Every year on March 25, the anniversary of the Downfall of Sauron, the Tolkien Society hosts Tolkien Reading Day. This year’s theme selected by the Tolkien Society is Hope and Courage. The primary goal is to promote the reading of the works of J.R R. Tolkien! To celebrate, Pages Unbound will be hosting two weeks of Tolkien-related posts. In addition to our own thoughts, we will be featuring a number of guest posts! Check out the full schedule of events by clicking here.
In the summer of 1925, J.R.R. Tolkien, his wife Edith, and their three young sons went on an unexpected holiday to the Yorkshire coast. Tolkien’s second son, Michael (aged four), brought his favorite toy– a little black and white dog figurine. Michael took the dog everywhere, ate with it, slept with it, and refused to put it down no matter the circumstance. Except for the day when Tolkien and the older two boys went for a walk along the seashore. Excited to skip stones into the water, Michael put his beloved toy dog down on the beach. The toy disappeared among the beach’s white stones, and though Tolkien and the two boys returned to look for it the little dog was gone. Michael was devastated by the loss of his beloved toy, and to help make him feel better, Tolkien did what he always did best: he told the children a story about a little dog– a real dog– named Rover, who barked too much and annoyed a wizard, who turned him into a toy. Rover ended up in a shop window, where he was purchased by a woman and given to a little boy. While the boy loved Rover, all Rover wanted was to be a real dog again.
One day, the boy took Rover to the beach, and Rover was separated from him. Rover didn’t mind at first, given that he was free to do whatever he wanted, but upon realizing that being a tiny toy on a big beach presents its own problems, Rover was suddenly afraid. What if the waves got him? How would he ever get off the beach?
Fortunately, another wizard appeared to help Rover escape the incoming tide while a friendly gull flew Rover to the moon, where he encountered other dogs and began a series of wonderful adventures.
Like all J.R.R. Tolkien’s stories, Roverandom grew in the telling. From its origin in the summer of 1925, it was lengthened with new adventures and gained story elements and imagery that sharp-eyed readers of Tolkien’s primary works (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion) will recognize, though it never actually touches Middle-earth.
What Roverandom does share with The Hobbit is Tolkien’s respect for his young audience. Though many children’s stories of the time would talk down to children, use very simple vocabulary, and shy away from danger, Tolkien saw this as disrespectful to children, whom he believed were braver and more sophisticated than many other adults thought. Both Bilbo Baggins and Rover encounter mortal peril, which they survive thanks to help from friends or by their own wits. Once they have faced danger, they discover that they are braver than they thought. And both have grand adventures they never would have imagined had they stayed inside the day a wizard showed up at the front gate.
Another mark in Roverandom’s favor (at least in this reader’s opinion) is the lack of a grand moral lesson. In Tolkien’s works, the wicked do not always receive their comeuppance, Good does not always win out in the end, and beautiful things do not always last forever. But that is the nature of the world and the tales we invent. Tolkien is quoted as saying, “A safe fairyland is untrue in all worlds”, and this holds true even in the stories he wrote for children. If there is any great lesson to be learned here, it is that small people– and smaller dogs– have the courage to overcome frightening things. And also, maybe, that it is a good idea to be polite.
While The Lord of the Rings and its attendant works receive the bulk of the literary world’s attention, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a variety of stories outside his legendarium. But even among these, Roverandom receives even less attention than, say, Smith of Wootton Major or Leaf by Niggle. And that’s a shame because Roverandom has all the charm and appeal of The Hobbit and will appeal to adults and children alike.
As with The Hobbit, the seed of the story of Roverandom did not come from Tolkien’s desire to be a successful children’s author or to even be published at all. Both books grew out of the bedtime stories Tolkien told his children. It was fortunate for those children, listening raptly back in the 1920s and 1930s– and for the rest of the world– that he decided to write the stories down, and then expand upon and polish them until they became the works we know and love today. The Hobbit may be the most famous of Tolkien’s books for children, but it is not the only one. Roverandom is a delightful story that deserves more recognition and will appeal to anyone, whether they are four years old and grieving the loss of a toy dog, or are much older than and looking for someone to take them on a grand adventure.
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