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Sidekicks. No heroine or hero is complete without Hero Support, the sidekick. So we asked this week’s panelists:
Here are their answers…
In detective stories: Watson.
In science fiction: R. Daneel Olivaw.
In fantasy: Samwise Gamgee.
Samwise Gamgee from the The Lord of the Rings is the sidekick in whose shadow all other fantasy sidekicks dwell. Everyone from Elric of Melniboné’s Moonglum to Ron Weasley in Harry Potter has a little of Sam in them even if, in the case of Moorcock, the author is no fan of Tolkien’s.
Sam is memorable because he embodies all the values Tolkien wishes to promote in The Lord of the Rings. He is rural, homely, straightforward, brave and, above all steadfast. He’s not as glamorous as the hero by half – sidekicks almost by definition can’t be – and nor does he undergo the character development of Frodo. But Sam is a little bit of The Shire that Frodo takes with him, a reminder of where he came from, what he values and, crucially, what he stands to lose as the ring takes him. Tolkien, tellingly, referred to Sam as ‘the chief hero’ of The Lord of the Rings. He’s represents what the Fellowship is fighting for. He’s the soul of the book.
Depending on your point of view, he’s a comforting figure or a very irritating one. He embodies a rosy view of class relations – he’s never anything other than Frodo’s servant, though in many ways he’s stronger and more resolute than he is. Tolkien’s view of him shows a view of the social order that itself that was already falling to ruins as he wrote the book.
‘My Sam Gamgee is indeed a reflexion of the English soldier, of the privates and batmen I knew in the 1914, and recognised as so far superior to myself.’ He’s someone who is given great respect but so long as he knows his place. Sam is not the sort to say ‘actually, I think you’re wrong Gandalf. I don’t think we will go through Moria. I say we go through Rohan and hitch a ride to Mordor down through Gondor.’ He’s a follower, not a leader. In fact, when he first meets him, Gandalf treats him almost as a child.
That doesn’t mean he is incapable of taking action because he saves Frodo countless times.
And this is the heart of why he’s memorable – he’s a sentimental figure, a representative of a gentle, unthreatening, kind world and the hope it might triumph, that honesty and perseverance might be enough against the depredations of the world. The extent to which you like him probably depends on the extent to which you like sentimentality and earnestness. I think we all do, a little. In my case, the operative words here are ‘a little’. Taken too far this sort of thing can turn the stomach.
Sam is typical of a whole slew of fantasy characters, sidekick or not, who essentially can be ‘known’. ‘Ah, that’s what they’re like,’ we can say as we read them and they never complicate things by making poor moral choices or developing away from what they were. They are not at all difficult or challenging and, at the end, they reward the reader with their survival and prosperity – the good guys win. This irritates me hugely in much modern Fantasy. If you can get an easy fix on a character then I find the writing a bit artless and a bit boring. I don’t want the author bossing me by telling me who I should be cheering for and using a series of cheap tricks to make sure that I do – oh, the main character’s young, he’s put upon and fighting enormous odds but he’s brave, resourceful and selfless and – look! – now he’s wielding enormous power. That was fine in the 1950s but we should expect authors to work harder nowadays.
The brilliance of Lord of the Rings, however, is that Sam is just a sidekick – a still point around which the other characters can revolve and grow. And his victory is not emblematic of the whole book. At the end, the Shire is scoured, Frodo is a shadow of his former self and the Elves leave for the west. There’s a bitter sweet feeling at the end of The Lord of the Rings, an almost perfectly pitched sadness to undercut the defeat of Sauron – or a mawkishness, depending on how your bile rises. Sam gives us something to feel uncomplicatedly pleased about.
Or sort of pleased. There is something that nags me about Sam Gamgee and that’s that he survived. I think Tolkien would have had a much more powerful book if he’d left Sam dead on Mount Doom. Also, he’d have had a way to honour those English soldiers upon whom Sam was based – the vast dead of WWI who gave their lives battling in a dispute that was not of their choosing or, often, their understanding.
I think it would be more poetic to have him die at the moment of his victory. That would have been the arty choice. Tolkien is more of a crowd pleaser, as his book sales show, and rewards Sam with a happy life, children and – eventually – eternal life in the Grey Havens. And maybe he was right because there’s part of many readers that wishes the simple virtues of Sam were eternal and victorious. We know they’re not and we’d probably be bored to death by the homely ruralities of the Shire should we live there for ten minutes but, hey, it’s Fantasy, and of a sort that speaks to something uncomplicated, even naïve, within us. It’s that conservative, sentimental impulse, and his expression of it, that makes Sam Gamgee so memorable.
My favorite sidekicks come from my favorite movie, The Princess Bride. I love Inigo Montoya and Fezzik. As we first meet them, they aren’t the sidekicks of The Man in Black, but rather Vizzini’s henchmen. But circumstances change, and they wind up helping a Westley who has been mostly dead all day plan a castle assault with nothing but a wheelbarrow and a holocaust cloak. Inigo and Fezzik are true and loyal friends, have their own unique talents, and enjoy trading rhymes. What’s not to love?
Speaking of love, my next favorite sidekick is from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, that merry wanderer of the night, Robin Goodfellow, sometimes called Puck. In service to Oberon, the King of Faerie, Puck is a shape-shifting mischief-maker, a catalyst for action, and marvelously witty. He is also a great deal more than he seems, which makes Puck the perfect character to turn the traditional actors’ apologia at the close of the play into a valedictory of the theatre.
Every king needs a fool, but some fools are closer to Feste than to Puck. And while I don’t doubt that both of them would bristle at the word, next on my list of favorite sidekicks is Matthew, Raven to His Darkness, Dream of the Endless in Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Matthew gets to ask many of the questions that we, as readers would ask. He offers perspective and commonsense. With the exception of Dream’s older sister, it is Matthew who is most likely to speak truth to the Dream King. And at the end, it is Matthew who shows that sometimes the greatest and most painful duty of the sidekick is to be the one who survives to tell the story.
The role of the sidekick is to combine the position of Outsider/Other, so that the audience has someone to have things or events explained to them, and also to provide respite to the narrative – be it comedic relief, or some mirror to the hero’s psyche/development.
My favorite two sidekicks fill those roles, in very different ways.
First: Number Ten Ox, the peasant sidekick of the sage (and drunkard) Li Kao, from Barry Hughart’s Bridge of Birds/The Story of the Stone/Eight Skilled Gentlemen. His main characteristics are strength and loyalty, but with humor and gentle cunning that evolve naturally from his character, and grow the longer he associates with Li Kao, bringing the sage into good deeds simply by that association.
Second: Lummox, from The Star Beast by Robert Heinlein. You could argue that, in the end, Lummox is revealed as the heroine and John Thomas the sidekick, but that’s part of the appeal for me, in this pairing: that she was able to ‘be’ the sidekick for so many humans, all the while – to her mind – raising and nurturing them. It’s the big reveal of the sidekick, that they’re often the brains and/or common sense of the pairing, without whom the hero would falter or fail.
For this task, I’m primarily sticking to novels, because with TV series, movies and comics, I’d likely end up arguing with myself over who rated above whom.
The first sidekick I thought of was an animal, a familiar to be exact. In the Vlad Taltos saga by Steven Brust, Loiosh is a jhereg, and it’s safe to say that there were more than a few times where Vlad Taltos may not have survived if Loiosh wasn’t there to have his back. The way Loiosh can spy for Vlad, and also take him down a peg with the snarky commentary when necessary makes him a unique character.
Next for me would have to be Ron and Hermione, Harry Potter’s best friends. Though both Ron and Hermione grow into being equals alongside Harry, and Hermione actually starts off as tagalong, it’s the rocky starts that build the strongest teams.
I’ve also wondered, between the Harry Potter books and the Buffy TV series, who really kickstarted the “Scooby Gang” sidekick format?
My honorable mentions have to go to Bob from The Dresden Files, and venturing into genre TV, I must include Gabrielle from Xena: Warrior Princess, and Doyle from Angel (not to start any arguments, but Doyle was a much better sidekick than Wesley. Wesley didn’t become a true sidekick in my estimation until Season 5).