Roverandom by J. R. R. Tolkien
Sometimes, I feel absurdly lucky that I was introduced to The Lord of the Rings via Peter Jackson’s films in the early aughts. The Lord of the Rings was, without a doubt, cool when I got into it. And not just in my circle of friends in middle school, who tried to teach themselves Elvish and wore ninja shoes to school—it was part of the pop culture vernacular. Return of the King won eleven Oscars on one of the greatest days of my twelfth year on this Earth. (To be fair, there wasn’t a lot of competition.) Obviously, mainstream approval isn’t necessary for me as a fan these days (witness my adoration of Plunkett and Macleane), but only something that glowed that brightly in could pierce the pop culture resistant bubble I grew up in.
Of course, this also meant that I was introduced to Tolkien in the context of a narrative that posited him only as “the creator of The Lord of the Rings”. While his influence on fantasy is blindingly obvious, it wasn’t until the film version of Stardust came out, with its attendant press junkets, that I realized that he was the father of modern fantasy (and, through no fault of his own, the father of bad fantasy series structure). And all of that eclipsed the other facets of his identity—as an academic, as a devout Catholic, and as a family man.
I mean, I know The Hobbit started life as a story for Tolkien’s children and I know that Christopher Tolkien is the current executor of the Tolkien Estate. But for some reason, I’d never thought of Tolkien as a father, only as a grandfatherly and good-natured grump drawing up syllabi with C. S. Lewis. Tolkien wrote several works for his children besides The Hobbit—he wrote annual letters to his children as Father Christmas, for instance, and then there’s Mr. Bliss, Leaf by Niggle, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, and Roverandom. I haven’t read all of them yet, although I’m sure I’ll get there, but I feel very confident in saying that Roverandom is probably the only thing Tolkien wrote where he and his family were included as characters.
Roverandom, according to the introduction that pads this slim novella to a respectable size, was inspired during a family visit to the seaside. While there, Michael, the second born of the Tolkiens’ four children, lost his favorite toy: a little black and white toy dog. While his older brother and his father went back to look for it, they couldn’t find it. To cheer his son up, Tolkien began spinning another story about what happened to the little toy. In his version of events, the toy dog is a real dog named Rover who was terribly rude to a wizard. To retaliate, the wizard turns him into a toy. He is then sold to Michael, known only as Two, who promptly loses him at the seaside. Luckily, there’s a nice wizard at the seaside who sends him to the Man-in-the-Moon to help. Roverandom (so called because every dog he meets is also called Rover) goes on a series of adventures and eventually learns to be polite to strange wizards. He is then returned to his original owner, a nice old woman who turns out to be Two’s grandmother.
Tolkien’s love of the past means that his fiction rarely touches on his own modern day. I seem to recall an anecdote about how Tolkien and Lewis determined to keep the Oxford English syllabus from going beyond 1870 or thereabouts. (I like to think of them as a cackling pair of old men roaming Oxford and feeding ducks. Where’s that biopic?) That great golf joke in The Hobbit is about close as most people see him get to the twentieth century. But Roverandom includes mermaids reading weekly digests, linguistic jokes, and sly, child-appropriate jabs about politicians. For someone who knows Tolkien best from his greatest work, it’s sweetly humanizing to see him in his own historical context.
Plus, as proven in The Hobbit, Tolkien has an incredible knack for writing for children. He makes himself a presence (doubly so in this novella) but doesn’t intrude; he never talks down; and he never excludes. (Unlike, say, C. S. Lewis.) It’s just such a natural, comforting voice, one that you’re happy to listen to. I particularly loved how he treats dog behavior. Roverandom is a small dog, and thus quick of temper, but his heart’s always in the right place. And that’s the point of the story without getting remotely moralizing—Roverandom is mean to a wizard for no reason, goes on a series of adventures where he leans to play nice with others, and gets rewarded with a proper home with the child he likes the most. I have half a mind to send it to my brother, with instructions to read it to my nephew.
Bottom line: Roverandom is a sweet children’s novella that humanizes Tolkien by letting him take jabs at his own historical context. For fans of Tolkien and fans of good, short children’s stories.
I bought this book at a thrift store.