The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 300-301
The final chapter of The Two Towers is entitled The Choices of Master Samwise, that terrible moment when Sam is convinced that Shelob has killed Frodo and that he must go on alone for the sake of the world, to bear the Ring to the Fire and so complete the task that Frodo was given at the Council in Rivendell. The very title that Tolkien gives to Sam, Master Samwise, in that chapter head, is the most dignified that he can give. Tolkien’s Shire is very much like the rural England of his childhood with clear class distinctions and so Frodo Baggins is entitled Mister while his gardener is Master. One of the themes that runs through The Lord of the Rings is the way in which the relationship between Frodo and Sam, one that begins as Master and Servant, becomes a friendship based upon all that they have shared together.
Not that Sam ever quite realises this. Even as they make their last journey to The Grey Havens together Sam still addresses Frodo as Mister. This is not just an expression of the society of Tolkien’s early years and of the Shire that he creates but it also shows us where Sam feels most at home for there is never a moment in his life in which he bears any resentment concerning his place in this world. When Frodo leaves Sam becomes the Master of Bag End, his family name changes from Gamgee to Gardner and he becomes a gentleman and Mayor of the Shire.
Perhaps Frodo had to leave in order to create this space for Sam because until that moment Frodo is the very centre of Sam’s world and whereas Frodo was probably already living in another world by the time he he made that last journey Sam had work to do in Middle-earth and needed to be a man of authority in order to do it. And it is Frodo’s place in Sam’s world that forces Sam to make his choice at Durin’s Doors when Bill the pony runs away from the terrible creature that lives in the pool before them suddenly attacks Frodo. Until that moment Sam was seriously considering disobedience to Gandalf’s gentle but firm instruction that Bill should be left behind at the gates of Moria for Sam had come to love this creature with whom he has shared so much and for whom he has had a special care. Sam knows that once you have given care to another creature there is a sense in which that creature has a claim over you forever.
Gandalf knows this which is why he is so gentle in the way he gives Sam the instruction but it is not Gandalf’s instruction that finally forces Sam to make a decision great though Sam’s respect for Gandalf is, it is Frodo’s plight. It is almost certain that the monster in the pool is drawn towards Frodo as the Ringbearer, not that it has been some instruction by Sauron, but that its very being draws it towards the Ring as all creatures of its kind are.
“Out from the water a long sinuous tentacle had crawled; it was pale-green and luminous and wet. Its fingered end had hold of Frodo’s foot, and was dragging him into the water. Sam on his knees was now slashing at it with a knife.”
Sam has to choose between Frodo and Bill and he chooses Frodo. But it is a choice that almost tears him in two, something that Tolkien expresses in the tears and curses that pour forth from Sam as he runs back from the fleeing pony as he hears the sound of Frodo’s distress. The tears are the breaking of Sam’s heart while the curses are his anger against a universe that has made him make such a choice. For Sam goodness and happiness lies in a world that has been given to him, a world of fruitful and happy service, and at the moment in which he hears Frodo’s cry that world falls apart. Sam has to choose and choosing is something that Sam has never wished to do. Sam did not really choose to go with Frodo. He expresses what he does as obedience to a command. Whether or not we agree with him is neither here nor there. This is how Sam sees it and this is what gives him his dignity and his place in the world. And at the moment when Sam chooses, when he has to choose, it is this that enables him to achieve the impossible.
14 thoughts on ““I Had to Choose, Mr. Frodo. I Had to Come With You.” Sam Gamgee at The Doors of Durin.””
We must not forget also the care that Gandalf offers to the animals he meets, in particular the horses. The wizard himself gives instructions to the pony so that it can return to Bree where, indeed, they find it on their return. And also in the case of Shadofaxbusca he has a friendly relationship with the meara.
Gandalf learned a lot in 70 years. It is charming how Tolkien goes out of his way in LotR to make sure that we know the ponies all got home safely. I imagine some of his children must have expressed dismay at the equine casualty rate in The Hobbit and JRRT was not going to let it happen again.
I am also grateful for the safe arrival of all ponies! I had forgotten about the equine carnage of The Hobbit and I am glad that Tolkien did not. There is enough sadness in the world without having to add that to it.
Thank you so much for leaving your first comment on my blog. Please call again!
I also like Gandalf’s blessing on Bill.
Thank you very much. I read your blog whenever it pops up in my inbox and always with great interest. I think you do a phenomenal job of analysis. It is a pleasure to read you and appreciate all the beauty of the underlying theology in Tolkien through your input. A big hug
Thank you for your generous comment.
“Frodo was probably already living in another world by the time he he made that last journey” – yes; I have seen people in this stage, moving into the next realm while still here, and there is a dignity and a distance to them like we see with Frodo. Since they cannot follow, those left behind, like Sam, have to go through a process of recommitting to the realm they are in (for now). After Frodo is stung by Shelob, Sam pleads with Frodo not to go where he cannot follow…but as you point out, that is precisely what has to happen for Sam to grow into the his full role and purpose. Frodo knows it too. While Frodo had to leave for himself, there was in his decision too a recognition, and an act of compassion despite the sorrow it would cause, that it would save Sam from having to choose. Frodo tried once already, at Amon Hen, and Sam thwarted his plan; but not this time. thank you Stephen for the reflections.
Thank you for this beautiful reflection. I am so glad that Sam is able, at the end, to make his own journey to the Undying Lands, in order to be reunited with Frodo.
Tolkien once said that part of Sam was actually a little bit conceited in his loyalty to his master. I think the main points where he had to grow beyond that were when he first had to take the Ring and leave Frodo when he thought he was dead and again when he had to part with him at the Grey Havens.
I agree with you (and, of course, with Tolkien) entirely. His loyalty was the possession he prized above all others. I really like your connection between those two moments in his life. I had not linked them quite so explicitly in my own mind but you are absolutely right. He could not have lived so fruitful a life without giving this possession up.
As usual, I am horrendously behind on your beautiful blog, Stephen. But it is strange how I read and see different beauties in the different lights of the seasons. Today, for me, it is advent… and approaching Gaudete Sunday. In your description of Sam I find both John the Baptist and the ascension of Jesus… that sense of the important and crucial role of John, yet pointing always toward Jesus.. and the difficult decisions and pain he had to face on the way, but also the sense with what you say about Sam only growing into his role in a sense when Frodo enables him to widen the centre of his heart, by leaving for the grey havens, points me back to standing alongside John and seeing that sense of Jesus too calling us to step into that same sort of space in our worlds. As usual I find myself incoherent. But this is a hugely significant observation you make for us, about the journey of growth of Sam, thank you so much.
in advent as always we also stand staring into the dark, and into the stars, and your words about tears and cursing touched me deeply. Love calls us to hard choices, and to dark places. There is wrong in the universe and sometimes all we can do is curse and weep, and its so important to name that, and I confess in the pace of the story, I had missed that beautiful passage until you highlighted it for us so beautifully… curse and weep and hack the tentacles and trust for what we can’t hold… and, as someone has already commented, our trust is founded… the ponies are held. Although in life, sometimes the holding is not quite so clearly written for us, and especially in the moment we weep and curse, and rightly so.
As always, it is a delight to receive your reflections upon my writing, Victoria, and I never mind going back to something that I wrote a few weeks ago in order to think about it again.
There are few, if any, among the people that I know who have a greater appreciation of the liturgical calendar than you do. I am so glad that you share this in your Twitter feed as you did with this morning’s beautiful sunrise, so I am not surprised that you have made such a connection. True wisdom recognises that which is true whatever its source. A few years ago I wrote a couple of pieces on the blog that I entitled “Sam Carries Frodo to Mordor” and “Frodo Carries Sam to Mordor”. The first is quite obvious and literally the case as Sam has to carry Frodo up Mount Doom when Frodo’s strength gives out. That one has had quite a few readers over the years since I first wrote it, and so many people have written well about how Sam is the hero of The Return of the King. The second I think is a more subtle truth and that is that Frodo prepares the way for Sam both in encouraging Sam’s love of beauty, truth and goodness and also as you so helpfully say, by his gradual “Ascension” from Middle-earth to Valinor and thence the heavenly realm. Both in his weakness and then in his departure Frodo calls Sam into greatness and I particularly love the scene when Sam declares that he is “torn in two” in his desire to go with Frodo and his desire for Rosie and his growing family. Frodo’s response is that Sam was meant to be whole and in Frodo’s departure this becomes possible.
And thank you, finally, for your thoughts on cursing and weeping. I am so often disappointed by myself but perhaps what Sam has to teach me here is that his heartbreaking choice to stay with Frodo is all the more praiseworthy because it was reached through tears and curses. So too the finding of peace for an anxious person is more praiseworthy than for someone who simply has a phlegmatic personality. I hope so because I am a much more anxious person than I was as a young man! If growth simply means the elimination of character flaws then I have not grown. But if it is a journey through anxiety and fear to a place of peace and of trust and to make the journey over and over again then perhaps some growth has taken place.
Stephen, your reply is as full of beauty as your original post – thank you for sharing your gentle gifts as ever. There are wells in what you write.
As for anxiety and weeping and cursing… I wonder if, like Sam, life teaches us the double truth as we grow… that the world truly is a scary place, we are anxious and weep and curse because we have every reason to be so…. and yet… (and the ‘and yet’ is always so beautiful) as you explore so beautifully, hidden in these dangers and cursing and weeping, is a light faith and trust that perhaps we also glimpse all the more deeply as we see the depth of the darkness, as we come to unfold our journeys through pain to what can grow even in its soil. It is strange, isn’t it, that often the freedom comes as a gift, as it did from Frodo to Sam (in his leaving, and in the journey to that point between them both, for Sam brings Frodo freedoms too, doesn’t he in his way, even under the weight of the Ring)
Thank you for speaking so warmly and generously about what I have written. It means a lot to me.
I think that you are right in saying that the freedom comes as a gift. It always does and any freedom achieved by ourselves will have always to be maintained by ourselves. Perhaps true freedom is, as maybe Sam came to find, always a surprise. One can imagine that there came a day when Sam realised that his feet were rooted solidly in the Shire and that he was whole. Perhaps the length of time it took for that day to come was a preparation for that day. I think Dante has this insight in his Purgatorio when the souls in bondage suddenly realise, after long struggle, that they are free to make the journey into Paradise. This suddenness always seems to take them by surprise. Something that gives me hope.