Friday, May 9, 2014

Did Sam really resist the Ring?

In the final section covering Creativity and Free Will; Power and Beauty, we spent a significant amount of time discussing choices and the outcomes of those decisions. Then, at the very end of our time we came upon Samwise and his own choices that unfold with the “logic of the story,” as Tolkien refers to it in his letters. After the battle with Shelob, Frodo is poisoned, and Sam presumes he is dead. This forces Sam to confront a crossroads he did not expect: what will he, the servant, do in the case that the master, Frodo, falls? This is an interesting question if we wanted to consider the literary characteristics of Sam, but our discussion got right to the point: after choosing to take the Ring from an assumed-dead Frodo, how did Sam resist its power?
There are a number of ways to answer this question: Sam is servile in character, so he would never defy Frodo or attempt to usurp him, Sam was only in possession of the Ring for a short time so the effects did not have time to take root, Sam is a simple hobbit with simple desires, etc. However, I think we were asking the wrong question. Instead of trying to understand what made Sam capable of essentially borrowing the Ring and then returning it to Frodo, I am skeptical that Sam truly resisted it temptations. In the moments following the presumed-death of Frodo, Sam must make a choice about the Ring, and I believe he fell victim to its power, even if only briefly and mildly.
The first clue is that it is out of character for Sam to abandon his master for any reason. Upon realizing that Frodo has “died” (he has only be paralyzed by Shelob’s poison), Sam cries out: “Don’t go where I can’t follow!” (IV. 10. 431) which reveals Sam’s desperation in loyalty to his master. Sam begins to deliberate on what to do now that the Ring-bearer has died, and what he experience is stylistically similar to the combating voices Frodo would hear while being tempted by the Ring. He has three options, or so his logic tells him: pursuing Gollum in a vengeful Quest, following Frodo into death by casting himself off the cliff, and taking the Ring from Frodo’s cold body and finishing the Quest himself. While Frodo’s own internal debates are clearly fights between good and ill wills taking the form of two separate voices inside Frodo’s mind, Sam’s is the same debate though subtler. He is torn between three decisions, and he is most convinced with the idea that he has come into a dark inheritance. Sam is not taking the Ring, as he argues to himself, for really he has been “put forward” just as Frodo was and Bilbo before him. For all intents and purposes, Sam is Frodo’s next of kin, and upon the master’s death the servant will receive all precious heirlooms and obligations. Therefore, Sam, who worried at first about the “rightness” of taking the Ring from the chosen bearer, has conveniently justified his possession of the One Ring and his abandonment of Frodo. And it was just a thought that occurred in his head: “he seemed plainly to know the hard answer: see it through” (IV. 10. 433).
I believe it is reasonable to argue that the Ring is taking control of Sam in this moment and encouraging a break in Sam’s duty to Frodo. Furthermore, when Sam learns that Frodo is not in fact dead he reveals the contradiction of his nature in that moment of abandonment: “…deep inside him he was aware of the comment: ‘You fool, he isn’t dead, and your heart knew it. Don’t trust your head, Samwise, it is not the best part of you. The trouble with you is that you never really had any hope…Never leave your master, never, never: that was my right rule. And I knew it in my heart” (IV. 10. 444-445). Not only is the style of Sam’s internal reasoning similar to Frodo’s battles of conscience when tempted by the Ring, but Sam admits to compromising his heart and his hope. The Ring must have fed on his growing despair in the face of a poisoned Frodo ridding Sam of his trust and his conviction in his heart. He instinctually knew that Frodo had not died, but the Ring led him away with justification for taking the Ring and “seeing it through.”
Also, it is significant to include Tolkien’s own impression of Sam whom he describes as not “heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable – except in his service and loyalty to his master. That had an ingredient (probably inevitable) of pride and possessiveness” (Letter 246). With Tolkien being familiar with Sam’s absolute devotion to Frodo, he would expect those possessive and prideful traits to be bait to the Ring in this moment of choice. Sam will do anything or go anywhere Frodo will do or go, but at the moment of decision Sam’s pride in being “put forward” just as exceptional hobbits like Frodo and Bilbo are along with his possessive qualities made him an easy target for the Ring. It was through his loyalty to Frodo in which the seeds of betrayal, pride and greed, were sown.
A third piece of evidence for this argument concerns what happens to Sam many years after the destruction of the Ring. He witnesses Bilbo and Frodo receive the privilege to sail West in exchange for their bearing of the Ring. However, as Tolkien writes in his letters, the real reason for Frodo and Bilbo gaining admittance West is to receive divine healing in the hopes of curing them from the poison of the Ring (Letters 327-328). Frodo and Bilbo have given a service that is rewarded with passage into the West; therefore, it is significant to remember that Sam is included among the Ring-bearers. According to Appendix B in the year 1469 of the Third Age: “Among them [the Fairbairns] the tradition is handed down from Elanor that Samwise passed the Towers, and went to the Grey Havens, and passed over Sea, last of the Ring-bearers” (Appendix B 472). Sam would not have been granted the passage for nothing less of his need of the same healing thus implying that he experienced the devastation of the Ring just as Frodo and Bilbo did. He must have been corrupted by the Ring for this privilege to sail over the Sea, and I am arguing that it was in this instance of choice and abandonment that he was made sick by the Ring’s power.

And yet, Sam is still able to remember his loyalty to Frodo and return the Ring to him after rescuing him from Orcs. Could this mean that Sam, although being the unexceptional and simple hobbit, had a greater strength of will than Frodo? I think, since Tolkien has not given us a scenario when Sam is faced with throwing the Ring in the Cracks of Doom himself, we may never know the strength Sam possesses. All we can do is appreciate him and his service to the Ring-bearer to see it through.

K. Beach 


  1. Katie,

    That's a very strong argument. I don't think I buy it, but I think you've made the case as well as it could be made. Probably the strongest counter-argument would be to follow Tolkien's epistolary characterization of Sam as the most heroic figure in the saga (I forget which letter this is in). Just because Tolkien asserted it doesn't make it true, but the converse argument: that Sam is genuinely, powerfully heroic precisely because of his modesty and ability to place himself in service—first to Frodo, then to the Quest—gives him the single-minded strength it takes to basically move the Ring from Shelob’s Lair to the Crack of Doom (as he's literally carrying Ring-bearing Frodo much of the way) without being corrupted thereby. After all, the book's final scene is Sam in The Best Years of Our Lives, wiser, sadder, deeper, but whole and hale, settling in to hearth and home in post-bellum peace. I imagine the theory for his going to the West would be that for his heroism and sacrifice, he was rewarded with reunion with those he loved so much, Frodo, Gandalf, and the elves.

    You're right, too, that we can't compare Sam and Frodo, given that Frodo’s ordeal was much longer and involved much more torture by the Ring. Still, given that Frodo’s sort of the closest thing to a natural aristocrat among hobbits, one suspects that Tolkien might have inclined towards the opinion that yeoman batman Sam would outgrit his wealthier, more bookish master.

    Still, I imagine you've convinced a lot of people. Very well done!

    Bill the Heliotrope

  2. This is an interesting argument. I don't adhere to it personally, but I think you raise good points. Following your logic, if we treat Sam's decision to take the Ring as something that he only did because the Ring was exerting some influence over him, can that mean that the Ring can actually lead to good? You treat taking the Ring as a bad action, a betrayal of Sam's nature and of Frodo. Still, Sam's possession of the Ring ended up being quite necessary; he was able to keep it safe from the orcs and Sauron, and use it to rescue Frodo, when it is unlikely that he would have been able to protect himself, Frodo, and the Ring if he had been found with him. I think that Sam was indeed strong enough to resist, perhaps, based on your own argument, even more than we give him credit for. Maybe the Ring had a GOOD influence on him. He is loyal to a fault. Refusing to abandon Frodo at that point would have been foolish. He NEEDED the Ring to drive him forward, even if he regretted his choice. He knows himself and, as you said, recognized that his choice was uncharacteristic. And then he was able to give the Ring up and not consider taking it when it was at its most dangerous, in Mordor and going up Mount Doom. Simply not being corrupted by the Ring is great, but experiencing its corruption and having the insight to see it and stop it makes our hero even more impressive.

  3. I think you make a lot of really great points here but I'm still not convinced. If Sam had truly been corrupted by the ring I feel like continuing the quest to destroy it would not have been his first instinct. Perhaps if corrupted he would have used the ring's power and attempted to get revenge for his master's (presumed) death. I think Sam's loyalty and subservience are the reasons he was not corrupted by the ring. Sam is not ambitious in any way. Something that would give him power would not appeal to him even on a subconscious level. I also don't think the decision to abandon Frodo was a result of the corruption of the ring. I think he decided to continue the quest out of loyalty and love for Frodo. Staying with Frodo might have made Sam feel better, but that would have been a selfish choice. He knew that Frodo would have wanted him to continue the quest no matter what happened.

    Elisabeth B.

  4. While it's important note the specifics that occurred in the moments of Sam's decision to first take the ring and then to leave Frodo, it seems to me that your last point of evidence (Sam's departure into the West and the reasons why others had been granted such passage previously) is the more valuable argumentative piece. The only examples of non-Elves or a non-Maiar passing to the West are Bilbo and Frodo, two figures that were obviously considered full Ring-bearers. To build on this, the status of "full" Ring-bearer seems to indicate that the individual was infected by the power of the Ring in some way and would need healing from this poison. That Sam is considered "the last of the Ring-bearers" and his healing is deemed necessary seems a clear indication that Sam was truly effected by the Ring.

    Does being effected by the Ring mean that Sam didn't "resist" it though? Sam never attempts to use the Ring for destruction or power; he freely gives the Ring back to Frodo when the two are reunited. And that is something that makes Sam truly remarkable. Yes, Sam had only been in possession of the Ring for a short time, he gives the Ring back to Frodo with no resistance at all. Furthermore, he actively seeks to find Frodo, a task that assumes a returning of the Ring if successful. Obviously Frodo would have been unable to do this, evidenced by his refusal to cast the Ring into the fires of Mount Doom. Bilbo also resists relinquishing the Ring. Gollum of course never really lets go of the Ring (resistance is impossible for him; the Ring is all that he is). So then while the Ring surely touches Sam's being in some way that is deemed needing of healing, it seems that the humble hobbit is indeed resistant to the temptations of the Ring. To determine why this is, we would need to know more about the character of Smeagol so as to gain insight into what his motivations/background were before he was corrupted by the Ring. Such insight would allow for comparative analysis.

    B. M. McGuire

  5. This is an utterly fascinating argument and I agree with everyone above that it's well-argued. In particular, I found the initial characterisation of Sam by Tolkien as possessing only that characteristic of devotion as problematic, given Tolkien's seeming antipathy towards the domination of others and pride. Your argument provides a potential explanation, but I worry that perhaps it is too limited: if this is Sam's dominant characteristic, then how can we blame the temporary triumph of this characteristic (namely: Sam is motivated by wanting to finish Frodo's quest - this is an act of devotion, not pride!) on the Ring? This would then just be Sam resorting to his true nature in the moment of chaos.

    Similarly, I'm not sure that Sam's internal monologue is really an accurate representation of the possibilities. Put yourself in Sam's shoes: you see Frodo on the ground, not moving, and a giant spider-thing just dragged him away. Short of checking his pulse, I would also assume he was dead. I don't know. Sam clearly resists the Ring at another point, making him a Ringbearer...I just see there being rational explanations for all of your points, but your position is certainly suggestive.

    - Vidur Sood