“I’m Beginning to Think It’s Time We Got a Sight of That Fiery Mountain”. Sam Gamgee is Way Out of His Depth but It Does Not Matter.

The Fellowship of the Ring by J.R.R Tolkien (Harper Collins 1991) pp. 276-279

When we were first introduced to Sam Gamgee it was not an impressive affair. Gandalf had become aware that someone was listening to the discussion that he and Frodo had been having about the Ring and so he grabbed hold of Sam by his ear and hauled him up to the open window. But Sam’s story will end with honour. As the Mayor of the Shire, re-elected many times, he is held in high esteem by his fellows and he will be a member of the king’s council for the governing of his northern kingdom of Arnor. And like his king, who he will both love and serve through many years, at the ending of his life after the death of Rosie, his wife, he will quietly and contentedly lay everything down, but unlike Aragorn, not quite yet to die. He will make one last journey to the Grey Havens and take ship into the West in order to be reunited with Frodo and his life will end in peace and joy in Valinor.

Sam Gamgee has earth underneath his feet

To say the least Sam Gamgee goes on quite a journey and in its early stages it is one about which he has little understanding. “I’m beginning to think it’s time we got a sight of that Fiery Mountain, and saw the end of the Road, so to speak.” The Company have been on the road for about two weeks at this point and if we remember that the journey between Bree and Rivendell was only a little more than this and that no journey in the Shire was ever more than a couple of days at the most then Sam is already at the limits of his experience. As Tolkien puts it, “all distances in these strange lands seemed so vast that he was quite out of his reckoning.”

Such a thing ought to matter. Surely for a mission of such magnitude Elrond should have chosen an elite team. And yet the only person chosen at the immediate conclusion of the Council, apart from Frodo as Ringbearer, is Sam. So why was Sam chosen?

It is a theme that runs quietly through The Lord of the Rings that depth is as important a quality as breadth and perhaps even more important. Such an insight runs counter to everything that modern education values. In order to call a person educated and therefore competent to deal with the challenges of the modern world we require that they achieve a considerable breadth of knowledge. The whole notion of a curriculum, the body of knowledge that shapes every place of education, presupposes that this is self-evident. And we might ask how much attention is given to helping young people achieve depth.

Tom Bombadil expresses this quality well in his description of Farmer Maggot. “There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open.” What Tom Bombadil describes in Maggot is one who lives in his body and is rooted in the earth. John O’Donohue, the Irish poet and teacher of wisdom, would describe such a person as one who lives in rhythm with their own clay, and O’Donohue was one who was able to distill the wisdom of the Irish farming stock from which he was raised. At a deep level John O’Donohue, Farmer Maggot, Tom Bombadil and Sam Gamgee would all understand each other.

And Farmer Maggot has earth beneath his feet as well

Of course, Sam will learn much upon his journey. His imagination will expand to encompass all that he will see and experience. He will take in Moria and Lothlórien and eventually Mordor itself. He will return to his homeland and free it from Saruman’s malicious control. The breadth of knowledge and experience that he will gain will help the Shire thrive in a new world and he will offer this breadth to the governing of Arnor.

But it will be Sam’s depth that Aragorn will value most even as it will be that depth that will sustain Frodo in his journey all the way to Orodruin, the Fiery Mountain that still lies far off at this point of the story. Sam Gamgee knows the good, the true and the beautiful, not in order to take possession of them but to love them for their own sake. And he knows them, not as abstractions, but as Frodo Baggins, as Merry, Pippin, Gandalf and Strider, he knows them as the Shire and he knows them as Hobbiton, the Party Field, and his “bit of garden” at Bag End. If only we could give the same kind of energy to teaching such depth but in order to do so we need to have it ourselves.

Sam Carries Frodo to The Fiery Mountain

Whose Side is Treebeard on?

Whose side is Treebeard on in the War of the Ring? That is another way of asking the question, whose side is nature on? Treebeard himself is undecided. “I am not altogether on anyone’s side because nobody is altogether on my side, if you understand me: nobody cares for the woods as I care for them, not even Elves nowadays.”

Treebeard is on the side of the forests of the earth and since time immemorial he has been their shepherd. And what he has witnessed over the years has been the long slow defeat of the forest. Even the hobbits have not been on the side of the forest. You may remember how Merry  told his companions of the battle between his people, the Brandybucks, and the Old Forest early in their journey; of how fires had been lit by the Brandybucks to drive the forest back and a great hedge planted to withstand any further attempts at encroachment. You may remember too, how the Old Forest tried to trap the hobbits as they attempted to journey through it by forcing them down to the Withywindle and the clutches of Old Man Willow. The Forest had a long and bitter memory of Merry’s people and only the arrival of Tom Bombadil saved him and his friends from disaster and a speedy conclusion to the great Quest of the Ring. The Old Forest was not on their side.

And there is a sense in which even Treebeard’s world is divided against itself because the Ents, the shepherds of the wild forest, have long been separated from the Entwives, the tenders of the cultivated gardens of the world. In this world the untamed wilderness is the masculine principle, the animus, while the cultivated world is the feminine principle, the anima and as Treebeard says to Merry and Pippin, the Entwives “would like your country.”

Tolkien never answers the question of whether the wilderness and the garden, the masculine and the feminine, can ever live in peace together although he does seem to say that the final healing of the world will only come when they are finally reconciled. But one thing is sure and that is “there are some things, of course, whose side” Treebeard is “altogether not on… these Orcs and their masters.” For Saruman the wizard has betrayed the trust bestowed upon him by the Valar, the angelic lords of the earth, the task he was given to aid the free peoples of Middle Earth in their resistance to Sauron and that he has long been plotting “to become a Power”. Treebeard declares that Saruman has “a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment.”

And in saying this Treebeard challenges us to declare whose side we are on in the War of the Ring, whether we, like Saruman, use growing things for our own purposes, plotting to become little powers. Whether we, like Saruman, have given way to despair, believing in the inevitable victory of the dark lords of our own times, seeking only to find some accommodation with them, some way of surviving in a world that they rule. If we do then we will find that all who become, or seek to become, dark lords will have little regard for our loyalty seeking only their own ends and we will find something else too. Nature will be against us and will have its revenge upon the dark lords and all who for their own ends choose to be their allies. In our own time we are already rousing the anger of nature and would do well to find a way to make peace before it is too late.