The Hero’s Journey of Sam Gamgee

After Frodo invokes Eärendil, the Morning Star, the bearer of the sorrows of Middle-earth to the Valar at the end of the First Age, he and Sam are able to break free of Shelob’s webs and for a moment it seems they are free. Frodo is drunk with the wonder of his escape, while Sam, for his part, is almost too cautious; so it is that Sam hides the Star Glass and in the darkness Shelob attacks Frodo while Gollum attacks Sam. All seems lost and yet a few minutes later Gollum is fleeing for his life while Shelob is “cowed at last, shrunken in defeat” and she hides herself away in a hole to nurse her malice and to heal herself from within.

During those few minutes Sam fights two mighty battles, both of which are far beyond him, and he emerges as a mighty and a victorious hero.

And he does not have any sense that this is what he is!

In his great work, The Hero with a Thousand Faces , Joseph Campbell describes the elements common to what he calls, the Hero’s Journey. And this is what Sam’s story has been. The story begins with Sam caring for Frodo’s garden and his longing to see the wonders of the wider world and, most of all, to “see Elves!” This dissatisfaction is the classic beginning of Campbell’s monomyth and it takes him on the journey that has now led him to Shelob’s Lair and the battles in defence of the master that he loves more even than his own life. Readers of my blog who know Campbell’s work will know of the resistance to the call to adventure that in Sam’s case is his sense of insignificance and also of the importance of a mentor. For Sam, my own belief is that the mentor takes various guises including Gandalf, Aragon and Galadriel but perhaps, most important of all, Frodo himself, who Sam regards as “the wisest person in the world.” Last year I wrote in this blog a posting that I entitled Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor https://stephencwinter.com/2015/03/24/frodo-carries-sam-to-mordor/ and it was Campbell’s sense of the vital role of the mentor that I had in mind there. At the beginning of the story Sam could only connect to the wondrous world through Frodo as mediator. That changes, and the change begins now, as Sam becomes a mighty warrior, part of the great ordeal of which Campbell also speaks. Later Sam will be revered as one of the great figures of his age and still he will hardly notice it!

This is what is unusual in Sam’s heroic journey. Sam has little or no awareness that he is on such a thing. To him if there is a hero then it must be Frodo. Even in the battle with Shelob Sam cries out in admiration when Shelob retreats before Frodo as he holds the Star Glass aloft. What songs will be sung about this great deed! I wonder if even Tolkien was taken by surprise by Sam? In The Fellowship of the Ring the story is told through Frodo but from the sundering of the Fellowship and through the journey to Mordor it is through Sam that the story is told. I will have much more to say about their different roles but here I want to show the way in which Sam grows through the journey.

This is where we will leave Sam today, covered in glory after his mighty battles but thinking only of Frodo. And I will end too on a personal note. Unlike Sam I have always lived with a consciousness of playing a part in a story. Often I have longed for Sam’s self forgetfulness but if I am to achieve it then the work must be a conscious forgetting. I must become the nothing (the no thing) of which the mystics speak. Not to be a zero but to become free of being a thing and to become a person. Once I wanted to be the hero of my own story albeit a religious one. Now I wish simply to be a man.

 

 

 

O Dayspring, Come and Enlighten Those in the Shadow of Death

When Frodo raises the star glass and cries out, “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars!” he invokes a history of which, with Sam, he is now a major part. Throughout the history of Arda (the earth) there has been a war against the Light that began with Morgoth and now continues with his lieutenant, Sauron. The light of the Silmarils captured in the star glass once blazed forth from Morgoth’s iron crown after he stole them from Fëanor, their maker. One now shines out in the heavens at morning and at evening in the ship, Vingilot, with “Eärendil the mariner sat at the helm, glistening with dust of elven-gems, and the Silmaril was bound upon his brow”. We see it still today and know it as Venus, the Morning Star and the Evening Star.

Eärendil carried the Silmaril back across the seas to the Undying Lands and brought too the prayer of the peoples of Middle-earth to the Valar for mercy. For Morgoth had reduced them to ruin and, perhaps worse even than this, the sons of Fëanor, bound by a terrible oath to their father not to allow the Silmarils to fall into the hands of anyone even a friend, attacked Eärendil’s people and destroyed their homes. Eärendil, even as he bore this sorrow in his heart, prayed too for the sons of Fëanor when he came before the Valar.

Why do I tell this story even as Frodo holds the Star Glass before Shelob? It is because of the place of mercy in the whole of Tolkien’s great story. Tolkien said of Morgoth that “to him that was pitiless the deeds of pity are ever strange and beyond reckoning”. All through Tolkien’s tale it is such deeds that undo the enemy. Why is Frodo’s cry effective?  It is because of the pity of Eärendil. It is because of the pity of Bilbo. It is because of the pity of Galadriel who gave the glass to Frodo. We do not stand because of our own deeds but because of all who have come before us.

In his poem on the Advent antiphon, O Oriens,  Malcolm Guite makes this point exactly. Oriens is the Morning Star, the Dayspring, the herald of grace and of hope. Guite quotes from Dante’s Paradiso at the heading of his poem when Dante tells us that he saw “light in the form of a river”. The story of light is a river in which we, by grace and mercy, now stand.

“Dante and Beatrice are bathing in it now, away upstream…  so every trace of light begins a grace in me, a beckoning. ”

Once again we remember Frodo’s dream in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell; a dream that ended with the sound of Bilbo telling the story of Eärendil. And we begin to understand that we too receive so much from the mercy of others and that every act of mercy that we perform today is a gift to people yet unborn. We stand here because of the prayers of others before us. Others stand today and will stand in times to come because of our prayer and our acts of mercy.

 

The Dayspring From On High Comes to the Aid of the Hobbits

Frodo and Sam are trapped in the darkness visible of Shelob’s Lair as the foul monster advances upon them. As he grips the sword that he took from the barrow Sam suddenly thinks of Tom Bombadil. “I wish old Tom was near us now.” And as he does so it is not Bombadil who comes, but Galadriel, in an insight of such clarity that it has the force of a vision. Sam sees her as the giver of gifts upon the lawn in Lothlórien when she gave to Frodo the Star Glass, “a light when all other lights go out.”

Frodo raises the glass and the light of a Silmaril blazes forth in the darkness. Frodo is wonderfully empowered by this and he advances upon Shelob crying, “Aiya Eärendil Elenion Ancalima!” Frodo does not know what words he speaks for it as if another voice has spoken them in this place of utter darkness but they and the light of a star drive Shelob  back and Frodo and Sam are able to escape.

The words that Frodo cries are “Hail, Eärendil, O Brightest of Stars! ” and readers of The Lord of the Rings will remember the verses that Bilbo chanted in the halls of Elrond in Rivendell of the great hero who brought aid to the defeated peoples of Middle-earth at the end of the First Age. They will remember too that Sam spoke of how he and Frodo were still a part of the story of Eärendil and how the great stories never seem to end.

For Tolkien these words were of the greatest significance. At the very outset of the creation of his mythology when he was a young student of old languages he read some words in an Anglo-Saxon poem that had a profound effect upon him.

Eálá Earendel engla beorhtast ofer middangeard monnum sended 

Or, “Hail Earendel, Brightest of Angels, over Middle-earth sent to men!”

Some who knew Tolkien say that for him words did not merely describe something but could convey to him the very reality they sought to signify.  It was as if he were an initiate in a mystery cult.  Thus on reading the words in the old poem he actually encountered the Brightest of Angels. It was a visionary, a revelatory experience, just as it was for Frodo in the darkness and from it was born the whole mythology from which The Lord of the Rings came.

It is this experience that Tolkien brings to one of the darkest moments in his story. It is the Brightest of Angels who drives Shelob back! And there is something more. The poem that Tolkien was reading at the moment of revelation was one that was related to Advent, the time of year when Christians focus most keenly upon the longing for the coming of Christ. In the poem are found the O Antiphons that form an introduction to the singing of the Magnificat,  the great song of Mary, at evening prayer in Advent. They are most often used today when the popular carol for Advent, O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, is sung. Unlike CS Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia,  Christ is not born within the story. That was deliberate upon Tolkien’s part. But what happens at this moment is a cry of longing for an end to all darkness and even an end to death itself. Eärendil, the Morning Star, bears witness to the Sun that will rise, scattering the gloom from before our paths for ever.

And it all begins in the darkness with a moment of near despair and the thought that comes to Sam, “I wish old Tom was near us now.” For us to know light in the darkness it is not necessary that we should be scholars of old languages. Neither Sam nor even Frodo know what Frodo cries. But they have said, Yes, to their great pilgrimage and they have not turned back and so they receive “a light when all other lights go out” simply because they need that light.

And so can we when we need light in our darkness.

Frodo and Sam Lead Us into the Dark

Should I say that Frodo and Sam lead us into the dark? It is the last place that either of them wish to go and this is no ordinary dark.  This is the  dark of Shelob’s Lair, a deeper and a denser dark even than the tunnels of Moria, “a black vapour wrought of veritable darkness itself that, as it was breathed, brought blindness not only to the eyes but to the mind, so that even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light faded out of thought.  Night had always been,  and always would be, and night was all.”

Neither Frodo nor Sam ever wished to be here. Gollum wished otherwise for this is his act of betrayal.  He has led them into this trap into to have them killed and so, he hopes, to recover the Ring. Perhaps I should have entitled this piece, “Gollum leads us into the dark.” But my choice of title was deliberate.  Readers of The Lord of the Rings are here because they have come to love Frodo and Sam.

And I have another meaning. I  cannot read this part of the story without thinking of my own experience of darkness.  I have never been in a darkness in which I have been afraid. Once in Africa  I remember being guided through a darkness so deep that I could only just make out my guide in front of me but I was not afraid because I trusted him, even though he was a stranger, and my trust proved justifiable. I reached a safe place from which I could continue my journey the next day. No, for me the darkness that is fearful is an inner darkness. This is the darkness in which “even the memory of colours and of forms and of any light” fades out of thought. In his “East Coker” T.S Eliot puts it this way :

“O dark, dark, dark. They all go into the dark…/ And we all go with them into the silent funeral. No one’s funeral for there is no one to bury.”

And in the lines between those that I have quoted he makes it clear that being of good reputation is of no protection from the journey into the dark. It is one that we all must take. And the darknesses through which we pass during our lives are most fearful because they speak to us of the dark at the end of life.  The dark from which we fear there will be no end. Frodo and Sam feel this: “One hour, two hours, three hours : how many had they passed in this lightless hole? Hours- days, weeks rather.”

The dark that we are certain will end does not have the power of the dark that we fear to be endless. Yet so many of the great myths seem to require of their heroes such a journey. Tolkien knew this very well and the True Myth that he spoke of in a conversation with C.S Lewis,  a conversation that changed Lewis’s life for ever, speaks of a journey through the total darkness of death itself, a journey into an a aliveness so complete that death can have nothing to do with it at all. Eliot speaks of it in “East Coker”, “I said to my soul, be still,  and let the dark come upon you which shall be the darkness of God.”

So there is a darkness of God.  And it is a real darkness,  not the gentle turning down of the lights for an intimate evening together but the terrible darkness of death itself, the dark through which Jesus passed of which the creeds speak saying that he descended into hell. Eliot speaks of it in our experience in these words:

“I said to my soul, be still, and wait without hope for hope would be hope of the wrong thing; wait without love for love would be love of the wrong thing;  there is yet faith but the faith and the love and the hope are all in the waiting. ”

So we have to learn how to die before we die so that we can truly live without fear of death or of the darknesses that come upon us in our lifetime.  We learn how to die in order to be fully alive.