Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Servant vs. Lord (of the Rings)

In class Monday, I was particularly moved by a question someone raised near the end of our conversation about Sam: Why must he be a formal servant, rather than merely a friend who serves? I think the best way to answer this is to return to and expand upon a point raised during our discussion of choice and the power of the Ring. That day, we mentioned that perhaps Sam (like Bombadil) is able to resist the temptation of the Ring because he does not desire domination, and that drive to achieve power over others is what allows the Ring to take hold of a bearer’s mind. Sam does not need to be master of anything or anyone, as he already has a master himself. Based on this, Sam must truly be an actual servant because he is the one character most firmly set in opposition to Sauron himself. In class, we drew connections between many of the characters listed on the board (eg. Gollum and Sam), but I think we missed one of the most striking oppositional pairs. Sauron is the ultimate depiction of master or lord, and Sam is the ultimate embodiment of the servant.

First, consider Sam’s situation. It is interesting that while one of the “messages” of Lord of the Rings is often described in terms of seemingly insignificant people being able to have great influence on the world, people tend to assume this is intended in reference to Frodo. Though, admittedly, Frodo is the “common man,” he is not an entirely unlikely hero; as we discovered while forming our list in class today, he actually fits many of the typical fantasy hero descriptors. Still less than Frodo though is his servant -- one who holds one of the lowest positions in life’s hierarchy (and not coincidentally, the same role Christ is often described as having). Moreover, Sam never committed himself to the quest and epic adventure for its own sake, or for the sake of duty or worthwhile goals, or any other such explanation that may explain the involvement of the other eight members of the Fellowship. His commitment was not to the adventure but to Frodo: his master.

Sam does not desire greatness for himself, nor does he wish for domination with the Ring. While in Mordor, he even realizes (in Book Six, Chapter One) that with the power of the Ring he could rule over a whole realm of gardens. Yet he quickly resists the temptation, recognizing that all he really needs or desires is “the one small garden of a free gardener.” In this moment of temptation, “it was the love of his master that helped most to hold him firm.” Sam does not desire domination, because he has found greater love in servitude.

Meanwhile, there is Sauron: the Lord of the Rings, the nemesis of the free world for the sole reason that he desires most of all to be its master and dominator. Rather than being fuelled by love and humility (notable Christian values) as Sam is, the development of Sauron’s desire to control comes as his “lust and pride increased, until he knew no bounds, and he determined to make himself master of all things in Middle Earth” (Silmarillion p. 289). Through his sins (both lust and pride, and also the greatest evil: the will to control the wills of others), Sauron encompasses the notions of power and the ideal master. His character and motivations are the direct opposites of Sam’s.

Given Tolkien’s focus on the notion of subcreation, we should also compare the greatest act of creation that Sauron and Sam each individually commit. Sauron, of course, creates the Ring: a source of power, and also an act of creation that embodies a willful desire to deceive and control others. The Ring is all the sin and evil associated with Sauron’s status as master made physical in the form of an object. Sam’s greatest creation, meanwhile, comes in repairing the Shire when he sows trees and plants (including the mallorn). Although this almost seems to contradict Sam’s previously stated desire to not have a large garden, it is essential to see that this is not HIS garden. Sam does not plant these trees for himself, or as a way to manipulate or dominate anyone. If we are to classify the act as anything, I would consider it a service: a service to his fellow hobbits, and to the homeland and ideals which Sam loves. Again, then, we see Sam acting out of service and love, while Sauron only desires domination and greed. Sam is the perfect example of a subcreator, while Sauron’s act seems to disrupt all creation, perhaps trying to usurp creation rather than add to it in his own way.

Overall, I believe it’s important to establish Sam as a character who does not merely practice service to others, but who is in every sense a formal and actual servant who embodies the proper ideals of servitude: love and humility. With Sauron set as the primary force of evil within the Lord of the Rings trilogy (with his status as master serving as the title, even), Sam establishes a source of inherent opposition to him that the other characters cannot. It is often said that Frodo never would have made it to Mount Doom without Sam, and it is true: the ultimate servant was needed to overcome the ultimate master.

-Catrina D.


  1. I like the contrast between 'ultimate servant' and 'ultimate master.' While I always thought of Sam as just as important (if not more important) that Frodo, I think that this contrast is an incredibly helpful way to put it. It seems to me that most people understand Sam's heroic nature, but only in the sense that Frodo wouldn't have made it without Sam, rather than Sam opposing Sauron directly.
    I think that we shouldn't discredit Frodo too much, though. Sauron could be the ultimate master without aid because of the nature of a master. Sam could do very little agaist Sauron, probably less than Frodo, were he on his own. Tolkien seems to have a running moral of cooperation magnifying power and solitude weakening it. Saruman, for instance, isolates himself when he starts to go bad. Sauron only achieved the power that he had because he enslaved people he pretended to cooperate with. Sam's servitude in this sense seems to be an ultimate magnifier, bringing out Frodo's power and duty and allowing it to help them complete the quest to Mt. Doom.

  2. Excellent contrast--and, yes, very much the answer to the dynamic of the LotR: the dominion of the Lord conquered by the service of the Servant! Reed makes a good point that a servant needs a master in order to be a servant, just as the lord needs slaves to have dominion over, but I think your argument for Sam's importance still holds. It is Sam, not Frodo as the "common man"-hero, who is ultimately responsible for keeping the Ring from falling into Sauron's hands and, in the last instance, for letting Gollum go.


  3. Great post - I really like the parallels you drew between 'ultimate servant' and 'ultimate master,' and the contrasting motivations of love/humility and pride. Yet I too think you are shortchanging Frodo to a certain degree. To continue with the Christian analogy you started, I think one could draw apt comparisons between Sauron and Satan - though it was Milton and not any biblical writer who coined "better to reign in Hell than to serve in Heaven," I think it an apt summary of Satan's characterization in the Christian mythos - prideful, desirous of control, etc. Yet while Christ often appears in the role of a servant, and certainly displays the virtues of love and humility, it is also repeatedly stressed that he is a master over the disciples and all Christians. One of the most common New Testament titles for Jesus, Kyrios (κύριος) can translate as, God, Lord, or Master. But Jesus obviously is not a master in the same sense that Lucifer tries to be.

    Matthew 23:8 states that "But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your teacher, and all ye are brethren." I think this can help us understand Frodo as a virtuous master in The Lord of The Rings in opposition to Sauron. Sauron desires absolute control over his minions, and all the free peoples of Middle-Earth. While the Bagginses require respect and service out of Sam, Sam grows as a person from his interactions with them. It is Bilbo who teaches Sam who to read, and in Frodo's service that Sam comes into his own. The master as teacher appears over and over again in the legendarium - think of the roles that Gandalf, Elrond, and even Galadriel occupy - and fits in with the Christian parallels of the text.

    Taylor Ehlis

  4. This is a great post! I am especially persuaded by your argument that Sam’s formal servitude is meaningful because it sets him more firmly in opposition to Sauron. I think the distinction between Sam’s servitude (which includes formal status as servant) and Frodo’s kind of servitude (which does not) is connected to your observation that Frodo possesses elements of the traditional hero. My reading is that Frodo’s traditional heroism is virtuous in many ways, but also presents a kind of danger, and this danger is played out when he seizes the Ring as an object of power.

    I also agree that Sam’s resistance to the Ring is much like Bombadil’s, since neither desires domination over others. This reflects (in my view) that Sam and Bombadil enjoy a particularly harmonious relationship with Creation—enjoying it and cultivating it, rather than using it to their own ends—and I wonder if we could link this to our discussions about storytelling: is this why Sam is the right choice to compose the Red Book? Likewise, we called described Bombadil as “storytelling personified” in one of our sessions.

    But what about the ways in which Sam is an exceptional servant? By “exceptional,” I don’t mean that he’s a very good servant, but rather that he rises above the conventions of his formal servitude—after all, he’s just a gardener—and even breaks them, as when he decides to take the Ring from Frodo’s dead body (or so he thinks) and continue the Quest himself. How might we make sense of these moments?


  5. I certainly agree with you that the Ring seems to take hold of an individual’s desire for domination, and Sam is for the most part a very willing servant. But he isn’t a servant for the entire story. After the quest for the Ring is complete he goes back to the Shire and becomes its mayor, a position if not of mastery, than certainly of leadership. So does this fit in with what you are saying? At first glance I thought that it did not, but then upon further pondering I reconsidered. Aragorn also seems to have a great resistance to the power of the Ring, as well as an aversion to lead for a very large portion of the book. However he of course becomes the king. I think that Tolkien is making two points here. The first is that the only people who are fit to lead are those who at first do not want to. If you want power to dominate others then you are by definition corrupt, even evil. So why do leaders like Sam or Aragorn ever actually take up the position? I think that in both cases the reason they decide to lead, is in order to serve. Tolkien is saying that the best rulers are those who put the people first, and work to serve and protect them. This is not a new concept but he subtly plays with the concept of servitude and mastery, and shows us how deeply they are connected in a very poignant way.

  6. I also appreciated your dichotomy of Sam and Sauron as antithesis, but I'd like to bring up a couple things.

    The first is Sauron's role as (originally) a servant of Melkor, the greatest among servants, yes, but still a servant. Even after Morgoth has been cast out of the world after the First Age, when Sauron corrupts the Numenoreans he institutes worship of Morgoth. Would this change your analysis of Sauron as essentially in the dominion of Lord, or is it insignificant when looking exclusively at the Lord of the Rings?

    The other would be that Sam is a gardner rather than a pure servant of Frodo. I think this is important for several reasons; though Sam acts in an often vaguely servile manner towards Frodo, it is purely out of love, and not because he is required to be entirely subservient, though he takes on these duties anyway. Sam as a gardener also helps to explain how he resists the Ring; a servant/gardner has a love of nurturing and growing things (which is not suited to dominion which we saw is less about growth and much more about twisting existing things), a desire or willingness to help others, and, as was mentioned, a preference to doing things oneself.
    (I remember being vaguely uncomfortable with the idea of Sam being a formal servant when I read the books when I was younger... that's probably where most of this comes from.)

  7. I really liked this post and the juxtaposition you draw between Sam and Sauron, especially the last sentence about how “the ultimate servant was needed to overcome the ultimate master.” I also agree that Sam is the true foil to Sauron. Indeed, I think it is actually quite natural that Sam is overlooked by many when they look for the hero in the story. After all, he is Frodo’s servant and the servant is never greater than his master (I speak in generalities, of course, and without reference to the Bible, which frequently inverts the expected, cf. The Sermon on the Mount, Matthew 5-7).

    Not only is it natural that he’s overlooked, but I think Sam would not want it any other way. That, I think, is why he really is the “ideal” servant: he does not want the attention for himself, but he is instead constantly looking out for his dear master and caring for him, making sure that he is able to fulfill his goal. If we, then, want to be true heroes and servants as Sam was, we need to know who our Master is – something that most people do not actually know, but feel as if that is all right – and serve him wholeheartedly.


  8. This post does a keen job elucidating the dichotomy of servitude and domination that seems to persist in LotR. However, are we certain we can ascribe such ultimatums on the nature of Sam? Sauron may be the ultimate master, as it is his greatest work (the Ring) that seeks domination over all others. However, if we reflect on the natures of most of the characters in the story, all of those who participated in the unmaking of the Ring were subservient to some power or person. Is Sam the ultimate servant because he is resistant to the power of the Ring, while also blithely helping Frodo? Certainly we repeatedly see characters who actively seek to rule falling to the powers of Sauron (Denethor, Saruman, Boromir), but we also see a number of characters when presented with the Ring to deny it as well. If Sam were to carry the Ring to Mount Doom, could we assume that he would be any less hesitant than Frodo was? If I were to pick a character possessing the quality of ultimate servant, I would choose Frodo. He elects to bare the greatest burden that Middle Earth has ever known, and then is wounded to the point that recovery is only possible across the sea. He asks for no reward and looks for no power. Is it because Sam, by serving Frodo, now is subservient to the servant? It may be wiser to speak of both together instead of independently. I doubt either would have been successful without the other.