Did Tolkien really explicitly consider Sam the true hero of The Lord of the Rings?

  • Quoting from Crouching Moron Hidden Badass: Literature on TVTropes (TVTropes link alert!!! Don't tell me I didn't warn you!):

    Perhaps even more aptly: Samwise Gamgee. His name roughly translates to "halfwit", and it applies. He's overweight, easily frightened, and not very bright. He also beat a man-eating giant spider demi-god in single combat, single-handedly stormed a tower full of hostile orcs to save his friend's life, was the only Ringbearer to steadfastly resist the temptation of the One Ring, and literally carried another man up the side of a volcano for the fate of the world while starving and suffering from dehydration. There's a reason Tolkien considered him the true hero of the story.

    I am wondering if there is an actual direct confirmation (in-Universe or out-of-Universe quote from Tolkien) that the statement "There's a reason Tolkien considered him the true hero of the story" is true.

    Please note that I'm not looking for a logical proof, e.g. not something based on general "this is a work about common folk defending themselves etc. etc. etc.." general chain of reasoning.

    Whether or not he's the "true hero" of the story, he was definitely a protagonist and a very important one at that.

    Who *doesn't* think Sam is the real hero?

    @zenzelezz I like Sam way more than Frodo, but doesn't LOTR have an ensemble cast of heroes? In a way, aren't all the Hobbits heroes?

    @AndresF. Yes, everyone had his purpose. However, there is no doubt that Samwise is a true hobbit warrior-knight, leader, who gained a special place in our hearts.

    I find the statements on him resisting the Ring unjust - he had the ring on him for a very short amount of time. Clearly the longer you wear the ring the more you are affected by him. If Sam would have worn the ring as long as Frodo, what would have happened to him?

    @flq You are correct. Sam had the ring for a day or two while Frodo and Bilbo had it for several decades. they would be alot more affected like Gollum was so affected.

    @zenzelezz Liv Tyler's manager perhaps. She managed to appear at the third place in the movies credits ... shocking, I know.

    @MatemáticosChibchas: After Frodo and Gandalf?

    @einpoklum Yes, can you believe it?

    _"I am wondering if there is an actual direct confirmation (in-Universe"_ how can such a thing be in-universe? It's not like characters say to each other "hey you were going to be the protagonist, but the author changed idea".

    "If Sam would have worn the ring as long as Frodo, what would have happened to him?" A garden grander and larger than any you could possibly imagine.

    @Zibbobz though perhaps the penalties for stepping on the grass would be rather draconian. I don't think JRRT wanted us to think that _anyone_ could have 'Bombadilled' the One Ring.

    @Zibbobz I would've hired Sam-of-the-One-Ring to mow my lawn. Seeing a lawnmower whizzing around apparently without anyone pushing it is just so awesome.

    Another point worth noting is that when the story was focused on Sam and Frodo, the narrative was given almost exclusively from Sam's point of view.

    @zenzelezz - Smeagol. Smeagol hates the Fat Hobbitses.

    @flq - plus, both Gandalf and Galadriel refuse the ring when offered, both knowing they could dominate the world with it.

  • Correct answer

    9 years ago

    In a letter to Milton Waldman (so-called Letter 131), Tolkien makes mention of Sam being the "chief hero" of the story [1]:

    I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty.

    He also makes mention of Sam's heroic nature in a reply to a real-life Sam Gamgee (so-called Letter 184):

    It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment, when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the 'Sam Gamgee' of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic.

    Elsewhere, in a letter to his son Christopher (so-called Letter 91), he begins:

    Here is a small consignment of 'The Ring': the last two chapters that have been written, and the end of the Fourth Book of that great Romance, in which you will see that, as is all too easy, I have got the hero into such a fix that not even an author will be able to extricate him without labour and difficulty. Lewis was moved almost to tears by the last chapter. All the same, I chiefly want to hear what you think, as for a long time now I have written with you most in mind.

    The last two chapters of the "Fourth Book" refer to the end of The Two Towers [2]: in the last two chapters—"Shelob's Lair" and "The Choices of Master Samwise"—only two characters are present: Frodo and Sam. The latter chapter, aptly named, is told exclusively through the narrative of Sam.


    Notes

    Note 1 In the comments, user8114 mentions that it's Aragorn to whom Tolkien is referring to as "the chief hero" in the excerpt above. And indeed, Aragorn is mentioned prominently in the paragraph that surrounds the excerpt. But the context does not support this hypothesis.

    Letter 131 is an attempt to justify the themes and motifs to his friend and potential publisher, Milton Waldman, against comments regarding the marketability of The Lord of the Rings. The excerpt above regarding Sam, his Rosie, and "the chief hero's character" is in the middle of a long paragraph on the love stories present in the work:

    Since we now try to deal with 'ordinary life', springing up ever unquenched under the trample of world policies and events, there are love-stories touched in, or love in different modes, wholly absent from The Hobbit. But the highest love-story, that of Aragorn and Arwen Elrond's daughter is only alluded to as a known thing. It is told elsewhere in a short tale. Of Aragorn and Arwen Undómiel. I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty. But I will say no more, nor defend the theme of mistaken love seen in Eowyn and her first love for Aragorn. I do not feel much can now be done to heal the faults of this large and much-embracing tale – or to make it 'publishable', if it is not so now.

    Here, Tolkien enumerates three love stories:

    1. Aragorn and Arwen
    2. Sam and Rosie
    3. Eowyn's unrequited love for Aragorn

    The first story he points out is only mentioned and left alone for another story. The second he emphasizes as being important to understanding the chief hero's story. The third he intentionally takes off the table for discussion.

    Looking at the specific sentence mentioning Sam, there are two uses of the pronoun "his": first to "his Rosie" and then, 9 words later, to "his character". Tolkien, being a scholar of the English language, would not first refer to Sam, then—in mid-sentence—change the referent to Aragorn for five words, then back to Sam to describe his qualities as exemplars of the "ordinary life".

    Additionally, if Aragorn were the chief hero, it seems reasonable he would've made one of the two love stories involving him essential to understanding his character, instead of brushing them aside in favor of Sam's love story with Rosie.

    And, given his repeated and consistent emphasis on Hobbits, not Men or Elves or Dwarves or Ents, being the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is not a fit: he's merely someone by which to compare the plights of the Hobbits, much like Gimli and Legolas.

    It should also be noted, as the redditor richlaw pointed out, Christopher Tolkien himself believed his father meant Sam was the chief hero, not Aragorn. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull—creators of the index for the published Letters of J.R.R. Tolkienaddressed this concern on the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Forum, where they explained they wrote to Christopher Tolkien asking for clarification regarding the passage in Letter 131:

    To this Christopher replied, very succinctly, that he was certain that 'the chief hero' referred to Sam.


    Note 2 The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes with two books each; The Two Towers contains books 3 and 4. Later in the same letter, Tolkien discusses how to get out of the hole he dug himself in books 5 and 6 (i.e., The Return of the King).

    Although it isn't entirely clear, and many will disagree, I'm fairly certain that "his (the chief hero)" in that letter refers to Aragorn, not Sam.

    @user8114 I disagree that "his (the chief hero's) character)" could refer to anyone other than Sam: in the same sentence he uses "his Rosie": to overload pronouns like that would not be something Tolkien, a scholar of the English language, would do. I've expanded my answer to include the surrounding context, which should clarify what that portion of the letter was about.

    Intriguing post, I might add that "Hero" can be a technical term when used by those well-versed in an expansive range of European literature like JRR Tolkien. Just like any funny work can be a comedy today, technically speaking a "comedy" starts well, a serious problem arises, and then a pivotal plot event happens that leads to a resolve (like Shakespeare's "comedies"). A "hero" starts out rustic and simple, ends up on an unexpected quest, goes through loss, and ends up with wisdom and complexity in the end (too simplistic, I know). Just keep in mind that "hero" is probably loaded language.

    If you combine the "chief hero" remark with Tolkien's belief that heroism and humility are inextricably intertwined, perhaps even synonymous, it becomes obvious that the chief hero could only be Sam. This idea is confirmed by Tolkien's admission that he modeled Sam after the privates and batmen he knew in WWI, and "recognized as being so far superior to myself", in his own words.

    "Lewis was moved almost to tears by the last chapter." WOW. That's incredible.For those who are not aware, Lewis is none other than Tolkien's great friend and fellow literary hero, C.S. Lewis, author of the Chronicles of Narnia.

    The only part of that Note1 that is convincing is at all convincing is the quote from Christopher. Everything else makes it look to me like he's comparing Aragorn and Sam's relationships to gain a greater understanding of Aragorn's. If "his" still meant Sam, there would be no need to add that parenthetical to clarify who "he" is.

    No, it's clearly Sam even without Christopher's thought. How could it not be? Frodo is the one who ultimately went to Mount Doom and it was Sam who made sure he made it there alive. Not Aragorn. Not anyone else (well Sméagol/Gollum since he guided them quite far - though as Tolkien explains another time if Sam had truly understood the dynamic between his master and Sméagol Shelob might not have happened). Aragorn played an important role but he didn't go to Mount Doom. As for Lewis being Tolkien's great friend: yes, for a while. They did have a fall out though, as I recently learnt.

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Content dated before 6/26/2020 9:53 AM