Tolkien: Samwise and Us
I was not a Tolkien fan, but it wasn't for a lack of trying. Frankly, I just found his stories to be confusing and ponderous. But then my wife and I watched the movie Tolkien and suddenly it clicked; his imagery and thought process made sense, and we couldn’t wait to binge-watch The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogies. Now I’m sold. By the way, if you haven’t seen the movies or read the books, no worries, this article spoils nothing for you.
J.R.R. Tolkien told tales of the classic virtues - prudence, courage, temperance & justice - within the context of Christianity. In his works, the primary hero is actually in the company of many others. Among the latter, some of them live and some don’t, but they give us hope and inspiration because they follow the path of virtue and struggle against the temptations that come their way. In The Hobbit, there is the classic lone hero; but in The Lord of the Rings we have the hero, Frodo Baggins, and his close friend, Samwise Gamgee.
Why does Frodo need a companion? In this regard, I have often considered the Gospel passages wherein Christ commissioned the disciples to go out in pairs and spread the Good News. Why in pairs? The best explanation I’ve read is that evangelization and faith are not individual things. They are communal and meant to be shared: “Christ wanted them to work together, to share their faith, support and encourage one another when the journey was difficult, and to witness to the fact that being a disciple of Jesus calls for collaboration and community" (Brother Silas Henderson, SDS, Aleteia Jul 06, 2019). So pairs are perfect.
In fact, God knew that pairs were perfect from the start - after all, He created them man and woman because it was not good for man to be alone. Together, the pairing displays the very image of the Father. And there are other biblical pairings such as Moses and Aaron, Elijah and Elisha. The pairings of marriage and discipleship exemplify sharing, support, encouragement and witness. The point is simply that faith cannot be separated from communion.
Which brings us to Sam. His good friend Frodo was chosen for a certain quest, an important step in defeating the evil force afflicting Middle Earth. He accomplished it; but when a volunteer was needed to complete the task, he stepped forward. Let’s just say that the last step was a heavy burden fraught with physical as well as spiritual danger. Sam, on the other hand, had simply come along for the adventure with his friend; uninvited, but hey, he had never before ventured out from The Shire, his hometown area.
Sam is strong, loyal and possessed of a simplicity and purity of heart, and he stays with Frodo until the end despite many hardships. His defining moment comes in the midst of the quest when the going is very tough for Frodo (and remember the obligation was Frodo’s, Sam was along to support his friend). Frodo doesn’t believe he can see it through and is on the verge of giving in to defeat when Sam issues my favorite line: “Come on, Mr. Frodo. I can’t carry it (the burden) for you… but I can carry you!” And he does, he literally picks up Frodo and carries him onward. Talk about discipleship; talk about communion, camaraderie, and shared purpose. Tolkien just summarized the commitment of being in pairs whether in discipleship, friendship, or in the pairing of marriage. We are here to carry each other onward in this great adventure of redemption.
Tolkien invented a term with his school friends, Helheimr. It was the place you went if you died in the wrong way:
"What’s the wrong way? Peacefully. Illness, old age. Anything other than battle. I can die in any way the fates choose, that’s not up to me. But what is within my power is to decide how I live. Courageously or timidly. Helheimr! It should be our warning. Our challenge." (Tolkien, the movie)
Our Warpath may be the clarion call and most recent iteration of Helheimr. We cannot carry each other’s yoke, we cannot carry each other’s burden; but while we walk this earth we must carry each other.