Did any reader ever guess -- could any reader ever have guessed -- when first reading the early chapters of Book One that Sam Gamgee would become the final narrator of The Lord of the Rings? It hardly seems likely. While it's true of course that the Prologue twice refers to a 'Samwise' in connection with The Red Book (FR 13 and 14), his surname is never given; nor in the Tale itself is Sam ever called Samwise until Frodo does so over six hundred pages later in The Passage of the Marshes (TT 3.ii.624).1 And for most readers, even if they assumed that Sam and Samwise were the same, the identity of the third person narrator was probably not a question that arose.
And yet the seeds of this transition, of the moment when the telling of the Tale is handed over to Sam, are planted in the very first dramatic scene of the book, in which Sam's old father (the Gaffer) and several other hobbits meet over a pint at The Ivy Bush on a late summer evening. The recent announcement of Bilbo's party has sparked conversation about 'the history and character of Mr. Bilbo Baggins,' and as the long time gardener at Bag End the Gaffer 'spoke with some authority' on the stories about him (1.i.22). Towards the end of the conversation, however, the Gaffer also singles out his son Sam, who is not present, as one who has always taken a very special interest in stories.
But not for Sam are the gossipy stories with which these hobbits have busied themselves this evening: Bilbo's rumored secret hoard of 'gold and silver, and jools;' or the strangeness of Bucklanders who live 'on the wrong side of the Brandywine River, and right agin the Old Forest....a dark bad place, if half the tales be true;' or about the mysterious demise of Frodo's parents who were 'drownded' while out boating, of all things; or the just frustrations of Bilbo's relations, the hyphenated and universally detested Sackville-Bagginses (FR 1.i.22-23). Even the hint of the foreign and the strange that comes into these tales -- the Old Forest, Bilbo's journey to a far land and return with (reputedly inexhaustible) wealth -- is nothing more than grist for the local gossip mill, and indirect proof that 'Bag End's a queer place, and its folk are queerer.' (1.i.24) The Gaffer and his fellows shine a lurid light on every bit of it. Indeed the one ray of approval in the whole conversation is the statement that Old Gorbadoc Brandybuck kept 'a mighty generous table' (1.i.23) And despite the Gaffer's denial of the tales about Bilbo's wealth and his stout defense of Bilbo's character, he, too, is clearly have a grand time 'holding forth' on these matters.
No, as the Gaffer makes inimitably clear, it is tales of an entirely different kind that interest his son:
'But my lad Sam will know more about [Bilbo's wealth]. He's in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo's tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters -- meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.
'Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don't go getting mixed up in the business of your betters, or you'll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.'(FR 1.i.24: the italics are Tolkien's)
Not that Sam is unique in knowing his letters of course. The hobbit-children who see Gandalf arrive can recognize the G on his fireworks (1.i.25). The sign on Bilbo's gate and the written invitations -- to which came written replies -- also strongly suggest a widespread basic literacy (1.i.26). To this we may add the notes Bilbo left with his gifts, two of which refer to letter writing, and one to book borrowing (1.i.37-38). (The Gaffer, by contrast, receives 'two sacks of potatoes' (1.i.38) among other strictly useful gifts.) And finally there is Bilbo's will, carefully read right through by Otho Sackville-Baggins and found to be 'very clear and correct (according to the legal customs of hobbits, which demand among other things seven signatures of witnesses in red ink).' (1.i.39)
So it is rather literacy of a certain kind -- one that allows or encourages reading books full of 'stories of the old days' and of 'Elves and Dragons' -- that makes hobbits uneasy, so much so that the Gaffer finds it necessary to defend Mr. Bilbo's intentions in teaching Sam and to express his own hopes for the best. Part of the answer made to the Gaffer by Sandyman, the miller, 'voicing common opinion,' touches on the same concerns that the Gaffer voices himself. For the miller refers to visits to Bag End by folk, like dwarves and Gandalf, whom he describes as 'outlandish,' which here we should probably take quite literally (1.i.24). Those stories Sam is crazy for all involve things beyond the Shire and far older than it. It is no accident that 'maps made in the Shire showed mostly white space beyond its borders' (1.ii.43).
And, at least when it comes to Sam, this level of literacy is clearly linked to the dangers of getting above oneself. In the Gaffer's mouth, more so than in any other's, 'cabbages and potatoes' is a quite pointed reproach. After all he and Sam are both gardeners. 'Cabbages and potatoes' reminds Sam not only of his station but of his very identity. Sam is not (to borrow a much later phrase) 'Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age' (RK 6.i.901). 'Stick to your taters, Sam, my lad,' the Gaffer might have said in a quieter mood (if he ever had one).
It is perhaps for this reason that Sam later appears to conceal how literate he actually is. We later learn that he can recite poetry about Gil-galad from memory (FR 1.xi.185-86). Frodo is convinced that Sam has composed the troll song he performs, an assertion that Sam does not deny (1.xii.206-208). In Moria Sam expresses a desire to learn the poem Gimli recited (2.iv.315-16). And in Lórien Sam comes out with a (spontaneous?) quatrain on Gandalf's fireworks, to add to the lament Frodo has been composing; Sam immediately denigrates his own verses, but Frodo just as quickly flatters him by comparing his ability to Bilbo's (2.vii.359-60).
Most revealing, however, is the detail that emerges almost as soon as we actually meet Sam, one chapter and seventeen years later, in a scene parallel to the one with the Gaffer in chapter one. Again we find ourselves in a pub, and with a similar cast. Yet the times have changed somewhat. The world beyond the comfortably blank edges of Shire maps is in turmoil:
Little of this [news], of course, reached the ears of ordinary hobbits. But even the deafest and most stay-at-home began to hear queer tales; and those whose business took them to the borders saw strange things. The conversation in The Green Dragon at Bywater, one evening in the spring of Frodo's fiftieth year, showed that even in the comfortable heart of the Shire rumours had been heard, though most hobbits still laughed at them.
Sam Gamgee was sitting in one corner near the fire, and opposite him was Ted Sandyman, the miller's son; and there were various other rustic hobbits listening to their talk.
'Queer things you do hear these days, to be sure,' said Sam.
'Ah,' said Ted, 'you do, if you listen. But I can hear fireside-tales and children's stories at home, if I want to.'
'No doubt you can,' retorted Sam, 'and I daresay there's more truth in some of them than you reckon. Who invented the stories anyway? Take dragons now.'
'No thank'ee,' said Ted, 'I won't. I heard tell of them when I was a youngster, but there's no call to believe in them now. There's only one Dragon in Bywater, and that's Green,' he said, getting a general laugh.
'All right,' said Sam, laughing with the rest. 'But what about these Tree-men....?'
Now that we finally meet Sam, we can quickly see that he is as different from 'most hobbits' as the last scene suggested he would be. Though they are laughing for now (thus, 'still') at the 'queer things you do hear these days,' Sam does not find these matters funny. While he can take Sandyman's joke at his expense and laugh along, he can also be stung (thus, 'retorted') by the miller's none too subtle hint that he has not left childish things behind him. He is relentless in his belief that these queer tales have relevant information in them that the others should attend to. Thus even before the laughter has died, Sam has pressed on to the next queer thing: 'But what about...?' For which he will also be mocked and dismissed (1.ii.44-45), as for the thing after that (the Elves: 1.ii.45), and the thing after that (Frodo and Bilbo: 1.ii.45). But his faith in the importance of tales of this kind is unshakeable. This characterizes Sam and sets him apart.
But there is another detail that distinguishes him even more, here and throughout this Tale, and it's easily missed. Beyond the importance of stories about dragons and Tree-men and the departing Elves, there is another question: 'Who invented the stories anyway?' Sam is not just 'crazy about stories of the old days,' he is thinking about them in a critical way. And his next words -- 'Take dragons now' -- are also worth noting. He doesn't say 'Take Smaug now' as you might expect him to do if he were only trying to disprove the miller's suggestion that all such tales are childish fabrications. He is thinking about dragons plural, about dragons in general, about Dragons in the context of where stories come from.
That's not to say that Sam has any answer, or was about to blurt out some homespun version of On Fairy-stories if the miller had not deflected the conversation with a joke. But he is on a path that is important in a Tale in which the background and continuity of other older Tales are very significant. He thinks about stories in a larger sense because his profound desire for dragons is about more than the dragons themselves. It is about Story itself. So it is no accident and no surprise that Frodo entrusts Sam with finishing the Tale (RK 6.ix.1027), or that this scene ends with Sam returning home in the evening, his head full of Story, and that this book ends with Sam returning home in the evening, to take up his life and take up the work Frodo has left him (RK 6.ix.1031).
So I am going to be following this idea of 'Sam and Story' from the beginning of The Lord of the Rings to the end. I have no idea how many posts it is going to be, how long it will take me, or whether the posts will in fact appear in order from beginning to end (though that is the plan). The posts I've linked to here are in a sense part of this study, but I imagine that by the time I have worked my way through the Tale all the way to the end I'll have more to say than I have said there already. I guess we'll see.
1 Again it is true that Sam is called Samwise in the synopsis at the beginning of The Two Towers that appears in three volume editions. It is also true that he is referred to as Master Samwise in the Table of Contents: The Choices of Master Samwise. Even so, that would nevertheless place the first clear identification of the Samwise of the Prologue with the Sam Gamgee of the Tale at the beginning of The Two Towers. Nor does everyone read the Prologue, or pay close attention to it if they do. There was a long time when I did not.