20 November 2014

A Very Long Road, into Darkness: Sam and Story (III)

From Frodo's mind the bright morning -- treacherously bright, he thought -- had not banished the fear of pursuit; and he pondered the words of Gildor.  The merry voice of Pippin came to him.  He was running on the green turf and singing. 
'No! I could not!' he said to himself.  'It is one thing to take my young friends walking over the Shire with me, until we are hungry and weary, and food and bed are sweet.  To take them into exile, where hunger and weariness may have no cure, is quite another, even if they are willing to come.  The inheritance is mine alone.  I don't even think I ought to take Sam.'  He looked at Sam Gamgee, and discovered that Sam was watching him.
'Well, Sam!' [Frodo] said, 'What about it?  I am leaving the Shire as soon as ever I can -- in fact I have made up my mind now not to wait a day at Crickhollow, if it can be helped.'
'Very good, sir!' 
'You still mean to come with me? 
'I do.' 
'It is going to be very dangerous, Sam.  It is already dangerous.  Most likely neither of us will come back.' 
'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.' 
'Who are they, and what are you talking about?' 
'The Elves, sir.  We had some talk last night; and they seemed to know you were going away, so I didn't see the use of denying it.  Wonderful folk, Elves, sir!  Wonderful!' 
'They are,' said Frodo.  'Do you like them still, now you have had a closer view?' 
'They seem a bit above my likes and dislikes, so to speak,' answered Sam slowly. 'It don't seem to matter what I think about them.  They are quite different from what I expected -- so old and so young, and so gay and sad, as it were.' 
Frodo looked at Sam rather startled, half expecting to see some outward sign of the odd change that seemed to have come over him.  It did not sound like the voice of the old Sam Gamgee that he thought he knew.  But it looked like the old Sam Gamgee sitting there, except that his face was unusually thoughtful. 
Do you feel any need to leave the Shire now -- now that your wish to see them has come true already?' he asked. 
'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 know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't turn back.  It isn't to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want -- I don't rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire.  I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.'
(FR 1.iv.86-87)

Only a day before this conversation the hobbits had stood gazing down the road at the woods in which they now find themselves and Sam had asked if Elves dwelt here.  Since for Sam the Elves are virtually synonymous with Story, his wide-eyed question, posed as he looks 'across lands he had never seen to a new horizon' (FR 1.iii.73), is at least as much about entering the world of Story as it is about coming to the dwellings of flesh and blood Elves.  Yesterday's Sam was still very much the lad with his head full of Mr. Bilbo's stories of Elves and Dragons when he should have been thinking about cabbages and potatoes (FR 1.i.24; ii.44-45), still the comic gardener who could not help eavesdropping on his master's conversation with Gandalf about the Ring (FR i.ii.63), still the childlike adult who shouted for joy and then burst into tears when told he was going to see the Elves (FR 1.ii.64). Consider finally his response to the very sound of the Elves singing to Elbereth, before they have even come into his sight:
'Elves!' exclaimed Sam in a hoarse whisper.  'Elves, sir!' He would have burst out of the trees and dashed towards the voices, if they had not pulled him back. 
(FR 1.iii.78-79)
And when he first meets them (but has not had the chance to speak to them), '[he] walk[s] along at Frodo's side, as if in a dream, with an expression on his face half of fear and half of astonished joy' (FR 1.iii.81),

How very much he has changed overnight.  This is not 'the old Sam Gamgee that [Frodo] thought he knew.'  The lessons of the day before have gone home to him. Frodo's indirect answer to his question yesterday had suggested that the World of Story begins the moment you step out your door.  And the menace of the Black Riders, which emerges later that same day, confirms this.  For within hours of entering those woods, the hobbits encounter their first Black Rider, whom Sam quickly identifies as the stranger who had questioned the Gaffer, quite literally right outside his door (FR 1.iii.74-76). Frodo himself had actually overheard some of that conversation, but regarded the inquiries of the unseen stranger as yet another example of the vulgar prying of others into his affairs (FR 1.iii.69). Nor had Sam, eager to be on his way and a bit dismissive of his old father, given it much thought.

Yet what Frodo thought a mere nuisance two evenings ago now seems to have been the beginning of their Story, just as Bilbo's lesson about the dangers of stepping into the Road might have suggested.  The literal outlandishness of this Rider  --  one of the rarely seen, often troublesome, Big People, heavily cloaked and hooded, 'sniffing to catch an elusive scent,' talks funny -- is something Frodo finds 'very queer and indeed disturbing' (FR 1.iii.75).1  In fear he considers using the Ring, and reminds himself that he is 'still in the Shire' (75), as if that meant he could use it safely. Once the Rider is gone he remarks to Pippin and Sam that he has 'never seen or felt anything like it in the Shire before' (75).

But it takes more than one fright to shake even these hobbits wholly out of their insular complacency.  After discussion of the Black Rider they continue on their way, taking some precautions as well as the necessary comfort of a meal (FR 1.iii.75-77).2  Their spirits rise again with the stars and they begin to sing a song about Adventure, which fits well with Frodo's The Road Goes Ever On of the day before. However, the song's there-and-back-again view of Adventure  --  Then world behind and home ahead / We'll wander back to home and bed -- is immediately set at naught by the return of the Black Rider (77-78).  And though the timely arrival of the Elves causes the Black Rider to withdraw, the seriousness with which they view his presence only serves to emphasize the threat he poses, a threat made more frightening by the mystery surrounding him, which the Elves refuse to dispel (78-83). Even so Frodo still balks at the way his Story, his Adventure, has started before he was quite ready for it:
'I cannot imagine what information could be more terrifying than your hints and warnings,' exclaimed Frodo.  'I knew that danger lay ahead, of course; but I did not expect to meet it in our own Shire.  Can't a hobbit walk from the Water to the River in peace?' 
'But it is not your own Shire,' said Gildor.  'Others dwelt here before hobbits were; and others will dwell here again when hobbits are no more.  The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in, but you cannot for ever fence it out.' 
'I know -- and yet it has always seemed so safe and familiar. What can I do now?  My plan was to leave the Shire secretly, and to make my way to Rivendell; but now my footsteps are dogged, before ever I get to Buckland.'
(FR 1.iii.83)
Gildor's point is well made. The perspective of Frodo and the other hobbits needs to shift.  The world is not what they supposed.  Nor is 'our own Shire.'  And the Tale has already begun.  Which brings us back to the point at which we started, the morning after the hobbits' near miss with the Black Rider and meeting with the Elves.  As in the earlier passage about the road ahead, the reactions of the three hobbits to the events of the previous day are illustrative.

Frodo awakens already prepared to waste no time getting to Buckland (after breakfast of course), but on the cheerful, resilient Pippin yesterday's dangers have cast no shadow that the morning sun cannot dispel (FR 1.iv.86).  Though he asks Frodo if he learned anything about the Black Riders from Gildor, he seems disappointed only that Frodo did not ask about the sniffing.  A moment later he is larking about, 'running on the green turf and singing' (86).  Pippin's mirth makes as deep an impression on Frodo here as Sam's question about the Elves had done yesterday.  It makes him think seriously about the possible consequences of his errand for those who accompany him.  For after his long conversations with Gandalf he knows far better than Pippin what is at stake; and Gildor's last words to Frodo about the Riders made clear that they were a deadly peril, not a thing to be spoken of openly, but to be shunned, feared, and fled (FR 1.iii.84).  Thus no bright morning can allay his fears. Frodo stops looking back here.

And he turns from Pippin to Sam, intending to leave them both behind, in 'our own Shire.'  In contrast to the ebullient Pippin, Sam is sober and thoughtful. (Bear in mind that at all points during Sam and Frodo's conversation Pippin is running about in the background singing.3) Without fuss or hesitation, Sam declares himself ready to go along.  This is not the same Sam who shouted 'Hooray!' and wept at the prospect of going to see the Elves (FR 1.ii.64), nor even yesterday's Sam who wondered if Elves lived in these woods.  To that Sam the Elves were figures of Song and Story, kings like Gil-galad and Thranduil, or lore masters like Elrond.4  To this Sam they are different, not at all diminished by the acquaintance, but made more than just heroic characters.

And it is precisely because Sam has learned to see the Elves in a more complete, more 'human' way that his perception of himself and of the Road before them has changed.  The text presents this change in two different ways.  First, we get his reaction as told to Frodo (thus 'sir') at some later time, and only afterwards his immediate response.  First things first.  Let us once again attend to the portrayal of the three hobbits.
'This is poor fare,' [the Elves] said to the hobbits; 'for we are lodging in the greenwood far from our halls.  If ever you are our guests at home, we will treat you better.' 
'It seems to me good enough for a birthday party,' said Frodo. 
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 fruits 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.'   
Frodo sat, eating, drinking, and talking with delight; but his mind was chiefly on the words spoken.  He knew a little of the elf-speech and listened eagerly.  Now and again he spoke to those that served him and thanked them in their own tongue.  They smiled at him and said laughing: 'Here is a jewel among hobbits.'
(FR 1.iii.82)
Of the three, Frodo's response is the most subdued, in keeping with his greater age, knowledge, and burden, as well as with the likelihood that he has met Elves before.5 He is happy and relieved, but not overwhelmed like Sam and Pippin, and his calmness bookends and highlights their more profound experiences.  Pippin's is a beatific vision, a dream trip to Faerie, complete with food and drink that he must describe by extravagant, lyric comparisons because he can only dimly remember the food itself.  Sam's experience is, like Pippin's, beyond direct description.  He must resort to a metaphor about gardening, and a simple statement of what affected him most.  But while Pippin's comparisons exalt the Elves and make them seem otherworldly, Sam's bring them down to earth.  Their songs, unsurprisingly, go to his heart.  The Elves themselves, however, remain simultaneously beyond him and yet still a part of this world.

That is what he means the next morning when he says that the Elves are 'a bit above [his] likes and dislikes' (FR 1.iii. 87).  Old and young, gay and sad -- Sam understands each of these things.  They are part of his everyday life, of every hobbit's everyday life, but individually, not blended together simultaneously as they are in the Elves.  That's why he qualifies the words 'so old and so young, and so gay and sad, as it were' (FR 1.iii.87, emphasis mine).  As he also says, they were not at all what he expected.

And it is this denial of his expectations (whatever they were) that has pushed him to see the world differently, to see the larger picture in which the tales told by the Elves' songs represent only details, moments isolated in a continuum of long years. And that, together with their telling him not to leave Frodo, allows him to begin to see himself, Frodo, and Pippin as having become part of a story themselves. People do not speak as Sam does in the last paragraph quoted at the top of this page unless they see themselves as part of a larger narrative.6  The words bear repeating:
... 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 know that we are going to take a very long road, into darkness; but I know I can't turn back.  It isn't to see Elves now, nor dragons, nor mountains that I want -- I don't rightly know what I want: but I have something to do before the end, and it lies ahead, not in the Shire.  I must see it through, sir, if you understand me.'
(FR 1.iv.87)
And Sam's submission to what he must do is absolute, humble, and emphatic: 'Very good, sir!'  Last night he had to be restrained from running through the woods in the darkness towards the sound of the voices of the Elves.  This morning he sits calmly and thoughtfully declares that he will not turn back or be deterred.  He has put aside childish things.  Precisely as one must before setting out on a very long road, into darkness.


Compare the words of Strider to the hobbits at Bree: 'Drink, fire, and chance-meeting are pleasant enough, but, well -- this isn't the Shire. There are queer folk about' (FR 1.ix.157). 'Queer' seems a favorite word among hobbits.  Compare also Merry's reaction as he glimpses the Black Rider through the fog from the ferry: 'What in the Shire is that?' (FR 1.v.99)

It bears noticing that Frodo already seems to steering them away from the easier route to Buckland when he chooses to take the right fork in the road, a lane leading to Woodhall rather than towards Stock. " 'That is the way for us,' said Frodo." (FR 1.iii.76)

3 It's hardly fair to Pippin, I know, but somehow I just can't help thinking of the opening of The Sound of Music.

4 It is of course impossible to know just what 'stories of the old days' Bilbo had told Sam (FR 1.i.24). From Bilbo's own story he would have learned about Thranduil and Elrond, and Bilbo also taught him about the War of the Last Alliance (FR 1.xi.185-86). The mention of Gondolin in Bilbo's story would have raised questions in a curious mind like Sam's, and that could have easily led on to Ëarendil, whom we know was of interest to Bilbo later on. But this is speculation.

5 Frodo certainly doesn't act like Elves are new to him. Cf. FR 1.ii.42-43: 'Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done' and Gildor's remark at 1.iii.80: 'We have often seen you before with Bilbo, though you may not have seen us.'

6 By the time they have reached Rivendell Sam has already come to see them as part of a story: FR 2.iii.273-74.

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