Saturday, August 22, 2015

Reading along with the Lord of the Rings: A Conspiracy Unmasked

Chapter 5 of The Fellowship of the Ring

In A Conspiracy Unmasked Tolkien reveals that Frodo's friends have been watching his strange doings with the wizard Gandalf. Merry, Pippin, Fredgar and Samwise, realizing that Frodo is burdened with a dangerous task, have decided that he will not face it alone. As Merry tells Frodo:
'You can trust us to stick to you through thick and thin -- to the bitter end. And you can trust us to keep any secret of yours  --closer than you keep it yourself. But you cannot trust us to let you face trouble alone, and go off without a word. We are your friends, Frodo. Anyway: there it is. We know most of what Gandalf has told you. We know a good deal about the Ring. We are horribly afraid -- but we are coming with you: or following you like hounds.'
Here lies the emotional core of the first book of the trilogy, if not the entire trilogy itself: the forging of a fellowship in bonds of trust and mutual help. The first book is well named; as a reader, I care more about this fellowship than I do about any individual member of it. Frodo, Sam (and eventually Gandalf or Aragorn) are all sympathetic, but none of them are as important as the relationship that binds them. The fellowship holds a promise to both characters and readers alike: the notion that friendships can last, that even the worst troubles are best shared, and that we don't need to face the dark alone.

The tragedy, of course, revealed to any reader who bothers to scan the table of contents, is that the last chapter in this book is called The Breaking of the Fellowship. This bond of friendship will snap, and it will do so in ways precisely foretold in Chapter 5. Just as Frodo is depressed now at the thought of deceiving his friends and escaping the Shire alone, at the end of the book, he will make the gloomy decision that he must slip away by himself, as the rest of the fellowship founders around him. The remainder of the trilogy is as much a story about the ultimate reunion of the four hobbit friends as it is about the destruction of the One Ring. But I'm getting ahead of myself...

Before leaving Chapter 5, I'd like to take a closer look at the odd man out in the fellowship of hobbit friends: Samwise Gamgee. Many commentators on The Lord of the Rings, including Tolkien himself, suggest that Sam will become the central character in the trilogy -- the character who best exemplifies Tolkien's recurrent theme:
The place in 'world-politics' of the unforeseen and unforeseeable acts of will, and deeds of virtue of the apparently small, ungreat, forgotten in the places of the Wise and Great (good as well as evil)... without the simple and ordinary the noble and heroic is meaningless. (Letter #131 to Milton Waldman, 1951)
And of course Sam's loyalty to Frodo is the one fragment of the fellowship that will remain intact throughout the whole War of the Ring. But at this point in the story, it's important to understand Sam's status. He is not Frodo's friend -- he is Frodo's servant.

Sam and his father "tend garden" for Frodo, and we're told that when Frodo pretended to move to Crickhollow, the pretense was that Sam was going too so that he could "do for Mr. Frodo and look after his bit of garden". It's easy to view Sam as naturally humble, long-suffering and faithful -- but it's important to realize that these traits are not unique to Sam. They are the typical qualities expected of a servant in the heyday of the English class system.

Samwise by Citadel Miniatures
In the wake of Downton Abbey and its ilk, there has been an uptick in interest in the culture of the servant class. Most of my knowledge on this topic derives from P.G. Wodehouse (his 1915 novel Something Fresh is surprisingly good at explaining the social hierarchy among the servants in a big house). For the purposes of The Lord of the Rings, one of the most revealing things to keep in mind is that servants were not permitted to offer their opinions to their betters. Servants (like Victorian children) were to be seen and not heard.

Understanding this fact throws a new light on Sam. In the early stages of the hobbits' voyage, Sam's voice is heard only in its absence. This silence is easy to miss if you're not looking for it. Whereas Pippin or Merry are happy to complain, tease and chat with Frodo, Sam is usually silent. He doesn't sing in the bath, or scrap over another serving of mushrooms. If he does speak, he prefaces it with "begging your pardon". But this diffidence isn't inherent to Sam; after all, we know his speech changes entirely when speaking to men of his own class (like Sandyman and co. at The Green Dragon) where Sam is opinionated and voluble. 

All of this is to say, as the story progresses, we'll have to watch how Sam grows out of being more than a servant. What does he become?

To read on, here is my commentary on Chapter 6. Or you can find my commentary on Chapter 4 here.

[Image credit: Animation Still by Ralph Bakshi from The Lord of the Rings, 1978]


  1. Thanks for another wonderful post. Great to see you highlight Samwise. He's one of the most intriguing characters, I believe. He has no ring to destroy, or magic staff to light the way, or broken sword to make him a king, or royal lineage. In fact, much is made of the other members of the Fellowship's names or lineage, but not Sam.

    Frodo is a Baggins, and not only does the name carry weight in Bag Ends, his involvement in the quest is driven only by his blood relation to Bilbo. Gandalf is a wizard whose name is know throughout the realms. Strider hides his name to escape it - or perhaps, to better restore it. Boromir wears his name like a shield. Even much is made of Pippin and Merry being from prominent, if dilettante, families.

    Unlike Frodo, who's adventure is forced on him, Samwise has no moral responsibility whatsoever for delivering the ring to the fires or Mordor. And unlike any other character, he has no name of repute or standing. Yet, he has one thing: to honor a commitment to serve as Frodo's footman.

    And, here's where I think Tolkein (knowingly or not) stakes his claim as the protector of interwar Britain's social hierarchy. The one character with no name of lineage, a mere plebeian servant, becomes arguably the most heroic character in the entire series.

    Personally, I don't see this as a socialist deconstruction of western mythology - I see it as a reinforcement of the, very British, view that there is great honor in serving, no matter how small the role you're meant to play. And an admonition to the upperclass that they need recognize, with dignity, the contributions that footmen, butlers, farmers and gardeners can make when called upon to defend the realms of men.

    1. That's an interesting take on things and different to mine. Britain's class system did not collapse completely (it still exists now) but the culture of deference to one's social superiors, the idea that the upper classes where somehow cleverer and better, took a hit that it never completely recovered from.

      To my mind Tolkien with Sam is, consciously or not, demonstrating the reasons behind this. Having served in WWI, he saw the horrors and witnessed firsthand the dignity and courage of the working classes, especially his batman. Sam demonstrates that everyone is equal, and given the chance the lower classes can be as heroic as anybody. It is significant that by the end Sam is essentially lord of the manor as he and his family own Bag End and he serves several times as mayor. If Tolkien was protecting the pre-war social hierarchy then that sort of social mobility would have been completely impossible and Sam would have continued to be a loyal servant to Frodo and, following Frodo's leaving of Middle-Earth, either Pippin or Merry.

    2. Largely agree with Marcus here, but there are hints - with both Gaffer and Maggot facing down what will become the Nazgul, that the very down-to-earthness of the agrarian hobbitry gives them a strength which proves greater than that of the middle and upper classes that Sam is thrown in with. It's also nice that we get some of Sams inner monologue about leaving his old life behind - he might not speak out to his betters (yet), but as one of the 'authors' of the text we do get his point of view which brings him closer to the reader.

  2. Sam to me, becomes the hero and saves the world when Frodo fails at the end. But mighty Aragorn with his sword and lineage is just in a supporting role.
    Good discussion. Read these books over a dozen times and I am still learning things.

  3. Nice ME-34 Samwise!

    For me it's the extended side-track into the history of Buckland that we're given that caught my attention. The carving out of territory by the heroic figure of Gorhendad Brandybuck being somewhat reminiscent of Gygaxian Borderlands style D&D where at "name level" a PC is expected to carve out their own domain. The flavor is more of William Morris's Mirkwood of the Wolfings - small islands of civilisation within the Great Forest, not yet Tolkiens Mirkwood, but nontheless the same Green Wood that so haunted the medieval imagination.