In 1925, Tolkien’s son Michael, then nearly five years old, lost his miniature toy dog on the beach. Tolkien wrote Roverandom to console his son. It tells the story of a dog named Rover, who annoys a wizard and is turned into a toy. The toy Rover is then lost on the beach by a young boy, and later found by a sand-sorcerer, who animates the toy. Roverandom tells of the random adventures of this toy dog Rover, on the far side of the Moon and under the sea.
Originally published by Harper Collins in 1998 and reprinted many times since then.
For a little kid, losing a favorite toy is downright traumatic. So in 1925, when four-year-old Michael lost his little toy dog on the beach, fantasy author J.R.R. Tolkien made up a story to comfort his son. It explained away the loss of the toy, and wove a magical story around a little dog named Rover.
Rover is an ordinary little puppy near the seaside in England, until he runs into a grumpy old man and ends up biting off part of his pants. The old man happens to be a wizard (Artaxerxes by name), and promptly transforms Rover into a toy dog (and no, I don't mean a tiny dog - I mean a real toy). Rover subsequently gets picked up and sold to some little boys (presumably the Tolkien kids).
Fortunately, Rover encounters another magical being, a crusty, kindly sand-wizard named Psamathos. That wizard, in turn, gets Rover (who is renamed Roverandom) flown to the moon, where he spends time with the Man in the Moon and his winged dog Rover. And then he's heading off to encounter a talking whale, a mer-dog, a sea serpent - and a dragon.
Like the vastly underrated "Farmer Giles of Ham," "Roverandom" is a charming little bit of whimsy. No deep themes, no epic clashes, not even really a villain. The writing is charming and magical, with phrases like "There was a cold wind blowing off the North Star" sprinkled through it. It almost gives the feeling of being in another world. Best of all, in the middle of the book are tolkien's own illustrations, cute little drawings and ethereal paintings.
Rover is well-named, since his adventures are all over the map and don't really progress from one to the other. It's merely a cute little dog roaming over the moon, the ocean, and the land, conversing with shrimps and bothering wizards. He's an outspoken little guy, but likeable. The grumpy wizards are also excellently done, reminiscent of Gandalf.
While "Roverandom" is a book aimed at children, adults may enjoy the whimsical humor and beautiful writing. A charming and timeless story.
Up until relatively recently, Roverandom existed in the minds of Tolkien fans as a mysterious open secret: an unpublished work. For a man whose notes to the milkman and getting-the-pen-to-work scribbles on the inside cover of the Yellow Pages were trumpeted by publishers and family alike as 'masterpieces', this was remarkable. Look the old professor up on Amazon and it's not long before the list of works begins to look significantly desperate (Tales from the Perilous Realm, Finn and Hengest: The Fragment and the Episode, Unfinished Tales of Numenor and Middle-Earth, etc.). Did he mean for all this stuff to be plundered for public consumption? So, finding a complete and illustrated work that hasn't seen the light of day in almost 70 years is odd to say the least. The five illustrations were seen in a couple of academic books, and also at the Bodleian Library's centenary exhibition, but the text was unknown until 1997/1998.
The story is based upon an incident that occurred when the Tolkiens were on holiday in the Yorkshire seaside town of Filey, in 1925. tolkien's four-year-old son lost a small toy dog and became distraught. To console him, his father created a story about a real dog that is magically transformed into a toy and is forced to seek out the wizard who wronged him to be returned to normal. In the course of his search he goes to the Moon and the bottom of the sea and being a mischievous little tyke, gets up to all sorts of adventures. Much like The Hobbit, there are wizards and dragons and huge flesh eating spiders, told here in the singy-songy voice of a good-humoured children's tale. But unlike The Lord of the Rings, this time there is none of the thunder and bombast of, for instance:
"...for answer Gandalf cried aloud to his horse. 'On Shadowfax! We must hasten. Time is short. See! The beacons of Gondor are alight, calling for aid. War is kindled. See, there is the fire on Amon Dîn, and flame on Eilenach; and there they go speeding west: Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad and the Halifirien on the borders of Rohan...'
Instead, we get:
"Once upon a time there was a little dog, and his name was Rover. He was very small, and very young, or he would have known better; and he was very happy playing in the garden in the sunshine with a yellow ball, or he would never have done what he did."
Which, frankly, is much better.
Tolkien was only in his early thirties when the first draft was written, and it's full of the sort of easy jokes and casual references a well-read young academic might throw in for his little boy's amusement. Old Mother Hubbard's dog has a walk on part, there's a gentle and affectionate explanation of what happens when we dream, there are sly nods towards his work at Oxford, carrots dangled perhaps to entice his youngsters into enjoying the things he himself loved? Well, possibly.
What we have ultimately is a slight tale - it's only 80 pages long - clearly created for reading aloud at bedtime for young children eager to believe that their toys can become animated and exciting (it'll come as no surprise that Rover can only become 'alive' at night when his owner is asleep) if they allow their imaginations to run riot. And that can't be a bad thing. I also can't find the phrase 'a fairy tale for all ages' in the notes or press blurbs and that's surely a boon. More importantly, it happens to be a handy stopgap when you leave your grown-up book on the bus.
So will I be reading any more JRRT? Has this fired me up to try LotR again after a twenty-year break? Amon Dîn, Eilenach, Nardol, Erelas, Min-Rimmon, Calenhad and the Halifirien?! What do you think?