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Quoting from Crouching Moron Hidden Badass: Literature on TVTropes (TVTropes link alert!!! Don't tell me I didn't warn you!):

Perhaps even more aptly: Samwise Gamgee. His name roughly translates to "halfwit", and it applies. He's overweight, easily frightened, and not very bright. He also beat a man-eating giant spider demi-god in single combat, single-handedly stormed a tower full of hostile orcs to save his friend's life, was the only Ringbearer to steadfastly resist the temptation of the One Ring, and literally carried another man up the side of a volcano for the fate of the world while starving and suffering from dehydration. There's a reason Tolkien considered him the true hero of the story.

I am wondering if there is an actual direct confirmation (in-Universe or out-of-Universe quote from Tolkien) that the statement "There's a reason Tolkien considered him the true hero of the story" is true.

Please note that I'm not looking for a logical proof, e.g. not something based on general "this is a work about common folk defending themselves etc. etc. etc.." general chain of reasoning.

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Whether or not he's the "true hero" of the story, he was definitely a protagonist and a very important one at that. –  Peter Cassetta Oct 17 '11 at 2:28
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Who doesn't think Sam is the real hero? –  zenzelezz Oct 17 '11 at 21:48
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I find the statements on him resisting the Ring unjust - he had the ring on him for a very short amount of time. Clearly the longer you wear the ring the more you are affected by him. If Sam would have worn the ring as long as Frodo, what would have happened to him? –  flq Mar 20 '13 at 12:40
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"I am wondering if there is an actual direct confirmation (in-Universe" how can such a thing be in-universe? It's not like characters say to each other "hey you were going to be the protagonist, but the author changed idea". –  Lohoris Jun 5 '14 at 18:24
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"If Sam would have worn the ring as long as Frodo, what would have happened to him?" A garden grander and larger than any you could possibly imagine. –  Zibbobz Jul 25 '14 at 14:20

3 Answers 3

up vote 138 down vote accepted

In a letter to Milton Waldman (so-called Letter 131), Tolkien makes mention of Sam being the "chief hero" of the story [1]:

I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty.

He also makes mention of Sam's heroic nature in a reply to a real-life Sam Gamgee (so-called Letter 184):

It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment, when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the 'Sam Gamgee' of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic.

Elsewhere, in a letter to his son Christopher (so-called Letter 91), he begins:

Here is a small consignment of 'The Ring': the last two chapters that have been written, and the end of the Fourth Book of that great Romance, in which you will see that, as is all too easy, I have got the hero into such a fix that not even an author will be able to extricate him without labour and difficulty. Lewis was moved almost to tears by the last chapter. All the same, I chiefly want to hear what you think, as for a long time now I have written with you most in mind.

The last two chapters of the "Fourth Book" refer to the end of The Two Towers [2]: in the last two chapters—"Shelob's Lair" and "The Choices of Master Samwise"—only two characters are present: Frodo and Sam. The latter chapter, aptly named, is told exclusively through the narrative of Sam.


Notes

Note 1 In the comments, user8114 mentions that it's Aragorn to whom Tolkien is referring to as "the chief hero" in the excerpt above. And indeed, Aragorn is mentioned prominently in the paragraph that surrounds the excerpt. But the context does not support this hypothesis.

Letter 131 is an attempt to justify the themes and motifs to his friend and potential publisher, Milton Waldman, against comments regarding the marketability of The Lord of the Rings. The excerpt above regarding Sam, his Rosie, and "the chief hero's character" is in the middle of a long paragraph on the love stories present in the work:

Since we now try to deal with 'ordinary life', springing up ever unquenched under the trample of world policies and events, there are love-stories touched in, or love in different modes, wholly absent from The Hobbit. But the highest love-story, that of Aragorn and Arwen Elrond's daughter is only alluded to as a known thing. It is told elsewhere in a short tale. Of Aragorn and Arwen Undómiel. I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty. But I will say no more, nor defend the theme of mistaken love seen in Eowyn and her first love for Aragorn. I do not feel much can now be done to heal the faults of this large and much-embracing tale – or to make it 'publishable', if it is not so now.

Here, Tolkien enumerates three love stories:

  1. Aragorn and Arwen
  2. Sam and Rosie
  3. Eowyn's unrequited love for Aragorn

The first story he points out is only mentioned and left alone for another story. The second he emphasizes as being important to understanding the chief hero's story. The third he intentionally takes off the table for discussion.

Looking at the specific sentence mentioning Sam, there are two uses of the pronoun "his": first to "his Rosie" and then, 9 words later, to "his character". Tolkien, being a scholar of the English language, would not first refer to Sam, then—in mid-sentence—change the referent to Aragorn for five words, then back to Sam to describe his qualities as exemplars of the "ordinary life".

Additionally, if Aragorn were the chief hero, it seems reasonable he would've made one of the two love stories involving him essential to understanding his character, instead of brushing them aside in favor of Sam's love story with Rosie.

And, given his repeated and consistent emphasis on Hobbits, not Men or Elves or Dwarves or Ents, being the heroes of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn is not a fit: he's merely someone by which to compare the plights of the Hobbits, much like Gimli and Legolas.

It should also be noted, as the redditor richlaw pointed out, Christopher Tolkien himself believed his father meant Sam was the chief hero, not Aragorn. Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull—creators of the index for the published Letters of J.R.R. Tolkienaddressed this concern on the Lord of the Rings Fanatics Forum, where they explained they wrote to Christopher Tolkien asking for clarification regarding the passage in Letter 131:

To this Christopher replied, very succinctly, that he was certain that 'the chief hero' referred to Sam.


Note 2 The Lord of the Rings was published in three volumes with two books each; The Two Towers contains books 3 and 4. Later in the same letter, Tolkien discusses how to get out of the hole he dug himself in books 5 and 6 (i.e., The Return of the King).

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Although it isn't entirely clear, and many will disagree, I'm fairly certain that "his (the chief hero)" in that letter refers to Aragorn, not Sam. –  user8114 Aug 3 '12 at 19:19
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@user8114 I disagree that "his (the chief hero's) character)" could refer to anyone other than Sam: in the same sentence he uses "his Rosie": to overload pronouns like that would not be something Tolkien, a scholar of the English language, would do. I've expanded my answer to include the surrounding context, which should clarify what that portion of the letter was about. –  user366 Aug 3 '12 at 21:24
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Intriguing post, I might add that "Hero" can be a technical term when used by those well-versed in an expansive range of European literature like JRR Tolkien. Just like any funny work can be a comedy today, technically speaking a "comedy" starts well, a serious problem arises, and then a pivotal plot event happens that leads to a resolve (like Shakespeare's "comedies"). A "hero" starts out rustic and simple, ends up on an unexpected quest, goes through loss, and ends up with wisdom and complexity in the end (too simplistic, I know). Just keep in mind that "hero" is probably loaded language. –  FoxMan2099 Jul 27 '13 at 22:21
    
If you combine the "chief hero" remark with Tolkien's belief that heroism and humility are inextricably intertwined, perhaps even synonymous, it becomes obvious that the chief hero could only be Sam. This idea is confirmed by Tolkien's admission that he modeled Sam after the privates and batmen he knew in WWI, and "recognized as being so far superior to myself", in his own words. –  Wad Cheber May 23 at 5:56

It's hard to imagine improving on @user366's out-of-universe answer. Here's an in-universe argument, which seems blindingly obvious to me.

One problem is the premise that there is one single character who functions in the story as the 'chief hero.' There's no rule of literature that guarantees us this state of affairs. One could make an argument for distribution of heroic status across a number of people.

However: Sam saves the world. Over and over, at the end of the quest, Sam just gets it done. Frodo spends the tail of the quest in a state of perpetual near-failure, and suffers a moral failure at the brink, requiring Gollum to prevent him from throwing the entire quest away. We can imagine hypothetical scenarios in which Frodo succeeds, but, in fact, the story told is one in which Frodo reaches the end only by virtue of Sam's labor. Frodo presents as a tragic character; handed a burden he didn't ask for, trudging along through the story fueled by duty, and in the end damaged beyond repair. He travels through the story in a pessimistic condition. Sam's sense of duty is much more positive: his love for Frodo, his home, Rosie (though we don't learn much about that until the end) and the world. Sam, unlike Frodo (and, well, Moses) gets to enjoy the fruits of his labors, and I think that this is a sufficient clue that he's the hero of the piece.

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Exactly. It took me 10 paragraphs to say what you said in just 2, and you still managed to say in more persuasively than I did. –  Wad Cheber May 23 at 6:19

To supplement the out-of-universe answer and the in-universe answer, I can offer a combined in/out answer. Tolkien certainly modeled Samwise on people he knew in his own life and considered to be extremely heroic and admirable:

My ‘Samwise’ is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier ...the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself. ― The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien

The 1914 war, of course, was the First World War; batmen were enlisted men who were assigned to be servants to officers. They did the same sort of things Sam does for Frodo - acting as messengers, valets, preparing meals and tea, looking after horses, uniforms, and other property, and tending to their officer's personal affairs. In a very real way, Sam in fact is Frodo's batman.

As far as the text is concerned, few characters in LotR - if any - are described as being as heroic, determined, steadfast, loyal, virtuous, humble, noble, and resolute, to the degree that - and as consistently as - Sam is.

Humility is one of his most significant attributes, in Tolkien's eyes. Tolkien was careful to portray humility as the most desirable quality a person can have; in Tolkien's universe, humility is what makes good men great. The difference between Boromir, who fell victim to the temptation of the Ring, and his brother Faramir, who easily withstood the same temptation, is humility: Faramir was humble, where his brother was vainglorious and proud.

In a similar vein, Sauron was good, then fell under the influence of the evil Melkor. When Melkor was defeated, Sauron repented and was offered a chance at redemption, if he would agree to submit himself to the judgement of the Valar and Maiar; Sauron wrestled with his pride, wanting to redeem himself, but in the end, his pride won out. He couldn't bring himself to accept the humiliation of facing judgement, and returned to his evil ways; only then, according to Tolkien, had he truly and irreversibly fallen from grace. And in the end, his pride was his ruin: Frodo was only able to destroy the Ring was because of Sauron's overconfidence. So confident was Sauron in the Ring's ability to corrupt anyone who held it that he never considered the possibility that anyone would try to destroy it. This is what Tolkien meant when he wrote that, as soon as Frodo claimed the Ring inside the Crack of Doom, Sauron's folly was laid bare to him. Only then did he realize that he had allowed his arrogance and pride to blind him.

The opposite of pride and arrogance is, of course, humility. And this Samwise Gamgee has in spades. He is constantly doubting himself; chastising himself (as his father used to do, and often in the same words his father used) for his every supposed misstep; comparing himself - always unfavorably - to most everyone he meets; second-guessing himself; engaging in self-deprecating humor; and so on. When Sam asks Frodo if he thinks there will be stories written about their adventures, and describes how people might one day speak of the great hobbit hero Frodo, Frodo suggests that readers would be more interested in "Samwise the Stout-hearted"; Sam is so incapable of seeing any virtue in himself that he immediately assumes that Frodo is mocking him and says, "Mr. Frodo, you shouldn't make fun. I was serious".

[Sam] did not think of himself as heroic or even brave, or in any way admirable – except in his service and loyalty to his master.
-J.R.R. Tolkien, Letter 329.

To put it simply, Tolkien believed that heroism and humility were inextricably intertwined - almost synonymous, even - and no one in his story is as humble as little Samwise Gamgee. Others are heroic in their own way too, of course, but none so much as Sam. When Frodo tries to leave the Fellowship on his own, Samwise is the only one who realizes what Frodo means to do. He runs after his beloved master and, although he can't swim, throws himself into the river to reach Frodo's boat, nearly drowning in the process. When Frodo falters, it is always Sam who picks him up. When Frodo appears to have been killed by Shelob, Sam overcomes his terror and selflessly throws himself at the horrible beast, eventually managing to inflict far greater damage upon the ancient monster than she herself ever considered possible. Sam is then torn between his desire to remain by his fallen master's side and his knowledge that the Ring must be destroyed at all costs; he eventually decides to bear the Ring to Mount Doom alone, but is drawn back to defend Frodo's body after it is discovered by Orcs. He then single-handedly fights off a large group of Orcs and rescues Frodo from their tower. When Frodo collapses and can walk no further, Sam picks him up and carries him to the Crack of Doom. When they are finally inside the volcano, Sam remains strong and determined, while Frodo falters at the last moment and claims the Ring as his own.

Sam is heroic precisely because he doesn't think he is a hero, or ever could be. He is all the things he thinks he is not. He thinks he is stupid, when in fact he is wise. He thinks he is weak when in fact he is incredibly strong. He thinks he is a coward when he has unparalleled courage. He thinks he is a burden when he is actually the driving force behind Frodo's mission. He thinks he does everything wrong when in fact he is the reason the quest didn't go off the rails.

Tolkien said once or twice that he considered Samwise to be the true hero of his saga, and by Tolkien's standards, he certainly was. Recall Tolkien's words about the men who inspired the character - Tolkien considered these men to be "so far superior to [him]self". There are other heroes in the story - Aragorn, Legolas, Gimli, Frodo, Faramir, Eomer, Eowyn, Merry, Pippin, Gamdalf, Treebeard... But none of these characters are as unassuming and humble as Samwise Gamgee. None of these characters thinks as little of themselves, or doubts themselves, or unjustly criticizes themselves, as much as Sam does, but none of them show such resilience and courage in the face of adversity as does Samwise. No one underestimates himself as much as Sam, and as we all know, Sam's extremely unfavorable assessment of his own abilities and virtues are completely unfounded. He is the ideal hero, because he doesn't think he has heroism in him.

Tolkien spoke of this on occasion, as noted above:

I think the simple 'rustic' love of Sam and his Rosie (nowhere elaborated) is absolutely essential to the study of his (the chief hero's) character, and to the theme of the relation of ordinary life (breathing, eating, working, begetting) and quests, sacrifice, causes, and the 'longing for Elves', and sheer beauty.

And:

I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the 'Sam Gamgee' of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic.

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