By way of explanation:
(Here’s hoping this will not turn out to be too self-indulgent although I must confess to having doubts) I was diagnosed several months ago with terminal lung cancer and I’m told my time is limited. There is no reason to disbelieve my oncologist plus there is, besides, the indisputable fact that much of the time I just don’t feel very well. It’s the awful lack of energy that I find the most disturbing ….. And so, as you may imagine, everything has changed and the changes seem irrevocable. Still, despite all that, I've managed to find that there is a silver lining;
I now have the leisure to: ...........
“sit beside the fire and think
of people long ago,
and people who will see a world
that I shall never know.
But all the while I sit and think
of times there were before,
I listen for returning feet
and voices at the door.”
I have been doing a great deal of thinking as the months progress and where better to find comfort than in a closest and dearest friend? Time to read Lord of the Rings, I think, because, maybe the chance wont come around again, so, you know ‘seize the moment’ and take it down from the Tolkien shelf …… and then, in reading, I discover that my perspective has changed, I am turning the pages of this most beloved book with new and different eyes.
The way in which I am devouring the words is quite new to me, if it is possible I am striving to imprint upon my brain and imbue upon my heart all of the moral goodness that is woven into the book.
More on this altered perception later, only first let me say that I don’t believe I’ve ever fallen quite so utterly into the world of Middle-earth. Fallen more even than the first time I opened the pages which was mostly read for the sheer joy of the story and far less for the joy of Truth (which, honestly I didn’t recognize as a moral truth so swept up in character and adventure with a capital A) So now, here I am with a cancer diagnosis and days to fill with chemotherapy and books ……. and in beginning LotR I determine this time to read every single word, yes, even every single word of verse!
Putting aside my usual lazy entrance at ‘Shadow of the Past’, I read the Prologue and ‘A Long-expected party’ with the result that quite unexpectedly I am savoring every paragraph, every sentence, every word.
Did I make the claim I have fallen into Middle-earth? Why, it has almost become more real than the dreary world outside my window. And least you think that I’ve gone completely off my rocker I can assure you I have not and may still be considered sane.
You know of that shopworn, clichéd phrase about ‘pages springing to life’ or that other one about characters ‘stepping out’ of pages? Well, let me tell you that the spectre of an early death lurking around every corner has a way of separating the sacred from the profane and the sublime from the mundane. My contention being that LotR is both sublime and sacred and nowhere is this proved more to me than in its ability to keep the shadows away from my door and in its capacity to fill me with a rare and gentle joy. Only it’s not the same as it was before because one of the surprises is different focus: for years and years I always believed that my heart was given to the glittering melancholy of the Elves and the gravitas of The Long Defeat and the sorrow that they live only to fade into the Uttermost West ............ closely followed by an image of tall, stern, grim, grey-eyed Aragorn, he with broken sword and broken destiny..........Yet to my considerable amazement, this time, though still moved by Elves or enthralled by Aragorn, neither affect me so definitively, so profoundly as Sam. Dear, sweet, hasty Sam with his blunt honesty and his endless devotion........... Sam is teaching me how to accept what is meant by humanity. I hope in what follows I shall be able to say why.
Where to begin?
I have said that in all of my previous readings (many) it was the Elves who held me spellbound and I suppose I can be excused for falling headlong into the glamour of these enormously gifted, yet remote, beings who tower above and far beyond the humdrum reality of life in the later ages. The slightest thought of their immense tragedy takes my breath away and their beauty is incomparable ….. but that’s just it …… they are so infinitely removed from my reality and captivated though I might be by the very idea of, say, Galadriel or of Glorfindel as he appeared on ‘the other side...... ‘a shining figure of white light.......one of the mighty of the First-born’
they are too high for me, too removed, too majestic and too mythic.
Enter Sam. Steadfast, solid Sam. Always grounded, forever real, marching into the forefront of my consciousness. Before this read I doubt I had ever really considered Sam at all and when, in passing, I did consider him it was recognition of him as a necessary appendage to Frodo, or as merely another (albeit important) member of the fellowship. One among nine. Now, however, I think I can see that Sam is so much more. (And although I am not prepared to enter the argument of Sam as the true hero of LotR......... I most certainly could be cajoled
) It is because of Sam, because of his moral certainty and because of his intrinsic humanity, that the quest succeeds at all. He is irreplaceable.
One of the first of Sam’s many qualities that struck a chord for me is his intuitive understanding of Elves. It is amazing, is it not, that this servant and gardener, unschooled, not particularly cultured and certainly unsophisticated is able to plummet the depths and cut through the mystery to arrive at the heart of the matter. One doubts that he could analyze (or cares to) any dynamic which has set the Elves on their inevitable path (what does Sam know of Míriel’s suicide or Fëanor’s compulsion or that awful, earth-shattering, world-bending oath which will lead to their doom?) A knowledge of fact does not equal understanding of the heart, says I.
But our Sam can negotiate the baroque, slice through the pith and sum up the relationship of Third Age Elves to Middle-earth with short and simple eloquence:
"They are sailing, sailing, sailing over the Sea, they are going into the West
and leaving us."
It is an early lament, intuitively spoken before Sam has ever even met an Elf (although he did believe he had seen one once in the woods near Hobbiton.) From the bits and pieces and fragments of the old tales, Sam has absorbed the essence of Elvish life in Middle-earth. And he can easily tell you how it feels to be in that timeless, magical place called Lothlórien ........ when all I know is that I would be inarticulate and stumbling and all reaching for words to describe the indescribable.
“It is sunshine and bright day, right enough,” he said. “I thought Elves were all for moon and stars: but this is more Elvish than anything I heard tell of. I feel as if I were
inside a song, if you take my meaning.”
Yes. Of course. ‘inside a song’
Makes perfect sense and Sam, as usual, is on the mark with astounding accuracy; reducing the complex to the beautifully simple. More and more, I begin to admire qualities in Sam that previously escaped me such as the ‘quality’
he asked of Faramir. Sam has ’quality’
in abundance and above all, Sam has humanity. It shines through darkness like that one small bright star high above the clouds of Mordor. He also, I think, shows a keen and penetrating intuition quite unlike the far-seeing of the Eldar or the Istari.
“Begging your pardon,” said Sam. “I don’t think you understand my master at all. He
isn’t hesitating about which way to go. Of course not ……
“Whoa, Sam Gamgee!” he said aloud. “Your legs are too short, so use your head!
Let me see now! Boromir isn’t lying, that’s not his way; but he hasn’t told us everything.
Something scared Mr Frodo badly. He screwed himself up to the point, sudden. He made up his mind at last ---to go. Where to? Off East. Not without Sam? Yes, even without his Sam. That’s hard, cruel hard.”
Nor can it be said that it’s hobbit instinct allowing Sam to understand Frodo’s motivation and consequent action: Merry and Pippen are just as wrong as Aragorn or Gimli in guessing which path Frodo will take. They might even know Frodo better being social equals and spending more time in his company. Whereas Sam can usually be found in the garden 'trimming the verge' not hobnobbing in the parlour. It’s with flash of insight that Sam able to puzzle out the answer. Not all foresight is created equal, I suppose. There is the grand vision of prophecy wielded by Galadriel, or of many others counted among the Wise and then there is Sam Gamgee, closer to the ground, much more immediate, much simpler, more concerned with the here and now and far less (if at all) concerned with the grand destines of races or the fate of the world (unless it impacts himself or Frodo). Sam’s visions involve humanity. Even in Mordor, when he is Ring-bearer for a brief while, even then as the Ring raptures him and wraps him in the stuff of fantasy, Sam dreams fleetingly of ‘Samwise the Strong, Hero of the Age‘
far more telling is his dream of turning the Plains of Gorgoroth into................ a garden, A Garden! Of that dreadful place grown green and restored to the pristine loveliness before Sauron came. The Ring would find it hard to corrupt Sam, I think, not impossible, but one senses that resistance would be fierce and that it would be a struggle to the end.........In any event Sam is quickly saved by love for Frodo and his by his innate hobbit-sense which somehow understands that such visions are too large and too bold for him. Yet if he could, out of desolate waste Sam would create a new Eden. Astonishing!
Where I am now.
Reduced to tears.
I have for the moment left Sam slumped to the hard cold ground outside the tower door.
Gollum’s treachery has been endured and Frodo is taken. Sam is forced to assume a burden beyond his capabilities because he must and because he loves:
“What shall I do? What shall I do?” he said. “ Did I come all this way with him for nothing?” And then he remembered his own voice speaking words that at the time he did not understand himself, at the beginning of their journey: I have something to do before the end. I must see it through, sir, if you understand.”
and yet somehow despite the hopelessness which gnaws and promises nothing but pain and no ending but bleak he can still refuse to capitulate to despair. Where does he find the courage to go on?
I surmise, or I guess....... Sam's refusal of despair lives by the moral rightness of his actions. He does not kill an unarmed Gollum ( I probably would!) and although he dithers, it is right and it is moral that he take the Ring and go on. And so he will. And because he will go on we may (or rather, I may) come close enough to understand at the very core of himself, there is courage; the courage of ordinary common decency. It is to that decency which Sam must go, not to displace his broken heart (that is impossible) but to take hold of a strength which will allow him to
take up Sting and the One Ring and go on in the face almost certain defeat.
There is a great deal to learn from Sam about enduring the unendurable. I hope against hope that I may learn to absorb a little of his wisdom. I do know this though, while I have been traveling from Hobbiton to Mordor with Sam, I have learned that the ripples made by his actions are the ripples of Everyman. He is me. He is you. Samwise is us.