There are some books that I read only once and then pass them on. There are some that I keep because I have a mind to read them again. There are some that have travelled with me since 1972 when I first came to Australia; they sit on my shelves as a little cluster of beautifully bound memories. And then, there is a very small number of books that I have read several times; I know how the story goes but I just love the way that it has been told.
One of the most loved, widest and heaviest books in my study is a single volume beautifully illustrated 1991 edition, of J.R.R. Tolkien’s magnificent tale of The Lord of the Rings. Many of you reading this article will be very familiar with the adventures of Mr Bilbo Baggins of Bag End and his young cousin Frodo. Either from the books or from the movies. You will know too, that it is a superb story about courage and doubt, temptation and fear, power and love. But at its heart lies a story about friendships and loyalties.
Many of Tolkien’s characters were often inspired by real people whom he wanted to either honour or mock – Frodo’s best friend and loyal companion, Samwise Gamgee, was one of them.
Sam is crucial to the story. He is caring and kind-hearted. Tolkien admired people who were courageous, and modest and who tried to do what was right. Frodo needed a Sam. I suspect we all do at different times in our lives. Tolkien infused Sam’s personality with these qualities. He eagerly follows Frodo for the entire journey to Mordor: Sam watches over him and even offers to share the heavy burden of the ring, but he never gives in to its corruptive influence. Sam is the hero behind the hero, and along with Frodo brings peace back to Middle-Earth.
The character of Sam Gamgee was named after a pioneering 19th-century surgeon named Sampson Gamgee. He was a lot like his fictional namesake, a person who devoted his life to the well-being of others. At a time when many patients who underwent surgeries died of sepsis and various other infections resulting from bad hygiene, Gamgee devised a way through which he could prevent his patients’ surgical wounds from getting infected.
Sampson invented the Gamgee Tissue, a surgical dressing made of a layer of absorbent cotton between 2 layers of absorbent gauze. He was the first person in medical history to use cotton wool to stop the infection of surgical wounds. His invention was so successful that it was immediately adopted by the international medical community. Nowadays, Gamgee Tissue is still one of the most widespread surgical dressings in the world.
It’s probably also no coincidence that the character of Sam’s future wife is named Rose Cotton.
I’d like to close with one of my favourite conversations that takes place in The Fellowship of the Ring between Frodo and his friend Sam. It goes like this:
Sam: This is it.
Frodo: This is what?
Sam: If I take one more step, it’ll be the farthest away from home I’ve ever been.
Frodo: Come on, Sam. Remember what Bilbo used to say: “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.”
Keep on travelling with courage and a sense of wonder. And if you have a friend like Samwise Gamgee, be incredibly thankful. Also, if you are that kind of friend to someone else, then they have been truly blessed.