Happy Birthday, Samwise!

According to Today in Middle-earth, April 6 is the birthday of the loyal, indomitable Samwise Gamgee. I hope you will find a beautiful garden somewhere to celebrate.

In 1956, Tolkien received  a letter from a real Sam Gamgee (though Samuel, not Samwise). Here is The Professor’s response:

18 March 1956 As from 76 Sandfield Road, Headington, Oxford
Dear Mr Gamgee,

It was very kind of you to write. You can imagine my astonishment, when I saw your signature! I can only say, for your comfort I hope, that the ‘Sam Gamgee’ of my story is a most heroic character, now widely beloved by many readers, even though his origins are rustic. So that perhaps you will not be displeased by the coincidence of the name of this imaginary character (of supposedly many centuries ago) being the same as yours. The reason of my use of the name is this. I lived near Birmingham as a child, and we used ‘gamgee’ as a word for ‘cotton-wool’; so in my story the families of Cotton and Gamgee are connected. I did not know as a child, though I know now, that ‘Gamgee’ was shortened from ‘gamgee-tissue’, and that named after its inventor (a surgeon I think) who lived between 1828 and 1886. It was probably (I think) his son who died this year, on 1 March, aged 88, after being for many years Professor of Surgery at Birmingham University. Evidently ‘Sam’ or something like it,* is associated with the family — though I never knew this until a few days ago, when I saw Professor Gamgee’s obituary notice, and saw that he was the son of [i]Sampson Gamgee — and looked in a dictionary and found that the inventor was S. Gamgee (1828-86), etc., probably the same.

Have you any tradition as to the real origin of your distinguished and rare name? Having a rare name myself (often troublesome) I am especially interested.

The ‘etymology’ given in my book is of course quite fictitious, and made up simply for the purposes of my story. I do not suppose you could be bothered to read so long and fantastic a work, but if you could be bothered, I know that the work (which has been astonishingly successful) is in most public libraries. It is alas! very expensive to buy — £3/3/0. But if you or any of your family try it, and find it interesting enough, I can only say that I shall be happy and proud to send you a signed copy of all 3 vols. as a tribute from the author to the distinguished family of Gamgee.

Yrs sincerely,
J.R.R. Tolkien

2 thoughts on “Happy Birthday, Samwise!

  1. Tolkien gave the birthdate of Samwise as a matter of Shire tradition. He noted at the end of Appendix D (RotK) a Westfarthing holiday on April 6: “Some said that it was old Sam Gardner’s birthday…” The family tree for Samwise a few pages earlier lists him as “Samwise 1380 (gardener).” But in Tolkien’s original handwritten version (in The Peoples of Middle-earth, p. 115), Sam is listed as “Samwise (Gardner) 1380.”

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