Many of the characters in Lord of the Rings undergo change, some a reversal of fortune; Aragorn, for example, is installed as King while Saruman and Sauron lost not only power but their lives.
Sam starts out life as a care-taker for the Baggins estate – mostly this meant gardening but it could mean bringing in breakfast to running errands. He “did” for Mr. Frodo as did his father for Bilbo. His return to the Shire saw him as a major force, helping with the Battle of Bywater, marrying and having children, becoming Mayor, Master at Bag End and keeper of the Red Book.
Frodo begins life as a nephew of leading, albeit strange, figure in Hobbiton, Bilbo. He ends life as one of only two Hobbits that are allowed to travel West with the Elves to “…and the sails were drawn up, and the wind blew, and slowly the ship slipped away down the long grey firth; and the light of the glass of Galadriel that Frodo bore glimmered and was lost. And the ship went out into the High Sea and passed on into the West, until at last on a night of rain Frodo smelled a sweet fragrance on the air and heard the sound of singing that came over the water. And then it seemed to him that as in his dream in the house of Bombadil, the grey rain-curtain turned all to silver glass and was rolled back, and he beheld white shores and beyond them a far green country under a swift sunrise.”
Saruman begins as a powerful wizard, becomes a great power and captain (but under the constraint of Sauron) and fell to be a ragged wander in the woods and a maker of mean mischief who dies an ignominious death.
We see the result of gentle love at the hand of a strong captain: “Then the heart of Éowyn changed, or else at last she understood it. And suddenly her winter passed, and the sun shone on her. ‘I stand in Minas Anor, the Tower of the Sun,’ she said; ‘and behold! the Shadow has departed! I will be a shieldmaiden no longer, nor vie with the great Riders, nor take joy only in the songs of slaying. I will be a healer, and love all things that grow and are not barren .’ And again she looked at Faramir. ‘No longer do I desire to be a queen,’ she said.” Tolkien, The Return of the King (pp. 287-288).
Now none of these reversals were without change in character as well. While all that Frodo, Sam and Saruman became was nascent at the beginning of the book, experience and choice built the path that led to whom they became. Sam was loyal and dependable before the adventures began. He did not know that he was also wise and kind. Frodo was a leader, educated in the world and unnaturally curious for a Hobbit. His leadership and endurance were honed through the fire of hardship. Saruman had already started “plotting to become a Power. He has a mind of metal and wheels; and he does not care for growing things, except as far as they serve him for the moment. And now it is clear that he is a black traitor.” Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Two Towers: Being the Second Part of The Lord of the Rings (p. 76). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. His lust for the Ring hardened his heart to the point that he built an Orc army to wipe out men.
So while their fortunes reversed, their character did not fundamentally change but the good was accentuated and the bad exacerbated (money does this very same thing – the good can be magnanimous and the bad may fuel their sin).
Both Sam and Frodo are hardened by the hardship of the journey, both physically and their will to endure. Frodo is made even wiser but more worldl weary. “There is no real going back. Though I may come to the Shire, it will not seem the same; for I shall not be the same. I am wounded with knife, sting, and tooth, and a long burden.” Tolkien, J.R.R. (2012-02-15). The Return of the King: Being the Third Part of the Lord of the Rings (p. 319). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. He recognizes that he must move on: ‘So I thought too, once. But I have been too deeply hurt, Sam. I tried to save the Shire, and it has been saved, but not for me. It must often be so, Sam, when things are in danger: someone has to give them up, lose them, so that others may keep them. Tolkien, The Return of the King (pp. 370-371).
For Sam, it is more straight-forward: But you are my heir: all that I had and might have had I leave to you. And also you have Rose, and Elanor; and Frodo-lad will come, and Rosie-lass, and Merry, and Goldilocks, and Pippin; and perhaps more that I cannot see. Your hands and your wits will be needed everywhere. You will be the Mayor, of course, as long as you want to be, and the most famous gardener in history; and you will read things out of the Red Book, and keep alive the memory of the age that is gone, so that people will remember the Great Danger and so love their beloved land all the more. And that will keep you as busy and as happy as anyone can be, as long as your part of the Story goes on. Tolkien, The Return of the King (p. 371).
While Saruman, on the other hand, attempted to play both sides to get the ring himself, failed (as did Wormtongue on a smaller scale). They both, ironically, attempted to play it safe by aligning with a greater power and that power failed them. In such a place, we see his character brought out: I don’t know what Saruman thought was happening; but anyway he did not know how to deal with it. His wizardry may have been falling off lately, of course; but anyway I think he has not much grit, not much plain courage alone in a tight place without a lot of slaves and machines and things, if you know what I mean. Tolkien, The Two Towers: (pp. 188-189). As Aragorn notes, Saruman was technically competent: ‘Once he was as great as his fame made him. His knowledge was deep, his thought was subtle, and his hands marvelously skilled; and he had a power over the minds of others. The wise he could persuade, and the smaller folk he could daunt. Tolkien, The Two Towers (p. 189). However, without the character to preserve (beyond mean-spirited revenge), he falls. My friend, Joe Long, pointed out the failing with modern portrayal of heroes, as he gives his comment to Peter Jackson portrayal of Aragorn: “And I would add that, while Aragorn’s character is diminished in the movie by the attempt to make the mature, committed Ranger of the books all adolescent-angsty…somehow he cannot be allowed to be wrong strategically (as he is, in the books but not the movie, regarding the Helm’s Deep campaign). The modern fantasy hero must just “get stuff right” while lacking confidence; the true hero WILL sometimes be wrong – but not about himself; his decisions can be questioned but his character is not” – Facebook Quote, Joe Long.
Now, it isn’t only adversity that shapes them: Bilbo teaches Sam “his letters”. The time spent in Rivendell, Lórien, Rohan, Fangorn and Gondor provide all the benefits of travel and shared wisdom. They see things from new cultures and a different perspective. They gain appreciation for what they have and for the wide world around them. However, it is, alas, the fires of adversity that forge our character. While nascent character may tend in a certain direction, our experience and choices can move us to lose our way or to make it firmer. Moreover, we need help along the way, not only would Frodo not complete his mission without Sam, he wouldn’t have completed it without Gollum. Providence has a hand in his receiving the ring and completing his seemingly hopeless task.
“Character may be manifested in the great moments, but it is made in the small ones” – Phillip Brooks