The Hero’s Journey of Sam Gamgee

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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The Marriage of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton

Tolkien gives the unmarried women of his story something that he did not give to his own wife. When critics sneered at what they regarded as the bachelor atmosphere of Tolkien’s work, a kind of Drones Club (the club in which P.G Woodhouse’s, Bertie Wooster was a member) in a heroic tale, Tolkien replied that it would be irresponsible for an unmarried man to marry before going to war. A husband is one who, in Old English, is bonded to his house and land and cannot leave them.

Tolkien did not follow this principle. As he wrote to his son, Michael in 1941:

“On January 8th I went back to her [Edith Bratt], and became engaged, and informed an astonished family. I picked up my socks and did a spot of work… and then war broke out the next year [July 28th 1914], while I still had a year to go at college. In those days chaps joined up, or were scorned publicly. It was a nasty cleft to be in, especially for a man with too much imagination and little physical courage. No degree: no money: fiancee. I endured the obloquy, and hints becoming outspoken from relatives, stayed up, and produced a First in Finals in 1915. Bolted into the army: July 1915. I found the situation intolerable and married on March 22nd, 1916. May found me crossing the Channel… for the carnage of the Somme.”

I will leave my readers who want to know more about the story of John and Edith to one of the excellent biographies of Tolkien. Here we are going to think a little about the story of Sam Gamgee and Rosie Cotton.

Sam joined up or, rather, was conscripted, in April 3018 in the Third Age or 1418 in the Shire Reckoning. He already had an understanding with Rosie Cotton and here I wish to express my admiration for Rosie. She was a farmer’s daughter. Her father owned his own house and land. Sam was only a the son of a land worker with no prospects that this might change. The heirs to Bag End were the Sackville-Bagginses and given their known reputation were unlikely to be overly generous to their retainers. Sam was only a servant and not a master. Rosie was the daughter of a master, and so, just like Gandalf, she must have seen something in him that others might have been slower to see.

Her judgement proved accurate. Sam may have left the Shire a servant but he returned to it as one of the lords of his people. Frodo says as much to the sceptical Gaffer in Rosie’s hearing. “He’s now one of the most famous people in all the lands, and they are making songs about his deeds from here to the Sea and beyond the Great River.” All of this is way beyond the Gaffer’s rather limited imagination and so he quickly puts it out of his mind but “Rosie’s eyes were shining and she was smiling at [Sam]”.

Rosie never quite understood in what way her man had become famous and so, unlike Arwen to Aragorn or Éowyn to Faramir, she never became a “soul mate” to Sam. As Sam said to Frodo, as far as Rosie was concerned, Sam had “wasted a year” in which they could have got on with the really serious business of creating a home and family.  Did Sam mind? I suspect that his reference to himself as feeling “torn in two” means that he did, at least in the half of him that longed for the life that Frodo represented. He became very close to his daughter, Elanor, and when, after Rosie died in a good old age, Sam made his last journey across the Sea to the Undying Lands, he gave the Red Book to her and to her husband, Fastred, Warden of Westmarch as he was leaving the Shire for the last time.

Rosie and Sam may not have had a deeply romantic relationship but they do not seem to have complained about the lack of one. Rosie had the satisfaction of seeing her husband become Mayor of the Shire and along with Merry and Pippin, Counsellors of the King in his northern kingdom, and Elanor become a maid of honour to the Queen.  The marriage of Rosie Cotton and Sam Gamgee was a good one and I hope that when the time came for Rosie to say farewell to this life she was able to do so in peace and in contentment.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sam Gamgee: Warrior and Gardener

In the last few weeks I have been reblogging some early posts on the four wanderers from the Shire and this week I want to offer one on Sam Gamgee that I wrote in June 2015.
As well as my own thoughts on Sam’s journey to greatness there are some very special comments at the end. June 2015 was a particularly poignant time in my life as my mother died early in that month and each comment felt like a friend coming by in order to sit with me. I am grateful to each and every one. And they shared such wonderful thoughts. They are so good that this post is worth reading for them alone. And if you have any more then please share them. I love to read them and to reply as well.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

Sam Gamgee never intended to be a warrior. To be the best gardener that he could be, working in the garden of Frodo Baggins at Bag End, was an ambition sufficient for him. And he did not resent his lot because he loved Frodo. If he cherished a secret desire then it was to see the world that he had begun to learn about through the stories of Bilbo; but his secret desire had never turned into a root of bitterness within him.

So it is that when he first encounters a battle “of Men against Men” Tolkien tells us that “he did not like it much”. Faramir, Captain of Gondor, has left him with Frodo in the keeping of Mablung and Damrod, two Rangers of Ithilien, for a battle has to be fought. A force from the south is marching toward the Black Gate in order to join the…

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Sam Gamgee Remembers a Gift to Heal the Hurts of the World.

As always, Saruman underestimated the capacity of those that he made his foes to undo the harm that he sought to do to them, and he greatly underestimated the power of good in the world. In many ways the final chapter of The Lord of the Rings is a celebration of  that goodness. And the goodness is given graciously and abundantly.

I ended last week’s reflection on the death of Saruman lamenting one who, in Wordsworth’s words, “laid waste his powers”, meaning Saruman, and then hinted at one who, in his labours to restore the Shire discovered power that had lain hidden deep within him. Of course I am speaking of Sam Gamgee.

It is typical of Sam that he gets down to work straight away to remove all traces of Saruman’s malign influence upon the Shire and to begin to restore it “as it ought to be”. Sam finds many willing helpers. Perhaps some hobbits might have been ashamed of their failure to stand up against the invaders and wished to make amends. There might even have been some among the more willing collaborators who might wish to do so also. Let us hope so. Tolkien does not tell us.

But it isn’t until Sam begins to ponder the destruction of the trees and how it might only be his great-grandchildren who might see the Shire as he once knew it to be that he remembers the gift that Galadriel gave him in Lothlórien. It is a box of plain grey wood with no decoration save a single silver G rune set upon it.

“If you keep it and see your home again at last, then perhaps it may reward you. Though you should find all barren and laid waste, there will be few gardens in Middle-earth that will bloom like your garden, if you sprinkle this earth there.”

When Sam at last remembers Galadriel’s gift it is typical of him at this stage in his life that he is more afraid of making wrong use of it than he is confident in his power to use it well. It is Frodo who rightly encourages him saying, “Use all the wits and knowledge you have of your own, Sam… and then use your gift to help your work to help your work and better it.”

It is a fundamental principle of faith and of life that grace perfects nature and so it is with Sam here. It is not that Sam had to start the work in order that the grace given in Galadriel’s gift could build upon it. It is that the person that Sam has always been in potential is now revealed in the grace given to him through the gift.

Galadriel saw Sam’s greatness in his vocation as a gardener. That he was one who could turn a wasteland into a place of abundance. Her gift allowed Sam to discover that in himself. Perhaps Gandalf caught a glimpse of that greatness when he caught Sam by the hair and dragged him through the open window into the sitting room at Bag End. Gandalf may have spoken of punishment in sending Sam with Frodo but the punishment would have been Frodo’s if Sam had been a fool. Gandalf sees enough of what Sam will become to choose him for the great adventure.

Frodo’s challenge to Sam’s wits and knowledge proves sufficient. Sam travels the Shire doing his work. He plants saplings everywhere and places a grain of Galadriel’s gift by each one. He plants the little silver nut that the box contained in the party field at Hobbiton. And then he stands at the Three-Farthing Stone and casts what remains of the earth into the air “with his blessing”.

The result is wonderful and the year 1420 is a “marvellous” year. Even the children are extraordinarily beautiful, the beer becomes a thing of legend and the silver nut proves to be a mallorn, a wonder of the world. Sam’s faithful journey with Frodo, even after seeing the vision of destruction in Galadriel’s Mirror, is rewarded. Perhaps it is his father, the old curmudgeon, the Gaffer, who puts it best. “It’s an ill wind as blows nobody any good… And All’s well as ends Better!”

Sam discovers a greatness and a power within himself, perfected by grace, that  Saruman squandered. Saruman’s soul became the very wasteland that he took pleasure in making. But goodness is the stronger as Sam reveals in his labours.

 

The artwork this week is by Edward Beard Jnr

 

Saruman and Gandalf: The Spiritual Guides of our Day

Last week I reblogged a piece that I wrote in February 2015 entitled How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide contrasting Gandalf the enabler and giver of courage to Saruman the controller and director. This week I want to post a piece that I wrote in January 2015, a few week’s earlier, that also contrasted them. In this case it is about Gandalf the Wanderer and Saruman the Builder. Do let me know what you think about this.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

Soldiers everywhere have a clear sense of priority and Tolkien, drawing on his memories of the trenches of the First World War, knew that well. The sharing of news, unless that news requires immediate action, must always follow after food and some rest. So it is that it is only after they have feasted together and smoked in companionable silence that Merry and Pippin begin to tell the tale of the Fall of Isengard and the revenge of the natural world against the world of the machine.

“An angry Ent is terrifying,” said Merry. “Their fingers and their toes just freeze onto rock; and they tear it up like bread-crust. It was like watching the work of great tree-roots in a hundred years, all packed into a few moments.”

Saruman at first is utterly bewildered by an attack that he never anticipated so it is the bewildered wizard that the…

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Saruman’s Long Years of Death are Finally Revealed in His Corpse.

Tolkien offers us two different ways of responding to Saruman’s end at the door of Bag End.

The second is the simple anger of the hobbits who have just fought their first battle and lost friends and family to Saruman’s bandits. They seek that form of justice which is retribution.

The first is Frodo’s, his pity and his horror.

“I do not wish him to be slain in this evil mood. He was great once, of a noble kind that we should not dare raise our hands against. He is fallen, and his cure is beyond us; but I would still spare him, in the hope that he may find it.”

Frodo’s own story has been one of profound self discovery and he has learned the pity of which the 14th century mystic, Julian of Norwich speaks when she tells us of the God who “looks upon us with pity, not with blame”. He remembers the horror of Boromir’s transformation through his lust for the Ring, of the first encounter with Gollum when he realises what he would become if he gave into it and the journey through Mordor in which he tastes the endless living death that is the hopeless end of all its slaves.

Perhaps it is this last experience that he sees revealed in Saruman’s body when he gazes upon “the long years of death” that Saruman’s existence has become. It is Frodo’s eyes through which we look upon the corpse, not Sam’s and certainly not the hobbits who are veterans of just one battle. Sam faithfully walked with his friend through the valley of the shadow of death but even he did not taste it as Frodo did and learned the pity that comes from that taste. And when Frodo speaks of his hope for a cure for Saruman it is because he hopes for one himself.

That is the difference between Frodo and Saruman. That among many. Frodo longs for a cure and for rest. Saruman no longer has hope for a cure, for mercy, and has learned even to hate it. Frodo will not find a cure in Middle-earth, and Saruman knows that, but he will pass into the West, the true home from which Saruman once came but now despises and Saruman can no longer see even the possibility of the journey that Frodo will take. Frodo’s body will be healed in the West and even more than this he will find peace. He will be at peace with himself.

The poet William Wordsworth once looked out over the sea and wrote unhappily, “The world is too much with us; late and soon, getting and spending we lay waste our powers”. The long dead, yet still existing, Saruman, is, in his entirety, the complete expression of one who has laid waste his powers. When Treebeard described him as a man with “a mind full of metal and wheels” it was more than a metaphor. Saruman has become that about which he has long thought. He is as lifeless as his machinery.

And what of the powers that he has laid waste? Perhaps here lies the greatest warning to the digitally obsessed minds of our own times. Compare Saruman to Gandalf. Gandalf has lived out his long sojourn in Middle-earth at the pace of its peoples. In his going out to each of them he has never sought to force them to his own will and he has waited for the inner and truest life of each to be revealed. Gandalf never goes beyond the power that is his gift. Neither should we. We do not have the power that is Gandalf’s but we have our own and it is far greater than most of us know and can only be found through years of humble self-discovery and sheer hard work and perseverance.

Saruman soon lost patience with the slowness of the Divine Spirit in Middle-earth just as Sauron did and he gave his life to the getting and to the spending that seeks the enslavement of others. Next week we will think about one who discovers his power through the time and work he gives to clearing up after the mess that Saruman has left.

 

I am informed that the title and artist of the artwork in this week’s post is The Scouring of the Shire by Inger Edelfelt

How to Choose the Right Spiritual Guide

On Monday I want to write about Saruman’s tragic end and as I began to think about it realised that I had touched upon the main themes in a post that I wrote over three years ago that I am reblogging here. It didn’t get many readers the first time round so I hope that it will get many more this time. The main thing that I seek to achieve here is to contrast Saruman and Gandalf. When you do read it I hope that you will let me know if I have succeeded in getting them right.

Wisdom from The Lord of the Rings

Two weeks ago I wrote about Saruman and Gandalf as the spiritual guides of our day trying to show how Saruman had come to put his trust in the exercise of power through things that are made for indeed the thing he desired most was the Ring, the ultimate expression of power and Sauron’s greatest work. If our spirituality is a description of that which we desire most and that which we make the ground of our being then Saruman and those like him are indeed spiritual guides.

Saruman sees all reality as an expression either of power or weakness. Only that which enables the expression of power has any validity. And those he considers weaker than he is only have validity in so far as they may further his own ends. The problem for him as we have seen is that his estimate of strength and weakness is desperately…

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The Fall and Rise of Meriadoc Brandybuck and the Battle of Bywater

If you click on the tag, Merry, at the foot of this post you will find a series of reflections on his progress through The Lord of the Rings at least since I began to publish them on WordPress in October 2013. At that point I had just begun to read The Two Towers and so my first encounter with Merry was as a prisoner of the Uruk Hai of Isengard. I intend to return to The Fellowship of the Ring later in the year and hope to do it better justice than I did when I wrote my early reflections on another website. But even though the reflections on Merry’s early story are missing from this blog I hope that you will see that they do form a true “pilgrim’s progress” as do all of the stories of the major major characters in Tolkien’s great tale.

Merry’s story is of a soul formed through a fall and a rise and if you have already noted that this is the opposite direction to the journey that Lotho Pimple takes and that we thought about last week then you are right. The tragedy of Lotho’s story is not so much that he fell but that he did not live to face the truth about himself and so to rise again. I wrote last week about gaining the world and so losing the soul. Lotho never saw the grace of losing the world before Wormtongue murdered him.

Merry begins The Lord of the Rings as a competent organiser just as he is at the Battle of Bywater when he takes command of troops who have no experience of battle but plenty of spirit and leads them to victory over Saruman’s brigands. Merry slays the leader of the outlaws who, if he had known that the hobbit that he faced had done battle with the deadliest warrior of the Age and lived to tell the tale would never have dared to confront him.

At our first meeting with Merry he is the “leader” of the conspiracy that seems to know more about Frodo’s business than he does. He has food, hot baths and ponies organised at Crickhollow and a secret escape route from the Black Riders through the Old Forest about which he also has local knowledge. But as soon as he is in the forest he is out of his depth, he has to be rescued from Old Man Willow by Tom Bombadil and he remains more or less out of his depth for the rest of the story.

Which of us is ever at our ease in being out of our depth? I mean, truly out of our depth, beyond our competence and in an unfamiliar element? For much of the story Merry sees himself as no more than unwanted extra baggage in someone else’s story and yet without realising it he is becoming at ease with unfamiliarity, at ease with the sense that each experience is beyond his capacity to cope with. And so, without being aware that this is what he is doing, he wins the trust of the mistrusting Treebeard and so brings about the fall of Isengard and it is in “being overlooked” at the Battle of the Pelennor Fields that he aids Éowyn in bringing about the fall of the Witch King of Angmar, the Lord of the Nazgûl. And he achieves all this because he is one who lives for love. Love for the Shire, love for his friends and love for those, like Théoden and Éowyn, who give their love to him.

And now, back on familiar territory, battle hardened but not heart hardened, he deploys his troops swiftly and effectively and so brings to a speedy end the occupation of the Shire. Does he know how he has made this journey and why he has become such an effective leader? I suspect not. But neither does he mind. It is enough that the work is done and that the Shire can begin to be healed once more but we can enjoy the growth of his soul and love him just as do all who know him well.

The Rise and Fall of Lotho Pimple

I suspect that Lotho Sackville-Baggins was well aware of the name by which he was known in the Shire although doubtless few, if any, would dare use it to his face. I rather think that he came to hold his resentment about the name close to himself as a kind of possession, one that he would nourish and that he would use in order to find energy to fuel his main project, “to own everything himself” as Farmer Cotton puts it. It takes a lot of energy to suppress the true self. To gain the whole world, as the gospels put it,  it is necessary to lose one’s own soul first.

Resentment was a part of the spiritual atmosphere in which Lotho grew up. His parents devoted over seventy-five years of their lives resenting the way that Bilbo Baggins had returned unexpectedly to Bag End from his travels and claimed possession of it once more. Lotho inherited the resentment and the belief that self-worth is intimately associated with possession. His father, Otho, was already a successful businessman growing and selling pipeweed in the South Farthing of the Shire, a business that Lotho inherited, but Lotho had a stroke of luck that transformed his fortunes.

When Saruman first became aware of Gandalf’s liking for smoking pipeweed he sneered at it. But as with every aspect of his relationship with Gandalf his attempt to show himself the superior was merely an affectation.  Saruman knew that Cirdan of the Grey Havens had chosen Gandalf above himself to receive the Elven Ring of Fire and that Galadriel had wanted Gandalf to be the head of the White Council over Saruman and he resented this.

Readers will have noted already the central role that the word, resentment, plays in this sad story, but, as René Girard shows in his mimetic theory, resentment is closely related to envy and to imitation. Saruman desired not only to possess what he perceived Gandalf to possess but he desired to be like Gandalf. He wanted to be admired as he believed Gandalf to be admired and so he began to smoke pipeweed. Of course pipeweed was never the reason that Gandalf was admired but mimetic desire has a way of playing tricks on us. We attach ourselves to certain behaviours as part of the bigger project of becoming the person we admire. In this case it was the smoking of pipeweed.

Saruman became Lotho’s biggest customer and the source of his growing wealth. In an economy based primarily on barter, like the Shire’s, in which money had not played a significant contribution up till then the sudden arrival of money changed things rapidly. Lotho began to buy up more and more property, “mills and malt-houses and inns, and farms, and leaf-plantations.” In other words he became a monopolistic capitalist.

It is necessary here to recognise that in every purchase that Lotho made in this stage of his career two parties were required. Someone had to be a willing seller as well as a willing buyer. There were plenty of hobbits for whom money appeared as a better option that the hard work required to make a decent living out of a farm or a mill or an inn or malt-house.

Eventually Lotho’s desire to grow his business empire inevitably led to resentment and he brought in Saruman’s men as enforcers. Now purchase between willing parties was no longer necessary and Lotho could simply seize what he desired but the forces that he had unleashed in the Shire were to prove too great for him to be able to control.é When Saruman was driven out of Isengard he turned his attention and his anger to the Shire. The Shire and its inhabitants had been the cause, as Saruman perceived it, of his downfall, and once he had arrived in the Shire himself he had no more need of a middle-man. Lotho who had played that role and believed it to be essential was now to discover that he was simply a tool to be disposed of when of no further use. Frodo was aware quite early in his arrival in the Shire of Lotho’s fate and that he would need to be rescued from the very forces that he had unleashed.

 

What Happens When Hobbits Fall Prey to Greed and Self-importance. (The Scouring of the Shire)

The Scouring of the Shire is one of the saddest chapters in The Lord of the Rings. We expected Mordor to be as desolate as it turned out to be and, step by step, we followed Frodo and Sam to the Cracks of Doom longing to be free of it. But then the impossible happened and the Ring went to the Fire. Sauron fell into nothingness and his realm crumbled, Frodo and Sam awoke in a soft bed in the woodlands of Ithilien and Sam cried out, “Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?”

But the spirit of Mordor was never something forced upon the world by one evil being. Sauron fed upon the selfishness, the meanness and the fearfulness of others to become the mighty lord of darkness. And he had many imitators not least Saruman of Isengard and Lotho Sackville-Baggins of the Shire. For those critics who have accused Tolkien of moral banality, of writing a simplistic “good guys versus bad guys” story, one need only read this chapter of the story to know that this criticism is arrant nonsense.

The Shire was never an earthly paradise with no knowledge of good and evil. It was never a realm of pure innocence. It was always a land inhabited by a people subject to the same passions and the same temptations as we are. But Tolkien gave us a land in which a people live securely because of the protection of the Rangers of the North and in which no one lives either in poverty or great wealth. There are two great families in the Shire, the Tooks and the Brandybucks, but although both enjoy great comfort it is a comfort shared with the community at large. Brandybuck Hall and the Great Smials of Tuckborough are more like communal villages than private residences.

But once there are those who regard the acquiring of private wealth well beyond that of their neighbours as a goal worth pursuing, a seed of meanness is sown in the Shire that will not be easily dug out. So it is with Lotho Sackville-Baggins as we will consider next week in more detail. Suffice to say at this point that it is this seed that infects the Shire and its fruits that the four companions encounter when they return from their adventures.

Some readers might wish to remind me of the avariciousness of the dwarves and their love for gold or that of Thranduil of the woodland realm or the Master of Esgaroth. To which I would answer that they are right! If it had not been for the lust for revenge of the goblins of the Misty Mountains all Gandalf’s efforts to unite the free peoples of the North against the growing threat in Dol Guldur might have ended in disaster. Tolkien’s characters are morally complex and are all subject to spiritual conflict, even the greatest of them. Perhaps especially the greatest. Only those such as the orcs who have long ago given up the inner struggle are morally simple.

The Hobbits of the Shire are far from morally  simple and when enough are encouraged to feed upon their sense of self-importance such as the Shirrifs or upon their fearfulness of the big world outside as with the easily cowed general populace then it becomes possible for a few people to take control of the whole country. I have often thought that it is only because Britain was never invaded during the Second World War that it is possible to make simplistic generalisations about “British Values”. If the Nazis had taken control there would have been plenty of British people in sympathy with their philosophy, plenty who would have collaborated simply out of self-interest and many who would have done so out of fear. Much of that which we would like to proclaim as innate goodness or decency is more the product of historical good fortune.

We should, all of us, especially those of us who live in some comfort, be grateful for our good fortune. But I do not want to be overly pessimistic about ourselves even as I wish to avoid over optimism. As we shall see there is a goodness and a courage lying deep down within the hobbits that is only waiting to be reawoken. And it dwells in us too.