Lord of the Rings' Sean Astin on Sam and Tolkien's Heroism and How It Compares to Superheroes

December 2021 marked the 20th anniversary of The Fellowship of the Ring, the first installment of Peter Jackson's award-winning, critically-acclaimed, box office hit Lord of the Rings trilogy, based on the seminal fantasy novels of J.R.R. Tolkien. Warner Bros. Home Entertainment celebrated by packaging The Lord of the Rings trilogy together with The Hobbit trilogy that Jackson made 10 years later, all in 4k ultra HD, into a single package, The Ultimate Middle-Earth 6-Film Collector's Edition. Sean Astin, who played the noble Hobbit gardener Samwise Gamgee in The Lord of the Rings, is celebrating in another way. Astin is inviting fans to join him in re-reading The Fellowship of the Ring as part of his book club on Fable.co.

Frodo Baggins may be the Ringbearer and Aragorn the King of Men, but many fans see Sam, who remained by Frodo's side even when spurned and carried Frodo (literally) for the last leg of their journey to Mount Doom, as the real hero of The Lord of the Rings. It's an opinion that those fans haven't been shy about sharing with Astin.

"I would say 'fervent.' I would say 'all-consuming.' I would say 'intense.' These are the words that would describe the manner in which people need to communicate with me who they feel is the 'real hero' of the journey," Astin tells ComicBook.com during a conversation in late December via video call. But he's not looking to claim all the glory for Samwise Gamgee.

"I am always compelled to contextualize for them that there were at least nine nominal heroes of the Fellowship and then you've got lots of others who were integral to the story, the success of the journey to defeat Sauron. I think people have a natural tendency to root for the underdog. That's why the Hobbits are so compelling. Because who would expect these little creatures to carry the fate of the world on their shoulders?"

Frodo relies on Sam throughout the story, especially towards its conclusion in The Return of the King, because the One Ring is corrupting him as he carries it. The intensity of that taint only grows the closer the Hobbits come to their destination. Astin would remind fans to consider what Frodo sacrificed before they dismiss him as somehow a lesser hero. 

"With Christ, there's a cross and nails that go through their hands and feet and the crown of thorns and blood coming down the head," Astin explains. "With Frodo, it's the same type of journey. He's a Christ type figure and he sacrifices his immortal soul, maybe not completely, but you know something is lost, it can't be regained. So to me, anytime somebody says Sam is the true hero, the real hero, I kind of, on behalf of Sam, cringe a little bit even though I think Sam would kind of like it a little bit. I think he'd be like, even though I like it, okay, well at least they know I was in the movies too, that's nice."

Still, Astin understands Sam's appeal. "We talk about true love, truth, honesty; these are concepts that we know in our lives based on their connection to things that aren't true and aren't real and are false," he says. "Our political figures say stuff and it just rings as false and hollow. And so there's something about when somebody truly loves you, you feel it, and Sam is true to Frodo and he's true to the mission and he's faithful and he's honorable and he's honest. He doesn't know how to lie and I think people feel protective of that, they feel protective of that emotion, they feel protective of that in themselves."

And, as Astin points out, it isn't like Sam goes unrewarded for his efforts and strength of character. He inherits The Red Book of the Westmarch, gets to marry the girl of his dreams, has lots of children, becomes mayor, and eventually reunites with Frodo in the Undying Lands.

"Sam gets his due, but people just love that earnest quality and frankly, I have that quality in me, as we all do to a greater or lesser extent, but the pump was primed for me growing up in a family of idealists," Astin admits. "It's very complimentary when people want me to understand that, because they're basically paying me a compliment, and they're paying Tolkien and Sam. But it's flattering and I like it."

With the popularity of superhero media these days, it's interesting to revisit Tolkien's work and see how its depiction of heroism differs. Middle-earth is full of powerful beings, but Tolkien seemed much more interested in the heroism of the average person living through extraordinary times or intense situations. When asked to compare the two, Astin expresses his appreciation for superhero media and comic books, summing up their appeal succinctly as, "human beings want more for ourselves." Yet, Tolkien seemed to understand the nature of heroism on a deeper level than almost anyone else.

 "I think for Tolkien, he really thought about it, he really dissected it, he really understood the full contours of heroism, born in his own military service, as the parent of a service member who was fighting in the big war, the crucible of that kind of emotional experience," Astin says. "And he was a man of letters. He was a don, right? An Oxford don. And these guys read their asses off, and he was so deeply read. He was a philologist, and to and to say he understood languages, he understood language at its core, the sounds, the shape of language, the ideas. 

Astin thinks it's easy to see where all of that study comes out in The Lord of the Rings, pretty much right from the start with the "Concerning Hobbits" section. "It's the Shire, and they're pastoral people and they're sort of portly and there's this quaint feeling that kind of overlays the beginnings," he explains. "And you can tell, even if you're it's your child and you're just listening to that, that something's coming, and this little tone that's being described is not going to last, and when it's recovered at the end, it won't be the same. I feel like he took a spiritual x-ray of heroism and depicted it."

And, to his director's credit, Astin feels that's something Peter Jackson picked up on in his interpretation as well. "I think Peter Jackson understood that," he says. "I think Peter is to cinema studies what Tolkien as to literary studies. Peter can pull apart movies. He's just a true fan, devotee, believer, student, master of cinema. And so you have this confluence of two guys who care about heroism."

What do you think? Let us know in the comments. The Ultimate Middle-Earth 6-Film Collector's Edition is on sale now. Astin's book club has already begun at Fable.co.