Sam Gamgee at the borders of Story
At about 44:00 minutes into Peter Jackson's The Fellowship of the Ring (Special Extended Edition), Frodo and Sam are crossing a cornfield. Sam suddenly slows down, and starts to fall behind. He stops, looking thoughtfully at the earth before his feet.
'This is it,' he says.
'This is what?' Frodo stops to ask.
'If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been.'
Frodo walks back to him.
'Come on, Sam,' he says, encouraging him.
Sam looks down, and, with some trepidation, takes the step. Frodo smiles and lays a hand upon his shoulder. They go forward together.
'Remember what Bilbo used to say,' says Frodo, who pauses and then begins again, and as he does the voice of Bilbo quickly speaks over his: ' "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don't keep your feet, there's no knowing where you might be swept off to." '
Let's take a look now at the original scene in the book:
...They were looking across the Woody End towards the Brandywine River. The road wound before them like a piece of string.
'The road goes on for ever,' said Pippin; 'but I can't without a rest. It is high time for lunch.' He sat down on the bank at the side of the road and looked away east into the haze, beyond which lay the River, and the end of the Shire in which he had spent all his life. Sam stood by him. His round eyes were wide open -- for he was looking across lands he had never seen to a new horizon.
'Do Elves live in those woods?' he asked.
'Not that I ever heard,' said Pippin. Frodo was silent. He too was gazing eastward along the road, as if he had never seen it before. Suddenly he spoke, aloud but as if to himself, saying slowly:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet,
Until it joins some larger way,
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
'That sounds like a bit of old Bilbo's rhyming,' said Pippin. 'Or is it one of your imitations? It does not sound altogether encouraging.'
'I don't know,' said Frodo. 'It came to me then, as if I was making it up; but I may have heard it long ago. Certainly it reminds me of Bilbo in the last years, before he went away. He used often to say there was only one Road; that it was like a great river: its springs were at every doorstep, and every path was its tributary. "It's a dangerous business, Frodo, going out of your door," he used to say. "You step into the Road, and if you don't keep your feet, there is no knowing where you might be swept off to. Do you realize that this is the very path that goes through Mirkwood, and that if you let it, it might take you to the Lonely Mountain or even further and to worse places?" He used to say that on the path outside the front door of Bag End, especially after he had been out for a long walk.'
'Well, the Road won't sweep me anywhere for an hour at least,' said Pippin, unslinging his pack. The others followed his example, putting their packs against the bank and their legs out into the road. After a rest they had a good lunch, and then more rest.
The purpose of setting these two scenes side by side is not to afford myself or anyone else an opportunity to bash the film for not being the book, but rather to allow us to see this scene in the book with eyes refreshed, perhaps, by the contrast. For myself, even though I am a mindful reader who has read the book many times, reading the one after watching the other was illuminating. It gave me a better understanding of how the scene in the book fits into the larger Tale.
How is that so? It's not just that there's so much more information conveyed, which of course there is. It's the nature and emphasis of that information. The film opts for the streamlined, and, with a gentle humor that we can share with his more worldly master, emphasizes the rustic parochialism of Sam as he takes his first step into a larger world. It is a sweet scene, bolstered by the soundtrack and the avuncular voice-over of Bilbo.
In the book we have three hobbits looking at the country that lies ahead, but they do not all see it in the same way. Pippin begins with a note that catches our attention, with what seems to the reader like an allusion to the song Bilbo sang right before he left the Shire seventeen years earlier (FR 1.i.35-36).1 Yet Pippin is more concerned with lunch and rest, and when he looks down the road eastward all he sees is haze. He knows that beyond that haze is the River and the boundaries of the Shire where 'he had spent all his life,' but does not seem to think beyond that fact. As we've seen before, most hobbits give little thought to the world out there, to what lands and people wait in the empty white spaces that surround the Shire on hobbit maps. So far, Pippin seems rather stolid for a Took.2 After all, they're supposed to be the adventurous ones.3
Yet beside him is Sam, who has an altogether different prospect in view. As in the film he has reached the limits of his experience, but the book has already dealt with the question of how far from home Sam has been before. In a scene on the previous night Sam had demonstrated how well he knew the land near Hobbiton, to which the narrator adds that 'twenty miles...was the limit of his geography' (FR 1.iii.71-72). And while readers will surely remember this detail a page and a half later, and put it together with what we are reading now, the emphasis here is not on how far he has come, but on how far he is going. Sam is not thinking of where one more step will take him in terms of geography. That threshold he has already crossed in his mind. For Sam is going with Mr. Frodo to see the Elves. This is his heart's desire, as he himself has already told us:
'Elves, sir! I would dearly love to see them. Couldn't you take me to see the Elves, sir, when you go?'....' Me, sir!' cried Sam, springing up like a dog invited for a walk. 'Me go and see Elves and all! Hooray!' he shouted, and then burst into tears.
(FR 1.ii.63-64; cf. ii.45)What Sam is really asking now, with 'his round eyes wide open,' is whether he is standing at the borders of Faerie. It is not merely a wider world, but another world entirely, the one for which he has yearned ever since Bilbo filled his head with 'stories of the old days' (FR 1.i.24), where Elves walk beneath the stars and dragons rise up on wings of wrath. The world of Story. And Sam's words here -- the only words he utters in the scene -- are central. Not only do they occur very close to the middle of this passage, but they focus it on something more than geography and lunch (as important as such things no doubt remain). Indeed the entire scene can be said to pivot on them.
For while Pippin's reply is matter of fact and almost dismissive, Sam's question strikes a very deep chord with Frodo, who at first remains silent. Not only does he see the road differently than either of his companions. He also sees it differently than he himself would have done in the past: 'he too was gazing eastward along the road as if he had never seen it before;' when he breaks his silence, he speaks 'aloud but as if to himself;' and then he recites lines of poetry he doesn't know he knew, that 'just came to [him] then, as if [he] was making it up' (all italics mine). As with Sam, Frodo's past is relevant here. In the years after Bilbo left:
But as he grew older, 'the regret that he had not gone with Bilbo was steadily growing,' and he told himself that one day he, too, would cross the river (FR 1.ii.43). And as he came closer to the age at which 'adventure had suddenly befallen Bilbo' (FR 1.ii.43), 'Frodo began to feel restless, and the old paths seemed too well-trodden' (ii.43). His friends became concerned that he would go off by himself (ii.43; v.103-04). But with the revelation of the Ring, all that changes. Crossing the river becomes a darker and more complex proposition:Frodo often went tramping over the Shire with [Merry and Pippin]; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done.(FR 1.ii.42-43)
'I imagined [going away] as a kind of holiday, a series of adventures like Bilbo's or better, ending in peace. But this would mean exile, a flight from danger into danger, drawing it after me. And I suppose I must go alone, if I am to do that and save the Shire. But I feel very small and very uprooted, and well -- desperate. The Enemy is so strong and terrible.'
He did not tell Gandalf, but as he was speaking a great desire to follow Bilbo flamed up in his heart -- to follow Bilbo, and even perhaps to find him again. It was so strong that it overcame his fear: he could almost have run out there and then down the road without his hat, as Bilbo had done on a similar morning long ago.
The desire to see Bilbo again gives Frodo the courage to face his fear and to try to save the Shire, but courage is not the same thing as hope. He does not run out the door as Bilbo did, not now or anytime soon. He discovers that leaving under these circumstances is harder than he thought.(FR 1.ii.62)
Weeks of delay turn into months. And, as we shall later learn from Merry, Frodo spends the spring and summer saying goodbye to the Shire, and has been 'constantly heard...muttering: "Shall I ever look down into that valley again, I wonder" ' (FR 1.v.103), almost the very words we heard him say the night before, in the scene where we also learned about Sam's geographical knowledge: 'I wonder if I shall ever look down into that valley again' (FR 1.iii.71-72).'I have been so taken up with the thoughts of leaving Bag End, and of saying farewell, that I have never even considered the direction,' said Frodo. 'For where am I to go? And by what shall I steer? What is to be my quest? Bilbo went to find a treasure, there and back again; but I go to lose one, and not return, as far as I can see.'(FR 1.iii.66)
Frodo's heart is looking backwards -- as Sam's is not, as Bilbo's was not -- at what he is leaving, at the Shire he feels sure he must lose. Sam's question, now on the first morning of their journey, is as eager as Frodo's question of the night before was rueful. Now, with this road of loss before his feet and Sam's words in his ears, it is no wonder that he feels disconnected from himself and his own words ('as if...as if...as if...'); and no wonder that the poem here seems to express Frodo's doubts and reluctance, but in Bilbo's mouth it had expressed his relief and happiness to be going.4 Seen in this way, Pippin's characterization of Frodo's recitation as 'not...altogether encouraging' is quite apt. Not seen in this way -- that is, if we read it like Bilbo's -- Pippin's remark is harder to construe.
Yet we may also see that within Frodo's words -- the poem and the quotation of Bilbo -- lies an answer to the meaning of Sam's question. Having reached the limits of his own world of dull and incurious hobbits, Sam wants to know if this is where the world of Story begins.5 It begins, he is told, with the Road that begins at your doorstep. Since the path leads to Mirkwood, and Erebor, and 'even further and to worse places,' the Road and the Story are inextricably linked. Step into the one, and you step into the other.
How fully Sam may realize this now is impossible to say. The text remains silent. He may still be staring across the valley at the woods, as he was when we last saw him, or he may have turned to look at Frodo when he began speaking, which is not an unreasonable inference. But Sam is aware that the borders of the Shire are not impermeable, either to 'queer tales' or 'queer folk' (FR 1.ii.44-45), and that Elves, the very embodiment of Story, were moving westward to the Grey Havens and had been seen in the Shire, even by Sam himself, or so he believed (ii.45). And he of course knows that the world of Story showed up at Bilbo's front door. Very soon he will come to see that he is already inside a Tale. For the hobbits will quickly find, once they enter those woods, that that other world, the world of Story, is no respecter of the attempts of the Shire-folk to fence it out.
But that all comes later, after a rest, and a good lunch, and more rest. These are hobbits after all.
1 Pippin's later reaction to Frodo's reciting The Road Goes Ever On indicates that he is not here alluding to the poem. He doesn't seem to know it at all, which suggests that 'the road goes on for ever' was something of a proverbial expression upon which Bilbo built.
2 It's not until Pippin finds himself a captive of the Orcs, who are soon to be attacked by the Rohirrim, that he begins to grasp the utility of knowing some geography (TT 3.iii.543):
He wondered very much what kind of folk [the Rohirrim] were. He wished now that he had learned more in Rivendell, and looked at more maps and things, but in those days the plans for the journey seemed to be in more competent hands, and he had never reckoned with being cut off from Gandalf, or from Strider, and even from Frodo. All that he could remember about Rohan was that Gandalf's horse, Shadowfax, had come from that land. That sounded hopeful, as far as it went.
3 On Tookishness see Corey Olsen, Exploring J.R.R. Tolkien's The Hobbit, 17-26, and passim thereafter.
4 Compare Bilbo's words to Gandalf immediately before he sings the poem and leaves:
'Take care! I don't care. Don't you worry about me! I am as happy now as I have ever been, and that's saying a great deal. But the time has come. I am being swept off my feet at last....'
(FR 1.i.35)Verbally, the two instances of the poem differ in one word only. Where Bilbo says 'pursuing it with eager feet' (FR 1.i.35), Frodo says 'pursuing it with weary feet.' This is entirely consonant with the portrayals of Bilbo, who can't wait to leave and used his party as a stage for a grand and shocking exit, and Frodo, who is loath to go no matter how long he has dallied with the idea of following Bilbo. It will be worthwhile to study their departures from Bag End. Tbe idea of 'pursuing' the road is an intriguing enough notion on its own, but the juxtaposition of this idea of intentional effort with Bilbo's statement that the Road can sweep you away to no one knows where also opens the door to what could prove an interesting examination of free will.
5 For Sam's experience of this, look here. Frodo, too, has also felt the rub of being surrounded by those with willfully narrow perspectives: "I should like to save the Shire, if I could -- though there have been times when I thought the inhabitants too stupid and dull for words, and have felt that an earthquake or an invasion of dragons might be good for them.' (FR 1.ii.62) One brief point here (yes, brief): an invasion of dragons would entail an invasion of the prosaic world of the Shire by the fantastic world of Story.