I am shamelessly a fan of Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. Although I enjoyed Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings” three films, I much prefer the books. Tolkien’s writings were very popular when I was in college. His clever and insightful critique of war, materialism, arrogance, and contempt for the beauty and harmony of nature spoke to a generation suspicious of an “establishment” devoted to violence, greed, and exploitation. “Frodo Lives!” was part of the graffiti expressing a hope that decency and courage might yet save our world.
Frodo is the unlikely hero of Tolkien’s saga. A young Hobbit sent on a perilous and impossible mission becomes the savior of Middle-earth. Only he can bring about the destruction of the ominous ring of power by casting it into the lava of Mount Doom’s volcano. He is accompanied on this journey by his gardener Samwise Gamgee. Although within walking distance of Mount Doom, Frodo is physically, mentally, and emotionally exhausted. He cannot take another step. The power of the ring has drained him of his strength and will as it pulls him into its domineering orbit.
At this most critical moment in the saga, “Sam” speaks what I see as the most important words in the entire trilogy. “Mister Frodo, I can’t carry the ring. But I can carry you.” And with great effort, Samwise Gamgee picks up Frodo and carries his master the final distance where the ring of power will be destroyed, and Middle-earth will be saved.
Frodo is the recognized hero of Tolkien’s tale, but for me, Sam is the hero. Even though he is a mere gardener in the hierarchy of Hobbiton and not the brightest Hobbit in Middle-earth, his devotion to Frodo, his indomitable spirit of hope, and his sheer perseverance save the day. For several reasons, Sam cannot carry the ring. Only Frodo can fulfill that task. But Sam can carry Frodo (something he has been metaphorically doing from the beginning of the story but now something he literally does). “Frodo Lives!” may be the graffiti on the walls, but he succeeds only because of the efforts and dedication of Sam.
All heroes in history have their “Sams.” Abraham had Sarah who alone could give birth to the gift-child Isaac. The stuttering Moses had his brother Aaron and sister Miriam; Jeremiah, his scribe and co-conspirator Baruch; Jesus, his disciples including Peter the Rock and Mary Magdalene the Tower. Paul had Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Aquila, Priscilla, Phoebe, Lydia, and Timothy; St. Francis, St. Clare. Quaker George Fox, Margaret Fell; John Wesley, his brother Charles. John Woolman, his wife Sarah. The courageous Andre Trocme who saved many Jews during the Holocaust was constantly inspired and guided by his fiery wife Magda and his colleague Edward Theis. Clarence Jordan’s wife Florence was his partner at Koinonia Farm. MLK had his beloved wife Coretta, a bevy of religious and lay supporters as well as Mahalia Jackson whom he would call in the night and ask to sing songs of faith and encouragement. Mother Teresa depended upon her fellow nuns who made her dream of service to the poor and dying possible.
Very few of us will be recognized as heroes in this world. In fact, most of us will be forgotten within three generations, a fact I grow more and more aware of as I approach my dotage. History will not record our names. We cannot all be “Frodo.” But we can all be Sam whose role proved as important as that of his master. We may not be able to carry “the ring,” but we can help carry the bearer. Our world needs heroes whose names will be remembered in the future. But just as importantly, our world needs “Sams” who allow those heroes to accomplish the difficult missions required to mend all the broken places of our “Middle-earth.” We may never receive the recognition we deserve, but if our hearts are in the right place and if we have the humility and devotion of “Sam,” such acknowledgement would never be our goal. It would be enough to know that we helped carry the heroes who bear the awesome task of mending and making whole God’s beloved creation.
Frodo receives top billing in the Rings Saga. But the character I most admire is Samwise Gamgee. Why? Because I know I can never be Frodo, but perhaps l can be Sam. I can help “carry” someone else as they bear their unique burdens and only God knows the results of that carrying—and God remembers.