Samwise the Wise

When Confucius was in Qi he heard the music of the Shao, and for three months he forgot the taste of meat. Analects, 7.14


“Me, Sir!” cried Sam, springing up like a dog invited for a walk. “Me go and see Elves and all? Hooray!” he shouted, and then burst into tears. (63)

This, Sam’s reaction to Gandalf’s announcement that he would be Frodo’s companion in the perilous adventure, reveals three essential things about him, all of which we will come to understand more deeply: his loyalty, which here is presented as canine in its instinctual simplicity; his love of elves, which now seems merely boyish in its blithe adventurousness; and his emotional volatility, which makes him seem childishly transparent. He seems appropriately innocuous, a Sancho Panza too little to overshadow Frodo’s Quixote, and not complex enough to bear the weight of the main action — and yet Sam Gamgee (humorously named after the colloquial term for cotton-wool in the Birmingham of Tolkien’s childhood) will turn out to be the real hero of The Lord of the Rings, with a soul that can hold in itself several different worlds.

As Frodo’s humble gardener, he can tend the land well, while harboring a love of exotic tales and ballads. During their first encounter with Elves,

Sam walked along at Frodo’s side, as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy. (80)

It is as if he is afraid of being woken up. The “half” that feels fear secretly knows it is really awake while clinging to the bliss of dream, while the “half” that feels astonished joy has just found out that there is another kind of “awakening” in which one’s eyes are suddenly opened to realms never before imagined. The others might assume that they are awake and never question what they take to be the waking state, but Sam is often unsure. He is much like Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream when he returns to himself.

In various magical encounters with Elfdom, Tolkien juxtaposes Sam’s response with another character’s, because he wants us to notice the special quality in Sam’s experience.

Pippin afterwards recalled little of either food or drink, for his mind was filled with the light upon the elf-faces, and the sound of voices so various and so beautiful that he felt in a waking dream. But he remembered that there was bread, surpassing the savour of a fair white loaf to one who is starving; and fruit sweet as wildberries and richer than the tended fruits of gardens; he drained a cup that was filled with a fragrant draught, cool as a clear fountain, golden as a summer afternoon.

  Sam could never describe in words, nor picture clearly to himself, what he felt or thought that night, though it remained in his memory as one of the chief events of his life. The nearest he ever got was to say: “Well, sir, if I could grow apples like that, I would call myself a gardener. But it was the singing that went to my heart, if you know what I mean.” (81)

Pippin is not insensible of the otherworldly experience of coming face-to-face with these ethereal creatures of myth, these higher souls who do everything with inconceivable beauty — but for him the experience condenses around tastes, textures and temperatures, and he can almost name them. For Sam, nearly all the exterior details have vanished into an indescribable atmosphere that is contained in the image of a simple apple, an apple that he cannot grow — but what vitalizes this atmosphere is the singing, which “goes” to his heart, his very center. Later, in Lothlorien, there is a similar contrast, but between Frodo and Sam:

The others cast themselves down upon the fragrant grass, but Frodo stood awhile still lost in wonder. It seemed to him that he had stepped through a high window that looked on a vanished world. A light was upon it for which his language had no name. All that he saw was shapely, but the shapes seemed at once clear cut, as if they had been first conceived and drawn at the uncovering of his eyes, and ancient as if they had endured forever. He saw no colour but those he knew, gold and white and blue and green, but they were fresh and poignant, as if he had at that moment first perceived them and made for them names new and wonderful. In winter here no heart could mourn for summer or for spring. No blemish or sickness or deformity could be seen in anything that grew upon the earth. On the land of Lorien there was no stain.

   He turned and saw that Sam was now standing beside him, looking round with a puzzled expression, and rubbing his eyes as if he was not sure that he was awake. “It’s sunlight and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought that Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more elvish than anything I ever heard tell of. I feel as if I was inside a song, if you take my meaning.” (341-2)

Again, it is not that Frodo is insensible, but that Sam’s sensibility is of a different order. Frodo’s experience can be described with an aching lyricism, and we can watch his mind in these paragraphs searching for words to grasp what is happening. For Sam, however, what happens is much more internal, or rather, he has lost the sense of inside and outside, just as he has lost the sense of waking and dreaming; a song for him is not something he sings, but something he lives inside. The emphasis on inside is potent: he is not just saying that he is a character in a song, but that he is inside the song itself, he is the heart of the song. If Sam were not present, the perspectives of Pippin and Frodo would be adequate to expressing an uncanny, exquisite transcendence of the mundane. In contrast, Sam brings to the whole experience a certain interiority and depth: Pippin and Frodo apprehend it as upwards, a soaring of the spirit, but for Sam it is an inwards, something within the mundane.

This quality is the foundation to Sam’s loyalty, which is encapsulated in the sentence Sam refused to leave his master. (81) It is a feudal loyalty rooted in an archaic social order, but it is not mindless, not unthinking, not a dog’s loyalty. The other characters have to be convinced or convince themselves to follow Frodo; theirs is a faith arrived at because there is no other option as compelling. Thus their faith is founded on judgment, which is in turn founded on a belief that they are capable of judging both the situation and Frodo’s place in it. Sam’s, on the other hand, is a spontaneous and absolute faith, not based on reasons or evaluation — because quite reasonably he never assumes that he is competent to judge. This is related to his inability to tell whether he is waking or dreaming; the whole world is perplexing and astounding to him. What he does see is the particular beings with whom he finds himself in relationship. Unlike the other characters, he can feel intense friendship with an animal, who has a personality and a surprisingly ordinary name — the pony Bill, who for the others is just a pony. Sam has a child’s ability to see an animal as almost everything; he is not capable of seeing “just” a pony, since for such a soul nothing is “just” anything. Everything is incomparable; for there to be a “merely” one has to presume owning a standard from which to measure everything. When Sam has to part with Bill, Tolkien writes as if tactfully averting his eyes in the last sentence:

Sam stood sullenly by the pony and returned no answer. Bill, seeming to understand well what was going on, nuzzled up to him, putting his nose to Sam’s ear. Sam burst into tears, and fumbled with the straps, unlading all the pony’s packs and throwing them on the ground. The others sorted out the goods, making a pile of all that could be left behind, and dividing up the rest. (296)

Most readers are as sad for the loss of Bill as for the loss of Gandalf. The latter comes as a terrible shock, but the former evokes the long quiet grief of all the animals we have lost. It is after the parting with Bill that Sam starts to be written about with genuine respect for an inner world that the narrator himself either cannot see or will not divulge:

“What did you see?” said Pippin to Sam, but Sam was too deep in thought to answer. (325)

The “deep in” has become characteristic of Sam. All of his actions emanate from this depth and indeed are made radiant by it. As a gardener, as a keeper of animals, and as a squire, Sam has intelligent mindfulness for the details, and is sensitive to the moods of those he cares for — but this capacity for care is established only in a heart that lives inside a song.



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