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 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.




20 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey of Sam Gamgee

  1. Nice post! Though I adore many of the characters and have had several “favorites,” Sam stands above them all. I can’t remember off the top of my head but I feel like Tolkien has indicated that Sam is possibly the true hero of the story or is at least a close 2nd. Can’t remember but worth looking up.

    His story, whether the main one or otherwise, is one of the most interesting ones in the book in my opinion. Sam has a fantastic journey and is a fun character to read. He has his outstanding pros (good-hearted, loyal, etc) and some concerning cons (his hatred/treatment of Gollum for instance). He has his struggles and he has some great achievements. He’s one of the more dynamic characters and one of the best literary Heroes in my opinion.

    • The Send button was too close to the end of the last sentence so I replied too soon! Tolkien said that Sam reminded him of the batmen and privates of the British army in the First World War saying they were far superior to him. The British army was largely organised along class lines and Tolkien was an officer, not based on ability but class. C.S Lewis made similar comments in Surprised by Joy.
      I agree with you entirely that Sam is a dynamic figure. He has strengths and weaknesses just like the rest of us and that makes him so much more real. And in a tight spot I know that I would want Sam by my side!

  2. Tolkien did refer to Sam as chief hero. He is so hard to portray. I bet Tolkien had a hard time with him. Probably every time Tolkien tried to make Sam do something heroic, Sam said, “but wouldn’t it be better if Mr. Frodo did that?” As a writer, I know how frustrating characters can be – especially when they love someone and want that person to have all the glory. And I know all about Sam as I write so much fan fiction on him, Frodo, Merry, and Pippin that it’s probably not healthy for me!

  3. Another beautiful post, Stephen… And especially in the context of your last comment.

    Sam comes to fruition in his true humility. “In order for humility to mature it must blossom into self-forgetfulness”

    Sam allows the story to be told without himself getting in the way…. And this becomes even more integral to its unfolding.

    I love that idea of him as a troublesome character to write! It reminds me of what you said the other day about how well Tolkien understood his characters. He allows Sam to be as he is… And thus gives us an even greater gift.

    • Thank you once again, Victoria. Who are you quoting in those wonderful words, “In order for humility to mature it must blossom into self-forgetfulness? I am sure that there needs to be this conscious act for most of us and most certainly for me. It feels that Sam is still in a state of innocence at this point of the story although his test will come soon.
      I agree with you that Tolkien seems to allow his characters to be themselves in a quite remarkable way. They come from a deep place within him and emerge without the taint of his ego.

      • Oh! It’s Martin Laird, in his book ‘Into the Silent Land’ summarising some of what he finds in ‘The Cloud of Unknowing’. I’m so sorry; I should have attributed!

    • The whole book is full of gentle affirming challenging beauty. It is quite a life changing read. I read it last year, and again, recently, with my brother. That particular passage is p.127.. In a section entitled “music behind the door of despair: humility and failure”, which begins p.126

      I hope you gain from it as much as we have – if you read it, I would love to share your thoughts

  4. Lovely thoughts.
    Sam really is the salt of the earth type, seemingly simple but with very deep roots. I like how he matures on this journey in his own time. All characters do grow into their own but with Sam it is like he becomes what he was meant to be all along with very little danger of taking a wrong turn. There is this deeply archaic element of steadily following his master until the very end. Only then he doesn’t have one any more, he has become his own master. I see him a bit as the kitchen table philosopher of the fellowship.

    • Thank you for leaving this comment, Marie. I agree that Sam grows into his true self. Frodo begins to see that too. Do you think that he still has to get out of the way at the end of the story so that this can happen? Is there a sense in which finding the true self is costly in being lonely? Frodo has been a guide to Sam and the guide has to leave.
      Sam is a servant without being servile. I am interested that you describe this as archaic. I think you are right.

  5. “And he does not have any sense that this is what he is!” And oh, we love him all the more for it!

    “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.”
    I think this must be a great part in the blessing of the “poor.” Not only of the monetarily poor, but of all who are, by circumstance or nature, way ahead of the rest of us in terms of blessed self-forgetfulness. Not always, of course, but definitely enough for there to be a correlation. Sam is used to considering himself unimportant, a commoner, a servant of others. And in his commonness and service to another, he really outstrips every other character in the story in terms of deeds. Others do great things, but not a single one does them against the kinds of odds he faces. And he doesn’t do them because he thinks he can, but simply because they have to be done, and he is the only one there who can do them.

    I am in awe of Sam, and as in love with him as I have ever been in love with a fictional character. I want to be like him. But I am far too self-aware and self-conscious… I think too much.

    I think that thinking is good. There is a kind of bad thoughtlessness. But perhaps self-awareness and self-examination are a stone on the path, and we have to move beyond it to move forward. This is something I do not understand. And something I doubt I ever will, quite, while in this life.

    • How beautifully you put it and what insight in the scholarly Tolkien who came to understand the greatness of Sam and his simplicity without being in any way patronising. I think of Sam’s sadness near the end of the book that the people of the Shire did not appreciate Frodo enough. I happen to think he is right. Frodo did deserve greater appreciation. But Sam thinks nothing about himself.
      For those of us who cannot forget ourselves by nature the best we can do is to keep laying down the burden of our self-consciousness. Let us pray for each other.

  6. Reblogged this on Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings and commented:

    This is the latest in my short summer season of reblogs of earlier postings. This one comes from January 2016 and it is a meditation on Sam Gamgee using the work of Joseph Campbell. If you look for Campbell and the Hero’s Journey in your favoured search engine you will find some helpful guides there.
    All the classical elements of the Hero’s Journey can be found in Tolkien’s account of Sam’s story although not necessarily in the order that Campbell would put them. Sam begins with dissatisfaction in the Shire, meets mentors who open new possibilities to him, crosses the threshold into a new world when he leaves the Shire and then goes through trial and death and rebirth on the great journey before returning with a gift to serve his people.
    But Tolkien does not follow Campbell (of course, he did not know him!). Sam’s original desire (“to see Elves!”) is fulfilled before he even leaves the Shire. And the gift that he receives and which he will use to heal the Shire (Galadriel’s box) comes before his death and rebirth experience with Frodo on Mount Doom. My own sense is that he does not even realise that he has a gift until his companions show him so perhaps the true moment of reception comes after the scouring (another experience of dying for Sam) when it is most needed.
    I do hope that you enjoy reading this and the wonderful comments that follow. If you would like to reflect on this with a new comment I would be delighted to respond.

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