The Food-Based Identity of Samwise Gamgee
by Graham Palmer
In The Lord of the Rings film trilogy, Samwise Gamgee is the epitome of the reluctant adventurer. Gandalf, a strange wizard, shows up in his quiet home of the Shire claiming that Sam’s friend Frodo must dispose of the Ring of Power, a dangerously seductive object that pulls anyone who wears it towards servitude to the evil Sauron. In order to do this, Frodo must take the Ring on a perilous journey to the Sauron’s evil realm of Mordor, the only place where the Ring can be destroyed. Sam never seeks to join, but is swept up in the adventure through his loyalty to his friend Frodo. Although he does his part to bring down Sauron and thus save Middle Earth, he constantly suggests that he would rather be enjoying his quiet home in the Shire. This longing is often expressed through Sam’s desire for food from his home, a desire that he vocalizes repeatedly. Food becomes a vehicle through which Sam can recall his beloved home and delineate himself from the strange cultures that he encounters on his journey. Sam’s dedication to his memories of food are juxtaposed with the increasingly barbaric world that he finds confronting him and pulling his friend Frodo toward darkness and away from the civilization of the Shire.
The scene where Sam and Gollum fight over the best way to cook two rabbits provides a clear illustration of the role that food plays in Sam’s identity. After Gollum comes back with two rabbits, intending to eat them raw, Sam immediately grabs them. He promptly cooks up a rabbit stew, insisting, “there’s only one way to eat a brace of coneys.” The concept of cooking rabbits is alien to Gollum, who insists that Sam is ruining the meal. It is telling that Sam, a generally mild character, becomes so forceful when confronted with a differing opinion on how to cook rabbits. Eating rabbits raw is so antithetical to his identity that he cannot allow Gollum’s plan to stand for even one second, and instead seizes the opportunity to recall the taste of home, even if it is for a brief second. This small taste of home also sends Sam into further reminiscences on food from home, as he launches into a lovingly detailed description of fish and chips. The conflict over rabbit cooking may seem like a relatively minor point in the story, but in reality it is a revealing example of Sam’s ability to hold on to his identity through food.
The still above visually captures this juxtaposition between the antithetical eating habits of Sam and Gollum. On the right side, we see Sam, hand outstretched over the pot, aggressively protecting the food being prepared, and in that act defending his critical memories of home. In contrast, on the left side we see Gollum, who is repulsed by the very idea of cooking food. The two are in almost the same poses, but Gollum’s face is contorted in a grotesque manner and his body is emaciated, while Sam’s face has a stern look of protection and his body is still full and even plump. This visual setup reminds the viewers that the two used to be very similar – Gollum belonged to a people almost identical to hobbits before the corrupting influence of the Ring reduced him to the creature that we see in the shot. Between them is the object of contention, on the surface two rabbits, but on a deeper level the choice between civilization and barbarity. In a brilliant stroke, the pot is not the only thing between the two. Directly behind the pot is the squatting figure of Frodo, whose struggle between the pull of home and the pull of the Ring is the crux of the story. At this point, Frodo is beginning to feel the allure of the Ring, and there is a possibility that he could end up like Gollum. On the other hand, he still recognizes his duty to destroy the ring, thus saving his friends, his home, and the very idea of civilization that cooking represents. Thus, this shot masterfully encapsulates the struggle that Frodo faces by placing him physically in the same space as the pot, trapped in a struggle between Sam’s love of home and Gollum’s addiction to the Ring.
Sam’s yearning for Shire food also comes into play in the most critical moment of the entire saga, when Sam and Frodo are struggling up the slopes of Mt. Doom as they endeavor to complete their quest to destroy the Ring. As Frodo lies slumped on the ground, having given up all hope, Sam invokes food in a final attempt to motivate Frodo. Sam asks Frodo if he remembers the Shire, and specifically “eating the first of the strawberries with cream”. In Sam’s vivid description of the food at home, he desperately tries to remind Frodo of the purpose of their quest at the moment when Frodo has completely lost sight of the goal and is consumed by despair and the Ring’s seductive power. Frodo’s utter disconnect with the sensual world is confirmed in his response, when he says “I can’t recall the taste of food, nor the sound of water”. The filmmakers use the fact that Frodo can no longer remember the most basic essentials of human sustenance to emphasize the torture he has been through by carrying the Ring. Although Sam’s exhortations do not move Frodo, they do give Sam hope, and spur him on to heroism as he lifts Frodo up and begins physically carrying him up the mountain. The fact that memories of food play such a crucial role in the climax of the entire story shows how powerful food is as a tool for Sam to recall his home and to summon motivation to push on so that he can eventually get back to the Shire and its delicious food.
The makers of The Lord of the Rings used these food-based scenes to allow viewers to emphasize with Sam and Frodo’s plight. All viewers know how it feels to long for home when one has been separated from it for so long. Rather than only expressing this through words, however, the filmmakers use food to make this connection between Sam and the viewers more tangible. They also used food to illustrate one pole of the struggle between civilization and barbarity engulfing Frodo, as Sam repeatedly tries to bring Frodo back from the Ring’s influence by referencing and cooking food. We usually do not feel our longing for home as an abstract concept. Instead, we long for specific people, things, and very often foods when we think of home. Throughout The Lord of the Rings, Sam channels his longing for home through his vivid memories of food, and this allows viewers to understand his feelings and connect with him on a deeper level.