Author: J.R.R Tolkien
Type: Fiction, novel
Published: 1998 (posthumous)
I read it: February 2018
A decade or so before The Hobbit was published, J.R.R. Tolkien took his family on a seaside vacation. There one of his sons lost a small toy dog and was devastated. To pass the time and give consolation, the great storyteller made spun a tale about the dog Rover. Over the next couple years he developed written drafts, and the story of Rover eventually became Roverandom.
When The Hobbit was a smash hit, Tolkien considered dusting off Roverandom as a possible follow-up, but the publishers wanted only more from Middle Earth. So the sillier kids’ story about the traveling dog was forgotten. The story being a product of Tolkien’s mind, however, means that there are plenty of preludes to the larger mythology he developed. The titular dog, while talking to a seagull, observes that “you never know what will happen next, when once you get mixed up with wizards and their friends.”
The two main destinations for Roverandom are the moon, where the greatest wizard of all (the Man-in-the-Moon, of course) lives, and at the bottom of the ocean. Between these two places Tolkien is able to fit in all sorts of references to mythology and mythical creatures. The moon features a dragon much like Smaug, although the depths of the sea bring house the murky mysteries laid out in grand Tolkien fashion:
The deeps are not such a jolly place as the moon for little dogs, being full of dark and awful places where light has never been and never will be, because they will never be uncovered till light has all gone out. Horrible things live there, too old for imagining, too strong for spells, too vast for measurement.
The editors, Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond, provide footnotes at the end to further describe the cultural and Tolkien-specific references the author makes throughout. The importance of British manners are crucial to the plot: in the first couple pages the dog meets a cranky wizard who picks up the dog’s ball. The wizard punishes him because Rover doesn’t say “please,” and then when the wizard makes to steal the ball Rover bites his trousers. The wizard turns him into a toy, although the reader will feel righteous indignation at the idea that Rover was ever in the wrong. Regardless, it’s what kicks off the story. (The toy animal who goes on an adventure reminded me immediately of The Mouse and His Child.)
The story is breezy and playful, but will Tolkien fans be a little too bored due to the lightheartedness? As the sand-dweller Psamathos (you pronounce the “P” if you respect him) says: “Stuff and nonsense!” If anything, these early Tolkien stories can prove far more delightful than the ponderous Middle Earth back- and side-stories that were later published after his death.