In this biweekly series, we’re exploring the evolution of both major and minor figures in Tolkien’s legendarium, tracing the transformations of these characters through drafts and early manuscripts through to the finished work. This week’s installment explores the role of Samwise Gamgee, one of the celebrated heroes of The Lord of the Rings.
Sam Gamgee is, without a doubt, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most beloved characters. The simple hobbit’s journey from wide-eyed gardener with an inexplicable fascination with Elves to a hero hardened—but not crushed—by toil and suffering moves readers to both fondness and awe. Few can forget that stirring moment when Sam, bowed by exhaustion, thirst, and despair, lifts the incapacitated Frodo to his shoulders and hikes the winding road up Mount Doom. Tolkien himself, in a parenthetical remark, called Samwise the “chief hero” of The Lord of the Rings (Letters 161). In another place, Tolkien wrote that Sam was, of the five major hobbit-characters, the most representative of his race despite the education he received from Bilbo; this, Tolkien admitted, made him “lovable and laughable” if also infuriating and irritating (Letters 329).
Despite the monumental role Samwise Gamgee was to play in the narrative, he does not appear in the story right away. Vestiges of his fascination with the Elves and his surprising capacity for the appreciation of beauty can perhaps be found in Frodo Took, an early character who was to accompany Bingo (later Frodo Baggins) on his journey. Christopher Tolkien notes that this Frodo Took “is seen as a less limited and more aware being than Odo [a sort of early incarnation of Pippin], more susceptible to the beauty and otherness of the Elves” (The Return of the Shadow, hereafter RS, 70). Often, whole scenes and chapters in the early stages of the book come close to the final product in the published Lord of the Rings despite the fact that Sam (and Aragorn!) are not yet present. Clearly, though the hobbit’s presence alters the entire course of the narrative, his introduction affected the early chapters of the book very little.
In the middle of the third draft of “Many Meetings,” Tolkien set the chapter aside in order to get his bearings. A two-page manuscript of notes titled “Queries and Alterations” bears witness to this fact. It is here, in the margins, that Sam Gamgee’s name first appears. It floats alongside a worry that the story was beginning to have “too many hobbits” (RS 221), but at this point is still largely unattached to any specific ideas, as JRRT wrote only that Bingo [Frodo] perhaps meant to go alone, with Sam. Here the first seeds both of Frodo’s trust in Sam and of Sam’s devotion to Frodo (both complex ideas that we’ll discuss more later) appear, though little enough is done about them at this stage. In fact, Tolkien did nothing with the name “Sam Gamgee” until some time later, when he returned to the beginning and began to rewrite the early chapters.
So it is that Sam Gamgee makes his first true appearance in a chapter called “Ancient History,” which would later become “Shadows of the Past.” This chapter was inserted into the manuscript after a re-writing of “A Long-Expected Party,” in order to justify the somewhat darker turn the story was taking. Here Sam is a part-time gardener for the Baggins who is first met having a conversation with Ted Sandyman in the Green Dragon (RS 254). Even in these early chapters, Sam’s role is surprisingly complete. He is very much the Sam Gamgee of the first chapters of The Lord of the Rings, and even “the surprising of Sam outside the window, and Gandalf’s decision that he should be Bingo’s companion” is nearly in its final form—Christopher writes that it “was reached almost at a stroke and never changed” (RS 267).
It seems evident to me, upon perusing the old drafts, that the name “Sam Gamgee” birthed in Tolkien’s mind a rather complete, complex character. At one point, Tolkien made a note suggesting that Odo’s name simply be replaced with Sam’s, but the substitution was not so simple: the characters just didn’t fit (RS 273). For some time after, both Sam and Odo were hobbits accompanying Bingo, so that instead of evolving from a preexisting character, Samwise Gamgee developed his own personality and distinct function. Christopher comments that “Sam was too particularly conceived from the outset to be at all suitable to take up Odo’s nonchalance” (RS 323). He was distinct.
And what was that personality? Tolkien, writing to a reader in 1963, described Sam as having “a mental myopia which is proud of itself, a smugness […] and cocksureness, and a readiness to measure and sum up all things from a limited experience, largely enshrined in sententious traditional ‘wisdom'” (Letters 329). Sam, Tolkien said more than once, was rustic and content with a simple, hearty life. His name, derived from an Old English compound we’d translate as “half-wise,” was another reflection of that. I’d hazard a guess that we all know at least one person like Sam: a little conceited, stubborn as a mule, down-to-earth, and set in his ways, full of witty aphorisms that don’t so much help the situation as make him feel that he has a grasp on it.
Sam is, I think, gradually saved (for himself and for the reader) from unbearable small-mindedness by his genuine curiosity and reverence for things that he has no actual reference point for. Don’t get me wrong: he still tends to measure things by the lessons impressed upon him in the Shire (hence the recurring “my old Gaffer used to say” variations), but he is also capable of approaching them with a wide-eyed wonder that, over time, helps to soften his “cocksureness.”
In fact, the greatest changes in Sam’s character come not through the individual drafts or stages, but in the actual progress of the narrative itself. Small changes come and go in the drafts (in one brief episode, for example, Sam stabs a Black Rider in the back as he and Frodo flee the Cracks of Doom [Sauron Defeated, hereafter SD, 5]), but, as Christopher Tolkien pointed out, JRRT clearly had a clear vision of what and who he wanted Samwise Gamgee to be.
So, let’s take a look at Sam’s development within the narrative. The first thing to note is that the treatment Sam receives by the other major characters is decidedly classist. Sam is a working class servant, and for the most part, he’s treated like it. Everyone, even Frodo and except for perhaps Gandalf, seems surprised when Sam shows an interest in old stories or shares some bit of lore that he learned from Mr. Bilbo. Faramir tells Sam that he’s a “pert servant” (LotR 682). Frodo is consistently referred to as Sam’s master by the narrator and other characters, despite the fact that Sam rarely does so himself, and only when he is speaking about Frodo to someone of a technically higher rank, like Glorfindel, Boromir, etc. Frodo himself often takes Sam’s blind devotion for granted, as a matter of fact, rather than the unusual gift it is.
And in fact, this is one of the primary areas of growth for Sam. While he follows Frodo loyally, he does not, in the beginning, treat him with the same deference and love we see later in the tale. In fact, if my ebook search feature and my own taxed memory are correct, Sam never directly addresses Frodo as “master” until Book 4. Before that, he uses the terms “sir” and “Mr. Frodo” indiscriminately, and as noted above, only refers to Frodo as “my master” on a select few occasions (more on this later). But along with the advent of Book 4, we’re inundated with the title “master.”
What changes? The answer is two-parted. First, the first chapter of Book 4 is “The Taming of Sméagol.” The second word of that chapter is “master,” coming from Sam and directed at Frodo. In other words, Sam doesn’t start calling Frodo “master” directly until they have left the rest of the Fellowship behind and Gollum comes on the scene—at which point the hobbit’s devotion becomes all-encompassing. Sam, seeing Gollum’s pandering obeisance, transforms himself into a sort of devotary, rivaling the miserable creature in prostrating himself before his “master.” We can see a shadow of this decidedly unfriendly competition in Sam’s mocking of Gollum’s speech patterns from time to time (see “Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit”), not to mention his constant (if well-merited) mistrust of his fellow servant. Of course, Sam’s devotion is not unworthy because it began with less-than-admirable intentions. The important thing is that perhaps Sam pretended long enough that what he pretended became fact: and so he went the extra mile and sacrificed his own well-being for Frodo’s even after “winning” the competition.
Half-wise. Sam is not one of the Wise like Gandalf or Galadriel, but he does have flashes of clarity that even he doesn’t fully understand. He sees beyond face-value to a deeper level and is able to offer the most fitting description of Galadriel that Tolkien ever gives us. He sees in Faramir a high quality, some sort of spiritual light that, though he cannot name it, reminds him of wizards—spiritual messengers. He understands that Lothlórien and the Elves who dwell there have made each other, that they’re in a mutual, equal partnership. He’s the one who sees the star gleaming above the murk of Mordor and takes hope in the good that he cannot grasp.
Likewise, he recognizes in Frodo a power that is beyond him. This idea forms the core of our answer’s second part. Sam begins calling Frodo “master” because he is impelled to do so by the power of the Ring. The few times that Sam refers to Frodo as “my master” before Book 4, the influence of the Ring is a direct factor. The first two times occur just after Weathertop, as Frodo fights the Morgul blade traveling towards his heart. Later Sam uses the phrase when telling Galadriel he wishes she would take the Ring, and again when he praises Faramir for apparently understanding the pressure his master is under.
The text is sure to emphasize this idea after Book 4, too. Each time Sam refers to Frodo as “master” during a situation in which the Ring’s influence is a factor, the term is capitalized. More specifically, Sam begins calling Frodo “Master” (rather than “master”) when he returns the Ring to Frodo in Minas Morgul. That is, Sam, as a former Ring bearer, must bow to the one who holds it now. The Ring and its power has become part of the dynamic of their relationship. Take Gollum as a comparison: he calls Frodo “master” from the beginning of “The Taming of Sméagol” until Frodo’s betrayal of his confidence at the Forbidden Pool. Then, as if to emphasize that his devotion to Frodo is compelled by the Ring and nothing else, he begins calling the hobbit “Master.”
The Ring thus plays an important role in Sam’s service, just like it does that of Gollum, but I would insist that unlike Gollum’s situation, the Ring is not the most important factor in Sam’s devotion. The important difference is that Sam chooses to serve Frodo, whereas Gollum is forced into servitude, slavery even, by the power of the Ring (a heavy topic for another day). It’s easy, good even, to feel uncomfortable with the way Sam is treated as a servant. Like I said above, Middle-earth is driven by class distinctions that are never quite erased even though Sam eventually receives a place of honor in the Shire; he begins life as a servant because he isn’t landed or moneyed. We have to acknowledge that at first he has little choice in occupation or social standing.
Having acknowledged them, then, let’s set aside class discussions for a moment to look at Sam’s story in a different light. We should pay attention to the fact that the “chief hero” of the greatest fantasy epic ever written is a servant, that he eventually chooses to be of service even as, stripped down to essentials, the hobbits have become equals. Despite this, Sam chooses to serve Frodo. Why?
I think Sam’s story contains an important lesson about doing life with other people. Let’s face it: Frodo can be difficult and irritating at times. He needs constant care; Sam looses sleep, food, and water in his vigilance. Sam runs himself ragged for Frodo’s good and consistently sacrifices his own wishes for Frodo’s sake. But what began as an ill-tempered competition eventually births in Sam something beautiful: love. At some point, he stops being smug about his devotion, stops bickering with Gollum over it. He chooses Frodo’s good every time without thought. He instinctively puts Frodo first—in fact it doesn’t occur to him to do otherwise. For Sam, service becomes a joy.
Now, the situation is obviously an exaggerated extreme. Ideally, Frodo would be reciprocating service with service; they would each seek to put the other first. What the story is trying to emphasize, though, is that Sam is sacrificing for someone who can’t return the favor, as it were. Sam is giving without asking whether or not he’s going to get something from Frodo. He just does it. And that’s love. It would have been an important idea for Tolkien, whose Catholic sensibilities reverenced a Christ who announced that he came to serve the very least, the most destitute, and who gave without thought of personal gain.
This is an important lesson for us even now. Sam has no particular reason to love Frodo. Frodo Baggins is his employer. But service changes a person. Generosity transforms. And even though Sam begins from bad or at least less-than-desirable impulses, he eventually comes to the point at which his service is a gift that he gives out of love. As C.S. Lewis once wrote:
“What is the good of pretending to be what you are not? Well, even on the human level, you know, there are two kinds of pretending. There is the bad kind, where the pretence is there instead of the real thing; as when a man pretends he is going to help you instead of really helping you. But there is also a good kind, where the pretence leads up to the real thing.”
This is something that service, even and especially service to people we don’t know or don’t like, does particularly well. If you choose to serve and do so faithfully, service will become the midwife of love—and we could use a lot more of that in this world.
Sam’s story is thus an important one because it illustrates for us with startling clarity that love born of service and service born of love can save the world. It is Sam’s sacrifice and love, more than anything else, that makes the defeat of the darkness possible. And in a world being harried by darkness, fear, and hate, his life teaches a lesson we can’t afford to be slow in learning.
Megan N. Fontenot is a Tolkien scholar and fan who is thankful for the light and hope that can be found in Middle-earth, as well as the encouragement of the lessons the characters embody. Catch her on Twitter @MeganNFontenot1 and feel free to request a favorite character while you’re there!