Friday, September 26, 2008

Samwise the Brave: Examining the central hero of The Lord of the Rings

I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand.
--Sam Gamgee,
The Lord of the Rings

You don’t have to squint to find heroes in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Splashed across its pages are Aragorn, the uncrowned king in the wilderness, who walks the Paths of the Dead and claims his rightful position on the throne of Gondor; Gandalf, who bests the Balrog of Moria and confronts the Witch-King one-on-one; and Frodo, who suffers as the Ring’s bearer, carrying its weight into Mordor to liberate Middle-Earth from the darkness of Sauron. Theoden, Eowyn, and Faramir also spring immediately to mind. Aragorn and Frodo in particular can certainly be viewed and successfully argued as the central figure(s) in Tolkien’s tale.

But over the course of re-reading The Lord of the Rings I am more convinced than ever that its true hero is Sam Gamgee, without whom the quest to destroy the One Ring could not have succeeded. Though he’s no doughty man-at-arms like a Conan or Launcelot du Lake, by tale’s end Sam’s great deeds and noble sacrifices earn him a place of honor in the roll of great fantasy heroes.

Now, my line of thinking isn’t exactly original: Tolkien in one of his letters calls Sam “the chief hero” of the story, and many others have also made this connection. But certainly others have overlooked Sam because he doesn’t conform to traditional notions of heroism. He’s certainly not a great warrior who battles hordes of enemies, the archetype of the genre of fantasy known as sword and sorcery.

Perhaps it’s because I frequent a lot of Robert E. Howard and Dungeons and Dragons message boards, but it seems like larger than life heroes are the rage these days. Our current heroic archetypes include D&D with its player-characters as powerful supermen (4E, I'm looking at you), Harry Potter/The Belgariad and its ilk (seemingly normal people with great but latent magic powers), or sword and sorcery heroes inspired by Conan, mighty warriors capable of killing a half-dozen men in the afternoon and drinking the night away at the local tavern. Older archetypes include men like Achilles or Odysseus, men of action and martial prowess so extraordinary that they seem demigods among men.

Sam is a very different type of hero: a hobbit with no warrior skill who gets by solely on bravery and devotion to Frodo. Tolkien said his character was inspired by the British rank-and-file soldiers who served and fought and often gave their lives without fanfare in the trenches of World War I, expecting nothing and possessing only the hope of home at the end of it all (which is all Sam really wants). Said Tolkien in a letter, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”

Certainly Sam can’t compare with a Conan or a Fafhrd in terms of skill-at-arms. Like all hobbits he’s small in stature, possesses no skill with a blade, and is much more at home in a garden than on a battlefield. But Sam possesses undaunted courage when pressed, optimism in the face of impossible odds, and above all else an unshakeable call to duty to serve his master. When he throws himself into the waters of Parth Galen (despite the fact he cannot swim) in order to join Frodo’s seemingly suicidal quest into Mordor and emerges spluttering and half-drowned but with his will unshaken, we are witness to devotion of the rarest kind:

But I am going to Mordor.’
‘I know that well enough, Mr. Frodo. Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.’

The Lord of the Rings is very much a testament to the fact that even the greatest of men can’t solve all the world’s problems on their own. Galadriel’s comment that “hope remains while all the Company is true” (emphasis mine) is Tolkien’s belief writ large that alliances—not unilateral actions—are necessary for our long-term survival. Her words also prove to be prescient within the story: When the Fellowship fails and breaks up, Sam remains as Frodo’s only company on the long trek to Mordor. His presence, every bit as much as Frodo’s act of pity toward Gollum, allows the quest to succeed. It’s a difficult choice for Sam, especially after he peers into Galadriel’s mirror and sees the Shire being torn up and industrialized, and his father, his poor old gaffer, displaced. His decision to remain and sacrifice his personal desire to return home in order to serve the greater good (the destruction of the Ring) is the very essence of heroism.

Sam eventually is thrust into the hero’s role after the Fellowship breaks and he and Frodo trek to Mordor alone. I found myself cheering aloud (well, almost) when Gollum betrays Frodo to Shelob and attempts to kill Sam himself, and gets far more than he bargained for when Sam more or less kicks his ass:

Fury at the treachery, and desperation at the delay when his master was in deadly peril, gave to Sam a sudden violence and strength that was far beyond anything that Gollum had expected from this slow stupid hobbit, as he thought him. Not Gollum himself could have twisted more quickly or more fiercely.

But Sam’s real moment in the sun comes in Chapter 10 of The Two Towers, “The Choices of Master Samwise.” By all appearances Sam is too late to save his master who lies motionless, bound in cords, at the feet of Shelob—a huge, loathsome, horrifying creature from nightmare. But Sam does not pause, attacking the spider in a frenzy:

Then he charged. No onslaught more fierce was even seen in the savage world of beasts, where some desperate small creature armed with little teeth, alone, will spring upon a tower of horn and hide that stands above its fallen mate.

My favorite part of this epic battle is when Sam invokes the name of the goddess of beauty and light (“Gilthoniel A Elbereth!”) staggers to his feet, and is “Samwise the hobbit, Hamfast’s son, again.” He issues a challenge that might have made Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name or Evil Dead’s Ash crack a smile:

“Now come, you filth!” he cried. “You’ve hurt my master, you brute, and you’ll pay for it. We’re going on; but we’ll settle with you first. Come on, and taste it again!”

Shelob, confronted with this three-and-a-half foot tall hobbit of the Shire, turns her ponderous, bloated body and heads for her hole, leaving a trail of fluid from the painful prick of the sword Sting.

But perhaps my favorite Sam moment is when he literally lifts Frodo on his back and carries him up Mount Doom:

‘I said I’d carry him, if it broke my back,’ he muttered, ‘and I will!’
‘Come Mr. Frodo!’ he cried. ‘I can’t carry it for you, but I can carry you and it as well.’

There’s no mistaking Sam as hero here, as at the very end of his endurance he somehow finds the strength to carry the literal weight of Middle-Earth on his stout back. I thought Jackson’s film captured this scene magnificently.

Yet Sam is not perfect. Tolkien in his letters describes him as having “a mental myopia which is proud of itself, a smugness (in varying degrees) and cocksureness, and a readiness to measure and sum up all things from a limited experience, largely enshrined in sententious traditional ‘wisdom.’” Sam’s biggest failure is indeed his lack of wisdom; specifically, he fails to notice Gollum’s act of repentance when the latter was about to abandon his scheme to send the hobbits to their death in Shelob’s lair. With a little kindness from Sam, Gollum perhaps could have buried his evil half and become Smeagol once again, but Sam tragically failed to recognize it (of course, you can argue that without Gollum’s attack on Frodo at the crack of doom, the Ring would not have been destroyed).

Is Sam a “fated” hero?
Tying into my previous thoughts on “fate vs. free will”, Sam’s actions and the circumstances that surround him walk a tightrope between his own free will and the larger forces at work in Tolkien’s world. Is Sam a simple, loyal hobbit who makes tough choices out of the goodness of his heart? Or is he fated to become a hero? I believe the answer is both.

For example, in “The Choices of Master Samwise,” Sam makes the difficult choice to leave Frodo’s body and carry on the quest alone. It’s perhaps his bravest act of all. But even as he walks down the tunnel “something” tells him his choice to leave Frodo’s side was wrong. When the orcs find Frodo he realizes it: “He flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them. He knew now where his place was and had been: at his master’s side, though what he could do there was not clear.”

The implication here is that the orcs’ arrival was an act of fate, not chance, and that some higher power perhaps intervened on Sam’s behalf. Certainly the outcome of the story would have been far different had Sam soldiered on alone, for as we later see, no man or hobbit acting alone can willingly destroy the Ring.

I also wonder whether Sam was in fact chosen for his great task by Gandalf. Was fate at work in the seemingly chance act of Sam eavesdropping at Frodo’s window at Bag End and getting caught by Gandalf? Did Gandalf send Sam with Frodo only to punish him? Or did Gandalf send Sam because (as one of the Maiar) Gandalf knew at some level that Sam could play a vital role in the outcome of the quest?

Given what we know of both Gandalf and Middle-Earth's cosmology, the latter seems much more likely.


Anonymous said...

Some pretty inspired thoughts here. I completely agree. I also picked up on Sam being one of the true heroes of the story, but usually if I ever tried to bring it up I was looked at as if I was completely nuts. I think a great many fans have such an attachment to Strider or Gandalf, that the mere suggestion of any other character being the hero is too much to bear.


Brian Murphy said...

Hi Matt, thanks for stopping by. I think Sam is overlooked partly because Frodo seems set up by Tolkien as the hero, and partly because he's not good with a sword, nor blessed with magical ability. He's an Everyman and any man. But that makes his actions all the more heroic in my eyes.

Anonymous said...

There’s no mistaking Sam as hero here, as at the very end of his endurance he somehow finds the strength to carry the literal weight of Middle-Earth on his stout back. I thought Jackson’s film captured this scene magnificently.

I have always found this part of both the book, as well as the movie, to be the most emotional part of the entire story.

Brian Murphy said...

Hi Ishmayl, definitely one of my favorite scenes, too.

Anonymous said...

Liekyou I've always considered Sam to be the hero of the story but I think you've also overlooked one vital element of the character of Samwise Gamgee.

When he finds Frodo in the tower he, Sam, is in posession of the rug. And it turns out he's the only character in the whole of Middle Earth other than Tom Bombadill who is capable of giving up the ring on his own accord.

The ring is very powerful at this time and tries to tempt him. He has a moment of doubt but then he just hands it over to Frodo.

Not Aragorn, Gandalf, Galadriel or any of the others could have done this. Only Sam.

Anonymous said...

Yes!!! I love Sam. He is my favorite character and I love counting the times in the movie where he saves the quest. He definitely is a true hero.