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.
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.
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.