“I Had to Choose, Mr. Frodo. I Had to Come With You.” Sam Gamgee at The Doors of Durin.”

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.

John Howe depicts Sam’s Choice at the Gates of Moria

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.

It is through all that they share together that a deep friendship is formed.

Well, I’m Back

The Three Companions make their silent way back from the Grey Havens and their farewells to Frodo and Bilbo and their glorious fellow travellers.

“At last they rode over the downs and took the East Road, and then Merry and Pippin rode on to Buckland; and already they were singing again as they went. But Sam turned to Bywater, and so came back up the Hill as day was ending once more. And he went on, and there was yellow light, and fire within; and the evening meal was ready, and he was expected. And Rose drew him in, and set him in his chair, and put little Elanor upon his lap.

He drew a deep breath. ‘Well, I’m back,’ he said.”

For me these are some of the most poignant lines in all literature, the last lines of a story that I have loved ever since I first encountered it in my teens nearly fifty years ago. When I first read those lines I was filled with a deep sadness because it meant that I would have to leave a story that had somehow taken me to its heart. Middle-earth was now a place within my inner world, a world that was now peopled with new races whose history was a part of my history. A few years ago I was walking with my dog along a lane in Worcestershire, England, with high hedges upon either side. Suddenly I was captured by the thought that Gandalf might be walking towards me in the opposite direction and that when I turned the bend in the road he might meet me there to invite me upon an adventure. I was filled with excitement at the prospect and a little disappointment when he was not there.

Sam is in that world but his own adventure is over. It was an adventure that took him to places that were far beyond his imagining. All of this is now a part of him but all of this is now over. Rosie sets the scene for his future endeavours and she is right to do so. The fire in his own hearth is lit, the meal at his own table is set and his child is upon his knee. He is a husband, a father and a householder. He grows food for his growing family in his garden and from this place, from this homestead, a place worthy of the greatest respect, he leads his community.

Sam has returned from his journey bearing many gifts. The one that all can see is Galadriel’s box, and the fruits of that gift are clear for all to see. The Mallorn Tree in the Party Field, the beauty of the children born in 1420, the flourishing of the woodlands of the Shire that Saruman tried so hard to destroy and the excellence of the beer brewed in that year that satisfied the taste of the gaffers of the Shire for long years after. Galadriel saw this for herself as she passed through the Shire on her way to the Havens and she complimented Sam on the work that he had done.

But there are other gifts too. Sam has brought a wisdom and a fortitude from his journey that he did not know before he set out. He possesses a mastery over himself and over the ebb and flow of life that could only come from being tested to and beyond his limits. And he has brought to the Shire the gifts of Elfland. Not just the box that Galadriel gave him, not just the fulfilment of his longing for beauty that was satisfied by the encounter with Gildor even before he left the Shire. Sam carries Elfland in his soul and Elfland carries him. For a time at least, the Shire will be a place that treasures the memory of Elfland within Middle-earth. Sam’s beloved daughter, Elanor the Fair, will marry Fastred of Greenholm on the Far Downs and their family, the Fairbairns, the keepers of the Red Book, will dwell in the new Westmarch on the Tower Hills and by the gift of the king will be its wardens.

The history of Middle-earth must continue but the great story, in which the Fellowship of the Ring played such a part, that brought such gifts to its peoples must now come to an end.

But all who love this tale know that they can always turn back to the first page and start again.

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.