frodo’s strength and Sam’s; I hadn’t thought of it that way before! I wasn’t sure about the whole child/parent relationship initially, but the way you lay it out, it really does fit Sam and Frodo’s relationship, especially when mapped onto the child/parent relationship over the lifetime of the child. The physical weakening of Frodo strengthens this parallel, but I think the physically close relationship the two has also reminds one of parent and child: Sam holding Frodo’s hand after Frodo wakes up in Rivendell, Sam carrying Frodo into the Cracks of Doom. In each case, it seems like each of those actions is like that of a parent or child, at different times in their lives.

    I think you right that Frodo’s slow collapse (and temporary appearance of death) truly forces Sam to find and use the strength within him, and that this is often how we learn to grow up – through circumstances that force us to. I think “The Choices of Master Samwise” (my favorite part of the whole book, by the way) also emphasizes (as the title makes obvious and as we discussed previously in class) that the ability, and even necessity, of making choices (especially difficult ones) is part of what defines ‘growing up,’ part of what makes us ‘adult’ rather than ‘child.’

    You also make an excellent observation about the significance of Frodo departing from Middle Earth at the end of the book. Despite Frodo and Sam being part of the same generation, Sam becomes Frodo’s heir, thus taking up, in every role; the role Frodo’s children would have had if he’d had any. You note the line about Sam inheriting all that Frodo “might have had;” I think this particularly significant because Sam takes on a role in his family, in the Shire, and, in a way, in life, that Frodo might have had it not for the Ring.


  4. I really enjoyed this essay, and I think it makes a lot of insightful points regarding the relationship between Frodo and Sam. (I especially liked the final section about Frodo's departure.) One question I have: does Frodo undergo a "natural" (albeit much accelerated) progression from adulthood into the second childhood of old age, or an unnatural regression into the first childhood? It doesn't have to be an either/or question, and there seems to be support for both sides. The second childhood narrative fits Frodo's actions quite well: he grows old, departs from the world, and bequeaths his possessions to his child. It also makes more sense of Sam's attitudes towards Frodo. Despite having more ability and power than Frodo at the end, Sam is still deferential ("Mr Frodo! Mr Frodo!"*) in a way that would be odd for a parent towards a child, but which is not unusual as a form of filial respect. However, Frodo is directly compared several times in the text to a child, not a helplessly old man. This occurs most notably in the piggyback scene quoted above and when Sam finds Frodo at the Tower of Cirith Ungol: "...and [Frodo] lay back in Sam's gentle arms, closing his eyes, like a child at rest when night-fears are driven away by some loved voice" (VI.1).

    This sounds a bit quibbling, but I think the question is nontrivial because it examines the effects of the Ring. Does the quest for domination, as exemplified in the Ring, warp the quester such that their spirit dies long before their body departs the earth? Or is it, as Prof. Fulton notes above, a fundamentally childish (or regressive, childishness-inducing) venture?

    As a last quick note, Frodo and Sam are set up as the ideal Master and Servant, and it's interesting that those roles map so neatly onto Parent and Child. Perhaps this points to Tolkien's historical time, in which the Master/Servant bond was viewed with much more positivity than it is today, and ideally was a bond of familial closeness? Alternatively, what does it say about the role of the child?

    [*] Also interesting is that the only time Sam does not call Frodo "Mr" is when he thinks that Frodo has died. Perhaps in death we are all equal?

  5. My apologies--I'm MoL, and I made the post above.