Rover’s adventures begin one day when he plays with his yellow ball outside and bites a wizard for taking the ball, which is not to the dog’s liking. The animal’s misfortune is that he has not got the slightest idea that the man is a wizard because “if Rover had not been so busy barking at the ball, he might have noticed the blue feather stuck in the back of the green hat, and then he would have suspected that the man was a wizard, as any other sensible little dog would; but he never saw the feather at all” (Roverandom, p. 41-42). Being really annoyed, the wizard turns Rover into a toy dog and his life turns upside down.
It is because of such poor control of emotions that Rover is bound to embark on an adventure of some kind in a rather uncomfortable form. There also seems to be a lack of knowledge on his behalf. It is not the only time when Tolkien uses the “if they knew something, they would understand a situation better” pattern in Roverandom, as well as in some other of his stories. These references can be either to existing in our world myths, legends and folktales, or to Tolkien’s own stories. In his mythology the character wearing a hat with a blue feather is none other than Tom Bombadil, who is a very powerful being indeed, so a blue feather seems to be a very telling sign to those in the know.
Rover lacks this knowledge, so he ends up as a toy. Now he has some important things to think of. Having been turned into a very small creature and unable to move properly, Rover has to try and avoid Tinker — a big black cat living in the same house, as the poor dog can eventually be mistaken for a mouse and eaten. Tinker does not come across as a particularly bad cat, but it is interesting to notice that in Tolkien’s legendarium cats are very few and mostly portrayed in a negative light. The cats of queen Berúthiel (nine are black and one — white) are particularly notorious for their spying on everyone in Gondor and are thus hated by everyone. Besides, in the earliest drafts of The Silmarillion Melko’s (later Melkor) most trusted servant and the predecessor of Sauron is a demonic black cat Tevildo. The charismatic villain did not make it to the final version of the story, but his memory survived in the lidless, cat-like Eye of Sauron.
So Rover has quite a lot to fear from Tinker. However, soon the problem of avoiding the cat is eliminated by another one: Rover is put into a box with other toys, which complicates the whole matter a lot. He spends quite a long time there “in the dark”, which is a curious word choice due to its double interpretation: it refers to being literally in the darkness of the box with no light at all, and in Rover’s case, it can also imply “not knowing something” as at that time he had a very vague idea about his situation.
When Rover finally escapes the stuffiness of the box, his life does not improve that much: he is displayed in the shop window to be sold at sixpence for his real-looking eyes and fur. Naturally, being a real dog, he does not like being stuck in one position unable to move freely like he used to, so Rover wishes to be bought as quickly as possible only to be able to run away from the people who buy him. Other toys do not mind sitting around all day and night long, so they become rather annoyed with Rover for his complaining.
Rover can move a bit in the daytime, when no one is looking at him, and can move freely at night. Here Tolkien gives us a glimpse into the secret life of toys. The belief that toys come alive at night when people are asleep is a very common motive in fairy tales and stories for children. Toys have always played a huge part in children’s lives, so they have often been attributed nightly thinking, walking and talking skills in different stories. Rover is only a half-toy, but still he shares this ability of real toys in his new enchanted state.
Fortunately, Rover’s wish is granted rather quickly as he is bought by a woman, who has three sons, for one of her boys particularly fond of black-and-white dogs. This is a direct reference to Edith and her three boys: John, Michael and Christopher, with Michael being the one loving dogs. Once Rover reaches his new home, we see how enthusiastic Boy Two, as Rover calls him, is about dogs. He can speak very good dog language, talks to his new toy a lot and can barely part with it. Rover’s mind concerning his escape is not changed, though. When the night comes, he explores the house to try and find some possible ways out, but to no avail.
The moon path that appears on the sea at Rover’s first night in the cottage was inspired by the real moon path the Tolkiens saw on their holiday in Filey: John recollected it very clearly. It is one of those many details from Tolkien’s own experience of the time that he incorporated into Roverandom to tie the story as much as possible to their holiday. Here the moon path is not only a beautiful sight, but also a matter of significance which I will talk about in more details when we read further. At present we know that it is “the way to places at the edge of the world and beyond, for those that can walk on it” (Roverandom, p. 48).
Next morning Rover’s desire to escape is granted. During the morning walk by the sea the boys undertake, he is lucky to lean out of Boy Two’s pocket too much and falls on the sand. It is Rover’s first ever encounter with the sea as he never saw or snuffed it before. But then comes the big question: what is next? Rover just lies on the beach for a long time until he sees that the sea is becoming dangerously close and he is in the danger of being swept into it. When the end seems so near, a miracle happens: Rover is able to move freely and he manages to run away from the rising tide just in time. He is more of a real dog again now. A real, but tiny dog.
The miracle, in fact, was the work of Psamathos Psamathides — the wizard living nearby in a cove. His name has its origins in the Greek word psammos – “sand”, and the suffix ides means “son of”, so it can literary be translated as Sandy, the son of Sandy. With its –ist suffix the title Psamathist means “expert on sand”. Psamathos makes a terrible fuss about the proper pronunciation of his name, “and with every P he blew a cloud of sand down his nose” (Roverandom, p. 57) to stress that the /p/ sound must indeed be pronounced. (1)
Being wise and very old, Psamathos lives in the cove and is responsible for its eerie reputation. Mer-people visit him, and the sorcerer himself is fond of sleeping there buried in sand. Psamathos seems to be aware of Rover’s argument with another wizard, whose name turns out to be Artaxerxes. He comes from Persia (as well as shares the name of several Persian kings), but ends up in Pershore in England as the names of the two places sound almost identical.
Psamathos does not want to undo Artaxerxes’s spell so as not to quarrel with another wizard. Still he helps Rover as much as he can, thus becoming the dog’s first magical helper in his adventures. The dog is feeling sorry about biting Artaxerxes, so he is already learning his lesson. Rover gets some food and water to drink from Psamathos, remembering his manners this time and saying “Thank you!” so as not to annoy the sand sorcerer. After his meal Rover can have a nice sleep in the safety of the cove where we are going to leave him for a while. Meanwhile the boys return to the beach to look for Boy Two’s toy with their father only not to find him at all and Rover’s owner writes out an advertisement about her missing dog.
From the very start Roverandom is full of interesting references, details of Tolkien’s life experience and subtle nods to his own mythology. The Professor gives us a very clear message: Rover behaves in an improper way and now has a moral lesson to learn to gain the wisdom necessary to avoid such mistakes in the future. What Artaxerxes might have intended as a punishment, or his own display of anger, is bound to become a way for Rover’s personal growth and development, a path for him to tread in order to rise to a higher level. Though the lesson is already being learnt, Rover is only at the beginning and has a long way to go, so a journey remains the best form of creating a captivating story and help a character change.
This read-along is my first experience of running such a project, and it coincides with my reading Roverandom with my student. I will be looking into each chapter in details and share my ideas about them. Next time I will be looking into Chapter 2.
(1) Roverandom, p. 173
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – Roverandom (edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2013.