Thursday, May 29, 2014

Fishing, with the arid plain:* Sam and Frodo's shared role as the Fisher King

In class, we touched rather briefly upon the idea of the Maimed King, a character from Arthurian legend who's health is tied with the health of the land. As Flieger explains "The Maimed King in the Grail stories is counterposed to the Healing King, the Grail Knight. In Malory's Arthurian story this is Galahad, whose healing of the Maimed King restores the land to fruitfulness" (134). Flieger for [her] part associates the Healing King with Aragorn, who's 'healing hands' help to restore the South-kingdom of Gondor. Frodo, the other character primarily under discussion, takes on the role of the Maimed King. This relationship rather simplifies the highly symbolic nature of the Maimed King and the Healing King. For one, Frodo does not heal from his wounds but remains permanently scarred for the rest of his days, even growing sick on the anniversary of his stabbing at Weathertop (Bk VI, Ch. 9). Similarly the most evocative "Waste Land" in Tolkien's epic is not Mordor, which we see neither healed nor destroyed, but rather the Shire, whose scouring and subsequent healing take's place after Aragorn's restoration of the lands.

I purpose instead that the reader should identify Frodo and Sam as occupying a shared responsibility as the figure of the Maimed King in which Sam comes at the end of the story to occupy the role of the Maimed King Restored. Sam and Frodo are closely connected throughout the novel and the notion of a shared responsibility of the Maimed King would have been familiar to Tolkien, especially if, as Flieger suggests, his referenced source was Malory whose Morte d'Arthur features no less than four characters in the position of the Fisher King of which two are distinctly separate Maimed Kings. This also fits with Flieger's observation that Tolkien rarely ties his characters to their traditional source counterparts directly: "The information is given obliquely, however, for, as with Aragorn, Tolkien avoids a one-to-one correlation between Frodo and earlier medieval heroes" (Flieger, 137).

Think of it this way, Sam begins to attain Frodo's former status in the Shire. Beginning at the moment the Ring is destroyed (Tolkien's grand act of healing identified with a relic that is quested for) when Sam wakes up to Gandalf who addresses him as "Master Samwise" (Bk VI, Ch. 4). Sam has never been a Master of any sort, yet Gandalf and subsequently Galadriel (Bk VI, Ch. 9) refer to him as such after the destruction of the Ring of Power. It is Sam and not Frodo who is referenced as healing the Scoured Shire ("Meanwhile the labour of repair went on apace, and Sam was kept very busy" Bk. 6, Ch. 9) and subsequently becomes Mayor. This act occurs almost in the same breath in which Frodo designates Sam as his heir and the reason he gives for Sam's qualifications as mayor are that "your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere" (Bk VI, Ch. 9). Samwise takes on the role of Maimed King Restored having fully replaced Frodo's former functions in the healed waste land. Not only that but Frodo draws clear associations between Sam as Mayor and Aragorn as Healing King both of whom have "healing hands" and act ultimately as gardeners.

Interestingly the question of heirs also acts to reinforce Frodo and Sam's shared role as the Maimed King. In traditional Arthurian accounts the Maimed King is often said to have suffered a wound to the thigh implying that the wound has made him impotent. Impotency is important in the symbolic role of the Maimed King since as he suffers so too does the land which fails to grow anew and suffers a similar lack of fertility. And while Frodo does not have any heirs and therefore designates Sam, Sam has a number of children by the end of the final book. Sam's potency in the land of the restored Shire serves to highlight by contrast Frodo's continued 'impotency'. In this way, we can read Sam's close relationship with his Master as having deeply significant ties to the dynamics Flieger highlights between Frodo and Aragorn, linking the character back to a deeper medieval tradition.


*Title is a reference to T.S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" a post-modern retelling of the Maimed King story


  1. There's a lot here, and not all of it is directly Arthurian legend. In particular, I think your comparison of Sam's "potency" (in that he has kids when the story ends) and Frodo's "impotence" rings very true in the context of our class discussion about fertility of the land and healing, and the contrast between Sam and Frodo. I don't know if that was intended to be explicit or direct, but it is certainly suggestive as to the differing roles of the two characters towards the end. They are very different people at this point and your example illustrates this well.

    You also do a good job of tracing the similarities between the Frodo/Sam dual-role and Malory's Arthurian legend. My only concern would be with the premise of the comparison: I seem to recall that in class we mentioned that Tolkien found Arthurian legend insufficient in terms of creating a "mythology" for England, which was of course his stated goal. I am surprised, then, at the links between the two. I wonder if this was direct borrowing or simply both pulling from similar sources - I don't really know from where, if that were the case. It is just surprising to see Tolkien so similar to legends he seemed to have not regarded as totally successful in comparison with his endeavour. Definitely a really cool perspective, though!

    Vidur Sood

  2. Dear JTH,
    Thanks for a post following up the theme of Frodo as the Fisher King, on which insight I think you nicely followed Flieger on not drawing a direct correlation. I think you have something there on the idea that the role of the Fisher King is split into various characters, especially Frodo-Maimed and Sam-Healed.

    I want to press you on a point though. If I understand the Fisher King correctly, there is a kind of causal correlation between his maiming and impotence and the sterility of the land, not just coincidental. But can we say the same about Frodo and the Shire? Is Frodo’s wounding, by the Ring &c, causally connected to the scouring of the Shire? It is more easy to see how Sam’s settling and repairing is connected to the healing of the Shire, though he was not significantly wounded.

    Secondly, I’m very intrigued at the ‘Waste Land’ motif in connection to the scouring and restoration. The Great War has not figured largely in discussion and I would be interested in the connection you see with Eliot’s poem developed and fleshed out.