But I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire. I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.
I’ve just started reading Eragon, the first book of the epic Inheritance Cycle. It’s the classic story of boy accidentally hatches dragon from strange rock, learns how to communicate with said dragon and sets off to avenge his uncle, with an expositional not-wizard along for the ride.
Being a fantasy tale set in a world of magic and strange beings, it of course has a generous helping of tropes, the most obvious of these being ‘The Chosen One’. When you’re telling an adventure, quest or epic journey story, it is essential to give your hero a reason for leaving the comforts of home and setting out into the great unknown. The revelation that you are the only person capable of fulfilling an essential task is a pretty compelling reason to saddle up your horse, grab a few potatoes and hit the road. The fate of the world resting in their uninitiated hands has driven on many a reluctant literary hero.
But there are only so many of these kinds of protagonists that I can handle. The trouble with chosen ones is their potential to become, dare I say it, boring.
‘Oh look, they’ve dodged yet another impossible scenario with their Epic Skill. Wow, they’ve gained yet another magical ability at the exact right moment. Oh look, that Thing they can do really well just happens to be what they need to solve this situation. And yes of course, they’ve become a master of this particular fighting skill very quickly and just before they need it, despite never so much as touching a sword before their journey began.’
My love of fantasy was instilled in me at a pretty young age – seven, to be more or less exact. But I didn’t wander into Middle Earth until my middle teen years, and this is an oversight I very much regret. A friend offered to lend me the extended DVDs, but only if I read the books first. It took a few chapters for me to fall in love, but it wasn’t the rich backstory of the world, the languages and lore of the distinct races, or Frodo’s valiant decision to accept Chosen-one-ness that won me over.
It was Samwise Gamgee.
I’m not good at having favourite books, or characters, because there are just too many choices to make it fair, but Sam offers a very compelling case for why he should be not only my favourite Tolkien creation, but my favourite literary character of all time.
Without Sam, Frodo would definitely have died long before Mount Doom. Probably before he’d properly left the Shire. This is a fact Frodo himself acknowledges in The Two Towers when they talk of their journey becoming a tale for future generations. While dubbing him ‘Samwise the Brave’, he honestly admits, ‘Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam’.
Don’t misunderstand me, I love Frodo too. He was unquestionably brave and selfless, willing to sacrifice his health, sanity and life so that the Shire and the rest of Middle Earth could live in peace. At the end of the journey, the physical and mental toll of being a Ring-bearer leaves him unable to stay in the world he helped save, which he rationalises as ‘some one has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them’ – and here it is hard to not be reminded of Tolkien’s World War I service.
In the film, Frodo stops a potential war between the elves, dwarves and humans from erupting over ownership of the Ring. The meeting’s a lot less volatile in the book, but still he volunteers for the quest when nobody else is willing. He sees it as his responsibility to destroy the Ring, despite having already been damaged carrying it to Rivendell.
But he’s still a little bit of a disaster. In The Fellowship of The Ring, he engages in two major battles – firstly at Weathertop against the Nazgûl, and then against orcs and a cave troll in the Mines of Moria. He nearly dies both times. He spends a large portion of his world-saving mission walking through Middle Earth, stopping everyone from trying to take the ring (when he’s not offering it to them) and moping about. He doesn’t gain any special abilities or power throughout his journey – in fact he grows weaker and more weary with each trial. He’s nearly devoured by a giant spider, almost captured outside Mordor, and fails to let go of the ring at the very final step in Mount Doom.
The mission is saved because of Sam many times. Gandalf frames it that Sam was sent along in the first place as a punishment for eavesdropping, but I think he knew how much Frodo would need him. It’s clear the quest was a success because of their Hobbity combination.
Sam’s whole being is caught up in being responsible for others. When caught by Gandalf, his concern at being turned into something ‘unnatural’ isn’t for himself but for his father’s reaction. He conspires with Merry and Pippin to stop Frodo, eternal self-sacrificer that he is, setting out from the Shire completely alone. When Frodo jokes about being given the heaviest stuff to carry, Sam ‘untruthfully’ claims he can carry more. And this is all before their adventures began.
Sam puts himself between Frodo and every danger, be that Nazgûl, weird strangers with swords called Strider, Gollum/Sméagol, hunger, or Frodo’s own resolve. He’s defensive to the point of rude on more than one occasion. At the gates of Mordor, separated from his master and friend, ‘his love of Frodo [rises] above all other thoughts’ and allows him to continue against impossible dangers and odds. And who can forget the cinematic imagery of Sam’s sinking hand as he plunges into the river after Frodo, despite being unable to swim?
His nobility is not just evident to Frodo, but also noted by Aragon and through this somewhat of a backhanded compliment from Pippin; ‘Sam is an excellent fellow, and would jump down a dragon’s throat to save you, if he did not trip over his own feet’.
It’s not his stubborn fortitude and enormous heart that makes him my favourite character. It’s how he worries over doing the right thing at every turn, and how beautifully ordinary he really is. Sam’s great wish, aside from stopping Frodo from dying, is to go home and marry Rosie.
Look at the first shots of both Frodo and Samwise in the film adaptation; it’s a subtle revelation of their true characters and values. Frodo is under a tree, ignoring the landscape around him, lost in a book. He’s seeking escapism – adventure! In contrast, Sam is first shown gardening – a fitting demonstration of his need to nurture.
Due to Bilbo’s influence, Frodo always feels a pull towards life beyond the green hills, and the other Hobbits notice his differences. But Sam is content, rooted as firmly in the Shire as his plants. It’s much more of an effort for him to give up his comfort because a wizard said so.
Samwise Gamgee doesn’t see himself worthy of great quests, just a servant helping the true hero. He agonises over being unworthy and not worthy to take the Ring when he thinks Frodo has died, yet he is able to come into possession of it and hand it back almost without hesitation. Sam is a better role model than a Chosen One; no prophecy or destiny makes him act the way he does.
But Sam would probably want us to focus on Frodo’s excellence too, as a jewellery transporter and a trope breaker. Frodo doesn’t wholly fit the ‘Chosen One’ definition, and not just because of his lack of special skills. Boromir’s prophecy mentions a Halfling stepping forward, but it could be argued Frodo fulfilled that by presenting the Ring to the Council. Elrond’s grand speech about ‘small hands [doing the deeds] because they must, while the eyes of the great are elsewhere’ is definitely hinting that only a Hobbit could be the ring bearer, but he places no demands on Frodo, and even tells him he doesn’t have to do it when Frodo speaks up. There’s probably a case to make that both the Bagginses were destined to end where they did, and Gandalf knew this it all along, but from Rivendell onwards this is an adventure Frodo opts into. (And technically he doesn’t even complete the quest himself – Gollum accidentally throws himself and the One Ring into Mount Doom’s free spa.)
And honestly, I’m glad to read it this way.
When properly applied this trope can be inspiring, but there’s danger underneath it. Far too many of these heroes have little control over their own lives. A prophecy, or a sentient dragon, or a weird set of rules binds them to their task. This is terrifying – sure, we enter fantasy worlds to escape the real one, but we’ll always see it reflected there; that’s fantasy’s purpose. And who would want to be locked into an immovable fate that must be fulfilled to prevent disaster? This is not a reflection I want to absorb into my worldview.
I am a ball of anxiety pretending to be a human without the trenchcoat. One of my brain’s favourite lies is that I am responsible for everything bad in the world. Totally irrational I know, but still I’m stuck with the overwhelming dread that I have yet to do everything I can to save the world. All-powerful solo saviour characters help to reinforce the possibility that the world falling apart could be my fault. It’s more inspiring to see a character recognising a need and choosing to take responsibility for fixing it, despite their lack of personal power. That’s a courage I can replicate without the guilt that I’m choosing the wrong path. With the road wide open, there is only where we are willing or unwilling to walk.
The Lord of the Rings makes it clear that great quests should never be solo ventures. It’s a lesson repeated from the very beginning. The onus is never solely on Frodo to get it done – ‘the Council gave him companions so the errand should not fail’, as Sam realises in The Two Towers.
It should never be for one person to do all the work – a lesson very prevalent in today’s climate of political unrest and environmental breakdown. There won’t be one human being with a masterplan who will suddenly emerge and throw a magic sword at the Amazon. It’s on all of us to do what good we can when the dark days come.
Tolkien didn’t intend his work to have any kind of meaning or message, yet it effortlessly becomes a homage to the truest definition of friendship and love, and the power of ordinary people’s actions. Frodo’s brave enough to do what he can to fix the world, and Sam’s determined that he will not have to do so alone.
Samwise reminds me not only to be that support for the people I care about who embark on difficult quests, but to appreciate those who support me as I climb my own Mount Dooms. Samwise is a lesson that while great friends can’t take all of our worries and burdens away, they can carry us onward with their words and actions. They see our goals, recognise our potential and make our purpose their priority too.
Don’t despair if you’re not a Chosen One – it’s just as important to be a Samwise.
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