by J.R.R. Tolkien, Christina Scull (editor) and Wayne G. Hammond
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company
106 pages, 1998
Read a literary resonances of J.R. Tolkien by George Clark and Daniel Timmons, sponsored by Questia
A Forgotten Tolkien Tale
Reviewed by David Grayson
Many J. R. R. Tolkien lovers are assiduous collectors: they buy everything from Tolkien they find. Unfortunately, most everything of consequence created by the fantasy legend -- and some things much less so -- has been published.
Tolkien's son Christopher patched together twelve books, the History of Middle-earth sequence, from the literal scraps of his father's notes. Many Middle-earth aficionados have assumed there was to be no more.
Now, however, there is one more: a full story from a forgotten manuscript. Conceived to console his other son Michael, who lost his favorite toy -- a miniature dog -- on a trip to the Yorkshire coast, J. R. R. Tolkien's short tale Roverandom tells the adventures of a dog named Rover. Rover bites the trousers of a wizard and is turned into a toy as punishment. When he is lost by a little boy he has a series of adventures on the moon and under the sea before being returned to the boy -- happier and wiser.
Unfortunately for Tolkien fans, Roverandom is a mediocre tale. However, some of the elements that made The Lord of the Rings trilogy a masterpiece are present, even if in small doses, and this should be enough to interest Tolkien devotees in reading it.
In his review of The Fellowship of the Ring (the first book in the trilogy), W. H. Auden wrote that "no fiction I have read in the last five years has given me more joy." Roverandom gives less pleasure: it is only mildly interesting, and is no page-turner. Rover's adventures on the moon and under the sea deliberately have a lot in common: Rover becomes great friends with another dog named Rover, he is renamed Roverandom twice, the two have great fun together, and they're sad to take leave of each other. Though children may enjoy this, adults will probably tire of the repeat. The second adventure (in the sea) also drags on a bit, even though it's short. The reader knows where the story will end up, and the details that bring us to the denouement are not sufficiently captivating to make up for the plot's predictability.
In his essay On Fairy-Stories, Tolkien writes that fantasy is the most difficult to write of all fiction because the author must create an entire secondary world from his imagination. A second limitation of Roverandom is that there is more the suggestion of other worlds than the fulfillment of them. In the Rings books, Tolkien gave the reader an entire world wondrously and intricately imagined: down to the leaves on the trees. In Roverandom we get some lukewarm descriptions, but no more.
For example, in his first glimpse of the moon, Rover sees "a new white world shining like snow, with wide open spaces of pale blue and green where the tall pointed mountains threw their long shadows far across the floor." This is the white side of the moon, the one with "milk-white ponds" and a nearly endless forest "roofed with pale blue leaves that never fell; so that not even the longest telescope on earth has ever seen those tall trunks or the silverbells beneath them." This description is fantastical, but lacks the visceral, real-world beauty of Middle-earth.
The description of the dark side is better. Here the mountains "were grey, not white, and looked as if they were made of old cold ashes." No one, animal or man, sees the dark side when they are awake; but children dream their way to a valley on the dark side, over which the Man-in-the-Moon presides.
Maybe the most powerful thing one gets from Tolkien -- ideally from any myth story -- is a sense of awe about the world. Though (or maybe because) Tolkien takes the reader into his own imagined places, he knows the essence of our own. Tolkien speaks of the oceans as "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." Lamentably, this is one of the few instances where Roverandom reaches such heights.
John Gardner, the renowned novelist and critic, commented that what made The Lord of the Rings a masterpiece was the combination of the epic and the small human interest. Another limitation of Roverandom is that it lacks the epic: we meet quirky characters, but there is no historic sweep, no world's fate in the balance.
One aspect of Roverandom that the veteran reader and the unfamiliar alike will savor is Tolkien's distinct voice. The opening passage sounds a lot like the beginning of The Hobbit:
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.
Not every old man with ragged trousers is a bad old man: some are bone-and-bottle men, and have little dogs of their own; and some are gardeners; and a few, a very few, are wizards prowling round on a holiday looking for something to do.
Roverandom brims with the many pleasures of Tolkien's style. His narration voice is aptly described by the editors of the volume as "prominent authorial" or "parental"; for instance, the narrator doesn't mind passing judgment when appropriate. Tolkien's judicious, informed diction is also here in the delicious phrases "bone-and-bottle men" and "prowling round." Finally, the oral, storytelling cadence of his prose is present. Even when the plot is less than compelling, Tolkien is still a pleasure to read.
Roverandom might be a good tale to read to children (who will probably tolerate its faults), to introduce them to Tolkien. For old Tolkien fans, Roverandom will be a pleasant story to taste, but they will find themselves returning to the unparalleled story of the War of the Ring.
David Grayson is a freelance writer and poet living in San Francisco.