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Samwise the Stouthearted: A Smaller Servant of the Secret Fire

Updated: Feb 11



Painting of Sam's promise to Frodo from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the RIngs
"Don't you leave him" - Miriam Ellis

A first-time Tolkien reader might almost miss it. The Fellowship of the Ring is moving along at its unhurried pace across the Shire. The hobbits have just passed their unforgettable night with Gildor Inglorion and his folk above Woodhall.


"More Than Chance" - Miriam Ellis

They've awoken to find the elves gone, having left food behind for the hobbits. It's a fine morning at the edge of the wood, at the rim of a vast journey.


Endearingly, little Pippin is running about on the grass singing to himself. It is one of those glimpses J.R.R. Tolkien gives us of the charming simplicity of the hobbits which make us take their part and feel protective of them. And, of note, the "merry voice" of Frodo's young cousin similarly affects him. Frodo is deep in thought, eating his breakfast a little ways off, determining that he can't possibly follow Gildor's advice to take trustworthy friends along with him into the peril he faces. In his goodness, Frodo Baggins is making up his mind to endure everything quite alone rather than lead his friends and relations into exile, hunger and weariness.


But this is when Frodo notices that Sam is watching him.



"If you don't come back, sir, then I shan't, that's certain," said Sam. "Don't you leave him! they said to me. Leave him! I said. I never mean to. I am going with him, if he climbs to the Moon; and if any of those Black Riders try to stop him, they'll have Sam Gamgee to reckon with, I said. They laughed."


In recounting the conversation he'd had the previous night with the elves, Sam takes the decision out of Frodo's hands and appears to write his own doom. Through Frodo's eyes, we see that Sam seems "unusually thoughtful" and as if he has undergone some sort of "odd change". Sam goes on to explain that he knows he has "something to do before the end." He talks of being able to see forward. Strange speech, indeed, for this humblest of hobbits whose province ought rightly to be confined to "cabbages and potatoes", as the Gaffer says. In other words, Sam appears to have become inspired.


And as I've been listening to the most recent, brilliant, excruciating episodes of The Prancing Pony Podcast in which listeners are crawling inch by inch and line by line towards Mount Doom with beloved host, Alan Sisto, I keep finding myself reflecting back to this early scene at the edge of the wood. It is an easily-overlooked watershed moment in the story with roots and consequences so profound that I would suggest they can only belong to the "Secret Fire" category of events.


Sam's oath of loyalty to Frodo will take him all the way from The Hill to the Cracks of Doom.



And though I've read The Lord of the Rings again and again across several decades, it's this time around, listening to the "PPP", that has me thinking of how it is almost impossible to imagine Frodo having made it to Mount Doom without Sam. He is not only there to fight Shelob, but to rescue Frodo from the tower, and to carry him over the last stretches of that dreadful land. Sam's faithful companionship is of inestimable spiritual help to Frodo, but at an absolutely practical level, Sam's dash for water likely prevents his master from perishing of dehydration.


The will of Eru seems evident in Frodo's quest, and so perhaps he would have gotten to Orodruin, somehow, on his own, but given the many ways in which Sam has to save him, it's beyond my mental powers to seriously entertain any alternative narrative. Sam's inner-knowing, back at the edge of the wood in the Shire was right - he had to do something before the end.


In The Stairs of Cirith Ungol, Frodo and Sam are sitting in a cleft along the wretched path to Shelob's lair, talking about being inside a story when Frodo says,

"Why, Sam...to hear you makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you've left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted."


Sam thinks Frodo is joking, but he isn't, and neither can the reader see the lofty fairytale title as a jest when we consider all that Sam sacrifices for the destruction of the Ring. When we think of him as so small a person, a little gardener, from a kindred that sings to itself as it skips about in sunny meadows, his astonishing deeds take on the light of some of the mightiest and best in the entire legendarium.


Moreover, I think Sam's intuition after the evening with the elves can, perhaps, be classed with the sub-created divine discernments of Gandalf in choosing, first Bilbo, and then Frodo, as fellow servants of the Secret Fire. This is the force which Tolkien explained to Clyde Kilby as being representative in the legendarium of what Christians call the Holy Spirit. The hobbits have little or no idea of these higher things, as we meet them in their sweet, green country in the Third Age, and Sam Gamgee seems practically incidental, at first, to the Bilbo-Frodo saga, but I suppose that is why the tale rings true. He is the overlooked one, the surprise, a sort of tiny eucatastrophe. Meek, mild, and unremarkable at first glance, Sam becomes utterly magnificent through two transformative powers: his well-remarked love for Frodo and his less-canvassed and most unusual spirit of sub-created divine inspiration.



There is every reason for Sam to want to stay at home to tend the garden, look after the Gaffer and court his sweetheart, Rosie, yet we find him confessing to Frodo,


"Yes, sir. I don't know how to say it, but after last night I feel different. I seem to see ahead, in a kind of way....I must see it through, sir, if you understand me."


Samwise isn't standing in the Timeless Halls of Manwë being shown visions, he has no palantír, no mirror of Galadriel, but a spiritual spark has been kindled in his stout heart.


His pledge of fidelity to Frodo is glorious, exemplary, unforgettable, but it is also his earnest service to the vision he's been given that classes Sam among the highest in Tolkien's body of work. He is worthy of both story and song, and he has always been my favorite. And so, I count myself among the hobbit children who might say,


"I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn't they put in more of his talk, dad? That's what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn't have got far without Sam, would he, dad?








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