Readers are undoubtedly aware of the five-page handwritten letter from J.R.R. Tolkien to H. Cotton Minchin that recently went on auction. If you missed it, The Guardian picks the eyes out of it, while Tolkien Library has assembled a transcript of the entire contents.
However, Tolkien scholar John Garth has also recently blogged about what the letter reveals about the Great War inspiration behind Sam Gamgee. Read on to learn more!
Sam Gamgee and Tolkien’s batmen
by John Garth
Tolkien, like a good poker player, kept his cards close to his chest, and gave very little away about the impact of experience upon his fiction. He could be less guarded in private, as Humphrey Carpenter revealed in his 1977 J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, in which he quoted Tolkien saying that Sam Gamgee was partly inspired by soldiers he had known in the First World War.
The precise source of the quotation has always been a mystery — a frustration to later writers on Tolkien, like myself, who like precision and context.
Was it from some unpublished and unknown set of autobiographical notes—if indeed Tolkien ever wrote such a thing? We could only ponder. However, now we see Tolkien making a near-identical statement in reply to a fan of The Lord of the Rings.
The letter, written on 16 April 1956 to H. Cotton Minchin, has gone up for auction, and it is indeed a pleasure to read—wide-ranging, ruminative, written in Tolkien’s distinctive voice and handwriting. It seems to have been known to Carpenter only in a draft version, from which he provided excerpts in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. It seems a pity that more of it wasn’t used—it runs on for a further 1,100 words.
Regarding the fictional Sam Gamgee’s link to the First World War, Carpenter’s Biography quotes Tolkien as saying, “My ‘Sam Gamgee’ is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914 war, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”
A batman, in military parlance, was a soldier who (as well as being required to fight) was tasked with looking after an officer’s kit, cooking, and cleaning. Tolkien’s phrasing in the letter sent to Minchin is different, and very interesting too: “My ‘Samwise’ is indeed (as you note) largely a reflexion of the English soldier—grafted on the village-boys of early days, the memory of the privates and my batmen that I knew in the 1914 War, and recognized as so far superior to myself.”