A Question About Samwise Gamgee…and Tolkien’s Answer
Over at Noel Campbell’s blog, he has posited an interesting question about Samwise Gamgee from Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. The question was quite good, and caused me to peruse Tolkien’s letters for the answer.
The question is this: Who would history say destroyed the ring if Samwise had told the story? To quote Mr. Campbell:
It occurs to me, that unless Samwise actually told everyone what happened – because you can’t imagine that Frodo told anyone what actually happened – that everyone has to assume that Sam actually destroyed the ring, or killed Gollum while Gollum had the ring, because of Frodo’s telltale missing finger.
What would Tolkien say?
It turns out that Tolkien had much to say about old Samwise Gamgee:
In a letter to his son Christopher on 12/24/44 he wrote about how he thought the book would end (this is before writing the end, of course):
Certainly Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo is not so interesting, because he has to be high minded, and has (as it were) a vocation. The book will probably end up with Sam. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarefied by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures…(105)
Interestingly, he saw Sam as the one in the end who is left, and of course this is how things play out after Frodo goes to the Grey Havens. In another letter to his son on January 30th of the following year, Tolkien writes about the problem of Sam and that it is a tragedy for both he and Frodo that happens at Mount Doom. He acknowledges that there may be a subtext not seen by the main narrative:
A story must be told or they’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are the most moving (110).
Another telling passage at the end of a long letter to Milton Waldman in Sept. 1950, he writes of Sam:
I think the simple ‘rustic’ love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero’s) [Aragorn’s] character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the ‘longing for Elves’, and sheer beauty (161).
Sam seems to be central to the story, and as it plays out in his letters we see more and more evidence of how important Samwise is to the story. Another question that arises in Mr. Campbell’s observation for me is “what is Sam’s purpose after all?” Is he simply a servant of Frodo? Is he much more than that? Some of the comments made by Tolkien are quite puzzling indeed, but then we all take multiple roads when designing a novel, and since all of the quotes I have used so far have been from when Tolkien was formulating the epic, we need to look to comments he made after the epic had been received by the public and the fan letters began pouring in.
In a letter to Mrs. Eileen Elgar in September 1963, Tolkien writes a telling passage that cuts to the quick of this question:
Sam was cocksure, and deep down a little conceited; but his conceit had been transformed by his devotion to Frodo. He did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable – except in his service and loyalty to his master. That had an ingredient (probably inevitable) of pride and possessiveness: it is difficult to exclude it from the devotion of those who perform such service. In any case it prevented him from fully understanding the master that he loved, and from following him in his gradual education to the nobility of service to the unlovable and of perception of damaged good in the corrupt. He plainly did not fully understand Frodo’s motives or his distress in the incident of the Forbidden Pool. If he had understood better what was going on between Frodo and Gollum, things might have turned out differently in the end. For me perhaps the most tragic moment in the Tale comes in book II when Sam fails to note the complete change in Gollum’s tone and aspect. ‘Nothing, nothing’ said Gollum softly. ‘Nice master!’. His repentance is blighted and all Frodo’s pity is (in a sense) wasted. Shelob’s lair became inevitable (329-30).
And further in the same letter:
Sam could hardly have acted differently…. If he had, what could then have happened? The course of the entry into Mordor and the struggle to reach Mount Doom would have been different, and so would the ending. The interest would have shifted to Gollum, I think, and the battle that would have gone on between his repentance and his new love on one side and the Ring. Though the love would have been strengthened daily it could not have wrested the mastery from the Ring. I think that in some queer and twisted and pitiable way Gollum would have tried (not maybe with conscious design) to satisfy both. Certainly at some point not long before the end he would have stolen the Ring or taken it by violence (as he does in the actual Tale). But ‘possession’ satisfied, I think he would have sacrificed himself for Frodo’s sake and have voluntarily cast himself into the fiery abyss (330).
In conclusion, it appears that Tolkien’s view of Samwise (in the end) was that he was a little more subservient than some make him out to be, and that Tolkien had worked out the many different possibilities for the ending and had decided on the most logical choice for himself. Personally (as we bring all of ourselves to a text) I feel that Sam is one of the most important characters in the narrative. He is the glue that holds Frodo and the Quest together, and ultimately is the one who aids Frodo in the destruction of the One Ring. The fact that he was carrying Sting and the Phial of Galadriel, for he was only holding them for his master, and there is nobility in his service.
I think about this often, the service to others. Sometimes we need to let go our pride and serve others so that great things can happen. Sam was simply doing his part, and even though the people of Middle Earth would probably not sing his praises, he can take to heart that he did a noble thing, a brave thing, stepping out of his farmer self and meeting the challenge of helping an indecisive Frodo find his way to saving everyone.
All quotations taken from:
Carpenter, Humphrey, ed. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. 1st ed. Massachusetts: George Allen & Unwin, 1981. Print.