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  • Bryana Fern

Roverandom: Reinvestigating Tolkien


Roverandom Translations

J.R.R. Tolkien is known to most readers for his work on Middle-earth novels like The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954). Both novels, however, serve as only a small portion of the Middle-earth timeline in which Tolkien was interested. From volumes of lost tales and histories of Middle-earth, to epic poems and separate narratives of minor characters, even to translations of Beowulf and stories of King Arthur and more, Tolkien’s work spans far beyond the two novels for which he is most famous. And while The Hobbit is largely considered his only children’s work and his most influential work of all, there is another children’s text he wrote which is far lesser known: Roverandom.

JRR Tolkien and his children

What makes Roverandom (written in 1925) so important is that it is his earliest work for children, and was written specifically for his own child, Michael. This tale of a small dog who is turned into a toy by a wizard and who must embark on a long journey before he can be turned back into a real dog was written to console Michael when he lost his favorite toy along the beach in Filey, Yorkshire. The particular process of this work’s development, therefore, coincides with Tolkien’s larger theory of developing fantasy, as well as his notion of the child reader being one who is intelligent and who should not be spoken down to by narrators. Roverandom is the only work Tolkien wrote specifically for children besides The Hobbit, and yet it is largely forgotten by audiences. Published only in 1998, the story of Rover’s adventure is one that should be considered more seriously in discussions of fantasy works for children. Though as fantastic as The Hobbit, with its representations of wizards and magic, Roverandom sets itself apart from Tolkien’s most famous work; this story instead serves specific purposes for the child audience in that it stimulates the imagination of belief in the Secondary World while also culminating in an achieved desire and a new way to approach the Primary World, a theory he discusses at length in The Monsters and the Critics.

To Tolkien, fairy stories were not children’s stories, and to reserve such tales for children was as much a disservice to the tales as it was to the children. In his essay, On Fairy-stories, he attributes the common association between fairy stories and children to the fact that adults choose to read these stories to children—children themselves are not able to pick what is read to them. Adults erroneously “tend to think of children as a special kind of creature, almost a different race, rather than as normal, if immature, members of a particular family, and of the human family at large” (348). In his published letters, he states that he does not write for children, nor is he even interested in writing for children. But, he encourages and approves of children reading fairy stories, even though they may not understand the concept of the particular story itself. What he is opposed to is the forcing of fairy tales upon children because of the misconception that children are for whom fairy tales are written. Children are young adults in Tolkien’s mind, and so he believes they should be encouraged to read above their means in order to find their own way to belief. Children can only thrive by reading stories that exercise the imagination through the genuine suspension of disbelief in the Secondary World. Roverandom fits a criteria different from Tolkien’s other works because of its very specific audience: his five year old son, Michael. In order for Michael to appreciate the story, he had to willingly suspend his disbelief that his toy was actually lost, and to enter the Secondary World his father had created where it was alive having grand adventures.

The White Dragon pursues Roverandom and the Dog of the Moon

In addition to expressing ideas on the child reader, Tolkien holds distinct views on the way those children readers should be addressed in the narrative. Tolkien reminds critics in his letters that he did not write The Lord of the Rings for children, but for itself as a text, and yet he is glad to hear that many children read it and enjoy it (310). The work, not the audience, should dictate the writing. In the same way, children should not be spoken down to by the narrator just because they may not understand the language. And the narrator should not adapt his diction for child readers, because it is only by speaking to them like the young adults they are that they will learn and feel accepted by the society into which they are growing. The narrator should neither criticize the child reader for his ignorance, nor abuse the protagonist for the child’s amusement. Seriousness must be maintained in the narrator’s tone; however, lightheartedness does not equate to lesser silliness in Tolkien’s mind.

The only time Tolkien claims to have made this mistake is in The Hobbit,of which he says in his letters, “It was unhappily really meant, as far as I was conscious, as a ‘children’s story’, and as I had not learned sense then, and my children were not quite old enough to correct me, it has some of the silliness of manner caught unthinkably from the kind of stuff I had had served to me […]. I deeply regret them. So do intelligent children” (215). When the narrator speaks down to the reader, the art becomes less serious, and the Secondary World becomes less believable. Since the child audience for Roverandom was more specific in that it was limited to Michael, the mistake in addressing the erroneous concept of the child audience was not made to the extent that it was in The Hobbit. Addressing a specific audience member allowed Tolkien to remain focused on the narrative itself, and allowed it to develop from an oral tale into a written one. Roverandom was probably given to Michael as an oral tale in 1925 after the family vacation where the toy was lost, was then retold in 1927 when Tolkien added illustrations, and written down fully by Christmas of that same year and perhaps included with the progressive project, The Father Christmas Letters. Although he submitted Roverandom to his publishers in 1936, it was rejected in favor of The Hobbit, published a year later. After The Hobbit’s success, the publishers wanted a sequel, and so Tolkien was cornered into writing The Lord of the Rings. As a result, Roverandom remained a secret work written solely for Michael, the first completed children’s work, until its posthumous publication in 1998, by which time the legacy of The Hobbit had unfortunately already been established for nearly 60 years. Roverandom never had an opportunity to rise above the popularity of The Hobbit, even if it functioned at a more progressive level from the very beginning.

The Gardens of the Merking's Palace

Though numerous references and events in Roverandom, such as wizards and dragons and spells and journeys, coincide with those that would later appear in The Hobbit, it is a text that is often overlooked in the shadow of the latter’s publishing success. If Roverandom contains more effective approaches in style and concept and narration, then it needs to be analyzed further as both an individual text and as a children’s text alongside The Hobbit. Little scholarship exists on this work, though it is already approaching its 20-year publication mark. Even the lesser known works involving Middle-earth, such as The Silmarillion, The Children of Húrin, the recently published Beren and Lúthien, and the recently released The Fall of Gondolin will potentially always remain obscure texts due to the overwhelming popularity of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. News of the $250 million rights purchase by the Amazon series that will take place in Middle-earth prior to the events of The Lord of the Rings, and the upcoming biopic film, Tolkien, starring Nicholas Hoult, will help return fans to Tolkien’s legendarium, as well as draw in new viewers, after the wake of Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit trilogy films. Its departure from Tolkien’s common Middle-earth lore, along with its specialized, private audience, makes it a deceptively simple and unsubstantial text, but its success as a fantasy makes it important to the study of children’s literature. If Tolkien is to be believed, that it is the smallest people that can change the course of the future, then it also stands to reason that the smallest, most underrated stories can hold the most power to tell the story of the human condition—particularly the child’s condition.

REFERENCES

Chance, Jane. “The King Under the Mountain: Tolkien’s Children’s Story.” Tolkien’s Art: a mythology for England. Rev. ed., University of Kentucky Press, 2001, pp. 48-73.

Magoun, John. “General Criticism: The Hobbit.” Tolkien Studies, vol. 13, 2016, pp. 235-239.

McGillis, Roderick. “Fantasy as Epanalepsis: ‘An Anticipation of Retrospection’.” Papers: Explorations into Children's Literature, vol. 18, no. 2, 2008, pp. 7-14.

Tolkien, J.R.R. The Hobbit, or There and Back Again. Del Ray, 2012.

---. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Edited by Humphrey Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2000.

---. “On Fairy-Stories.” Tales from the Perilous Realm, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, pp.315-400.

---. Roverandom. Tales from the Perilous Realm, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2008, pp.1-97.

Bryana Fern

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Bryana Fern is a doctoral candidate at the University of Southern Mississippi, where she is a member of the Center for Writers studying fiction and focusing on Victorian literature, narrative theory, and Tolkien studies. She served as Assistant Conference Coordinator for USM’s English graduate conference, “The Contradictions of Youth,” which featured a reading by Ira Sukrungruang and plenary presentation by Dr. Marah Gubar. She has taught creative writing courses with the Hattiesburg Arts Council and has served as Assistant Managing Editor for USM’s Product and Associate Editor for Mississippi Review. Her published stories can be found in Product, Red Mud Review, Sou’wester, Entropy, and Harpur Palate. She has also written novel reviews for Washington Independent Review of Books, as well as blog articles for Book Squad Goals, Women at Warp, and Converge Magazine. Follow her at bryanafern.wordpress.com.

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