Monday, May 23, 2011

"Well, I'm back" And Exploring the Heroic Finish

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”. 



  1. Since you made a confession on your post, I think I will make one too: I was never particularly interested in Sam or Aragorn; Aragorn was the rightful king and all, and he gets his happy ending, but there was only so much you could do with your hero and so many ways you could go. And Sam? Well, he was always a bit too ridiculous for me, which is why I’m pretty amazed that I’m responding to YOUR post about him; it’s too good of a post not too! :)

    In response to your question about “Does Sam really return?”, I think it has multiple meanings, like you said. Physically, when he says “I’m back”, that’s what he means. The other hobbits, when they returned, returned with some sort of physical change as testament to their journey: Frodo had his finger missing, and Merry and Pippin were taller than they had been before. Sam, however, came back the same, literally; he wasn’t taller, and he wasn’t missing anything—he was simply the same, which I think holds a larger meaning when you are talking about his internal character.

    We talked about Frodo, Merry and Pippins change in character, and we also talked about the internal transformation that Sam goes through as the story progresses. Sure, he goes through this “humble servant to hero” type of thing, but I think that what makes him different from the rest is that no matter what happened, deep inside he was always going to be just Sam, and he was always going to have those special qualities that made him Sam. He had the courage and the resolve to bear the ring for a while, and most importantly, he had more love for his master and friend than anyone had for anyone else in the books. That inner fire and spirit that he had when he left the Shire with Frodo was never tainted, and that is why he could say at the end “I’m back”.

    We talked about how Aragorn was always the rightful king of the land, and that could never change no matter what. So it was with Sam—he was Sam, and he was always going to be Sam, and that was more than enough.

    -Seleste M.

  2. Seleste, I agree with your comment, but if I may, I want to add something to it. I agree that at his core, Sam doesn't change. He's passionate about hobbit things. Unlike Merry, Pippin, or Frodo, Sam was quite content with the humble aspects of hobbit life- caring for Bag End and serving Frodo. Nevertheless, I think Sam does change and benefit from his journey.

    When Frodo sets out on his journey, Sam eagerly follows, but Tolkien adds an interesting touch: he writes, "'Coming, sir!' came the answer from far within, followed soon by Sam himself, wiping his mouth. He had been saying farewell to the beer barrel in the cellar" (Three is Company, LOTR). When he embarks, Sam cannot help but cling to one last part of the Shire and say farewell to it before leaving with Frodo.

    Sam is of the Shire, and this aspect of him never changes. Nevertheless, the way that Sam can care for the Shire does change. I don't see Sam as being so torn after returning to the Shire, and I think it makes perfect sense for Sam to have so many children and to become Mayor. His large family and his position as mayor show that Sam isn't concerned with just Bad End anymore. He returns to a Shire for which he cares deeply, and now better able to care for the whole of the Shire with the treasure of the mallorn and the experiences from his journey. He comes home in a very real way, and remains Sam, but at the same time he is now a Sam that is able to great deeds, great not in the regal sense of Aragorn, great from the perspective of Sam, the humble servant and caretaker of the Shire.


  3. I confess that Sam is also my favorite character. Although he returns to the Shire physically unchanged and retains his sound, hobbity staunchness, “inner fire and spirit” from throughout the Quest—“[he] returned in heart and soul”-- I think that Sam’s internal changes are important parts of his ultimate embodiment of the glory of the Heroic Age though which he passed in his travels. “He has become, in a way, the beauty of the Elves, the hardiness of the Dwarves, the wisdom of the wizards, the gallantry of men…”. First, Sam gains maturity both on the Quest and after becoming Frodo’s heir and elf-friend for the Fourth Age. In the Quest, for example, Frodo resigned himself to going into Mordor alone, he reassures himself that “the ‘Surely [the Company] will understand,’" but he is most certain of Sam: ‘“Sam will.’" However, Sam contradicts Frodo’s assumption and, according to Bradley, has the courage to “speak up, to explain Frodo even to Aragorn, to read Frodo’s heart, to disobey Aragorn, and to slip off alone with Frodo.” Similarly, after his return from the Grey Havens, Sam ensures that Shire he serves (not rules) will be “blessed and beloved” with what he has become and known. In the both the course of the Quest and his torn loyalties to Frodo and family, Same “goes on past the happiness and into grief and beyond it.”


  4. KNS: I wholeheartedly agree with your response. Sam definitely becomes a more mature and complete character and he benefited indeed. I think, and I hope that you agree with me on this, that people can go through transformations like his without changing or losing the essence at their very core that makes them them.

    Frodo's example is very sad, I think. Unlike Sam, who at the deepest level stays Sam, Frodo is almost completely destroyed by the ring. Upon his return to the Shire he is okay in the sense that on the surface there is nothing really wrong with him, but when we get to the level that we got to with Sam, we find a change that is impossible to heal, and we realize that he will NEVER be the same again.

    I just wanted to comment on your response and add something to it in return. :)

    -Seleste M. :)

  5. I will jump on the bandwagon and confess my love for Sam. If hobbits really do teach us about love, as Professor Fulton Brown suggested at the end of our last class, then I think Sam best embodies the ideal hobbit. He loves the earth, the Shire, and, most of all, Frodo, and he sacrifices himself for all of those things without a thought towards his own safety. In The Choices of Master Samwise the only consideration he makes concering himself is that he is not worthy and not capable of making so lofty a decision, to take the Ring or not. Something that has always struck me is Sam's unique position in the legendarium in regards to giving up the Ring. Sauron made it for lust of power. Isildur defeated Sauron to obtain it. Déagol swam for it because it shone brightly and was thus killed by Sméagol, who acted out of greed. Bilbo took it as a means of escape, and gave it up only at Gandalf’s insistence. Frodo fails to destroy it in the Cracks of Doom. But Sam, who only takes the Ring because he sees no other option, gives it back to Frodo freely. His only agony over giving it up is that Frodo will suffer for it: “But you’re in the land of Mordor now, sir; and when you get out, you’ll see the Fiery Mountain and all. You’ll find the Ring very dangerous now, and very hard to bear. If it’s too hard a job, I could share it with you, maybe?” (LOTR 911) Sam’s love of Frodo is still the thing driving him, even at Cirith Ungol, after fighting off Orcs and Shelob and wearing the Ring. It’s still about love.

    As for Sam being “back”, I think love drives that too. He still loves the Shire, and Rosie and his family and friends, more than anything. I find this final line very melancholy: “He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.” (LOTR 1031) Being fully back, being just Sam Gardener, requires a deep breath. He’s devastated that he lost Frodo, despite knowing, deep down, that it was coming, but he still has a life to live in Middle Earth. He’s still the same old Sam, but with a greater perspective. He’s like the mallorn tree he planted; he’s content and can grow and flourish in the Shire, but he knows what is beyond. And for Sam, that means one day leaving via the Gray Havens. But, where the story ends, that part of him that knows the greater world is content to be silent while good old Sam eats dinner with his family in a hobbit hole in the Shire, because that is what he loves. But it still takes a moment, a sigh, to step back into that world.

    E. Minehart

  6. I also confess to Sam being one of my favorite characters, so you’re not alone there! The idea of a common, working class hero, to me, was more appealing that the fairy-tale hero-ness of Aragorn. And since we’re in the topic of confessions, I must admit that I get a bit emotional when I read the end (Hey, I’m only human!). But anyway, back to Sam.

    Like you said, there is such an “everyday-ness” to each of Sam’s actions, probably because everything he did was in remembrance of home. I think there was a reason why Tolkien made Sam so special; that out of all the Hobbits, it is Sam that is most connected to the Shire, the one who was able to remember home even in the direst of circumstances. No matter who or what he encountered or what he did, he didn’t become attached to any of it; Frodo became attached to the Ring, Merry to Théoden and Éowyn, Pippin to Denethor and Faramir. Sam’s only attachments were Frodo and, ultimately, the Shire.

    I think Sam represents the part of us that yearns to explore and see the wonders of the world, but always having the memory of home; of knowing that no matter where life takes you, there is always a place from where you can go ‘there and back again’.
    -Selene M.

  7. I'm surprised so many of you must "confess" to loving Sam -- as though that were somehow unexpected or something to be ashamed of!

    In any case...I really appreciate this post and the above comments, in their characterizations of Samwise, Aragorn, and Frodo. I especially want to agree with Seleste -- yes, Sam was transformed over the course of his journey, but in the end he remained really and truly himself. That is, he always had all of the characteristics that enabled his success and make him so heroic in the end: supreme loyalty and perseverance. The quest just helped him bring this qualities to fruition.

    That was one issue I had with Bradley's article: her characterization of the hobbits' emotional transformations as "maturation" (i.e. from childhood to adulthood) seem to almost belittle the changes these characters actually undergo. Presumably, even a hobbit so immature as Pippin would become an "adult" under normal circumstances living in the Shire. But the fact that all of the hobbits went on a journey such an important journey so far beyond the scope of anything they could have expected -- the change they experience (especially Sam) is more than simply "growing up" and coming into themselves.

    They're all heroes. True to form, none of them are perfect (Achilles, Odysseus -- heroes are almost never "perfect"). The nature of their quest brings out their best qualities and they rise to the challenge. It's sort of like Gandalf says of hobbits, all they need is a push out the door.

    -Jen Th

  8. While I would agree that Sam matures over the course of the Lord of the Rings, I hesitate to say that he matures because of the Quest. During the Quest, I think he matures in only one fashion: as a servant. As he travels, he never really steps out of the servant role; his role as supporter and helper become more prevalent as Frodo becomes weaker and weaker. He almost seems hindered in his growth by Frodo's presence and is unable to see the larger picture. The very things that we find endearing and wonderful are what are holding him back. We see flashes of his strength only when he is separated from Frodo: he takes the Quest upon himself and he is able to reject the Ring as an individual, thinking to himself, at a time when he is barely reunited with Frodo. For the rest of the time, he is only able to define himself against Frodo: he feels like a failure when he learns Frodo is still alive; he consistently refuses to be separated from Frodo; he wants Frodo to be recognized in the Shire and is unhappy when Frodo is unable to rejoice in the replanting. His successes are defined by how much Frodo enjoys them. Sam is not his own hobbit.

    It is only after Frodo has left that Sam begins to achieve things and settle into and accept his roles. I find his words "Well, I'm back" very telling. He, as an individual, is back. Master Sam has returned, who is no longer torn in two and who is suppressing a part of himself. I just feel like all of Sam's development actually happens after the Quest itself is over- for the great stories never end, do they (Mr. Frodo)?

    I guess I think that the Quest caused him to develop only in the sense that it allowed him to realize his own strength. Although then we kind of have to wonder why he passes into the West. Unseen lingering effects from the Ring? A desire to see Elven lands to truly understand the Elves which have captivated him for so long? Or that pain of separation from Mr. Frodo?

    I do very much enjoy and agree with your argument about Sam being the common-man hero, though. That was exceptionally well done and insightful.

    J. Trudeau

  9. I have a confession to make…. Pippin was always my favorite. That is really beside the point, though, as Pippin’s role is drastically different from Sam’s or Aragorn’s. I think everything that has been said above is true. Sam’s love for the Shire is what makes him a true hero. And, as much as I like Pippin, he’s not in the same heroic league as Sam. Sam does everything we wouldn’t want to do and he gets everything we always wanted. The Ring does not have the same influence on Sam because he has no ambition, not in that way. He does what he thinks should be done. He takes care of everything. I, however, think the moment when Sam gives the Ring back is not necessarily purely hesitation due to altruistic motives. To me, there seems to be a chance that Sam was being tempted by the Ring. Unfortunately for the Ring, Sam has too much care for Frodo to actually try to take the Ring. I am not sure what the Ring would have been trying to manipulate in Sam. Perhaps the desire to achieve his goal of keeping Frodo safe. At any rate, it does seem like the Ring is incapable of manipulating someone without the type of ambition and greed that Sauron expects to exist in everyone. Then why is it Frodo’s task? Just cause he volunteered? Why couldn’t Sam have taken the Ring to Mordor? What makes Frodo as a hero much better equipped to bear that burden?


  10. My confession is that I cannot (really: cannot) read the last words of LotR without crying. Such a simple phrase: '"Well, I'm back," he said.' And yet, so many questions! You do an excellent job here showing us the ways in which Sam contrasts with Aragorn while at the same time raising the question of whether Sam, as such, has really returned--and why.


  11. The comments on those final words, "I'm back" touch on a concern of stories, this story in particular, that I've had for a long time. When someone does what Frodo and Sam have done, they find their destiny and fulfill it, then what? What do you do when you've accomplished the great task for which you were born? I wonder this about video games as well. You're a young man who braved the odds and saved the kingdom. Do you go back to school or to farming? Can Link say "I'm back"?

    Frodo gets the ring to Mordor, accomplishes his task (with help of course) and there really isn't a 'what's next?' for him. In a way he is finished when the ring is destroyed. However, Sam stays around. He has accomplished what he set out to do, he acted as the best servant imaginable. But for him reaching this pinnacle of his behavior completes him. Because he completed himself in this fashion he is able to come back in a way that Frodo isn't. Sam gets to save the world and still go on with his life. I don't know what to make of this. Some heroes come back complete. Some never come back.


  12. There are a lot of people applauding Sam for being the salt o' the earth, the common man, etc. I agree with these compliments--I like Sam a lot--but though Sam exemplifies the best of the Shire, he also displays a few of its less admirable qualities. For example, it's Sam's roughness and inability to trust Gollum that keeps Gollum from being redeemed on the stairs of Cirith Ungol; while that ends up being good in a roundabout way because Gollum's evil is necessary for the destruction of Evil once Frodo's good has failed, it's still something of a pity. (Also, is Sam a hero for the working man? His dedication to feudal servitude would nauseate any proper socialist. =P)

    J. Trudeau, I'd disagree that Sam is not changed by his quest, or that Sam is not his own hobbit. To tackle the former first, I think that the Quest, and especially Sam's brush with the Ring, is instrumental to his heroism. Bilbo and Frodo are heroes in some measure because they allow Pity to stay their hands; Sam only joins this company after wearing the Ring, when he allows Gollum to live on the slopes on Mt. Doom. (Incidentally, without this act of Pity, the Quest would have failed at the last--a redeemed Gollum may have been able to push a fallen Frodo into the Cracks of Doom, but Sam could never have.)

    Secondly, Sam is a servant throughout the Quest, but this is shown as being not humbling, or as something that holds Sam back, but as very ennobling. I think the main reason why Sam can return when Frodo cannot is because Sam is the Servant: anchored by love, dedicated to service. And at the end, Master Samwise remains a servant--a public servant in his role as the mayor, and a servant/caretaker of the earth in his role as the greatest gardener of the Shire.

  13. I too find it interesting how Aragorn, Frodo, and Sam are sometimes classified as different types of heroes. Before our discussion on heroism, hobbits and men, I generally grouped them together. Sure, there are differences in motives and characteristics between them, but I viewed (and still do, to a certain extent) their actions united by the theme of humbleness.

    I agree that Frodo does not exactly “rise from humble beginnings” and that Sam also fits that description much better than his master. But I also think Bilbo can be described as such. In the beginning of The Hobbit, Bilbo is leading an ordinary Hobbit life and is thrust into a journey. Like SRG said, Bilbo and Sam do not ask for a heroic role, but they make personal sacrifices to successfully complete their missions. Frodo too makes many sacrifices on the journey to Mordor.

    As it has been said before, Aragorn is often called a fairy tale hero or a medieval hero, but I have always considered him a Christ-like hero. As a Ranger of the North and as part of the Company, he acts as a guardian and servant of others. We spent a lot of time discussing his powers of healing, and it is significant that he is the only king in LOTR who characterized by such a skill. Aragorn is wise and gentle, and spends much of his life as a king in disguise, never boasting about his origins. Unlike the hobbits, Aragorn is born into his heroic role, but he retains echoes of humbleness and servitude even as a great king.

    - BLS