Monday, June 2, 2014

There and Back Again: Sam's Heroic Role as the Carrier of the Quest

The topic of Sam's heroism, and its sources, inspired vibrant discussion in class on Wednesday, and in subsequent blog posts, focusing on (among other things) his role as a gardener and healer of the Shire, as one who chooses to go on a perilous quest rather than having it thrust upon him, as a protector and friend of Frodo, and as Frodo's surpassingly dogged and loyal servant. Though this last role is problematic as a basis for Sam's heroic status, I find that one particular aspect of it manages to transcend classist undertones and emerge as an unambiguous marker of Sam's heroism: his role as a supportive carrier of people, things, and ideas, to the quest's end, and back again. This trait appears in quite innocuous form in earlier parts of the story, when Sam's companions scold him for trying to carry more than his share of the fellowship's supplies, but by the end of the tale, it has assumed truly heroic proportions, first allowing Sam to essentially complete the quest of the Ring (barring Gollum's crucial interference), by carrying Frodo up the last slopes of Mount Doom, and then enabling him, after the quest's completion, to carry its grand memory back to people who did not participate in it, both physically, through the piece of Lothlórien he brings to the Shire in Galadriel's gift box, and mentally, through the manuscript he takes possession of when Frodo leaves across the sea.

Sam's proficiency as a supportive carrier emerges as a heroic trait in the final stretch of the journey to Mount Doom, in a passage that emphasizes the ability of such a trait to lighten seemingly unbearable loads. When Frodo collapses from exhaustion, partway up the mountain, Sam takes it upon himself to finish the quest of the Ring, without actually seizing the Ring for himself, an action that would probably have broken Frodo. He says, “I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well,” a statement that rings with heroism due to its seeming impossibility (The Lord of the Rings, 940). Sam in fact recognizes this impossibility, as the following paragraph attests, when it states that “He had feared that he would have barely strength to lift his master alone, and beyond that he had expected to share in the dreadful dragging weight of the accursed Ring. But it was not so. Whether because Frodo was so worn...or because some gift of final strength was given to him, Sam lifted Frodo with no more difficulty than if he were carrying a hobbit-child pig-a-back in some romp on the lawns or hayfields of the Shire” (The Lord of the Rings, 941). Somehow—miraculously, heroically—carrying Frodo with the Ring turns out to easier for Sam than carrying the Ring by itself, and the value of having a ring-bearer and a supportive carrier for the last leg of the quest, instead of two competing ring-bearers, becomes clear. This passage, with its mention of “some romp on the lawns or hayfields of the Shire,” also hints at the continuing usefulness of supportive carrying, and likewise Sam's continuing heroism, in the world beyond the quest.

Sam's gift from Galadriel—a box with a mallorn seed, “earth from my orchard, and such blessing as Galadriel has still to bestow”—symbolizes the enduring power of Sam's style of heroism, post-quest, by allowing him to carry a physical reminder of one of the quest's more beautiful moments back to people who never had the chance to experience it firsthand. As Galadriel says in presenting it, “It will not keep you on your road, nor defend you against any peril; but if you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there. Then you may remember Galadriel, and catch a glimpse far off of Lórien, that you have seen only in our winter. For our Spring and our Summer are gone by, and they will never be seen on earth again save in memory” (The Lord of the Rings, 375). While the quest continues, Galadriel's gift is just another thing for Sam to carry safely through danger, but if Sam makes it through the quest and returns home with the box intact, then the gift will blossom in two significant ways. Firstly, since “there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden,” it will establish the garden of the Shire, and Sam by association, with a kind of heroic renown. Secondly, and more importantly, it will provide “a glimpse far off of Lórien,” whose “Spring and...Summer...will never be seen on earth again save in memory,” preserving a piece of the vanishing wonder of the quest long into the future, for Sam, the members of his community, and any who choose to visit it.

Sam also acts as a supportive carrier of the quest's memory in a less physical way, through his stewardship of Frodo's book recounting its events. When Frodo gifts this “big book with plain red leather covers” to him, Sam says “Why, you have nearly finished it, Mr. Frodo,” to which Frodo replies “I have quite finished, Sam...The last pages are for you” (The Lord of the Rings, 1026-7). Implicit in this request for Sam to write “the last pages” of the book is another, related request, which fits quite well with Sam's established heroic prowess: a request to preserve the book as a whole, carrying Frodo's account of the story into the future, after he has left over the sea, and lost the ability to tend to it himself. In a way, the role Sam takes with respect to the book parallels the role he takes with respect to the quest itself; rather than creating a competing narrative, or none at all, he supports his friend's, seeing it through to completion, and beyond.

-James Brooks


  1. I really enjoyed your blog post! I think that Sam is often overlooked and kind of just thought of as Frodo’s assistant, but he really is a hero. The fact that he does all of these things without really hoping for any recognition makes him even more of a hero in my eyes. I don’t really agree that Sam’s role as Frodo’s servant is problematic for him being a hero. As you said, he always takes on even more responsibilities than he is actually required to. And there was the time when he could have just abandoned the quest (when he believed Frodo to be dead) or could have just stayed with Frodo, been loyal, and given up on the quest, but he didn’t do that. He tried to continue. I think your observation about how it was easier for Sam to carry Frodo holding the ring was easier than actually carrying the ring. This really solidifies Sam’s role as a “supportive carrier.” I had a little trouble understanding how exactly carrying the soil back to the Shire is heroic. I get how this is related to him being a carrier, but I didn’t exactly see how it fit in your argument. But I did really like how you mention that Sam is a symbolic carrier in that he carries the story and legacy of the quest!


  2. Thanks, James, for the post. You very well underline aspects of Sam’s heroism. Your discussion suggests to me one dimension of heroism we didn't discuss much in class in which Sam excels (and perhaps excels everyone else): selflessness. Sam is unselfish to the point of self-sacrifice—he's willing to go on with the and die for the sake of the apparently-late Frodo’s quest (and for the Shire, though like most soldiers talk about fighting for their buddies, the Cause doesn't come up much in the thick of things). He forgoes food and water, he literally carries Frodo at his own expense, etc. I think especially in a Christian story—and the Lord of the Rings is, in subtext, pretty Christian, as we’ve seen—self-sacrificing heroism (short of being a Christ figure, obviously) nevertheless must be ranked alongside epic martial deeds, Arthurian renewal, etc. (Interestingly, Sam and Éowyn probably have the fullest heroic portfolios…) Thanks again.

  3. Your post really captures the strength that Sam brings to the “dynamic duo” of he and Frodo. The subtle ways in which these attributes of the supportive carrier come through in the beginning of the story are especially interesting.
    You mention the iconic quote, “I can't carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well”. In conjunction with your characterization of Sam, I find myself asking if Sam could carry the Ring. Does he, the supportive carrier, have the strength to be the protagonist? Frodo certainly couldn’t bear to let Sam take on his burden, but if their roles had been initially reversed, would their journey have ever been successful? I don’t think it would have been. Not necessarily for lack of strength on Sam’s part, but also due to inability of Frodo to provide enough support to Sam. It is an interesting hypothetical to consider. Either way, it is clear that Sam provides a very unique form of heroism and fills a very specific role.