- The Irish Otherworld Voyage of Roverandom
Roverandom, J.R.R. Tolkien’s children’s tale of a little dog in the great big world, has received little scholarly notice since it was first published in 1998. It deserves more. The short, illustrated book is the tale of the puppy Rover who bites an irritable wizard and, as retribution, is transformed into a tiny toy dog. Aided by other sorcerers and supernatural animals, he has several marvelous adventures on the moon and under the Deep Blue Sea before he can earn release from his enchantment and return home.
Roverandom is the earliest-known fiction that Tolkien wrote for children. It originated in September 1925 as an oral tale invented to comfort Tolkien’s son Michael, who lost his favorite toy dog on the beach during a family holiday at Filey.1 Tolkien likely retold the story on another holiday at Lyme Regis in September 1927, for at that time he drew three “Roverandom” illustrations. He may have finally written the story down during the Christmas holidays later that year.2 Tolkien offered it, along with Farmer Giles of Ham and Mr. Bliss, to his publishers George Allen & Unwin in November 1936. Despite the good report of Stanley Unwin’s young son Rayner—“well written and amusing”—the publishers wanted more hobbits and declined to publish any of the stories Tolkien had sent them (Roverandom xv). Turning his attention instead to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien seems never to have returned to Roverandom, which was finally published posthumously in 1998.
Roverandom has generally been underrated as merely a “juvenile adventure story … remarkable only for its authorship” (Steinberg and Bing 69). Its picaresque structure has been cited as one of the story’s failings, with several critics disparaging its seemingly “rambling and unconnected plot” (Flowers 240). David Bratman also notes the “abrupt transitions and unexplained events,” but argues that “Tolkien seems to have … fostered this style deliberately” (4). Karleen Bradford writes that Roverandom “wouldn’t be a Tolkien tale if there were not a lot more going on beneath the surface than what is apparent” (E4). Indeed, there is a lot going on beneath Roverandom’s surface. Reviewers have identified references to English, Greek, Norse, Roman, and Welsh mythologies, Shakespeare, The Arabian Nights, and the Bible, as well as Tolkien’s own legendarium. Readers have also noted “borrowings from, or at least echoes of” classic children’s literature, such as [End Page 31] E. Nesbit’s Five Children and It, Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, Pinocchio, Peter Pan, The Wind in the Willows, and Kipling’s Just So Stories, among others (Roverandom xvii).3
One literary tradition that has not been much explored is the Irish, yet the influence of Irish legend on the story is recognizable, and it is not limited to a few borrowings or echoes. The framework structure, plot, and numerous motifs in Roverandom can be traced to the medieval Irish immrama, the voyage tales of heroes and saints who sailed to Otherworld islands, encountered marvels and monsters, and returned home transformed. Tolkien demonstrated a lifelong preoccupation with tales of mortal mariners who encountered blessed lands, from the “Lost Tales” of Ælfwine and Eärendel sketched out in the 1910s and 1920s, to “The Lost Road” and “The Notion Club Papers” in the 1930s and 1940s, to “Bilbo’s Last Song,” discovered among his books in 1968. Yet, his sea-voyage tales are largely made up of short poems and abandoned projects. Roverandom, on the other hand, is a complete novella that exhibits numerous characteristics of an immram. Rather than being merely a “juvenile adventure story,” Roverandom is worthy of study both as a modern immram and as Tolkien’s only fully-developed Otherworld sea-voyage tale.
“A Recognizable Irish Strain”
Verlyn Flieger notes that “Tolkien went out of his way on several occasions to disavow any affinity for anything Celtic” (Interrupted Music 121). For example, in an oft-quoted 1937 letter to Stanley Unwin, Tolkien denied Celtic influence on his Silmarillion material. He wrote that his character names “are not Celtic! Neither are the tales. I do know Celtic things (many in their original languages...