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20 years later, Samwise Gamgee is still the heart of 'The Lord of the Rings'
Frodo's loyal gardener is so much more than a devoted sidekick.
There's a moment early in The Fellowship of the Ring, Peter Jackson's classic epic fantasy film that kicks off The Lord of the Rings trilogy, that helps us understand Samwise Gamgee in a very specific way. When we meet Sam — played with vulnerable intensity by Sean Astin -— he is presented as a simple gardener who, like his fellow Hobbits, enjoys the straightforward pleasures of the Shire, and doesn't dream of going off on some grand adventure. When he gets roped into accompanying Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) on what will be the journey of a lifetime, he goes obediently, if a little hesitantly. Then, as they walk across the verdant fields of their homeland, heading East, Sam stops in his tracks and declares "This is it."
"If I take one more step, it'll be the farthest away from home I've ever been," Sam explains.
It's a moment that prompts Frodo to take a few steps back, put his arm around his trusted servant, and lead him on deeper into their adventure. In these early minutes of their travels, it can feel like an acknowledgement of Sam's inherent simple-ness, something that persists in various small decisions he makes over the course of the trilogy. Sam's the one, after all, who brought seasoning along for the trip — in case he might have a chance to make roast chicken, who lamented being given a rope when his fellow Hobbits got "nice, shiny daggers," and who eventually reacts to Gollum with what feels like un-nuanced, pure rage.
Throughout the adventure, there's a straightforwardness to Sam that even fellow Hobbits Merry and Pippin, trickster goofballs that they are, don't possess, and it seems to come through in this moment of contemplating his next step. By pausing to commemorate the moment he'll be farthest from his home, Sam seems more concerned with getting back to his plants and his beer and Rosie Cotton than he does with what's about to happen to all of them.
Then the rest of the trilogy happens, and Samwise Gamgee reveals himself to be far more than a servant, or a simpleton, or a straightforward man who'd just like some taters to stick into his rabbit stew. What began 20 years ago this month with The Fellowship of the Ring would ultimately establish Samwise as one of the great characters in fantasy cinema (after he was already one of the great characters in fantasy literature). Two decades on, he remains the beating heart of the trilogy, and it all starts with that moment of contemplation on the road.
Sam's greatest and most recognizable attribute is his loyalty, something he keeps even after Frodo has seemingly formed a closer bond with Gollum than with him, and even after Frodo tries to banish him from the rest of their journey to Mordor. It's that loyalty that allows him to tolerate and rise above these things, to keep fighting, and to eventually carry Frodo up Mount Doom in a final act of love for his employer and friend. It's no accident that numerous queer readings of the trilogy have emerged in the years since its release, and much of that reading stems from Sam's ability to carry on, and from the look he and Frodo share across a Rivendell bedroom at the end of The Return of the King. However you'd like to read it, there is a love between these two men, and that love stems from Sam's refusal to let Frodo be alone, no matter what he's carrying with him.
It's that love, and Sam's ability to nurture and care for it like a plant back home in his garden, that helps make Sam the heart of the story. But his devotion goes beyond even that obvious Bond with Frodo and into something more, something that ties back into that step into the beyond in The Fellowship of the Ring.
Frodo takes that step seemingly without a second thought, as he's well aware of his undertaking (at least to Rivendell, at that point in the story), and he's probably been well-prepared for such journeys thanks to a childhood spent at Bilbo's side. Merry and Pippin, for their part, literally fall into the adventure, and once certain threats present themselves they decide they can't turn back from journeying with their friends. Sam is first roped into to the trip thanks to some eavesdropping in Frodo's flowerbeds, but once he's in, he's all in, and we know that because he takes a moment at the threshold of his future to contemplate it.
With the benefit of 20 years of hindsight, it's now clear that when Sam says "This is it," he's not just contemplating leaving the home he's held dear for his entire life. He's contemplating the road ahead, a road that will eventually include him fighting Orcs, killing a giant spider, making friends with an elf and a dwarf, and ultimately growing beyond his role as Frodo's servant to become the caretaker to Frodo's crippled, childlike-addict personality. He's contemplating everything he might see and do, and everything he's leaving behind to see and do those things. But more than that, he's contemplating what it's all for.
Sam, you see, is the only one of the four Hobbits we see who has a direct emotional connection to the people in the Shire beyond his three friends. Frodo has Bilbo, of course, and Merry and Pippin have each other, but when Sam thinks of home, he thinks quite deliberately of "Rosie Cotton dancing" and roast chickens and potatoes. Sam has a more tactile, more emotionally present relationship with home than any of the other four Hobbits, and that doesn't just mean that he'll miss it when he takes that next step.
It means that he'll carry The Shire with him in every step that follows, no matter where it takes him. It's carrying that burden of memory, of tactile longing, that allows Sam to carry Frodo up that mountain, that allows him to remind his friends that there's still some good in this world, and it's worth fighting for. It's what allows Sam to become the heart of the entire story, the unabashed, human warmth at its core that flickers but never goes out throughout the entire trilogy.
It's why Sam endures 20 years later, why he'll endure for 20 more, and why we're always grateful to hear him say the words "Well, I'm back."