Tolkien, J.R.R. Roverandom. Edited by Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1997. ISBN 0-395-89871-4, hc, $17.00.
(This review originally appeared in Mythprint 35:4 (#193) in April 1998.)
Reviewed by David Bratman
Attentive Tolkien fans have long known of an unpublished children’s story called Roverandom. Its few but gorgeous illustrations were seen in Hammond and Scull’s J.R.R. Tolkien, Artist & Illustrator and some previously in the Bodleian’s Tolkien centenary exhibition and its catalog. But until now nothing of the text had seen print save a precis of the plot: Rover the dog is turned into a toy by an irate wizard, and after being lost on the beach has adventures on the moon and under the sea. Now it has been published, in a medium-format (9 inches high) hardcover with all five illustrations on color plates, two of them repeated on the jacket.
The big surprise about Roverandom is how long it is. At 25 thousand words, though still much shorter than The Hobbit, it’s a full-length children’s book — much longer than The Father Christmas Letters or the tiny Mr. Bliss. In that space a prodigal quantity of invention and wit is packed. The style of Roverandom is one of abrupt transitions and unexplained events seemingly designed to amuse and delight the child reader. This style is more characteristic of Tolkien’s drafts than of his polished works. For instance, not for some time after Rover is abruptly rechristened Roverandom (to distinguish him from the moon-dog, also Rover) do we learn the meaning of the name, and perhaps other readers will be quicker than I to pick up that it’s for the randomness of his travels. Yet Tolkien seems to have considered Roverandom to be essentially finished and to have fostered this style deliberately. Rover indeed is puzzled by the randomness of his own story. But although he always wishes to return to the little boy who once owned him, like all dogs he’s mostly happy to live for the moment and revel in his adventures. The two main sequences, on the moon and under the sea, each have a satisfying unity and sequence of events despite their rambling character. Some of the best writing is in lyrical descriptions of the moonscape and seascape. The whole story comes to a neat if pat conclusion.
In the process Roverandom meets two other Rovers, the moon-dog and a sea-dog, each of whom he barks insults at upon meeting, “from which,” says Tolkien, “you can see that they took rather a fancy to one another at first sight.” The author knows his canine behavior, all right. Roverandom also meets not one but three idiosyncratic wizards, alarming in their abrupt transitions between geniality and crankiness. And if that doesn’t remind you of Gandalf, perhaps this observation of Roverandom’s will: “It is very kind of all these wizards to trouble themselves about me, I am sure, though it is rather upsetting. You never know what will happen next, when once you get mixed up with wizards and their friends.” Certain hobbits would emphatically agree.
Possibly the name Roverandom is intended as an echo of Smollett’s Roderick Random. If so, it is perhaps the only one of numerous sly references and allusions not picked up on in the editors’ 16 pages of explanatory notes. Some of these are purely personal references: the hero’s life as a toy alludes to a toy dog owned by Tolkien’s son Michael. Others are intended as silly gestures towards stories his children knew or things they’d see about them: the wizard Psamathos borrowed from E. Nesbit’s Psammead, the allegorical Britannia’s appearance on coins, the recent (as of the story’s writing) eclipses as caused by a moon-dragon (and very like Smaug he is, too). This explanation of eclipses is not original but of mythological origin. Mythology was of course a preoccupation of the author’s, and many references that might or might not have gone right over the children’s heads are to such concerns: his hatred of pollution (we’re told that the first litterer on Mount Snowdon had the excuse of being frightened by a dragon), his love of languages and their phonology (characters differ about whether to pronounce the P in Psamathos), his attentiveness to scholarship (a list of adjectives applied by scholars to sea-serpents), and of course his devotion to mythology. There are references to nursery rhymes, to the Arabian Nights, to Greek, Celtic, and Norse mythology, and most surprisingly to Tolkien’s own mythology. The great whale Uin carries Roverandom across the ocean to catch a glimpse of Eldamar, the land from which the Elves of Beleriand are exiles and to which they long to return in The Lord of the Rings. The reference is brief, and Uin deflates it by saying, “I should catch it, if this was found out! No one from the Outer Lands is supposed ever to come here; and few ever do now. Mum’s the word!”
Mum is not the word for Roverandom: this book can be enjoyed by anyone who loves The Hobbit, from the most abstruse Tolkien scholar to intelligent children of perhaps age 8 or 10. The vocabulary is steep, but as the editors note, Tolkien insisted that children learn new words by reading ones they do not already know. Anyone curious about the allusions can look them up in the notes, but they are not marked in the text and are no more necessary than would be notes to Farmer Giles of Ham, which is similarly packed with allusions. I hope nobody will be put off by the 14-page introduction, which is thoroughly researched and very interesting to scholars, but which goes far more into detail than necessary to explain the book’s provenance, and which is definitely not addressed to children. The reader who care not for such matters may safely turn to page 3 and the story’s first words, “Once upon a time …”