To cry out, “I’m coming Mr. Frodo!” is one thing. Most of us have made promises in a moment of passion that we have regretted later in the cold light of day. It can be one of the bravest things that we ever do in life to keep such a promise long after the initial ardour has gone.
For Sam reality strikes home very soon as he looks out across the plains of Mordor beyond its mountainous defences towards Orodruin, the very mountain that he and Frodo have been trying to reach. It is clear that the task that lies ahead is way beyond his strength and ability. And to enter the Tower of Cirith Ungol is just as impossible. Unless…
There is one thing that he holds that might enable him to defeat his enemies and that is the Ring. Even as he ponders the possibility, “Wild fantasies arose in his mind; and he saw Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age, striding with a flaming sword across the darkened land, and armies flocking to his call as he marched to the overthrow of Barad-dûr.” Observant readers will note that there no place for Frodo in this fantasy. That is the nature of the Ring. Those who possess it have no heart room for any but themselves. Sam’s fantasy reminds us of Boromir’s, the desire to be the hero of the story and not to share that with anyone else. A moment later and we are reminded of Gandalf and Galadriel and the desire to do good.
“And then all the clouds rolled away, and the white sun shone, and at his command the vale of Gorgoroth became a garden of flowers and trees and brought forth fruit.”
It is a beautiful vision and who is better qualified than Sam to achieve it? Of course when Frodo offered Galadriel the Ring in Lothlórien it was Sam who encouraged her to take it and to put things right. Surely it is the desire of all good people to want to put things right and an obstacle to belief in God for many whose desire is to do good that God does not seem to be interested in putting things right. Well, not as interested as Sam Gamgee and people like, well, me…
Then Tolkien offers us all wise counsel as he describes the inner debate within Sam. It is striking how strong Sam is at this moment as he resists the Ring. Such strength does not come in the moment of crisis for the one who has done no inner work. When Sméagol murdered Déagol in order to take the Ring for himself we are not aware of any inner conflict. Sam’s inner work comprises two spiritual disciplines, one consciously practiced and delighted in, the other so long practiced that he is hardly aware of it even being a moral choice. The one is Sam’s love for Frodo. We noted that Sam’s fantasy had no place for Frodo but as soon as Sam becomes even half aware of this he sends the fantasy packing. The other is more complex, even controversial, and Tolkien calls it “his plain hobbit-sense”.
Sam’s upbringing has had two major influences. One has been the kindness of Bilbo who drew him into the world of imagination and delight. To have received such an invitation has been the greatest joy in Sam’s life and his love for Frodo is an act of gratefulness made deeper by all that they have endured together. The other influence has been the ungentle and highly critical voice of the Gaffer. It is a voice that comes to mind at those points in the story when Sam wants to berate himself for some mistake. The Gaffer’s guiding principle in life is to be satisfied with his lot although it also means defending his small territory, the garden at Bag End and his role in keeping it, with all the strength that he can muster.
Perhaps Sam needed both voices in his head and in his heart. They give him strength in his “hour of trial”. Perhaps too they give us a greater appreciation of what we may have regarded as negative influences as well as thanksgiving for all the love that we have received in our lives.
Gollum guides Frodo and Sam away from the dead valley of Minas Morgul up a steep stairway seemingly cut into the rock of the Ephel Dúath, the outer fence of the dark shadow of Mordor, up, up, reaching toward the pass of Cirith Ungol through which they must go in order to reach their goal at the fires of Orodruin, Mount Doom and so to destroy the Ring. Just before they are about to make the final climb into the pass Frodo and Sam take a moment to rest. To Frodo it seems that they are about to begin the “final lap” and so he must gather his strength.
As they rest Sam begins to reflect on all that they have been through together:
“We shouldn’t be here at all, if we had known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures as I used to call them.”
Sam thinks back to the times of delightful pastime when as a young hobbit in the Shire he would listen to stories at Bilbo’s knee and so found his imagination awakening and his desire to see the things of which he had heard in those tales begin to grow. For Sam these tales were adventures and his hearing of them something to which he looked forward. And just as he chose to listen so he used to feel that the heroes of the stories that he loved had somehow chosen to be a part of their own tale.
“I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk in the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport as you might say.”
So Sam used to think until he found that he was within a great tale himself. He knows that he did not choose this tale and that from the very beginning he was, in effect, chosen for it but he does not regard this as some kind of honour that has been done to him. Sam’s own involvement in the tale of the Ring began with Gandalf hauling him through an open window from the garden at Bag End into Frodo’s drawing room and even though it was his desire to see Elves and his distress at the thought that Frodo might be going away that first led him to his hiding place beneath the window he had no idea that his desire and his distress would eventually bring him to this place on the borders of Mordor. He has been “landed” in this place, in this tale and, as he puts it, that seems to be “the way of it” with the tales that really matter.
We live in a time in which the ability to shape the events of our lives and to be the mistress or master of our fate is praiseworthy almost above any other quality. As German sociologists, Ulrich Beck and Elizabeth Beck-Gernsheim put it, it is the ability to “live one’s own life” in the world. “Money means your own money, space means your own space, even in the elementary sense of a precondition for a life you can call your own. Love, marriage and parenthood are required to bind and hold together the individual’s own, centrifugal life story. It would be only a slight exaggeration to say that the daily struggle for a life of one’s own has become the collective experience of the Western world. It expresses the remnant of our communal feeling.” Thus in this understanding the adventure of all of our lives is this expression that Beck and Beck-Gernsheim speak of.
We will think more about this in the next few weeks as we pause with Frodo and Sam before attempting the pass of Cirith Ungol but just for now I hope that you can see that Frodo and Sam are not living “a life you can call your own”. As Sam puts it, their paths have been “laid that way”. And as we consider our own lives so we too must think of the tension between our desire to live a life that we can call our own and the tales that really matter.