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Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, ‘Roverandom’

In this article Scull and Hammond explore the family history behind the story, uncover its references to other literary works (including Tolkien’s own), and chart its long journey to publication.

Origin of the story

Roverandom was inspired by events that occurred in September 1925, when J.R.R. Tolkien and his family stayed in a cottage overlooking the sea at Filey in the north-east of England. Early in the holiday, his son Michael, then nearly five, lost a beloved toy dog while playing on the beach with his father and elder brother John, and was heartbroken.

Shortly afterward, a fierce storm struck the coast, shaking the Tolkiens’ cottage so much that they were kept awake late into the night. According to John Tolkien, it was on this occasion, to keep his elder sons calm during the storm and explain Michael’s loss, that Tolkien first told a story about a dog named Rover, who is turned into a toy, bought for a young boy very like Michael, and similarly lost on a beach.

In the tale as fully developed, Rover is transformed into a small toy by an angry wizard, Artaxerxes, and given to ‘little boy Two’ (after second son Michael Tolkien). Like other storybook toys, Rover finds that he can move and speak only at night, or when no one is watching.

He escapes from the boy’s pocket onto a beach, meets a comical ‘sand-sorcerer’, and flies to the moon on the back of a gull, along the path made on the sea by moonlight. There he meets the Man-in-the-Moon and his flying ‘moon-dog’, is renamed ‘Roverandom’ (Rover + ‘random’) because he never knows where he is going next, and is chased by the Great White Dragon.

‘The White Dragon pursues Roverandom and the Moondog’

Later, returned to earth, he becomes a mer-dog under the sea, in the kingdom where Artaxerxes is the ‘Pacific and Atlantic Magician’. He explores the seas and far shores with a ‘sea-dog’ and the great whale Uin; and in a moment of mischief he awakens an ancient Sea-serpent, whose stirring creates a terrific storm not unlike that of 1925. But all will end happily.

A personal and family story

Written for the immediate audience of Tolkien’s children (and, as always, the author himself), Roverandom at heart is a personal story, with references to the Tolkien family and their holiday of 1925. It also contains expressions of Tolkien’s concern about motorcars and pollution, as well as the kind of unrestrained wordplay and allusions such as he loved.

The Isle of Dogs, for instance, in our world a tongue of land projecting into the river Thames in London, becomes in Roverandom a place ‘where all the lost dogs go that are deserving or lucky’, and where ‘there are bone-trees … with fruit like juicy meat-bones that drops off the trees when it’s ripe’.

‘lunar landscape’, one of Tolkien’s illustrations for Roverandom.

References also abound to myth and fairy story, to Arthurian legend and the Norse sagas, to children’s literature, even to Gilbert and Sullivan. Most notably, the ‘sand-sorcerer’, Psamathos, is akin to the psammead or ‘sand-fairy’ of Edith Nesbit’s Five Children and It (1902) and The Story of the Amulet (1905), and indeed is called a Psammead in the earliest surviving manuscript of Roverandom.

Tolkien borrowed as well from the private mythology or legendarium that was his life’s-work. ‘The Mountains of Elvenhome’ and ‘the city of the Elves on the green hill beneath the Mountains’ seen by the sea-going Roverandom in the West of the world, for instance, came from the geography of the ‘Silmarillion’: they are the Mountains of Valinor in Aman, and the city Tûn (or Túna).

A garden visited by Roverandom on the dark side of the moon, where children come to play in their dreams, recalls the gardens in Valinor to which children came by the Path of Dreams described in The Book of Lost Tales (published in Christopher Tolkien’s History of Middle-earth). And from that early work too came the whale Uin — the name is Finnish for ‘I swim’ — although in Roverandom he is not quite the mightiest and eldest of his kind.

Truly did Tolkien say that The Silmarillion had influenced nearly all of his fiction, and Roverandom is the more interesting for its brush with the earlier tales of Arda and Middle-earth. But at several points it also anticipated a later and more famous book, The Hobbit, begun around 1930 in the wake of Roverandom’s popularity with the Tolkien boys.

Indeed, it is not too great a step from Rover’s flight with the gull Mew to the bird’s cliffside home in Roverandom to Bilbo Baggins’ flight to the Eagles’ eyrie in The Hobbit. Nor are the spiders that Roverandom encounters on the moon unlike those seen by Bilbo in Mirkwood. The Great White Dragon, with its tender underbelly, is clearly a cousin of The Hobbit’s Smaug, and each of the three wizards of Roverandom — Artaxerxes, Psamathos, and the Man-in-the-Moon — may be seen as a precursor of Gandalf.

History of publication and illustrations

There is no evidence that the author had already set Roverandom on paper in 1925, but an illustration for the tale, a picture of a lunar landscape, is dated by him to that year. Three further illustrations were made in September 1927, when the Tolkiens were on holiday at Lyme Regis in Dorset, suggesting that he told Roverandom to his children once again; a fifth picture is dated to 1927–8. Among these is one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s most accomplished watercolour paintings, The Gardens of the Merking’s Palace.

Tolkien seems to have written out the tale of Roverandom at Christmas 1927, adding an episode concerning the Man-in-the-Moon and a lunar eclipse said to be caused by dragons. (The latter is referred to also in the ‘Father Christmas’ letter for that year, undoubtedly based on an actual eclipse of 8 December.) By now, all of the basic elements of Roverandom were probably in place.

He further revised Roverandom during the next nine years, progressively adding incident and detail. In 1936 he submitted the tale to his publisher, George Allen & Unwin, as a possible successor to The Hobbit. But The Hobbit (published in 1937) proved so successful that a sequel was wanted above all else, so Tolkien set Roverandom aside, apparently never to return to it.

Roverandom was finally published posthumously in 1998, over sixty years after it was written, and twenty-five years after the author’s death, edited from its latest version, and with an introduction and notes, by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond.