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.
Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings
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.
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15 thoughts on “The Hero’s Journey of Sam Gamgee”
Beautiful. I love Sam’s journey. Tolkien did an amazing thing in making him the greatest hero of the story amidst such incredible company.
It is interesting how that worked out, is it not, that the most humble of the hobbits ends up being the greatest hero, in his own quiet, unpretentious way. There are so many things to ponder in this context, it’s not even funny.
Tolkien had a great respect for the batmen he served with in the war. He certainly paid them the homage they deserved through Sam.
Yes, he surely did. And his own humble self is reflected as well, in a way, I dare say. And then there are so many ways in which Sam stays true to himself and to his place in life, no matter what he goes through and how much honor he wins for himself. Mr. Frodo stays Mr. Frodo and doesn’t become his “buddy” at any time. Rosie and the Shire remain the ultimate home on the Hither Shores. etc. etc. etc. Wonderful.
He certainly did 😊
Thank you so much for sharing this, Anne. I agree entirely with all that you say. But the one thing that you said that made me ponder was “it’s not even funny”. In one sense that is true, of course. Sam is a deeply serious figure. At the start of the story he appears to be comic because of the undignified manner in which he is dragged into the great adventure. Pippin, the son of the Thain of the Shire, enjoys a few jokes at Sam’s expense. By the end of the story no-one treats him like that.
But there is laughter nevertheless. A couple of years ago I wrote a piece that I entitled “Gandalf Laughs”. It was a reflection on a conversation between Gandalf and Pippin just after Pippin has endured Denethor’s forensic interrogation in Minas Tirith. Pippin had expected Gandalf’s censure. What he meets is Gandalf’s Joy! There is glorious laughter wherever Sam goes because of the Joy that he releases. It is the characters who are incapable of happy laughter who do most harm.
That is profound. Thank you for that insight.
Indeed. “Swift in anger, quick to laugh” comes to mind speaking of Gandalf, and Sam does carry an especial contagious joy in his heart. 🙂
Sam is a remarkable character. Of Tolkien’s major characters it is probably Frodo with whom I identify most. It is not that I consider him to be the greatest hero but that I feel for his weakness. When he was struggling within himself on the journey down the Anduin about what direction he should take, and after the tragic encounter with Boromir’s madness, he came to the conclusion that he should go on alone. It was not that he considered himself the most competent of the Fellowship it was that he did not want to take the people that he loved to their death. Thankfully Sam saw things differently. If Frodo had gone on alone he would have soon perished or gone mad himself. I am so grateful for the people who care for me.
I couldn’t agree more. I know I rely on my friends constantly in ways I try never to take for granted, and I make sure I’m there for them at all turns as well. It’s one of the reasons the story resonates with me so much. I can easily see the path where I tried alone. I know where it would lead. I understand your gratitude for those in your life.
In my journey on the via regia, I became this nothing. The immediate journey home was a failure, as there was no I to come back, and then there was a different person who did. I even ceased to use my name. The first lesson of the camino was that there was a story. I was not writing it. It was in it, it was being revealed to me, and I had guides. I also made mistakes. Politely declining (due to tiredness and a tight schedule) to go up a church tower in the last medieval church in northern Germany, with three altars and three crosses, after being repeatedly invited to do so by two women knitting baby clothes under one of those crosses, well, well, well, not wise. Paying less than enough gold to Saint George’s dragon in Eisenach, also a big mistake. Luckily, I gave him some. Luckily I met Khdr in the guise of the Green Man, who began the process of the creation of a new self. Not an “I” at the core, but the Earth. I am still on this journey.
Thank you so much for sharing so much of yourself here, Harold. I feel privileged that you should do so on my blog. The way in which we describe our pilgrimages along the Camino will be different for all of us but the Way is One. The illusion is to believe ourselves separate from each other and the cosmos. Every blessing on you as you journey on. 😊
I dig it. But I want to explore it in more depth. I’ve little doubt that parallels may be drawn to each of Campbell’s “stages” with regards to Sam’s journey. But it may not be immediately apparent. For example, I wouldn’t describe Sam as being ‘dissatisfied’ with his lot in life or his home at the beginning of FotR. He loves the stories of old Mr Bilbo, to be sure. And yes, he wants to go see the elves. But I am not sure I’d marry that up with dissatisfaction with his dealt hand.
Thank you so much for your thoughtful response. I agree that trying to fit Sam’s story into a system, however well argued, is not fair on him. Campbell’s Heroes Journey helpfully aids us in reflection on the great heroic tales and our own stories too. I agree that Sam is a peaceful soul. He does not even seem to complain about the Gaffer’s endless humiliations. But I do think that Bilbo’s tales awaken a longing within him that the opportunity to travel gives him the possibility of fulfilling. But it is a piece of genius on Tolkien’s part to fulfil the longing almost immediately. Sam then has to ask why he is continuing the journey. The answer, of course, is Frodo. And that takes him all the way to Mount Doom.
Sam is a hero in his own right, down to the scene when he admits he can’t carry the ring so he carries Frodo. He sacrifices his own wants and needs for the greater good for all of Middle-Earth. While in Frodo’s story, Sam’s role is an ally but by supporting the hero, Sam is empowering his friend and himself.