Joss Whedon’s seminal TV show Firefly, based on Michael Shaara’s book The Killer Angels, has interesting parallels to J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. In both tales, nine disparate people band together on a journey to topple a tyrannical force while protecting a hero burdened with the means to end the struggle against a mighty oppressor. Each hero is blessed with a loyal protector who fiercely defends his charge from threats from within their fellowship and from the world at large. A closer look will reveal the similarities between River Tam and Frodo Baggins and between the staunch protectors who love them, River’s brother Dr. Simon Tam and Frodo’s gardener Samwise Gamgee.
In both Firefly and The Lord of the Rings, threats to River and Frodo come from within their fellowships, as Boromir and mercenary Jayne Cobb betray the heroes in the course of their journey. The repercussions of these acts have long-lasting effects on both men.
By analyzing the storylines in both Firefly and Serenity, the film that ended the series, it is possible to chart the evolution of Simon Tam from adoring older brother into a hero willing to sacrifice his career and life to save River from the Alliance, which has turned River into an assassin through brain-washing as well as radical brain surgery. Throughout the series Simon investigates the cause of the changes in River and works to counteract them. Thus, the viewer watches Simon act as a paternal protector to River, as she becomes more lucid within the story.
Compare this relationship to that of Frodo the Ring-bearer and his gardener Samwise, who pledges to aid him as he journeys to Mount Doom to destroy the One Ring. Throughout their travels, Frodo’s physical and mental strength fails him, causing him to become increasingly dependent on the aid of Samwise. Thus, the reader watches Sam assume more of the burden of carrying the One Ring, until he physically carries Frodo to the end of their journey.
Despite the inversion of power found between River (waxing) and Frodo (waning), both Simon Tam and Samwise Gamgee become more than they ever would have been had they not assumed the twin roles of protector and advocate for those in their charge. It is the love of these guardians that allows their burdened charges to complete their quests, thus freeing their worlds from the darkness that threatens them.
"Simon & Samwise: Big Damn Heroes,"
Journal of Tolkien Research: Vol. 10:
1, Article 9.
Available at: https://scholar.valpo.edu/journaloftolkienresearch/vol10/iss1/9