Roverandom, a full-length book of fantasy written by JRR Tolkien, was first published in 1998.
The history of Roverandom is a somewhat complicated one, springing as it did from a Tolkien family holiday to the Yorkshire coast taken during the Autumn of 1925, shortly after Tolkien had accepted his appointment as Bosworth & Rawlinson Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Oxford.
The previous four years had been spent in tenure at the University of Leeds, and the opportunity for the Professorship at his alma-mater was a welcome one, allowing him more time and freedom of research, and so the family escaped for something of a celebration.
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Tolkien’s children were eight (John), five (Michael), and nearly one (Christopher) at the time. The family rented a cliff-top cottage overlooking the sea and the beach near the town of Filey.
As Tolkien scholars Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull describe in their wonderful introduction to the published version of Roverandom, “At this time Michael Tolkien was extremely fond of a miniature toy dog, made of lead and painted black and white” (Roverandom pg ix). One day as they walked the beach, the toy was left on the shingle and could not be found, despite hours of searching.
Tolkien, as was his wont, decided to create a story around the lost toy, as a way of explaining its disappearance to his distraught son.
This was the synthesis of the tale, but it likely was not written down immediately, but told orally as a bedtime story, as Tolkien was later to do with another tale of his
own devising, The Hobbit.
Two years later, in September 1927, the Tolkiens were again on holiday, this time in Lyme Regis on England’s southern coast.
Three of Tolkien’s illustrations for the novel, reproduced in the published edition of Roverandom, date from this time period, suggesting (as Hammond & Scull do) that the tale was retold there, perhaps for the enjoyment of the youngest son Christopher Tolkien, who was still but an infant on the original holiday.
Hammond & Scull contend that this revival in interest finally led Tolkien to commit the story to paper, which he appears to have done near the end of 1927.
Once it was committed to paper, the story underwent various revisions. It was originally tentatively named The Adventures of Rover, but Tolkien amended the title to Roverandom and it stuck.
In late 1936, the complete manuscript was one of several pieces submitted to Allen & Unwin Publishers, who had accepted The Hobbit for publication and had invited Tolkien to submit any of his other writing for children.
Tolkien submitted the story, along with his illustrated children’s book Mr. Bliss and Farmer Giles of Ham.
Rayner Unwin, the ten-year-old son of Stanley Unwin, reviewed the books, and noted that Roverandom was “well-written and amusing”, but in spite of a positive review, the story was not accepted for publication.
After this point, the story was by all appearances set aside and forgotten. Allen & Unwin were pleased with the commercial success of The Hobbit and were intent upon an actual sequel, hobbits and all.
So the manuscript lay hidden for all intents and purposes, in the Bodleian Library, Oxford, until resurrected after the posthumous success of many of Tolkien’s other “non-Middle-Earth related” tales.
The tale itself concerns a dog named Rover. Rover makes the rather regrettable mistake of biting a passing wizard, who turns him into a tiny toy dog.
From this point, Rover is involved in a series of episodic adventures. He is purchased by a little boy, who loses him on the beach. He is saved by a second wizard, and later travels to the moon (where he meets the comical man-in-the-moon) and under the sea in a quest to be restored to his true size and form.
The abrupt changes of scenery denote something of the “unpolished” nature of the work, but do not necessarily detract from the very fun nature of the tale itself. Tolkien was a very meticulous reviser of his own writings, especially when intended for publication.
The narrator, however, reminds us much of the narrator of The Hobbit, with his playful interjections of wit and humor. Tolkien, customarily, added bits and pieces of folklore and language play from his vast store of knowledge, giving the story a type of depth that can be enjoyed on more than one level.
Like many of Tolkien’s “secondary” tales (Smith of Wootten Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, Leaf by Niggle) Roverandom is a thoroughly enjoyable tale filled with the warm personality, wit, and imagination of its author.