The concepts of hope and courage permeate the tales written by J. R. R. Tolkien through and through. They are vital and, I do not think it will be an exaggeration to say, central to his narratives. There are many examples of how hope and courage make a big difference, help characters achieve almost the impossible and thus influence the course of events dramatically. In this special reflection for Tolkien Reading Day 2021, whose main theme is Hope and Courage, I would like to look at how hope helped Sam Gamgee lead Frodo and himself through the perils of Mordor to the final destination of their deadly quest.
When Sam embarked on the road from Bag End, little did he know where it would take him many months later. By venturing so far away from his home and exceeding the limits of his geography Sam already displayed enough courage. He was excited about being out there and having a chance to see Elves, but as it became clear that the journey was going to be far more dangerous than it had originally been thought, Sam rose to the challenge. Over the course of the entire quest his role and attitude were changing to fit the situation — the alteration that reached its highest point within the borders of Mordor when all hope seemed lost. In fact, Sam had felt his special calling much earlier than the course of the quest was decided upon at the Council of Elrond:
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 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.
(Fellowship of the Ring, p. 115)
In that moment Sam had little idea about what exactly he would have to do and how important his presence would be many months later within mere miles from Mount Doom.
Sam’s leader qualities began to show very prominently when he and Frodo broke from the Fellowship and embarked on their solo journey towards Mordor. Without Gandalf or Aragorn to guide them, it was up to Frodo and Sam to make important decisions, but the closer they were drawing to the dark lands of Sauron, the more that responsibility was shifting to Sam. His fighting with Shelob and rescuing Frodo from the Tower of Cirith Ungol definitively established Sam as the head of their small expedition, the main decision-maker and, most importantly, the main bearer of hope which was vital on such a perilous journey. Those trials were not the breaking, but the making of Sam Gamgee: they brought out the Hobbit’s best qualities and taught him to cling to hope even when the situation seemed most hopeless.
The word ‘hope’ was used by Tolkien a lot in those dark Mordor chapters, but mostly in the negative context, like hopeless, never hoped, no hope, can’t see any hope. Frodo himself said more than once that he had no hope left. The picture that was painted by such word combinations appeared rather gloomy. Sam Gamgee, however, had something to say in that matter: he had enough hope in his heart for the two of them and it was constantly recharged even in the darkness of Mordor. There were many things that fuelled Sam’s hope — his love for Frodo, sense of duty, exceptional humility and, last but not least, many external signs hinting that while the situation was dire, it was not entirely hopeless and there remained a chance of success.
As the wind began to blow away the reeks of Mordor and a little light appeared in the sky where there had before been impenetrable darkness, Sam took it for a good sign. It had a cheering effect on him, though not on Frodo, whose will was being gnawed by the Ring, and Sam’s uplifted spirits were enough to take the two Hobbits a bit further. Later on, Sam’s persistent hope and courage, his complete reluctance to give up were rewarded, as Eärendil himself, the Star of High Hope, looked out from the break in the darkness:
Far above the Ephel Dúath in the West the night-sky was still dim and pale. There, peeping among the cloud- wrack above a dark tor high up in the mountains, Sam saw a white star twinkle for a while. The beauty of it smote his heart, as he looked up out of the forsaken land, and hope returned to him. For like a shaft, clear and cold, the thought pierced him that in the end the Shadow was only a small and passing thing: there was light and high beauty for ever beyond its reach.
(Return of the King, p. 234)
Just like it was at the end of the First Age, Eärendil appeared in the skies as the sign of hope for the people of Middle-earth and the harbinger of doom for the Dark Lord. The hour was indeed very evil, and the star’s appearance could not have been more timely: it helped Sam enter the most dangerous part of heir journey with the renewed and reinforced hope.
I also find it very symbolic that as Frodo’s hope was fading, Galadriel’s phial, originally given to the Ring-bearer, passed on to Sam and remained with him until the Cracks of Doom. Filled with the very light of the Star of Eärendil, it was a physical embodiment of hope that Sam was carrying around with him. Now it was Sam Gamgee who was responsible for keeping up hope in his heart and sharing it with Frodo who had given up his. The phial became the light for them not only in its literal sense of illumination in dark places, but also figuratively: it led the Hobbits through great peril, helped Sam keep hope alive in his heart and rewarded the brave Hobbit for his perseverance and courage by aiding him in his battle with the evils of Mordor.
Sam’s hope was rewarded in many other ways that also helped him remain hopeful even when all seemed lost and proceed with their quest. Whether those were water sources when their bottle was nearly empty, near escapes from the enemies, some lucky chances and turns or finding the path leading up Mount Doom, the Hobbits were able to continue their road against all odds. And even in the dark hour of bitter realisation that they were most likely coming to their deaths with no chance of return, Sam’s hope did not fail him: so rooted had it become in his heart by that time:
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.
(Return of the King, p. 249)
Hope, courage and strength had become so ingrained into Sam’s character that even the voice of reason was silenced by his resolve to move further against all odds. He was prepared to do what he needed to until the very, albeit bitter, end. Every new setback only increased his determination and made him stronger.
Sam Gamgee rose to become a reluctant and humble hero in The Lord of the Rings. Many would have given up hope in such desperate situations that he had to face, but Sam managed to turn desperation into hope, weariness into strength and fear into courage. All these were enough for him and Frodo to fulfil their desperate quest. In many a hopeless situation Sam rose as the keeper of hope, shared it with Frodo when all seemed lost and became the true leader when the need was most dire.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2001.
Featured image from Pixabay.