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If I have to find one "flaw" about The Lord of the Rings, it may be the fact that Sam is more or less the slave of Frodo, albeit a willing servant. This fundamentally bothers me, for some reason. Perhaps because I'm essentially Sam in terms of social status, if even that.

Although he ends up being extremely heroic and important, and (spoiler warning) eventually becomes the long-time mayor of Hobbiton, during the entire epic journey, he is always somehow "below" Frodo, and Frodo is always the "obvious" leader, even though he barely seems to have any more wits than Sam in most situations.

It's heavily implied that Sam isn't the sharpest individual, but I mostly don't notice any of this supposed stupidity. Perhaps I'm failing to see it just because I want him to be "normal" or on "equal terms" with Frodo?

With this in mind, is there any particular reason that Tolkien decided to not just make Sam Frodo's close and trusty friend, who might do work for him but isn't in any way a "servant" or "slave"? Would this really have changed the story in a major way?

Is there some specific point in making Sam play the role he has? Could it be that it's simply his (perhaps largely imagined) low intelligence that makes him so submissive toward Frodo? As in, "good ol' Frodo is so smart, so he'd better call the shots"? Low self-esteem, perhaps as a result from being talked down to all his life in Hobbiton by the older hobbits?

I'm not at all ignorant about actual history, and I know that until very recently, this kind of relationship was extremely common. Especially here in Europe. And it even makes perfect sense. Still, there's something about it which makes me uncomfortable. Since Hobbits are fictional entities, it wasn't strictly necessary for Tolkien to have such as "master/slave" tradition included in the story, at least among Hobbits. Hobbits seem like they all mostly live in peace and harmony, with not many power struggles and things of that nature.

Perhaps Tolkien made Sam a "slave" specifically for there to be a maximum contrast once he has been through all the trials and comes back as a leader? Although, even then, he still seems like he looks up to Frodo, in spite of basically carrying Frodo to Mount Doom.

The entire character of Sam basically confuses me.

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    There is a substantial and significant difference between slave and servant. Commented Nov 28, 2020 at 0:16
  • I suspect that at least part of it goes back to JRR Tolkien's medievalist training; Frodo and Sam are a knight and his squire, kinda like Gawain and Gaheris or Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.
    – verbose
    Commented Dec 9, 2020 at 0:57
  • Sam eventually becomes the Mayor of Michel Delving or of the Shire, not of Hobbiton. Commented Feb 19, 2023 at 23:10

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You very much have to remember the world in which Tolkien was writing. Class distinctions were very much stronger then than they are now. If we expected readers to apply their understanding of the British class system to Middle Earth, then Frodo is quite definitely a member of the wealthy class. He owns a house, he throws large parties, he doesn't need to work, he has inherited wealth from Bilbo. If Sam were depicted as his equal he would also be wealthy.

It is stated in many places that Tolkien at least partly wrote LOTR as a parallel to WWI, in which he believed that the doggedness and strength of the ordinary Britisher got them through. The same with the Hobbits and the Ring. But if Tolkien had written all the Hobbits of the Fellowship as wealthy upper-class he could reasonably be accused of portraying a situation in which it is only wealthy upper-class people who get to save the world. That was not what he was trying to say. Having Sam be genuinely "working class" makes his point much better. To portray Sam as "ordinary" by the standards of pre-WW2 Britain then he has to have a job. If he has a job then he may as well work for Frodo. (And the position of "gardener" is a long way from "slave". A good gardener would be as valued as a good chef.)

As Rand al'Thor excellently pointed out, this is supported by this quote of Tolkien's:

"My 'Samwise' is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier—grafted on the village-boys of early days, the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself."

You might also look at the answers to this question: Did Tolkien consider Sam Gamgee to be the true hero of the Lord of the Rings.

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    Good answer, pinpointing exactly why Tolkien would've considered it natural to create the character of Sam in the way he did. It could be improved even more by adding the following quote from Tolkien's Letters: "My 'Samwise' is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier—grafted on the village-boys of early days, the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself." (See also Did Tolkien really explicitly consider Sam the true hero of The Lord of the Rings?)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 18:51
  • @Randal'Thor Huge thank-you for that quote. Commented Dec 8, 2020 at 19:12
  • @DJClayworth I was very confused about the Rand al'Thor reference, until I realized it was someone's username Commented Jul 26, 2023 at 1:23
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I'm not sure I can satisfactorily answer your question; if you really 'want him to be "normal" or on "equal terms" with Frodo' I'm not going to try to convince you :) That said:

  • Sam is Frodo's gardener; even though gardeners (and cooks) were probably held in high esteem in the hobbit society, that still makes Frodo Sam's employer.
  • Frodo is from the famous Brandybuck family, so he has a bit of hobbit nobility in him.
  • Sam is twelve years younger than Frodo. When their journey begins, he is 38, which is only 5 years after 'coming of age'.
  • Frodo is rather 'experienced' for a hobbit, growing up very close to Bilbo. Hobbits didn't travel much and seldom left the Shire. My impression is that Sam simply trusts Frodo to make the right decisions in the 'exotic' situations they end up in.
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I would agree to what Glorfindel posted for an in-universe explanation, but I would like to share a possible out of the universe explanation. I like to think that Tolkien had Sam be Frodo's "servant" for a few reasons:

  1. To have them know of each other through Sam working for Frodo, so that by Frodo knowing him Gandalf would likely trust Sam in helping Frodo.

  2. To introduce him to the journey in a natural way, as Frodo's gardener he would be able to spend more time at Bag End without being suspicious (which would fail if Gandalf spent that much time at Bag End). And it would give a reason for him being there to have Gandalf be the one to task him to go with Frodo for the story

  3. And to have the other hobbits (Merry and Pippin) have some knowledge of the ring and this motivate them in wanting to join Frodo and Sam. In the book Sam was a sort of spy for Merry and Pippin (as well as a third hobbit whose name I don't remember). Sam would relay the information in the story to these people and they would use this information to want to help Frodo and later on join him.

It was a way for a trustworthy person to join and have two more important people of the story join later on.

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