A physicist loose among the liberal arts

The Elevation of Master Samwise

Tom Hillman looks into Sam Gamgee’s evolution from servant to “Master Samwise” Go read it; as usual from Tom it’s as good as blogging gets. There’s an angle to it that I’d like to add, though.

Corey Olsen pointed out, years ago when he was podcasting his classes at Washington U, that J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a complex textual history into The Lord of the Rings. It sticks out most dramatically in the Battle of the Pelennor Fields: the action stops to talk about the grave of Snowmane, Théoden’s horse, in terms that couldn’t have been written by Frodo a few years after the event. Obviously the text has picked up some additions as it was copied and distributed around Middle Earth during the Fourth Age. Here’s another one:

Thus Aragorn for the first time in the full light of day beheld Éowyn, Lady of Rohan, and thought her fair, fair and cold, like a morning of pale spring that is not yet come to womanhood. And she now was suddenly aware of him: tall heir of kings, wise with many winters, greycloaked, hiding a power that yet she felt.

LotR III,vi

What on earth is that all about? The last few pages have been Gandalf vs. Théoden, but the point of view swings suddenly to Aragorn and the narrator gets all tongue-tied and metaphor-mixed. Stammering “fair” twice in a row is unlike the narrator’s usual voice, and mornings don’t come into womanhood if Frodo of the Impeccable Grammar has anything to say about it. I interpret this passage with the perspective one gets from working as a courtier in Washington DC. This is another interpolation by a Fourth-Age scribe. The scribe was employed at the court of the Prince of Ithilien. His patron was a descendant of Faramir and Éowyn, and he felt sure that it would rebound to his favor if he made the biggest possible production out of the first meeting between the great Elessar and his patron’s ancestor.

Is this a valid reading? Sycophancy is the handmaiden of politics, wherever one looks. I assume that politics among the Men of Gondor and among hobbits is similar to politics in our world. In Gondor this is certainly the case (cf. Letter #136). The presence in the Shire of lawyers indistinguishable from our own (The Hobbit, at the auction, and LotR I,ii) implies their politics must not be too different. So on we go.

The descendants of Sam and Rosie Gardner were sure to face challenges to their legitimacy. The founders of their house were not of aristocratic stock, and an eminent literatus has proven beyond controversion that the family was not accepted

Map of Gardner

Mayor Sam Gardner’s family

unconditionally into the highest strata of hobbit society. The tale of the War of the Ring would have been an essential tool in consolidating the social position of the Gardners and the Fairbairns. Therefore, the hobbit scribes who wrote the Red Book of Westmarch took every opportunity they could find to connect Sam and Elanor with the royal family of Gondor and Arnor, as Tom documented, all through the Appendices. But how far back can the pretense to nobility be pushed?

As long as Frodo and Sam were embedded in a social structure, Sam would have to stay in a servile role. By the end of Book 2, though, Frodo and Sam are on their own. This is the perfect place to turn the story of Sam the sidekick into the origin myth of Mayor Samwise, founder of the House of Gardner. Their roles aren’t dictated by people around them any more. Sam can evolve. The first formal social structure Frodo and Sam encounter after that is Faramir’s company, and as Tom notes that’s where “Master Samwise” makes its entrance into the text, never completely to depart. The book shows Sam being treated with respect by the future Prince of Ithilien, lieutenant of the King Elessar, from the start.

Shortly after that, Frodo of the once-impeccable Bagginses, confirms the elevation.

‘Why, Sam,’ he said, ‘to hear you somehow makes me as merry as if the story was already written. But you’ve left out one of the chief characters: Samwise the stouthearted. “I want to hear more about Sam, dad. Why didn’t they put in more of his talk, dad? That’s what I like, it makes me laugh. And Frodo wouldn’t have got far without Sam, would he, dad?”’
‘Now, Mr. Frodo,’ said Sam, ‘you shouldn’t make fun. I was serious.’
‘So was I,’ said Frodo, ‘and so I am.’

LotR IV, viii

Modern people tend to view this kind of political manipulation with distaste. But older generations didn’t think there was anything froward about it. Frodo told Sam to do it explicitly:

You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more.

LotR, VI, ix

Or did he? All we have to do is decide what to do with the text that is given us.


Mythmoot Lúthien Seminar


Denethor’s Ring

1 Comment

  1. Joe, now you’ve gone and given me an idea for another post. Thanks for the plug, by the way. You are too kind to me by far.

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