11 June 2017

Three Moments of Sam in Faërie

There are many subtle things about Sam Gamgee that a reader may easily miss or neglect. Not only is he bold enough to spy on Gandalf, but he is cool-headed enough to lie to him about it (FR 1.ii.63-64; v.105). He pretends to be asleep while Frodo is talking to Gildor, and then has his own conversation with the Elves after Frodo has retired (1.iii.82. iv.87). He simply shows up at the Council of Elrond when he is not invited (2.ii.271). He even composes poetry (1.xii.208). But one thing no one overlooks is his love of Elves and 'stories of the old days'. Even before we meet him, the Gaffer is talking about it (1.i.24). From the first time we see him in The Green Dragon -- 'They are sailing, sailing, sailing' (FR 1.ii.45) -- through the Company's sojourn in Lothlórien, Elves are a common theme.  As a participant (Archimago) in Mythgard's Exploring the Lord of the Rings class (episode 10, starting at 15:20) recently pointed out, Sam's early refrain of 'Elves, sir' is almost 'like punctuation' in itself:

‘Well, sir,’ said Sam dithering a little. ‘I heard a deal that I didn’t rightly understand, about an enemy, and rings, and Mr. Bilbo, sir, and dragons, and a fiery mountain, and – and Elves, sir. I listened because I couldn’t help myself, if you know what I mean. Lor bless me, sir, but I do love tales of that sort. And I believe them too, whatever Ted may say. Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn’t you take me to see Elves, sir, when you go?’
(FR 1.ii.63, emphasis added)

Another passage that has long been of interest to me, is one that shows Sam to be less susceptible to some kinds of enchantment, or at least more conscious of its effects. In the Old Forest, when Frodo, Merry, and Pippin are all overwhelmed by Old Man Willow's spells, Sam sees through them:

Sam sat down and scratched his head, and yawned like a cavern. He was worried. The afternoon was getting late, and he thought this sudden sleepiness uncanny. ‘There’s more behind this than sun and warm air,’ he muttered to himself. ‘I don’t like this great big tree. I don’t trust it. Hark at it singing about sleep now! This won’t do at all!’
(FR 1.vi.117)
To which I would add this passage:

[Frodo] 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.' 
Haldir looked at them, and he seemed indeed to take the meaning of both thought and word. He smiled. 'You feel the power of the Lady of the Galadhrim,' he said. 
(FR 2.vi.351, emphasis original)
It's hard to say just why Sam seems more perceptive on this score than his fellow hobbits.  One would expect Frodo, if anyone, to be the hobbit most attuned to such things. Frodo certainly seems more learned, and his experience with the Ring expands his range of perceptions. Yet when a desire to drop everything and follow Bilbo rises up within him, he does nothing (1.ii.61). He lets months pass (1.iii.65-69), an almost fatal mistake. Sam, when granted the opportunity to go see the 'Elves, sir!', bursts into tears of joy (1.ii,64). As we also know, he openly talks about the Elves, in the face of reproofs from his Gaffer and public ridicule at the Green Dragon (1.i.24; ii.44-45). And there is something about Sam that he shares with another hobbit, who at first seemed unlikely to be so open to a wider world. Not only does Merry say of Farmer Maggot that 'a lot goes on behind his round face that does not come out in his talk' (1.v.103), words that could equally well describe Sam the gardener, but from Tom Bombadil we learn that Farmer Maggot knows more about Faërie than he lets on, and is not unlike Sam Gamgee in other ways as well:

... but [Tom] made no secret that he owed his recent knowledge largely to Farmer Maggot, whom he seemed to regard as a person of more importance than they had imagined. ‘There’s earth under his old feet, and clay on his fingers; wisdom in his bones, and both his eyes are open,’ said Tom.
Sam and Maggot both have a connection to the earth that Frodo, Merry, and Pippin, who pretty clearly don't earn their bread by the sweat of their brows, entirely lack. The Gaffer, too, is similarly grounded in the soil of the Shire, which may be why he and Farmer Maggot can stand up to the Black Riders. In Rivendell Gandalf alludes cryptically to 'a power of another kind' in the Shire, a power that could 'withstand' evil to some degree (FR 2.i.223). He also recalls his doubts, while a prisoner of Saruman, 'that the hunters before whom all have fled or fallen would falter in the Shire far away' (2.ii.261).

And yet they do falter, baffled by the Gaffer and seen off by Maggot, the two earthiest characters we meet in the Shire.  The one we know by 'Farmer' rather than a first name, and the purport of his last name, unfortunately submerged in the predominant modern understanding of 'maggot', not only describes someone as a 'fanciful' or 'whimsical' character, but is also an old word for 'magpie' in the West Midlands of England, where Tolkien was raised. It thus ties Maggot to one of the shrewdest birds in nature. As for the other, Gaffer Gamgee, his first name, Hamfast, declares the strength (OE, fæst) of his roots in the Shire as his home (OE, ham).*

So it seems a real possibility that Sam's superior perceptions of enchantment have their roots in the earth of the Shire, as it were, as much as, if not more than in his openness to Faërie. And this brings me to the last of my three passages on Sam and Faërie. On their first night in the house of Tom Bombadil Merry, Pippin, and Frodo all have very troubling dreams, though instructed by both Goldberry and Tom to 'heed no nightly noises' (1.vii.125,126). Merry and Pippin both remember (or hear again) these words when they awake from their nightmares (1.vii.127-28), and Tom chides them in the morning for not listening (1.vii.128). Sam alone has no nightmares, as the narrator goes out of his way to point this out, quite humorously so:
As far as he could remember, Sam slept through the night in deep content, if logs are contented.
Given what else we've seen, however, I can only wonder if Sam's contentment and seemingly dreamless sleep, which the narrator points out twice in one sentence, have the same source, a deep connection to the earth itself, which, as Tolkien saw it, was naturally a part of Faërie even if mortals are not (OFS 32 ¶ 10).

*I believe there is more to be said about the name Maggot, but that must await another day.




  1. Nice post, Tom! Simply an excellent read.

  2. Always great stuff, Tom. I've wondered before if Sam's unexpected knowledge of Elves was Tolkien's way of reminding us that Faërie was once the stuff of folk tales, not high art — Sam is the most folksy of the Hobbits we know, and "gets" them in a way the more formally educated Frodo, Merry and Pippin cannot. But the connection to the earth is an even better explanation that's more in keeping with the running theme of nature vs. the machine. It seems fitting that someone who works the earth should have a deeper appreciation for creatures who are a part of it.

  3. Well, both can be true, Shawn. Clearly there's more than one kind of knowledge about the Elves around, oral and written, since I don't believe whatever Sandyman and the other hobbits would have heard as fireside or bedtime stories came from a written source. It certainly doesn't sound like it does. I've always thought Frodo's remarks about dullness of Shire-folk and how useful an invasion of dragons might be is a bit of bookish snobbery, but I think that all disappears the morning after they meet Gildor and Sam blows his mind.

    By the way, did you ever wonder how Bilbo learned Elvish anyway? Pengolod's Quenya Primer? Did Elrond run correspondence courses?

    1. Rivendell's interlibrary loan program?