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Features, Legendarium, Tolkien 101

Tolkien 101: Samwise Gamgee

08.27.10 | Kunochan | 5 Comments

Tolkien 101 is a series of short articles designed to introduce new Tolkien fans to important characters, concepts, and vocabulary from the published works of JRR Tolkien.

If you were introduced to Tolkien’s works through Peter Jackson’s film trilogy, or if you are just curious about the background of Tolkien’s invented world (his “Legendarium”), then these articles are meant for you.

If you think it strange to devote an entire article to someone as small and insignificant in the Legendarium as Samwise Gamgee, then you have bought into Sam’s own view of himself, as nothing but a simple gardener from The Shire.

But many have suggested that Sam, rather than Aragorn or Frodo, is the main hero of The Lord of the Rings; and this view was promulgated by no less an authority than JRR Tolkien himself. It’s Sam whose devotion never waivers; and Sam who ensures, through Herculean physical and mental effort, that Frodo makes it safely to the Sammath Naur or the Cracks of Doom.

(An aside: one reader wrote to Tolkien to suggest that Frodo was a “traitor” because he gave in to the Ring at the end, and therefore was not a hero at all. This reader missed the whole point – that NO ONE could have borne the ring without succumbing to it, and no one, not Gandalf or Aragorn or Galadriel or Sam, could have borne the Ring as long as Frodo did. That’s why he’s a hero.)

But, again according to Tolkien, Samwise also endangers Frodo’s mission in a very important way, which I’ll detail below.

First, a biography: Samwise Gamgee was born, probably on the Elvish New Year of March 28th, in the year 1380 of the Shire Reckoning (2980 of the Third Age). His parents were Hamfast “Gaffer” Gamgee, gardener to Bilbo Baggins, and Bell Gamgee née Goodchild. He had two brothers and three sisters.

Sam inherited his father’s position as gardener at Bag End, living on Bagshot Row at Number 3. This emphasizes the nature of the relationship between Sam and Frodo, something that is played down (although not eliminated) in the film; Frodo, like Bilbo before him, is an educated gentleman landowner, and Samwise is his freeman servant. This doesn’t mean they aren’t great friends with tremendous affection for each other, even before the events of The Lord of the Rings. The Shire really only has two castes, landowners and everyone else; there are no aristocrats or serfs, and the only official “government” positions are essentially Mayor and postal carrier. But at Bag End, Frodo is The Master, and Samwise is a servant.

Samwise is different from the other servants in Hobbiton in that he can read, and is educated about things like foreign lands and Elves and poetry and the Quenta Silmarillion. But that’s only because Bilbo and Frodo took it upon themselves to educate him; and because, unlike other Hobbits, he took an interest.

At some point so close a friendship develops between Frodo and Sam that when Frodo’s cousins Merry Brandybuck and Pippin Took, and his friend Fatty Bolger, become suspicious that Frodo intends to leave The Shire, they recruit Sam for their conspiracy. And so Samwise is drawn into the great events that lead to The War of the Ring and the Downfall of Sauron.

But what happens to Sam after the end of The Lord of the Rings? In the film, it’s all rather pedestrian – Sam marries his long-time crush Rose “Rosie” Cotton, has a baby, and shuts the door to his modest home to live happily ever after.

Samwise in the book has a far, far more interesting life. After he helps his three Hobbit friends (SPOILER ALERT) drive “Sharkey” and his minions out of The Shire, Sam does indeed marry Rosie Cotton. They have 13 children – Elanor, Frodo, Rose, Merry, Pippin, Goldilocks (yes, Goldilocks), Hamfast, Daisy, Primrose, Bilbo, Ruby, Robin and Tolman.

Galadriel’s gift to Sam was a small box containing sacred, enchanted soil from Lothlórien and a mallorn seed. Sam uses the soil to replant all the trees in The Shire cut down by Saruman’s men, and casts the rest into the air to spread its powerful enchantment across the land; and he plants the seed in the Party Field by Bag End, creating “the only mallorn west of the Mountains and east of the Sea.” Because of this great act of thaumaturgical gardening, Sam changes his family name to “Gardner,” thus proving that while Frodo and Bilbo taught Sam how to read, they didn’t teach him to spell.

When Frodo, Bilbo and Gandalf set off for the Uttermost West, Frodo leaves Bag End and all his wealth to Sam, turning the former servant into a gentleman landowner himself. Samwise also takes possession of The Red Book of Westmarch, the document you and I know as The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. The Gardners become the loremasters of the Shire.

Sam serves as Mayor of Michel Delving (the “mayor of The Shire” position I mentioned before) for seven consecutive seven-year terms.

Then, when Rosie passes away, he gives the Red Book to Elanor and leaves The Shire for the last time at the age of 102. As one of the Ringbearers, he is permitted to sail over the sea, and join Frodo and Sam in the Uttermost West.

More Sam facts:

If Sam loved anyone almost as much as he loved Frodo, it was Bill the Pony, the animal he rescues from Bill Ferny, Saruman’s agent in Bree. Although Sam fears that Bill is slain by the Watcher in the Water, the pony in fact makes it back to Tom Bombadil, and is eventually sent back to a peaceful life in Breeland.

Sam’s real Westron name is Banazîr Galbasi, which translates as “Halfwit of the village of Galabas.” Tolkien translates this into Anglo-Saxon Samwís Gamwich, then via Samwise Gammidgy into modern English Samwise Gamgee.

Tolkien actually took the name Gamgee from Gamgee Tissue, a British surgical dressing product.

Tolkien once got a letter from a real Sam Gamgee; and later expressed concern he would hear from a real-life “S. Gollum.”

So how does Sam endanger Frodo’s mission? Tolkien explains in his letters that Sam’s reasonable but intractable suspicions of Gollum lead to the disaster at Cirith Ungol. As a Catholic, Tolkien believed that anyone could be forgiven for his or her sins, even a creature as vile as Gollum. According to Tolkien, Frodo’s compassion and pity were having a real effect on Sméagol, and the creature came very, very close to actually reforming himself.

But Sam’s constant suspicious hectoring emboldened the “Gollum” half of Sméagol/Gollum, and eventually Gollum regained control. So Gollum decided to betray Frodo and feed him to Shelob, in the hopes of regaining the Ring.

Of course, it’s Gollum’s betrayal that destroys the Ring and Sauron at the end. Remember that neither Frodo nor Sam actually put the Ring into the lava – that was all Gollum, unintentionally. Maybe he’s the real hero?

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