Tuesday, July 21, 2009

The Choices of Master Samwise

As I noted, each of the two sections of The Two Towers begins with the leader of that section (Aragorn in the first section and Frodo in the second) lamenting the fact that all of his choices have been wrong. “All that I do goes amiss,” says Aragorn, as the weight of his responsibility for the Company in Gandalf’s absence, and then the Ring-bearer’s, sinks upon him; “All my choices have proved ill,” laments Frodo, as the weight of his responsibility for the Ring, now that Gandalf is gone and Frodo himself has left Aragorn and the rest behind, sinks upon him.

Note, then, how The Two Towers ends: with a chapter called “The Choices of Master Samwise.” In which Frodo for the time being has failed in his stewardship of the Ring – outrunning Sam’s protection of him, Frodo has been stung by the giant primordial spider Shelob. Sam finds him and thinks he’s dead; we’ll later learn he’s not, but Sam doesn’t know this.

Sam has to choose: stay by his master’s side and defend/avenge his corpse, or take up the Ring and try to complete the quest on his own.

Sam, it’s important to remember, has never really been a free agent, not in the same way Frodo is. Sam is a servant, not quite indentured but still bound by tradition and social station to serve his master. He seldom acts for himself, and now he has to.

The chapter title refers to “Choices” in the plural, and of course he makes many decisions along the way, but I think it also refers to the fact that he makes the same decision several times, because he doesn’t have the strength to stick with what he’s decided. He knows right away what he has to do: “I’ve got to go on” (p. 714). But after he’s prepared Frodo’s body to be left alone, Sam revisits his decision: “in his heart keeping a debate” (p. 714). He finally arrives – again – at the conclusion that he has to take the Ring and try to finish the Quest himself, and duly takes the Ring.

But almost immediately he has second – third? – thoughts. “‘Have I got it wrong?’ he muttered. ‘What ought I to have done?’” (p. 716). As the narration points out, to strike out on his own, to assume his master’s responsibilities (and possessions) is “altogether against the grain of his nature” (p. 716).

But still he goes on. Three times now he’s made the same decision: to try to finish the quest himself. But then – then he puts on the Ring, overhears orcs finding Frodo’s body, and “he flung the Quest and all his decisions away, and fear and doubt with them” (p. 718). He goes back to Frodo’s body to defend it against the orcs.

His conclusion at this point is interesting: he knows this is the wrong thing to do, but he also believes it’s the only thing he can do. “‘I can’t help it. My place is by Mr. Frodo. They must understand that – Elrond and the Council, and the great Lord and Ladies with all their wisdom. Their plans have gone wrong’” (p. 718).

Again the emphasis on plans, choices, deeds going amiss. Here, though, the speaker isn’t talking about his own intentions going wrong, but those of others; which go wrong because he can’t carry them out. He believes he’s failing others, but only because he belatedly decides that to serve them he’d have to fail in his duty to his master, which he can’t do.

What’s going on here? First of all, I think that the earlier emphases on choices going wrong pays off here. Aragorn’s comments remind us that he’s in charge, and has been since Gandalf's fall; Frodo’s comment, echoing Aragorn’s, helps us realize that for the first time since the Quest began, really, Frodo is in a position of leadership too, forced to make decisions and experience their consequences. Now, at the end of the book, the emphasis on Sam’s choices, and the way his dilemma echoes Aragorn’s and Frodo’s (which way to go?), indicates that the role of leader has devolved upon Sam.

And what of his choices? In fact he does choose correctly, even if he comes to a fork in the road and takes both paths. By first (and second and third) choosing to take the Ring upon himself, he removes it from the path of the orcs who would surely have overpowered him and captured it had he simply stayed to defend Frodo’s corpse. His decision to continue the Quest at this crucial moment saves the day.

But he never could have finished it alone: he’s right to perceive that his role is to support Frodo, and that without Frodo he’s not much good. So he goes back, and it’s good that he does: he eventually rescues Frodo and together, they finish the Quest. He was right to choose to complete the Quest on his own, and he was right to rethink that choice and go back for Frodo. And, in his humility, he doesn’t quite realize that this tricky alternation of decisiveness and doubt has led him in just the right direction.

This is Tolkien’s irony. Heroism seldom looks like it. But even just attempting to do good may do some good. Despite appearances, it's a rather hopeful book.

1 comment:

Cat said...

Sam's vision of ethics consciously believes in the primacy of nations and kinds, but his practice of ethics exalts intimacy and friendship instead (which turns out to be the best for all concerned). This discussion makes me think of the famous E. M. Forster quote (which I just Googled to get right): "if I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country."