Like many people in this class, I’m full of confessions. The one relevant to today’s discussion are that my two favorite characters in The Lord of the Rings have always been Samwise and Aragorn. Why? I think in many ways I identified with both of these characters. Or at least I wanted to identify with Aragorn, the brave world-seasoned traveler and king. And while Sam is in many ways a much closer approximation of me, he too represents properties that I admire and can only hope to obtain. His willingness to serve, his brave support of his master, and his single-minded devotion all seem to me traits that are both incredible and foreign to my critical values.
I also have another confession- I have always been entranced/ haunted by the way The Lord of the Rings ends. It has always seemed both startling and incredibly appropriate to me that the book ends with the settling down of two of the major characters. The grander “settling down” of King Elessar into his kingdom, as well as his appendix-mentioned life and death with Arwen, is in direct contrast to Sam’s seemingly ordinary return to his wife and daughter. In this blog post I would like to explore what Sam’s words mean. What does it mean to return, to settle down, and to move on? And what does this say about the nature of the heroic act?
We discussed in class the similarities of the characters of Aragorn and Samwise. The most obvious ones, however, happen when the quest is over. They both get married, plant trees as acts of healing, and take up important positions in their governments. They both even take new family names (Telcontar and Gardener). Aragorn’s scale might be grander, and his roots are certainly larger, but the king and the mayor definitely share a trajectory. Their roles as heroes, however, are quite different. Aragorn is the man who makes things happen and his choices directly affect the men and armies he leads. Sam’s choices are affect only one person, Frodo, but in the end they are significant to all of Middle Earth.
[Verlyn] Flieger writes that Tolkien wrote Aragorn and Frodo to be two very different heroes. (Flieger 124) Aragorn represents the medieval hero in his manor and in his actions. Frodo represents the modern day hero who rises from humble beginnings and personal doubts to achieve. I would argue that Sam also fits into this second archetype of hero. In many ways Sam fits even better. While even the three other hobbits come from aristocratic or at least bourgeois families, Sam is a working man. His family does not seem to share the same history or wealth as the Bagginses, Tooks, or Brandybucks. And certainly Sam’s family tree is nowhere near as extensive as Aragorn’s.
Unlike Frodo he does not inherit or accept the challenge of the ring, but is instead roped into the quest through his own interest in elves and the love of Mr. Frodo. (Bradley 84) This contrast with both Frodo and Aragorn makes Sam into the most unlikely of heroes. He neither asks for, nor is born into his role, yet still manages to follow through. Perhaps more amazingly, he is able to return from a journey that breaks his master and live what seems to be a very complete life. The nature of the return and the finish is, in my mind, a reflection of his type of heroism and a commentary on the nature of the modern hero.
Aragorn’s last scene within the Lord of the Rings proper is epic.
“… After a while they turned and looked back, they saw the King of the West sitting upon his horse with his knights about him; and the falling Sun shone upon them and made all their harness to gleam like red gold, and the white mantle or Aragorn was turned into flame. Then Aragorn took the green stone and held it up, and there came a green fire from his hand.” (Many Partings, LOTR)
Aragorn’s finish is appropriately heroic and awesome. It is a reflection of his journey to become king and in many ways seems even more incredible than the glimpses of his kingliness we have seen before. Aragorn is a hero because of his lineage, his history, and the moment in time. Whether or not he has changed seems up to debate, but he certainly does not return to his home (Rivendell). His new home is Minas Tirith, a sign of the heroic movement of his tale.
Sam’s finish, on the other hand, seems completely surprising. At the beginning of the book I’m sure few could expect that Samwise the Gardener would return become Mayor or play a major role in the rebuilding of the Shire. The fact that Samwise returns is significant, I would say, because it talks about the everyday-ness of Sam’s act of heroism. It reflects the heroic actions of many who sacrificed their lives in World War I, much like Tolkien’s friend Rob Gilson. It also reflects the many who returned from the trenches, like Tolkien himself, to continue their lives.
This begs another question- Does Sam really return? When Sam says at the end of the book “Well, I’m back”, what is he really saying? Certainly he has returned from his trip to see Mr. Frodo off over the sea. But is he referencing his return from the overall quest? A part of me has always believed that this was the case, that Sam was now “one and whole, for many years.” (The Grey Havens, LOTR). However, if this is the case we all know that Sam is not the same hobbit who left the shire years before. He has wife (one we never knew he felt for), a family, and a growing importance in the community, not to mention a strong sense of confidence. His heroism and his “finish” reflect all of those “modern” acts of heroism that hobbits represent. Those acts that come unasked for, but still change the doer. These acts, despite their heroism, break Frodo. Sam, Pippen, and Meriadoc manage to integrate back into Shire society much better. And in spite of everything, Sam too will have to journey over the sea. Maybe this last action, which is just a small note in the appendix, is a reflection of all of those who returned from the modern wars to continue their lives, but were still “torn in two”.