Saturday, May 31, 2014

The Gardener as Hero, or Why Sam Gamgee Is the Best

"Well, I'm back."

The words with which JRR Tolkien chose to end The Lord of the Rings are basic but effective, just like the character who speaks them. Sam Gamgee seems at first like a secondary member of the Fellowship. Over the course of their journey, return and restoration of peace in the Shire, though, Sam becomes much more than just Frodo Baggins' accompaniment and guard. He becomes the reason the Ring is destroyed at all--his willingness and ability to support Frodo throughout the latter parts of their journey are the reason the pair manage to get to Mordor. Sam, unlike Frodo, is able to complete his mission, overcome it and return to the Shire to live. Unlike Frodo, he shows no long-term ill effects from the journey the Fellowship took.

It is Sam, not Frodo, who is the ultimate hero of The Lord of the Rings.

There are many different hero archetypes on display throughout the books--Aragorn, born into a noble family and destined for great things; Frodo, the doomed hero who ultimately fails to overcome his personal "dragon"--the Ring; and Eowyn, whose martial prowess conflicts with the position she is intended to hold in life. Sam is different from all of the other heroes in the book because his ultimate mission is not inwardly driven. He wants to go along with his master to help keep him safe.

At the council of Elrond, he betrays his hiding place out of worry for Frodo. "'But you won't send him off alone, surely, Master?' cried Sam, unable to contain himself any longer, and jumping up from the corner where he had been quietly sitting on the floor" (LotR 271). Significantly, Sam doesn't specifically ask to be sent with Frodo. He is simply concerned that Frodo not be sent on his own. Merry and Pippin, on the other hand, beg to be allowed to be a part of the party. While Gandalf supports their request, Elrond is initially unsure. This stands in stark contrast to the situation with Sam--he stood and protested Frodo being sent alone and was immediately told he could accompany his master. Clearly, Elrond sees some moral fortitude within Sam that will make him invaluable to the Fellowship.

In the later stages of the journey, Sam becomes increasingly important. In the encounter with Shelob, Sam's character makes a huge stride. The title of the chapter, "The Choices of Master Samwise," reflects this change. At the beginning of his battle with Shelob, "'now come, you filth!' he cried. 'You've hurt my master, you brute, and you'll pay for it'" (LotR 730). It is not only concern for Frodo that enables Sam to defeat Shelob. His own confidence is boosted by anger and allows him to channel some kind of power from the sword and send Shelob back into her cave once and for all. Sam's conversation with the comatose Frodo after the battle demonstrates Sam's character progression--"'O, wake up, Frodo, me dear, me dear. Wake up!'" (LotR 730). He has moved into the final stages of accomplishing his journey.After this point, Sam and Frodo's relationship is one of caretaker and cared-for rather than master and servant.

Ultimately, Sam's selfless mission allows him to come out of the journey relatively unscathed. His desire to put down roots in the Shire and make a life for himself ultimately overcomes his feelings of servitude to Frodo--he doesn't choose to sail west with Frodo and the elves. Frodo is right when he tells Sam, '"You cannot always be torn in two. You will have to be one and whole for many years'" (LotR 1029). No longer does Sam need to take on both his own burdens and Frodo's. He can now focus on his true purpose--restoring the Shire. Sam is not broken by the journey because of his selfless motives and his next demonstration of selflessness--getting the Shire back to its former glory--will allow him to get past his need to constantly be serving Frodo.

The message in Sam's story is that the best hero is one who serves by choosing to do so and that accomplishing the mission of helping someone else can ultimately be the key to that person finishing his or her mission. Without Sam, the Ring would never have been destroyed; even if it were, the Shire would not have been restored to its former glory. Sam is not a tragic hero like Frodo or a born king like Aragorn. His breed of heroism is one of selfless service and trimming leaves.

--Micah Sperling


"Tolkien: Medieval and Modern" said...

I hesitate to classify Sam as a hero. There are two main, but related reasons for this. First, he didn’t sacrifice much in choosing to follow Frodo. This is evidenced by his initial excitement to travel and meet elves. His original choice lacked the consequences of Frodo’s decision to carry the ring. Even if Frodo didn’t fully know the implications of becoming the Ring bearer (i.e. traveling to Mordor), he understood that he was assuming a burden. Sam lacked this understanding. He was going to travel with his friends and hopefully meet elves. He was going to take care of Frodo, but Frodo wasn’t an invalid (at least at the start of the journey) and so he chose to enter the journey with minimal burdens. Second, he didn’t change (much) at the end of his journey. He returns to the Shire, assumes a leadership role, and, to our knowledge, lives happily ever after. Every other hero in the story goes through a transformative process (Frodo with the burden of the ring and then traveling to the West and Aragorn with reclaiming Gondor and marrying Arwen). However, Sam goes on a journey, there and back again, and while he grows (most obviously out of his infatuation with elves), I don’t see any transformation. He clearly changes, but the ordeal of the journey was not so great that it made him as different as it did to Frodo and Aragorn. Therefore, my ‘complaint’ may be more a question of degree than of kind.
--Peter Alexieff

P.S. Great post!

"Tolkien: Medieval and Modern" said...

You are definitely right to point out the differences between Sam and other hero archetypes that Tolkien chooses to include in his books, such as Aragorn, Frodo, and Eowyn. I’d like to point out another difference. Obviously, Tolkien drew on medieval sources for many of his characters. Though no character in the Fellowship is purely motivated by personal gain and public recognition, I think it’s safe to say that most of them are not entirely selfless and resemble the Beowulf character in one way or another, striving for glory on the battlefield or in other ways (such as Gimli and Legolas’s enemy-slaying competition at Helm’s Deep).
As you pointed out, Sam is the exception to all of this, wanting nothing but to be the caretaker for Mr. Frodo. Because of this, it seems like Sam serves as Tolkien’s response to the Beowulfian medieval hero. Tolkien gives him such a crucial role in order to show that selfless acts are the most heroic, and that one does not need to strive for glory to be a hero. In a work so inundated with examples of medieval heroes going off to war and saving the world from destruction while lopping off Orc heads left and right, Sam is a profundity, a shining star that Tolkien wants us all to look to. It’s no accident that Tolkien wrote Sam to be such a relatable character to us, or that we feel the most emotion for his and Frodo’s quest. Thanks for a great expose on Sam!
-Tate Hamilton

"Tolkien: Medieval and Modern" said...

I think this post is a great look at what sets Sam apart from other characters in LOTR and fantasy heroes in general.

These differences are apparent when examining the results of the respective journeys of Sam and Frodo as you do, but I think it's also interesting to contrast what sets the two hobbits on their way in the first place. As you describe, Sam is concerned almost exclusively with the safety of Frodo. He's aware, at least to some degree, of the importance of his master's mission, but his real goal is, above all, the safe return of the ringbearer. This comes out a few times when we see Sam and Frodo's respective reactions to the immense barriers they must overcome to reach Mordor. Where Frodo might be resigned to eventual death and willing to take dangerous routes when options run low, Sam is relatively cautious, unwilling to accept Gollum's help, for instance, even though it seems important to the mission. Sam thinks ahead to rationing food for the trip back from Mordor, while Frodo seems to have accepted the fact that he's unlikely to ever return.

I think that this stems from the way in which the journey was introduced to Frodo. Rather than volunteer for the good of a beloved friend, as Sam does, Frodo is all but forced on his quest. Gandalf presses upon him the danger of the ring and the necessity of destroying it until Frodo accepts that he is the only one who can save middle earth (though, as you point out, this doesn't turn out to really be the case). This seems to cast Frodo into a more traditional fantasy hero role, as "the one" who has been chosen to save everyone, whether he wants to or not. On the other hand, Sam doesn't even need to be the one to protect Frodo, but is willing to fill the role. This further contrast between the two makes it even more interesting that Sam end up in the eyes of many as "the true hero."

Brian R

Unknown said...

Great post, you really illustrate Sam’s motivations in a way that explains the truly heroic form of his character.

However, if I could take a moment to defend Frodo, I think the two are not so different as you propose. If there’s any one idea that I think really explains the relationship of Frodo and Sam to the Quest of the Ring, it would be (and bear with me here) Gandalf’s repeated statement in The Fellowship that he believes Gollum would serve some greater purpose in the success or failure of the quest.

The fact that Gandalf can so accurately foretell the importance of Gollum to the quest shows that his involvement with Frodo and the Ring was not merely incidental, but something that had to happen for the ring to be destroyed. And, as it turned out, without Gollum to slip up and fall into a volcano, the Quest would have ended in failure. But, although it was Gollum who finally accidentally destroyed the Ring, no one would ever consider him the hero of the story.

With this in mind, it is obvious that all three roles must be filled to destroy the Ring – a bearer, a companion, and a Gollum. Yes, Frodo failed to destroy the Ring, but the task was literally impossible. For goodness sake, he walked that thing all the way through Mordor and then climbed a mountain with it. And based on all that we’ve seen of Frodo’s character in the previous five books, I don’t think it could be argued that anyone else could have borne the Ring nearly as far (Yes, Sam was a ring-bearer for a period, but most people tend to forget that he abandoned the quest almost immediately to defend what he thought was a dead body). With this in mind, Frodo did all that he could have done – endure the burden of the Ring into the Crack of Doom itself. And yes, Sam was absolutely essential to the journey as well. There had to be someone to guide the tormented ring-bearer as he grew weaker, and sometimes even to carry him bodily up mountains – a ring-bearer bearer, if you will – just as there had to be a crazed Ring junkie to go nuts and fall into the pit with his precious after the trio reached the journey’s end.

Yes, Sam is a hero. But so is Frodo. His task was not to battle evil but to endure it, to bear the weight of constant torment as far as he could and to put his faith in loyal friends, or a misguided rival, to finish the task at the Crack of Doom.

Unknown said...

You bring up that Sam is heroic because he chooses to be so, and mention that this seemed to be for Tolkien the defining characteristic for heroes. While Sam’s initial choice to leave the Shire might not carry the weight of Frodo’s, as has been mentioned in another comment, his later acts mark him as a true hero by a metric of choice. In following Frodo to Mordor rather than sticking with Aragorn, and especially in pushing on to Mount Doom rather than giving in, despite the fact that the extra effort will have no effect on his own fate, he chooses the more difficult path because it is the correct thing to do. The use of choice as a criteria for heroism can be extended to many other of Tolkien’s hero’s as well; Frodo chooses to bear the ring, he also chooses to spare Golumn, Aragorn chooses to claim his position, Theoden chooses to go forth to Gondor’s aide, Gandalf chooses to return to Middle Earth. No one is forced into the role they play they actively take them up, and this choice makes them heroic. Although Tolkien should not be read allegorically, the emphasis on heroic choice can be seen as coming from a deeply Christian worldview in which Christ’s crucifixion has power not because of its physical occurrence but because of his willing participation.

Unknown said...

I think all of these comments are spot on when it comes to the characterization of Sam as a hero. However, I do not see a definition of what the "best hero" is. If we say that a hero is one that slays a monster and wins his bride, then Sam fulfills that to an extent (albeit the two events are not directly connected and he does not really slay Shelob). If we say that a hero is one who fulfills a great quest, then Sam contributes to that as well. As you stated, the Ring would not have been destroyed without Sam's help during the quest.

I want to be careful that we don't put too much emphasis on Sam's heroism. Yes, he is a hero, but I don't think that he is the "best hero" as you say. He seems more like the embodiment of Christian morality: humble, penitent, faithful, loyal, kind, loving, and peaceful. Are these the traits of the best hero? I would say that they make the best Christian hero, but I wonder about what else makes a good hero. What about being a leader, like Aragorn? What about being skilled in combat? Sam has elements of these traits, but they lack in comparison to the others.

While I would say that Sam is an excellent Christian archtype, I am not sure I would attach the title of "best hero" to him. Perhaps if there was a fusion of Sam, Eowyn, and Aragorn, then that would be a spectacular hero. Anything else is good, but not the best.

Kevin P.

Unknown said...

George--I think your point about Sam fulfilling an important role in what we often think of as Frodo's quest is really helpful, and expands well on Micah's post. Lately I have been wondering a lot about Frodo's failure in relation to, as you mention, Gandalf's foretelling of Gollum's importance. Does Gandalf realize from the beginning that the task of destroying the Ring will literally be impossible for Frodo (as we see so clearly in hindsight)? It seems like he should, given that Frodo can't even bear to throw the Ring into his own hearth after he has just seen that it cannot be harmed in that way. For me this begs the question: how can Gandalf have any hope in Frodo? If he knows that ultimately Frodo cannot succeed in destroying it, why does he encourage this plan?

I think it is wrong to assume that even Gandalf's foresight is so clear that he suspects Gollum will directly help complete the quest, despite his almost prophetic hints; even Tolkien himself did not know for certain how the scene on Mt. Doom would play out (see letter 246). I think perhaps, then, that he may have some hope in the quest because of Sam; Sam, who, as you point out, ends up being just as necessary as either Gollum or Frodo, but who can actually figure into his reckoning in a way that Gollum can't. Frodo may inevitably succumb to temptation; but Sam can be counted on to stick to his own mission of helping Frodo continue, and this may lend some confidence in the mission as a whole. Tolkien suggests (again, letter 246) that without Gollum there Frodo may have cast himself into the Crack of Doom; but for my part I think this explanation would fail in that it makes Sam too much of a bystander. I do not know how Sam could have directly helped in this final hour, but I also don't see how he could stand by and watch Frodo succumb without doing something to help his master. I think it more likely that Sam would surprise us, and no doubt himself, with one last and greatest act of heroism.

Laurie Beckoff said...

You've touched on something I've always loved about sidekicks and supporting characters. Although the main protagonist is not forced to go on a mission, there is always something that makes it extremely difficult for them to say no. The Sam character has much more agency. This makes me think of Harry Potter worrying that he has no agency when he learns of the prophecy about him and Voldemort, until Dumbledore points out that the prophecy does not require Harry to fight Voldemort, nor does it stop him from abandoning the battle. It is simply that Harry would never stop fighting Voldemort because of his love for his parents whom Voldemort killed: "Of course you've got to! But not because of the prophecy! Because you, yourself, will never rest until you've tried!" (Half-Blood Prince 512). Tolkien makes clear that Frodo, like Harry, is in no way required to fulfill the mission of destroying the Ring. But Frodo's attachment to it and feeling of responsibility for it make it incredibly difficult for him to say no, just as Harry's personal loss at the hands of Voldemort makes it impossible for him to refuse the challenge. His best friend Ron Weasley, however, has no need to be so involved. By the end, the war threatens everyone, but in their first year at Hogwarts Ron makes himself Harry's ally against Voldemort and stays in that role when it becomes increasingly dangerous and difficult. He and Sam, unlike Harry and Frodo, are first driven by loyalty rather than a personal attachment to the mission.

P.S. Neville Longbottom becomes a Herbology professor. Plants! Gardening!

"Tolkien: Medieval and Modern" said...

“His breed of heroism is one of selfless service and trimming leaves.” I think this is the crux of the issue, and one that your commenters pick up on—Sam seems somewhat disconnected from Frodo's quest, except as it impacts Frodo's well-being. I particularly like how you've identified the moment that seems to mark the beginning of Sam's quest of service—at the council of Elrond, he does not interrupt to be allowed to go on an adventure, but to insist that Frodo not go alone. I agree that on the Tolkien hierarchy of heroism, the healing and nurturing aspects of Sam's devotion to service place him quite high, and that the story cannot function without him. But can that not be said about many of the interlocking parts characters play (like a previous commenter says, no one sees Gollum as the hero!)? Do you think Tolkien needs us to recognize an “ultimate hero”?


Estelle O. said...

Like you, I’ve always considered Sam the true hero of the trilogy. Your thesis is “the best hero is one who serves by choosing to do so,” and you’ve identified several ways in which this is true for Sam. I’d like to offer another, which I believe you’ve touched upon but didn’t quite state explicitly. I’ve always considered Sam to be the reader-avatar, the one who carries the emotional weight of the story. Yet when I thought about why I identified most strongly with Sam (and not for example, Eowyn, who I also identify with for many reasons), I realized that Sam is the only member of the Fellowship who is not extraordinary merely by virtue of his birth. Frodo is exceptional because he is Bilbo’s cousin/ward, Aragorn is heir to the throne of Gondor, Legolas is a prince, Gimli is the son of one of Thorin’s company, Boromir is the son of the Steward of Gondor, and Gandalf is a wizard. Even Merry and Pippin are members of notable Shire families. And those who the Fellowship encounters after they split (Faramir, Éomer, Éowyn, etc.) are also of noble heritage. There is absolutely no reason to expect that Sam will go on to do great things, and yet, impossibly, he does, which makes his heroism even more selfless and inspiring.