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.