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Megan N. Fontenot

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Sam Gamgee, Hero and Servant

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).

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Faramir, Captain of Gondor

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 creation of Faramir, one of the quiet heroes of The Lord of the Rings.

In a 1944 letter to his son Christopher, J.R.R Tolkien wrote:

A new character has come on the scene (I am sure I did not invent him, I did not even want him, though I like him, but there he came walking into the woods of Ithilien): Faramir, the brother of Boromir—and he is holding up the ‘catastrophe’ by lots of stuff about the history of Gondor and Rohan (with some very sound reflections no doubt on martial glory and true glory): but if he goes on much more a lot of him will have to be removed to the appendices. (79)

Tolkien’s words are tinged with self-deprecation: The Lord of the Rings was taking quite some time to write, in part because the plot was being interrupted by long and sometimes rambling discourses on the histories of languages, pipe weed, and other such distractions. Many of these passages—and Tolkien was well aware of this even as he wrote them—would ultimately be removed from the main text and either stowed away in various appendices and prologues or relegated to obscure drafts that were only discovered as Christopher arranged the History of Middle-earth series. Tolkien was “holding up the ‘catastrophe,’” and he knew it.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor (Part 4)

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 is the final one in a short series looking at Fëanor, one of the greatest Noldor, father of seven mighty sons, and creator of the Silmarils.

We’ve come now to the end of Fëanor’s story: to the infamous Oath and the havoc it wreaks on Valinor, Middle-earth, and especially the Noldor. In the title of this series of articles, I’ve called Fëanor the “Doomsman of the Noldor” for this reason. Mandos is known as the Doomsman of the Valar because he is the one who pronounces fates, sees the future, and is especially good at seeing through difficult situations to their cores. I’ve named Fëanor similarly because it is his Oath, his set of ritualized words, that bind the Noldor in a doom they can’t escape.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor (Part 3)

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 is the third in a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils. Next time, we’ll look at Fëanor’s Oath and the turmoil it inspires.

The last two installments of this series on Fëanor explored the Elf himself and his close personal relationships. We saw that his relationships with others were marked by selfishness and pride: he only kept close those who were useful to him, but in time, he pushed even these away. He listened to no one’s advice or counsel after finally rejecting Nerdanel, abandoned his father after the loss of Míriel, and estranged his other kinsmen by becoming secretive and covetous. As a craftsman he was superbly talented, and he was greater than any other of the Noldor apart from Galadriel. But his selfishness and arrogance only grew after he created the Silmarils: he hoarded their light from all eyes save those of his father and sons, and began to forget that in making the jewels, he used materials that were created by someone else. He began to claim Light as his own. Last time, we concluded with the observation that Fëanor followed nearly step-for-step in Morgoth’s pattern even as he became the Enemy’s most outspoken critic. He fell prey to the seduction of Morgoth’s lies, internalizing them, becoming their mouthpiece…

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor (Part 2)

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 is the second in a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils.

In the previous installment, we spent our time looking at the close relationships in Fëanor’s life and evaluating them in order to better understand his temperament and character. Already, we’ve seen Fëanor’s penchant for unnatural isolation, his pride, his possessiveness, and of course, his prodigious talent. His faults only increase as his skill grows.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Fëanor, Chief Artificer and Doomsman of the Noldor

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 begins a short series on that most infamous of Noldorin Elves: Fëanor, father of seven sons and creator of the Silmarils.

Most great stories have characters around which the narrative itself orbits, anchored around their charisma, their compelling stories. We see this in history, as certain figures come to dominate the terrain and stand as giants, casting shadows in the stories we tell about the human journey. Something about the lives they lived—the quality that makes them larger than life, as we like to say—pulls disparate moments and events together, allowing us to see a cohesive narrative where one might not otherwise exist. Middle-earth has figures of this caliber, too: names like Lúthien, Túrin, Idril, and Frodo suggest to us not just individuals, but rather entire stories or movements in time.

Fëanor is perhaps the greatest of these figures.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Melian, Divine Enchantress and Deathless Queen

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. In place of a new installment this week, please enjoy this encore post: Following our recent two-part discussion of Galadriel, we’re looking back at the story of her friend and mentor Melian, the incarnated Maia whose power, wisdom, and beauty were renowned in the First Age of Arda and who becomes the foremother of some of Middle-earth’s greatest heroes.

“In the gardens of Lórien she dwelt, and among all his fair folk none were there that surpassed her beauty, nor none more wise, nor none more skilled in magical and enchanting song. It is told that the Gods would leave their business, and the birds of Valinor their mirth, that Valmar’s bells were silent, and the fountains ceased to flow, when at the mingling of the light Melian sang in the garden of the God of Dreams” —The Shaping of Middle-earth, hereafter SM, 103.

This passage describes the Maia Melian before she passed over to the hither shore and took up her incarnate form in Middle-earth. Little is known about the divine mother of Lúthien when she dwelt in the Undying Lands. It’s said that she was kin to Yavanna (according to The Lost Road, hereafter LR, 241), the creator of flora and fauna and lover of trees, and that for a time she dwelt in and tended the gardens of the Vala Lórien and of Estë, as he is also called (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 147). She’s also called the fairest of all the Maiar (MR 72). And from the passage above, we know that she has a talent for music—a potent power she’ll later pass on to her similarly-gifted daughter, Lúthien. Her voice is so beautiful that all of paradise leaves off its normal activities just to listen to her. She’s the Orpheus of Arda.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Galadriel, Mighty and Valiant (Part 2)

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 is the second of two articles taking an in-depth look at the life and lessons of Galadriel, Lady of Light.

In our last column, we followed Galadriel’s story up to her arrival on the shores of Middle-earth. We saw her walk a long and heavy road from her youth as one of the greatest of the Noldor in the glory days of Valinor to the turning point of her life, as she stands “tall and valiant among the contending princes” (Morgoth’s Ring, hereafter MR, 112-113), to the horror of the Helcaraxë. There, she, along with Fingolfin and his sons, secures the survival of her people, and with great losses and an enduring bitterness against the house of Fëanor, they emerge in Middle-earth. In defiance of despair they “[blow] their trumpets in Middle-earth at the first rising of the Moon” (Sil 82).

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Galadriel, Mighty and Valiant

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 is the first of two articles taking an in-depth look at the life and lessons of Galadriel, Lady of Light.

Galadriel’s first words in The Lord of the Rings position her firmly within the tradition of Tolkienian women. When the Fellowship reaches Lothlórien, and it becomes clear to the Lord and Lady that Gandalf is not with them, Celeborn is concerned. Was there a change of plans? he wonders. Or perhaps he misunderstood Elrond’s message? Galadriel, and not one of the Company, responds. “‘Nay, there was no change of counsel,” she informs her husband, speaking in a voice unusually deep. “Gandalf the Grey set out with the Company, but he did not pass the borders of this land. Now tell us where he is; for I much desired to speak with him again. But I cannot see him from afar, unless he comes within the fences of Lothlórien: a grey mist is about him, and the ways of his feet and of his mind are hidden from me” (LotR 335).

[Galadriel, we can infer here, is something of a seer…]

Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Gandalf, Kindler of Hearts

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, by special request, takes a look at some of the more obscure aspects of the beloved and mysterious wizard Gandalf.

Gandalf is, without a doubt, one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most iconic characters. The wizard’s good-hearted, grumpy, mysterious persona has influenced more than a few modern wizards (we won’t name names), and few who have encountered him, whether in Middle-earth or in our primary world, leave the experience unchanged. While he doesn’t seem to be a common favorite among younger readers (check out Luke Shelton’s work on readers’ experiences with The Lord of the Rings for more info), Gandalf tends to make an impact on adults, who find themselves drawn to his dry wit, his gruff kindness, and his commitment to doing what needs to be done and saying what needs to be said regardless of consequences. And in the wake of Ian McKellan’s masterful portrayal of the old wizard in Peter Jackson’s adaptations…well, suffice it to say that Gandalf has quite a legacy.

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A Weapon With a Will of Its Own: How Tolkien Wrote the One Ring as a Character

In September 1963, Tolkien drafted yet another of a number of letters responding to questions about Frodo’s “failure” at the Cracks of Doom. It’s easy to imagine that he was rather exasperated. Few, it seemed, had really understood the impossibility of Frodo’s situation in those last, crucial moments: “the pressure of the Ring would reach its maximum,” Tolkien explained; it was “impossible, I should have said, for any one to resist, certainly after long possession, months of increasing torment, and when starved and exhausted” (Letters 326). Even had someone of unmatched power, like Gandalf, claimed the Ring, there would have been no real victory, for “the Ring and all its works would have endured. It would have been the master in the end” (332).

It would have been the master.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Aulë, the Artist’s Pattern

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 takes a look at the role of the Vala Aulë in the legendarium, specifically questioning his appearance in the background of other characters’ narratives.

As I’ve written these character studies this year (since February, to be precise!), I’ve found that the Vala Aulë has been a consistent presence in many of the pieces. His influence is surprisingly pervasive, especially for a Power who has neither the might of Manwë nor the actual textual presence of, say, Varda, Morgoth, or even Ulmo. What better way to close out the year, I thought to myself, than to investigate why this is the case?

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: The Many Faces of Finduilas

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 appearances of the name “Finduilas” and tracks how Tolkien’s use of this name becomes symbolic, consigning the women who bear it to the grave as markers of another’s failures and successes.

Tolkien was no stranger to the art of recycling character names. For the most part, these characters have little to nothing in common beyond their shared monikers; rather, it seems that the linguist in the dear Professor just couldn’t bear to let a good compound go to waste. Every so often we see traces of one character in another (like the Legolas Greenleaf of Gondolin and the Legolas of the Fellowship); at other times, though these are fewer and further between, Tolkien makes an effort to adjust the timeline to allow the reused names to refer back to the same character (as in the case of Glorfindel). It’s rare, though, that either of these things happens to important or unique names. There may be multiple and varied Denethors, but there’s only one Gandalf, one Frodo. Though Aragorn’s name is repeated, that repetition is important symbolically: his genealogy is a significant part of his claim to the throne and his ability to command the respect and loyalty of his followers.

What, then, do we do with recycled names that are not only unique and significant, but that also seem to carry with them specific character traits and connotations?

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: Saruman, Man of Craft and Fallen Wizard

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 tracks the rise and fall of one of Middle-earth’s most enigmatic villains, Saruman: one-time head of the White Council who famously falls under the spell of Sauron, betraying the mission entrusted to him by the Valar.

The five Wizards of Middle-earth are a constant source of mystery and confusion. Little to nothing is known about the two Blue Wizards, Alatar and Pallando; Radagast remains a sylvan enigma; only Gandalf and Saruman are given the narrative space necessary to flesh out their characters, but even then the resulting sketch is frustratingly unfulfilled at best. Of Gandalf more is directly known because of his relationship with Hobbits and his central role in the resistance to Sauron, but what of Saruman? The traitorous wizard’s character and motivations are never fully developed in The Lord of the Rings, and readers are left to assume that pride and lust for power lead to his undoing. This is a fair interpretation of Saruman’s role in The Lord of the Rings, but Tolkien’s drafts and left-behind notes paint a fuller picture of his treacherous Power—one that allows us to track his fall from wisdom into folly, and hopefully understand just how it happened that an emissary sent by the Valar themselves could so radically fail in his task.

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Exploring the People of Middle-earth: The Witch-King of Angmar, Lord of the Nazgûl

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 looks at the Witch-king of Angmar, Sauron’s secret weapon and the captain of the armies of Mordor.

The Witch-king of Angmar plays a fascinating role in the textual history of The Lord of the Rings, not least because his history develops in his wake. Unlike many of the figures from earlier ages who haunt the tale, the Witch-king arrives on the scene with nothing to his name: no past, no realm, no form, and only a vague purpose. In other words, where characters like Glorfindel, for example, are dropped in wholesale from older stories, the Witch-king develops alongside of—and in some cases after—the main narrative.

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