The New Perspective on Sam
I wrote this in 2002 when the New Perspective on Paul was a hot topic at church. I’m no theologian, so I’m probably missing the main point, but here goes anyway. First published in the Feb 2003 issue of Stimulus. Minor edits for this version.
Tolkology is always one of those touchy, almost religious, subjects: Tolkologists hate being categorised, and yet people invariably put them into boxes. One of the latest Tolkienian schools of thought has been popularly dubbed “The New Perspective on Sam.” Serious Tolkologists and Fans alike have variously condemned and embraced this new way of interpreting Tolkien’s ancient manuscripts.
Certain things must be clarified before we look at exactly what this “New Perspective on Sam” is. Words such as Fundamentalist and Liberal are thrown around like balls in a cricket game, but they have never quite been caught and held.
A Fundamentalist used to be a Tolkologist or Fan (or even just a Reader) who held to the fundamentals of the Tolkienian text. Fundamentalism began as an attempt to flee from the prominent errors of the day. Its advocates held strongly to “straight-forward” renderings of the text, and emphasised doctrines such as: the inerrancy of the Canon of Tolkien (that is, The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and his other works edited by Christopher Tolkien); Gandalf’s bodily death and resurrection after the events at the Bridge of Khazad-Dûm; the importance of Eru, the Holy One, to daily life; the corrupting power of the One Ring; and the joy of eternal life in the Grey Havens.
With the coming of television and other forms of shallowness originating from the United Shires of Amarië, however, Fundamentalism took on a new form. As a result, a “Fundamentalist” has come to mean one who interprets Tolkien’s manuscripts literalistically and over-emphasises the importance of the individual. These Fundamentalists only recognise The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings as canonical, with the latter taking a far more prominent place than the former, and for practical purposes even superseding it.
Most Fundamentalists teach that the “strong drink” consumed in varying quantities throughout the book was non-alcoholic, especially the Ent-draught. (Pippin’s antics at the Prancing Pony were apparently due to a “Hobbit-like excitement” rather than any intoxicating effects his drink may have had.) By studies of the original Westron text (the Common Speech during the Third Age), Fundamentalist scholars believe they have found that the “tobacco” Gandalf and the Hobbits smoked was simply dried birch leaves – harmless to the lungs and soul.
Fundamentalists hold strongly to various other doctrines: that Sauron is alive and well in Middle-earth; that we only have real certainty of going to the Grey Havens after our coming-of-age at 33 years; that our faith in Eru hangs on a literal reading of the phrase “The Balrog’s wings spread from wall to wall”; and that those over 33 will finally be joyously raptured up to the Grey Havens when the High King returns.
A Liberal, on the other hand, is a Tolkologist who interprets almost none of the Canon literalistically, and who readily accepts the idea that Tolkien’s great story is not “true” at all, but really only mythological – people’s attempt to explain the mystery and morality of life. Liberals deny the bodily death and resurrection of Gandalf (if they believe in Gandalf at all), and deny that eternal life at the Grey Havens is more than a symbol. They accept many non-Tolkienian works as being authoritative, and most liberal Tolkologists believe the first three chapters of the Canon were really written by a Fan thousands of years after the events occurred.
Liberals also readily accept much that secular Tolkologists have to offer: that Legolas and Gimli were “rather close” and almost certainly had more than platonic affections for one another; that the dwarves were actually women, and their large beards were not hair at all, but masks worn in an attempt to survive in male-dominated Middle-earth; that the number of children Sam and Rose had was unforgivably oppressive to Rose and her career choices; that King Aragorn (Eru’s Middle-earthly representative) was most probably a tall Afro-Amariën dwarf with good rhetoric skills; and that Sauron and the Ring of Power simply represent evil and darkness within the soul.
With that clarified, what exactly is the “New Perspective on Sam”?
Ent E. Rite, a prominent Tolkologist in literary circles, has been almost unanimously heralded as the founder of the New Perspective. Rite’s research into Samine Theory (analysis of the behaviour, attitudes and writings of Sam Gamgee) has shaken Tolkologists and Fans the world over – be they Fundamentalist or Liberal. Rite himself says, “I do not wish to stick to the categories present in traditional Samine thought, nor do I wish to re-interpret the Canon in the ad-hoc manner too common today. I wish to challenge Fundamentalists for their often-naive interpretations of this Canon, and I wish to challenge Liberals for their denial of most anything supernatural.”
The focus of the New Perspective is Sam’s “faithfulness”, a Tolkienian word which has connotations of friendship, loyalty, and trust. Tolkology has traditionally said that the faithfulness of Sam refers only to Sam’s loyalty to Frodo; but with careful studies of the original Westron and Quenya texts and extensive research into the historical setting of the Canon, Ent E. Rite believes that “Sam’s faithfulness” means much more than that. He believes it speaks both of Eru’s faithfulness to Sam, as well as Sam’s faithfulness to Eru, to Frodo, and to the whole Hobbiton community.
In opposition to the Fundamentalists, the New Perspective stresses the importance of the Hobbiton community as well as the individual. It emphasises the importance of Aragorn’s kingship over the whole of Middle-earth, including Sauron’s domain. The New Perspective denies that Tolkienian beer was non-alcoholic, and instead promotes the idea that Aragorn is king over every aspect of life, including a right use of both strong draughts and smoky leaves.
Over against the Liberals, Rite Tolkology and the New Perspective hold firmly to the bodily death and resurrection of Gandalf and the worth of the Grey Havens. Rite upholds the authority of the Canon, albeit in rather different terms than traditional Tolkology, and he is opposed to the “nonsense about Rose’s career choices and Aragorn being a dwarf.”
Rite’s take on Samine Theory has incited no small amount of controversy, even in the most unlikely of places. Bruce Silkenskin, a leader in Amariën Fundamentalism and author of The Prayer of Lobelia, says of Ent E. Rite, “He’s undermining the cause of individual spirituality. He holds that Eru doesn’t delight in spirit-filled prayers like Lobelia’s, nor quick-growing ministries like mine, and he almost scoffs at the joyous Rapture of faithful Hobbits that may happen at any moment. I am quite certain he is being used by Sauron as the Antigandalf.”
In the other camp, Bishop Póng, a left-wing Liberal Tolkologist, says that “while there may be some truth to Rite’s teaching, he is largely irrelevant for a modern audience.” Póng adds that “Rite’s teachings are still far too traditional, and do not seek to help the hurting people in today’s world. What does Sam’s faithfulness do to help the thousands of AYDS-stricken Orcs throughout Middle-earth? How does it help the poor, lesbian Hobbits who are fighting for their very rights? Yes, I believe Rite is wrong. He needs to show more tolerance and understanding to the modern world. He must learn what being a sensitive, Fourth-Age guy is really about.”
Despite the criticism, Rite and others involved in the New Perspective have been rewarded with an ever-increasing following among Tolkologists and Fans alike. Some see the Tolkological benefits in a more community-centred take on Sam’s faithfulness, and some jump on the band-wagon simply because it seems to be a solid middle-ground between Liberalism and Fundamentalism.
When asked if he considers himself the founder of a movement, Rite responds with typical humility, “Not at all. If anything, I want to return to the Movement as Tolkien originally perceived it. I stand, not as a Fundamentalist or Liberal, but as one who in the strength of Eru can help Hobbits, Men, Elves and Dwarves come to a better understanding of what it means to be the faithful people of Eru.”
Only Eru knows whether this “New Perspective on Sam” is for good or for ill, and yet in the meantime we Hobbits must be Beriéns, always searching Tolkien’s Canon, ensuring that everything we read and hear matches what we have been taught. Whether we consider ourselves Fundamentalists or Liberals, we must press on, looking always for better ways to serve Eru and live as much like Him as Hobbits can.
Ben Hoyt is an amateur Tolkologist who considers himself a Fundamentalist in the original sense. He was born in the United Shires of Amarië (and hence can legitimately criticise its shallowness), but has dwelt in Masterton most of his life. He earns a living with dwarvish work but tries to be more elf-like in his spare time.