Thursday, May 29, 2014

Samwise and his Choices

“Tolkien did not want to be ironic about heroes, and yet he could not eliminate modern reactions. His response to the difficulty is Bilbo Baggins, the hobbit, the anachronism...” (Shippey, 71)

Why is Sam a hero? Why, when we hear about Frodo and Sam, do we hear so much from Sam’s point of view (and more so as the story goes on)? Is Sam’s heroism related in any way to Frodo’s or Bilbo’s, or does it come from somewhere else?

Defining what a hero is seems to be just about as tricky as defining what a monster is. What seem to be, at first glance, obvious hero traits, often turn out not to apply to characters who are clearly heroes. Heroes don’t have to slay monsters (or even be pitted directly against monsters--I’m not sure if Sauron is a monster or not, but that’s another problem), or really be any sort of warrior at all. A hero is, like a monster, someone who is separate in some way--who is picked up by the story because they are separate. It’s also probably true that a hero should probably be “good”, but they also need to somehow be distinguished from others or distinguish themselves.

Frodo and Sam are quite different heroes. Frodo may not be like Aragorn (or Arthur), who was born destined to be a hero, but he’s closer to being a destined hero than Sam is. In this way, Frodo is a lot like Aeneas. Aeneas doesn’t start off as one of the grand heroes who his story makes and who make the story back. In Homer, he’s a great warrior, but he isn’t on the same level as Achilles, Hector, or Odysseus--he’s sort of second-tier hero. He does have divine parentage (Venus is his mother), but in Homer he doesn’t seem to have much of interest about him. In the Aeneid, though, he’s swept up in a grand quest--he is to lead the Trojans to Italy, so that they might eventually found Rome. But Aeneas has virtually no personal agency. He’s chosen by the story, but, unlike Achilles, he can’t push back and change the story. He is a leader, but he as a person matters little. He just happens to be at the right place at the right time, and so he is separate from the world he’s trying to save.

Frodo, like Aeneas, is separate from the world. He never fully feels at home in the Shire again--in a way, he loses a lot of his hobbit-ness. This happens to Bilbo, too, to a lesser degree. Bilbo begins the Lord of the Rings by planning to leave the Shire for good, and Bilbo and Frodo end the Lord of the Rings by making that decision truly irreversible. We see Frodo’s separation from the world grow more and more as he becomes more and more closely melded with the task assigned to him by the grand story he’s in.

At the Council of Elrond, there is a marked contrast between the way Frodo and Sam accept their roles in their stories. Frodo “wondered to hear his own words, as if some other will was using his small voice”. In response, Elrond says, “‘I think that this task is appointed for you, Frodo”. Both of these things indicate that Frodo has filled a necessary gap in the story; the story has taken him there, and he had little room to choose. Sam, however, is driven by his own decisions, whether or not he quite realizes it. Sam decides of his own accord to sneak into the Council and ask Elrond to come along. Elrond accepts him, but without saying that Sam, too, is filling a role in the grand story. Sam is making his own story, so, by default, he is its hero.

At first, Sam’s story is the story of his helping Frodo, but it becomes far more than that. Sam’s point of view becomes far more prominent than Frodo’s as the Lord of the Rings goes, and his choices (even when they seem small and even when are wrong) are pivotal. We see Sam grow to love Frodo in a far more mature way than he did, because Sam also gains a greater awareness of the things he himself finds beautiful or terrible or strange or valuable. Sam returns to the Shire and raises a family there--he finds his own life independent of the quest that began with his stewardship to Frodo, whereas Frodo is consumed by his quest. Sam’s quest is to create his own story via his own choices. He’s a hobbit--an anachronism like Bilbo, from a place that few people outside of it understand--yet he is part of a very un-hobbitish quest. Frodo fits into the quest directly, but Sam has chosen to be there. Sam has free will, and he becomes a hero as he learns how to use it.

There’s more to Sam than this, even, I think; figuring it out requires tracing his story more thoroughly, and trying to understand how Sam shapes it. But I think this is why he is so compelling, and why he in particular is who we get much of the larger story from. --Phoebe Salzman-Cohen
(P.S. I think there are many more interesting comparisons to be made between Sam and Bilbo in The Hobbit, but that would make this even more rambly than it already is.)


  1. I think the idea of Frodo being trapped in the quest while Sam is able to escape can be developed by bringing back what we said a the beginning of the course about the primary/secondary world division within LotR. I think there is much to be said for the dream section in Tom Bombadil’s house as a signpost that the hobbits are entering a secondary world, aka Faery. Frodo gets trapped in this world though by becoming too involved when he takes on the ring. Unlike Smith, he doesn’t just touch the surface of the lake, but breaks it and fundamentally affects the Faery realm. Because of this trespass he is doomed to stay in Faery, which is why he has to leave from the Grey Havens.
    Sam however, is more like are favorite figure, the elf-friend, because he goes to Faery and returns. My theory may be shaky here, because obviously Sam touches Faery (and breaks its spider), but his engagement is I think on a different level than Frodo’s, which I think is due to the fact that, as mentioned, his quest is focused on Frodo, not the ring.
    I think then, that Sam is a hero in the way Scyld Scheafing (spelling?) is, and the other culture heroes; they bring back knowledge from the secondary world, from Faery and give it to other men to their benefit.

    -Sam B.
    (On a side note, I think it is awesome that ‘hobbit’ is apparently in Microsoft word’s lexion)

  2. Sam is definitely a hero throughout this story, no doubt. I like your interpretation that he is developing his own story and making his own path by choice, contrasting the obvious heroes Aragorn and Frodo who have these burdens placed upon them. Sam definitely has some more heroic qualities than Frodo, and at times even encourages Frodo to keep persevering (the classic “Folk in those stories had lots of chances of turning back, only they didn't. They kept going. Because they were holding on to something,” moment). He reminds me a lot of Éowyn, who also makes her own story. She perseveres for the ones she loves as well, including her uncle Théoden.

    I also agree and think it is so significant that it is Sam’s choice to travel with the fellowship in order to protect Frodo. His love for Frodo saves both hobbits again and again, and this love is especially prominent when Sam is able to return the ring to Frodo after he saves Frodo from Shelob (another similarity between Éowyn and Sam – fighting monsters and being victorious). Sam is one of the most reliable of the hobbits, and it is his love for Frodo, Rosie, and the Shire which make him so.

    -Elizabeth Quintero

  3. I think that Sam can definitely be considered a hero, and he is very different from the hero role that Frodo takes on. However, I do not think that Frodo is only filling a role that has been prescribed to him, but is also voluntarily taking on the role of the hero when he accepts the quest to carry the Ring. When Frodo initially learns about the true nature of the Ring, and Gandalf asks Frodo what he is going to do, Frodo’s first reaction is to say, “I suppose I must keep the Ring and guard it…I cannot keep the Ring and stay here. I ought to leave Bag End, leave the Shire, leave everything and go away” (LotR). Frodo’s reasoning for doing so is because he, “should like to save the Shire” (LotR). Even though Sam and Frodo both have different motivations for going on the quest, they both take up their roles willingly. I think it is more that their motivations differentiate the two hobbits. Frodo wants to save the Shire, while Sam more primarily wants to assist Frodo on his journey. Their motivations make Frodo and Sam very different heroes, but their willingness to take this journey for the good of others makes them both heroes in the end.

    -S. P.

  4. Your claim that Sam makes his own story cued a connection between me that touches on the theme that we've been touching on the whole quarter, creation. Note the example that you cite as signalling the conclusion of Sam's journey with Frodo, his creation of a family and think also of his role as a gardener.

    I think you're also correct to highlight the "fated" nature of Frodo's heroism (though I might push back at the notion that Aeneas is not destined for greatness or that Achilles has the power to change his story). In this sense, Frodo resembles very much the mythic heroes of the Greek myths or of Beowulf. Might the contrast between Frodo and Sam signal a shift of sorts, from Pagan to Christian heroism? Beowulf, of course, complicates this, but perhaps we can see him as a sort of borderline figure. Frodo too, a fated hero, but not a mighty one, who is irrevocably altered, even diminished, by his quest, but not killed.