You may not know the word archetype or what it means, but if you’ve read novels or watched movies and TV shows, you have encountered them. Archetypes are the characters who play a particular role in a story, like the Wise Old Wizard or the Femme Fatale, and we all recognize them when we see them.
What is an Archetype?
The definition of archetype (are-keh-type) is “an original pattern from which copies are made.” It comes from the Greek word arkhe which means “first” and typos which means “model or type.” An archetype is a universal pattern, which means we see it in many cultures no matter where they are or how far apart in time. We find archetypes in the ancient Mesopotamian epic poem of Gilgamesh to the Renaissance plays of Shakespeare to the modern movie of Black Panther.
An archetype can be a character, symbol, story, and even a situation. One of the most prevalent, and most important, character archetypes is the archetypal Hero, which we all know and love.
There are many others as well. Here are just a few:
- The Fool
- The Shapeshifter
- The Mother
- The Wise Old Man
- The Child
- The Sidekick
Most stories include more than one of these archetypes. For example, in The Lord of the Rings movies, we have the Hero, Shapeshifter, Child, and the Wise Old Man. There are more, of course, but these are the most obvious.
- Hero–Frodo and Aragorn
- Shapeshifter–Gollum (and Saruman)
- Wise Old Man–Gandalf.
What is the Sidekick Archetype?
The first archetype I want to explore is the Sidekick.
Everyone needs a good friend—the person who stands by you through everything and helps you out when you are at your lowest. This certainly holds true for Heroes. They most definitely need a Sidekick.
In archetypal terms, the Sidekick is the faithful and loyal companion to the Hero. What would a classic Hero be without his Sidekick? In fact, there are some Heroes who wouldn’t make it through their adventure without the help of their loyal Sidekick! They’d run out of food or get captured or simply lose hope. Even when a Hero has a group of companions around him (think Frodo and the Fellowship), he often leaves that larger group of companions and sets off with just his Sidekick.
Of course, when it comes to fighting the Ultimate Bad Guy, or the Shadow in archetypal terms, the Hero must leave even his Sidekick behind. However, without the faithful and loyal companion, the Hero would never make it to the Ultimate Bad Guy at all and we wouldn’t have much of a story.
One character who I think is a terrific example of a Sidekick? Samwise Gamgee from The Lord of the Rings.
Some people see Sam as the Hero, and he certainly does heroic things over the course of the story, but I think Sam’s main function is as the Sidekick. Everything Sam does that is heroic he does because of Frodo. If not for Frodo, Sam would not be on the journey. Frodo is given the task, while Sam is told to follow. Frodo is the Ring-Bearer; Sam helps him bear the burden. Sam was not the one given the challenge to destroy the Ring. Sam was the one tasked with making sure the Hero destroyed the Ring.
In The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee is Frodo’s friend and gardener. They are both young Hobbits and neither of them leads an overly complicated life, at least, not until Gandalf shows up.
Sam is a provincial and unadventurous Hobbit who has never traveled outside of The Shire, but he accompanies Frodo on his journey because Frodo needs someone to look out for him.
Later in the story, when Frodo decides that he must leave the Fellowship and go to Mordor alone, because he knows the Ring will destroy the Men in the group, Sam goes with him even though they don’t know how to get there and it will be terribly dangerous. The faithful Sidekick follows the Hero no matter what:
“Oh, Mr. Frodo, that’s hard!” said Sam shivering. “That’s hard, trying to go without me and all. If I hadn’t a guessed right, where would you be now?”
“Safely on my way.”
“Safely!” said Sam. “All alone and without me to help you? I couldn’t have borne it, it’d have been the death of me.” (bold added)
Once Sam gathers his gear and some extra rations, Frodo says,
“It is no good trying to escape you…It is plain that we were meant to go together.”
Frodo makes the right decision taking Sam along. Sam is the one who takes over the watch while Frodo sleeps, ensuring that Gollum won’t kill Frodo in his sleep to recover the Ring. When Frodo is betrayed by Gollum and captured by the giant spider Shelob, Sam comes to the rescue. He fights and defeats Shelob and saves Frodo from becoming her dinner. When the Mordor Orcs find Frodo’s body, Sam’s quick thinking keeps them from discovering the Ring on Frodo. Sam had taken it. He then rescues Frodo from the Orcs, drawing on his courage and using his wits.
It is also important to note that Sam wears the Ring, has a vision of what his life would be like if he kept it, but he willingly gives it up to Frodo when the time comes. Only one other person had worn the Ring and given it up willingly and that was Bilbo. Sam is also one of the few people who can resist the Ring at all (Gandalf, Galadriel, and Aragorn are the others). If Sam had not had this strength of character to give the Ring back to Frodo, then the quest would have ended right then in the tower at Cirith Ungol.
Finally, when Frodo and Sam are on the plains of Gorgoroth (in the darkest depths of Mordor), Sam helps Frodo physically—he physically helps Frodo march when they are mistaken as runaway Orcs, and he gives Frodo the last of the food and water. He also helps Frodo emotionally and spiritually (this happens from the time they leave the Fellowship). When all hope seems lost, Sam tells Frodo a story:
“But I suppose it’s often that way. The brave things in the old tales and songs…I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them…But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually—their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t…I wonder what sort of a tale we’ve fallen into?”
As intended, the story helps lift Frodo’s spirits. It is the Sidekick’s job to keep the Hero going and moving forward despite all odds against him. The most important aspect of Sam’s character, and this is crucial, is that he never loses HOPE. Not once. It’s a central theme in Tolkien’s work—hope. The evil characters try to eradicate it from the world, and the good characters work hard to maintain it, because they know that without hope the world will fall into despair.
Amidst the ruin and desolation of Mordor, when Frodo cannot even remember what The Shire looks like or what a gentle breeze feels like on his skin, as he succumbs to the evil of the Ring, Sam remains hopeful:
“But even as hope died in Sam, or seemed to die, it was turned to a new strength. Sam’s plain hobbit-face grew stern, almost grim, as the will hardened in him, and he felt through all his limbs a thrill, as if he was turning into some creature of stone and steel that neither despair nor weariness nor endless barren miles could subdue.”
It is not long after this change that Sam decides that if all else fails he will CARRY Frodo up the mountain to destroy the Ring. When it does come time to carry Frodo, Sam does it with ease. The clarity of his resolve and the hope remaining in his soul, make it so that the burden of Frodo is light on Sam’s shoulders. This is the ultimate sacrifice of the Sidekick. He must carry the load of the Hero to the very doorway of the evil they need to destroy. Carrying Frodo is the most heroic action Sam does, but in the end, Frodo as the Hero, must be the one to meet the challenge. Sam is knocked unconscious while Frodo wrestles with the power of the Ring. The Sidekick helps. He does not fight the final battle.
Sam remains loyal to Frodo on the return journey and for years afterward and names his son after Frodo. The story even ends with Sam. Frodo, damaged beyond repair by the evil of the Ring, departs for the Grey Havens with the Elves and leaves Sam behind in The Shire. Ever the loyal companion, Sam carries on finishing the book that Frodo started.
This is the first in a series about archetypes. In this series, I will highlight some of the most popular ones that we encounter, especially in modern books and film. Most of us are familiar with the Hero archetype, so I will not go into that. Stay tuned!