character development, Episode VIII, Film Review, Sam Gamgee, Star Wars, The Last Jedi, The Lord of the Rings
Welcome, as always, dear readers.
When you think about Sam, what do you know about him and how do you know?
The first mention of the character is almost a footnote. The narrator is actually talking about Ham Gamgee “commonly known as the Gaffer” (a dialect form of “grandfather”):
“Now that he was himself growing old and stiff in the joints, the job was mainly carried on by his youngest son, Sam Gamgee. Both father and son were on very friendly terms with Bilbo and Frodo. They lived on the Hill itself, in Number 3 Bagshot Row just below Bag End.” (The Fellowship of the Ring, Book One, Chapter 1, “A Long-Expected Party”)
The Gaffer has been gossiping in The Ivy Bush, mostly in response to conversation about Bilbo and Frodo and he’s attempting to quell a rumor that Bag End is stuffed with jewels and gold and says of its riches:
“But my lad Sam will know more about that. He’s in and out of Bag End. Crazy about stories of the old days, he is, and he listens to all Mr. Bilbo’s tales. Mr. Bilbo has learned him his letters—meaning no harm, mark you, and I hope no harm will come of it.
‘Elves and Dragons! I says to him. Cabbages and potatoes are better for me and you. Don’t go getting mixed up in the business of your betters or you’ll land in trouble too big for you, I says to him.’ ”
So, in about three pages we know:
1. a little about Sam’s family (he is unmarried and lives with an elderly father)
2. his job (assistant gardener)
3. his social class (lower—Gaffer’s speech pattern and word choices indicate “rustic”, as does his talking to Sam about his “betters”)
4. where he lives (as a servant in this semi-feudal world would be expected to, below his master, but near)
5. his interests (“the old days”)
6. his education (he’s literate—and The Gaffer’s “meaning no harm” suggests that this is unusual, at least among his social class)
7. his character (imaginative: “crazy about stories”; perhaps independent-minded—he continues to be enthusiastic about such things even though his father cautions him against them)
In the many chapters to come, we will learn much more about Sam—his practicality, his inner toughness, his flexibility, his ability to stay grounded in the worst circumstances, and that inner resolve which keeps the two hobbits going, even to what appeared to be a terrible end:
“ ‘So that was the job I felt I had to do when I started,’ thought Sam: ‘to help Mr. Frodo to the last step and then die with him. Well, if that is the job then I must do it.’
But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 3, “Mount Doom”)
It’s not surprising, then, that Galadriel, with an eerie foresight, has given him the means to help the Shire heal from the terrible industrializing wounds of Sharkey & Co.:
“So Sam planted saplings in all the places where specially beautiful or beloved trees had been destroyed, and he put a grain of the precious dust in the soil at the root of each. He went up and down the Shire in this labour…And at the end he found that he still had a little of the dust left; so he went to the Three-Farthing Stone, which is as near the centre of the Shire as no matter, and cast it in the air with his blessing…” (The Return of the King, Book Six, Chapter 9, “The Grey Havens”)
Recently, we’ve seen Star Wars 8: The Last Jedi. After 7, we were not eager. We are not among those who hold that 4, 5, and 6 are the canon, although we see characters there—particularly Luke and Han—grow over time into people we include in our list of adventure-friends, like Robin Hood and David Balfour and Indiana Jones. We think that George Lucas, having developed the story of Luke and his father, was curious to see if he could reach back in time and show how Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader, a daring and ambitious project, since, until his attack on the Emperor, Vader seemed less than sympathetic as a character.
For us, the main problem with 7 was that there seemed to be too many characters constantly flying to to too many planets, with no real attempt to develop them. Granted, JRRT had hundreds of pages and as many hours as his readers were willing to grant him to turn out characters like Sam, luxuries a film-maker is denied. At the same time, consider the opening sequence: a mysterious pilot lands on a mysterious planet which is then attacked by people who resemble the storm troopers of 4/5/6. The mysterious pilot is given something by a mysterious elderly man. Then a storm trooper mysteriously deserts his companions after finding one a casualty. And so it goes on. By the end of the film, we had a cast which included (for a short time, at least) old friends: Chewy, Han, and Leia (with minor roles for droids), plus a number of new characters who did not appear to us to be anchored in anything, just there to sustain the action. Who were they? Who knew? And, sadly, for us, who then cared? We had hopes for Rey (although the joke that she is a “Rey/Ray of Hope” is pretty obvious) and still do, but, with nothing to ground them, why, we asked ourselves, should we invest emotionally in FN-2187 and Poe (whose name is just a little too close to “Pooh”—or “Poo” for our taste)?
And then there came 8. It began as 5—evacuation from a newly-discovered base, but without the wampa or those impressive ATATs (even if snow speeders can find weaknesses in them). And then we see the unexplained Poe (the mysterious pilot in 7) once more and soon the unexplained FN-2187 (the mysterious deserter in 7) who, in turn, is soon joined by the unexplained Rose. (In time, we’ll also see the unexplained DJ, although we can’t recall that we were ever given his name, which says something about his development in the story. Why is he in the lock-up? When he betrays FN-2187 and Rose, when did he have the occasion to have set up the betrayal beforehand? And why does he occasionally stutter?) To which we add the unexplained Captain Phasma, who had a brief unexplained appearance in the previous film. (And who in the world is Snoke? And how does he come to fill in for Palpatine? We also wonder, considering the condition of his face, what happens when he eats popcorn—does it get wedged in the cracks or does it all fall out of one cheek?)
We swear by 4/5/6 and, though they are weaker films, we still believe 1/2/3 to be an important part of the story, but what we feel has happened in 7 and even more so in 8, is that character development has been sacrificed for action: instead of seeing more of who they are and why, we are too often shown what they do and this is somehow thought to be the same. Perhaps part of the point of 9 will be to explain at least some of what’s missing from 7 and 8, but imagine seeing Sam through the first five books of The Lord of the Rings simply as somebody who carries the pots and pans (and rope), then, suddenly, in Book Six, becomes the figure we have watched grow through the first five—would you believe in him and would you care?
Thanks, as always, for reading!
We’ve had so much discussion about this that we plan a second review to follow.