There are many competing stones that vie for our loyalty and Sam tries to distinguish them, to locate the one hope-giving story:
“We shouldn’t be here at all [Sam says to Frodo], if we’d known more about it before we started. But I suppose it’s often that way the brave things in the old tales and songs, Mr. Frodo: adventures, as I used to call them. I used to think that they were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of sport, as you might say. 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. And if they had, we shouldn’t know because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on — and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end. You know coming home, and finding things all right, though not quite the same — like old Mr. Bilbo. But those aren’t always the best tales to hear though they may be the best tales to get landed in! I wonder what sort of tale we’ve fallen into?”
Sam has discerned the crucial divide. On the one hand, the tales that do not matter concern there-and-back-again adventures — escapades undertaken because we are bored and seek excitement and entertainment. The tales that rivet the mind, on the other hand, involve a quest that we do not choose for ourselves, Instead, we find ourselves embarked upon a journey or mission quite apart from our choosing. What counts, says Sam, is not whether the quest succeeds but whether we turn back or slog ahead. One reason for not giving up, not quitting, is that the great tales are told about those who refused to surrender — those who ventured forward in hope. Heel heroism, Sam implies, requires us to struggle with hope, yet without the assurance of victory.
Frodo interjects that it’s best not to know whether we are acting out a happy tale or a sad one. If we were assured oh happy destiny, then we would become presumptuous and complacent; if a sad one, then cynical and despairing. In neither case would we live and struggle by means of real hope.
“Don’t the great tales ever end?” Sam asks. Frodo says no. Each individual story — even the story of other fellowships and companies — is sure to end. But when our own stony is done, Frodo adds, someone else will take the one great tale forward to either a better or worse moment in its ongoing drama. What matters, Sam concludes, is that we enact our proper role in an infinitely larger story than our own little narrative: “Things done and over and made into part of the great tales are different. Why, even Gollum might be good in a tale.”
Sam has plumbed the depths of real hope. The “great tales” stand apart from mere adventures because they belong to the One Great Story. It is a story not only of those who fight heroically against evil, but also of those who are unwilling to exterminate such an enemy as Gollum. As Sam discerns, this tale finds a surprising place even for evil. For it is not only the story of the destruction of the ruling ring, but also a narrative of redemption.