This post will include spoilery information from the first four seasons of Game of Thrones. So there.
Recently, George RR Martin, the author of the source material for HBO’s Game of Thrones, admitted who his favorite character was. It’s Tyrion Lannister.
Although this isn’t a surprising admission, if I had been asked previously who GRRM’s favorite character might be, my guess would have been for Samwell Tarly.
I don’t know if I have any real reason to have assumed this, other than a hunch when I was reading the first book A Game of Thrones, and Sam was introduced as a recruit at the Wall in one of Jon’s chapters. My gut told me that this Sam character was a surrogate in some ways for young GRRM, but I don’t have anything to back that up. Martin didn’t even call Sam out when he listed off character names:
“I love all my viewpoint characters, Arya and Sansa and Bran, Jon Snow and Brienne, […] and Cersei and Jaime, Theon, even […] and the […], ALL of them, but I love Tyrion the bestest.”
(I replaced names of characters not explicitly shown or named on the TV show yet with “[…]”s above. None of them were Sam.)
Anyway, even though GRRM didn’t name Sam as one of the viewpoint characters that he loves (other than dropping him in with the “ALL” all-encompassing set), Sam is one of my beloved characters, and I felt it was time to talk about him.
Because I really like Samwell Tarly. (You don’t remember who Sam is? Oh, you’re one of “those people”? I have a handy backstory feature here to catch you up. Look, it can’t possibly be all that boring… or can it?)
Why do I like Sam so much? I don’t know, I guess because he falls into that archetype of “I’m not the hero, but I hang out with the hero” type of character. I just like that role in stories.
Sam often gets compared to that other loyal companion named Sam, Samwise Gamgee in Lord of the Rings. There’s already a bunch written on that topic, and I don’t know if I have much more of interest to say. So I’ll just say Go Sams!
I’ve seen Sam Tarly also compared to Neville Longbottom, the timid yet fierce-when-the-chips-are-down Griffindor member who isn’t one of the top tier of Hogwarts Heroes, but pulled his weight dramatically at the end. How could he not? Parents murdered, raised by elderly relative… he’s like the wizard world Batman. (Or Spiderman, if you prefer.)
Sam the Sham
Hey, before I start praising him, I might as well bury him. (Not literally.)
Sam’s not flawless. I’m not talking about his timidness, his self-identification of being craven, or him being kind of physically underwhelming. But those are all true. I’m talking about his mistakes.
Sam makes a few.
Sam totally botched his role as the Radar O’Reilly of the Night’s Watch expedition, by hanging out with Grenn and Dolorous Edd when they were apparently collecting reindeer dung as campfire fuel or something. Sam should have been back at camp, with the radio. I mean, the ravens.
When the terrifying Others unexpectedly attacked the Fist of the First Men, Sam was in no position to send off some “Help, Help! We’re Being Oppressed” type of messages.
Not cool Sam.
When he had Gilly at Castle Black, she was relatively safe. Until he decided he’d take her down to Mole’s Town and get her a job. Even though the Wildlings (including the cannibalistic Thenns) were running around … er … wild.
Not the wisest move, Sam. Which is too bad, because Sam’s a pretty intelligent guy (in the books.)
It didn’t help that the show, to give Sam some kind of depth of character since we weren’t privy to his thoughts, gave him exposition. Stupid exposition.
Sam: I say, fellow Night’s Watchmen… did you know that we blow the horn once when rangers are returning, and twice should Wildlings be about to beset us?
Edd: You don’t say.
Sam: It’s true. And should three blasts be heard, that would mean that the White Walkers have been spotted.
Sam: You two need to spend more time in the library. Mind you, you’ll need to learn to read first.
Edd: You think they’d let us guys in the field know these communication signals!
!!!!YES! YOU WOULD THINK SO!!!!!
Okay, I don’t want to waste too much of your valuable time ranting about this, but obviously, every Night’s Watch brother sent up on the Wall with a spear and a torch pulling guard duty would have to know that f**king code. There’s no reason that Sam would have to read about it in a book, and explain it to his fellows (and to the show watchers.)
Night’s Watch Spearman #1: Lo, I espy some rangers approaching. Best sound ye yon horn, Number Two.
Night’s Watch Spearman #2: Eh? They’re not dressed as we do, in the colors of the night.
Night’s Watch Spearman #1: Shouldn’t that be, the *colours* of the night?
Night’s Watch Spearman #2: Aye, tis my badness.
Night’s Watch Spearman #1: There is a dim myth, not well recalled, should Wildlings approach, that the horn be sounded not once but twice.
Night’s Watch Spearman #2: Tis the first of which I’ve heard, this. But hark, yon pack of miscreants appear more Un-Dead than Wild. I gainsay we are seeing the legendary Others, whose tales predate any unrecorded system of horn blasts.
Night’s Watch Spearman #1: I know not how many times the horn must be sounded, with which to alert our brothers. And should I recall the exact count, how can we be sure that our fellows will recognize the urgency and nature of the peril?
Night’s Watch Spearman #2: Tis a folly that yon Night’s Watch Orientation would fail to anoint such information on the brow of every brother-in-arms. More Friend-Or-Foe training would have served our cause well!
Night’s Watch Spearman #1: And less Shakespearean Drama Club. Bitch!
Anyway, it’s not like the show did Sam any favors, making him the fat kid who explains everything that shouldn’t have to be explained.
What I’d kind of hoped for with Sam’s characterization, would be the idea that Sam was kind of like Tyrion, just without Tyrion’s confidence and je-ne-sais-quoi.
Okay, they’re definitely not the same guy.
But Sam still reminds me of Tyrion. They’re both from noble households and suffer from paternal disapproval. Neither are known for the physical prowess, but both largely make up for it with their knowledge and intelligence.
Sam might be the taller of the two, but Tyrion totally has it going on. He’s been around, bedded some ladies, seen things, done things. Tyrion is Sam plus experience and elan.
I like to think that Sam’s on a path to become more like Tyrion. A path of cleverness, wisdom, and sassy-ness.
So I’m invested in Sam’s growth as a character.
And Sam has something esle going on. Sam is kind of enlightened.
Enlightened? Like the Buddha?
Ease up. I just mean that Sam has a more enlightened viewpoint than his peers. He’s one to question the status quo, with a progressive eye.
When the Night’s Watch are venturing North and stop off at Craster’s Keep, Sam becomes an advocate for Craster’s daughter-wives.
The rest of the Night’s Watch were more or less unmoved by the plight of the ladies of the Keep. Jon viewed helping Craster’s wife Gilly as equivalent to stealing Craster’s property.
It might be easy to dismiss Sam’s altruism as his affection for Gilly; Sam does take a shine to Gilly and there seems to be a spark there, but I’d argue Sam’s concern extended to all of Craster’s wives.
Sam grew up in an abusive household, he’d likely have sympathy for them. It was a brave thing for Sam to even bring up the issue.
Following the defeat of the Night’s Watch at the Fist of the First Men encampment by the Others, following the mutiny of the Night’s Watch survivors at Craster’s, Sam and the Wildling Gilly (and her child) make it to Castle Black, where Sam successfully defends his request for asylum for both of his traveling companions.
Sam’s argument is that the Night’s Watch charter calls for the defense of the realms of *men*, without regards to Wildlings or civilized denizens of the Seven Kingdoms. North or South.
Sam’s been north, he’s seen an anti-human Undead Horde marching, and he successfully killed (albeit almost completely by accident) one of the legendary Others ( *sigh* the “White Walkers” as the show boringly calls them.) Sam’s argument might be more of a selfish one – he’s in love with Gilly and wants her safe, but he does have an appreciation that the role of the Night’s Watch is to provide an umbrella of defense against the Others, and this protection should extend to the Wildlings as well.
Sam didn’t have to challenge the understood ethos of the Night’s Watch for Gilly, it probably would have been sufficient to stress how important Gilly’s baby seemed to be to the Others. Maester Aemon would probably find it compelling to deny the ancient enemy as asset.
Sam’s keeness for questioning the typical interpretation of the Night’s Watch oath didn’t stop at “I am the shield that guards the realms of men.” As he and Jon waited on the Wildlings to attack, Sam engaged in a philosophical examination that although the Night’s Watch are expected to be celibate, the oath forbidding the taking of wives and the siring of children isn’t a sufficient wording to justify the celibacy directive.
(Sam’s right and wrong. He’s technically right, but there’s solid evidence for expecting of Oath-inspired celibacy, maybe with inconsistent enforcement. Think I’m wrong? I’VE PREPARED A LENGTHY AND INSIGHTFUL ARGUMENT! Maybe.)
Again, this might be interpreted as Sam’s selfish desire for intimacy with Gilly, but in the context of their conversation, Sam is bringing this up, not for his own benefit, but to assist Jon.
Jon Snow is suffering from the guilt of breaking his Night’s Watch vow of celibacy with Ygritte. Jon’s a serious guy, he takes things like this seriously. Although there are no practical consequences for his oath-breaking, Jon is punishing himself, and Sam steps up to provide his friend with an out.
And that might be hitting close to why I really like Sam. Sam’s not necessarily in it for himself. He’s in it for others.
The Tao of Sam
When started this article, I was hoping to connect Sam with this character here:
Hey, they’re both round and like eating.
Back in 1982, author (and Portland Tree Pruner) Benjamin Hoff wrote The Tao of Pooh, a philosophy book teaching traditional Taoist lessons using the characters of Winnie the Pooh, as examples. It’s not a bad book, and Pooh does appear to possess many Taoist qualities.
Sam’s discussion with Pyp about bravery in the Season 3 episode Watchers on the Wall has a Taoist vibe of effortless doing, and being in the moment. Acting without thinking.
I really loved this idea at first, but Sam really isn’t that Pooh-like. He frets and overthinks too much, like Owl. Pooh’s not a fretter or over-thinker.
Hoff also wrote a companion piece to The Tao of Pooh, a sequel not really as good called The Te of Piglet. It wasn’t as compelling or as clever as its predecessor, and was unexpectedly shrewish and judgmental. But it featured Piglet, and was based around Piglet’s power, and the concept of the Virtue of the Small.
I can get behind Sam kind of being a kindred spirit to Piglet (and not just because Ser Alliser Thorne insisted on calling Sam “Ser Piggy.”)
Both Pooh and Piglet share certain characteristics, there’s a good nature to them, they’re not unpleasant. But Pooh has achieved kind of a zen status, where he’s mellow regardless of success or failure, while Piglet is aware of hardship but can enjoy things more deeply when he succeeds.
How can I not like someone who reminds me of Piglet?
For the record, Dolorous Edd is Eeyore. Prince Oberyn Martell is Tigger. Discuss.
But back to Sam. Sam represents potential without the downside of ambition. I’m not saying ambition is bad in its own right, but unchecked ambition, selfish ambition creates Littlefingers.
Sam is in general content with not being killed or maimed, and when that’s secure, looks to help not just his friends but those he feels are getting an unjust treatment. And I respect that virtue.
There’s not a lot of virtue in Westeros.
Sam: Love Him or Hate Him. Actually, It’s More Like “Look Upon Him Favorably or *Yawn* Whatever”
Sam’s not really that much of a polarizing figure. I think book-readers might be more favorably inclined towards him than some show-watchers, just because much of the goodness and relatableness in Sam comes from his thoughts and inner monologue.
Sam’s story is very heavily connected to the story of the North, and I’ve already remarked on how some impatient short-sighted benighted souls are just not interested in the North. So I understand why some watchers are not as invested in Sam as I am. (Those people smell, by the way.)
Hey, if it matters at all, my pug Chi Chi likes Sam, because he’s the character she can most identify with.
Okay, quick Sam-centric poll – choose all that apply (or none… these polls are never required!)
Most images from HBO’s Game of Thrones, obviously. Sean Astin as Samwise Gamgee is from this little trilogy of movies referred to as Lord of the Rings. Matthew Lewis portraying Neville Longbottom is from one of the early Harry Potter movies (I’m guessing Chamber of Secrets.)
Winnie the Pooh and Piglet images are probably from Disney.
I make no claims to the artwork, but some claims to the text. So there.
If you liked this article, thank you! I have all of my Game of Thrones related articles on my handy-dandy Game of Thrones page should you want to read more but don’t want to navigate around my site.
© Patrick Sponaugle 2014 Some Rights Reserved