In chapter 2 of Roverandom the enchanted Rover embarks on the first leg of his journey and travels to the Moon. The chapter is full of new experiences and meetings for Rover, as well as mythological and folkloric references.

The first creature Rover sees when he wakes up is a large seagull named Mew. The bird becomes Rover’s next magical helper as his role in the dog’s journey is an important one: he is to deliver Rover to the Moon — the first place our dog is to visit on the way back to his own normal self. As it is the case with many Tolkien’s characters, Mew bears his name for a reason. It is onomatopoeic and very telling in many aspects. On the one hand the verb “to mew” is used to talk about a high-pitched sound produced by cats and gulls. Besides, a mew gull is another term for a common gull. So, the bird’s name does two things at the same time: classifies Mew and hints at what he sounds like.

Before Mew begins his journey to the Moon along the moon-path with Rover on his back, the pair take a few attempts at flying to see how Rover feels about this kind of transportation. Needless to say, he does not like it at all: heights are not Rover’s cup of tea. The consequent flight to the Moon, with a stopover at the cliffs where Mew dwells, is full of frights for the poor dog. He finds flying uncomfortable and is afraid of falling off a cliff. Mew’s nonchalant comments about his failing to understand why wizards bother about such a small dog so much, which Rover bears with decent humility, do not add to the enjoyment of the whole process.

In fact Rover’s experience of communicating with Mew is very much reminiscent of Bilbo Baggins’s adventures with the Eagles. Neither Rover, nor Bilbo are particularly fond of heights, both are very small in comparison to the birds carrying them, both are afraid of being eaten by their carriers and neither feel very comfortable in their respective birds’ nesting places. There is also close association of the seagull and the Eagles with wizards in both stories. Mew takes Rover to the Moon on Psamathos’s request, while the Eagles aid Bilbo, the Dwarves and Gandalf partly because of their good relationship with the wizard and the help he lent to the Lord of the Eagles in the past.

The fact that Rover’s adventure begins by the sea is rather significant. Seas have often been connected with Otherworlds in mythologies, and travelling across seas often meant the beginning of something new. Being deep and unexplored after a certain point, seas are surrounded by all kinds of legends concerning creatures living in their dark depths. Alongside forests, seas seem to be the places most densely populated by various unusual beings. The vastness of seas and their ability to join many countries and continents bring cultural exchange, challenge travellers’ courage.

Rover’s journey begins by the sea but not exactly on the sea. Mew takes him to the Moon along the moon-path reflected in the water. It is Rover’s trip to the Otherworld. The fact that they take the moon-path to get to the Moon is very interesting. Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond suggest that it might have been Tolkien’s own invention not featured in myths or legends, and later we will see the moon-path serving another purpose. It is a very beautiful image which emphasises the mysterious reputation attributed to this celestial body.

On the way to the Moon Rover and Mew pass several curious spots. The first one is the Isle of Dogs. It sounds like a paradise for dogs, where they can bark to their hearts’ content and live among the trees which bear juicy meat-bones. In his description of the island Tolkien offers a great range of sound-imitating words to talk about the noises the dogs make. The Isle of Dogs is the place where the dogs that got lost go, if they are worthy or lucky. At that point Rover cannot visit it as he is not a real dog yet, though he can qualify as a lost dog. Besides, Mew is in a hurry to deliver Rover to the Moon as soon as possible, with the speed being ensured by magic from Psamathos.

Just before they start their ascend towards the Moon, Mew and Rover see the edge of the world: At last, all of a sudden, the world came to an end, and Rover could see the stars shining up out of the blackness underneath. Far down he could see the white spray in the moonlight where waterfalls fell over the world’s edge and dropped straight into space (Roverandom, p. 68). This stunning view echoes the cosmology of early Arda. The world is flat until the Downfall of Númenor in the Second Age. When the island is swallowed by the Sea at Eru’s intervention, the world becomes round.

As Rover reaches the Moon on Mew’s back, he meets two fascinating characters there — the Man-in-the-Moon and his dog called Rover. Let us start with talking about the Man-in-the-Moon. In Roverandom this powerful wizard is “an old man with a silvery beard” who looks after the Moon and uses a telescope to see what is happening on the Moon and on the Earth. The Man-in-the-Moon dwells in a tall tower:

It was white with pink and pale green lines in it, shimmering as if the tower were built of millions of seashells still wet with foam and gleaming; and the tower stood on the edge of a white precipice, white as a cliff of chalk, but shining with moonlight more brightly than a pane of glass far away on a cloudless night.

(Roverandom, p. 68-70)

In the folklore of our world the Man in the Moon is featured extensively. He appears in several legends from all over the globe, including the lore of the Europeans, Inuits, Indians, Malaysians, Chinese and many others. Here I will consider only a few of these tales.

When we look at the full Moon, chances are that we can see figures on its surface. These shapes are formed by the Moon’s craters, seas, as well as high and low features of the lunar landscape. They vary from forming a profile of a person to looking like a rabbit. According to the European tradition, however, the Man in the Moon is the figure of a man carrying a heavy burden on his back. Sometimes he is accompanied by a dog. Have a look at these photos showing the Man on the Moon from several legends.  The old German tale tells us that a man was seen by a stranger gathering wood on Sunday. He was rebuked for working on the day when everyone must rest, but the man only laughed in response. Thus the stranger said:

“Then bear your bundle forever,” answered the stranger; “and as you value not Sunday on earth, yours shall be a perpetual Moon-day in heaven; and you shall stand for eternity in the moon, a warning to all Sabbath-breakers.”

(Curious Myths of the Middle Ages, p. 153)

Several other versions of the legend feature sheep or vegetable stealers, who were banished to the Moon for their crimes. Sometimes a woman enters these tales, too, who was punished for making butter on Sunday. The general symbolism remains the same, regardless of the figure deciphered on the Moon: a warning for thieves or Sabbath breakers.

There are also some poems and nursery rhymes featuring the Man in the Moon:

The man in the moon
Came down too soon
And asked his way to Norwich
He went by the south
And burned his mouth
With supping cold pease porridge.

And here is another one:

Our man in the moon drinks clarret,
With powder-beef, turnep, and carret.
If he doth so, why should not you
Drink until the sky looks blew?

This second rhyme is the reason why a lot of taverns bear the name the Man in the Moon. Tolkien included the Man-in-the-Moon in Letters from Father Christmas and wrote two poems about him. Both verses are featured in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, with one of them appearing in The Lord of the Rings. When in the Prancing Pony, Frodo sings a song The Man-in-the-Moon Stayed up too Late. It was the song that Bilbo composed and taught the younger Baggins to sing. It is interesting how Tolkien gets the Man-in-the-Moon rather drunk in this poem, thus playing on the rhyme I mentioned above and including the real-world lore in his own created world. The Man-in-the-Moon of Frodo’s song belongs firmly to the folklore of Middle-earth. I will have a look at another poem about the Man-in-the-Moon when we reach chapter 3.

Let us now consider the moon-dog. The Rover of the Moon is very much like the Rover of the Earth, so in order not to confuse them, the Man-in-the-Moon renames our character Roverandom and gives him a pair of wings to fly with the moon-dog. Before that he gives him several prohibitions concerning what he must not do in the classical manner of traditional fairy-tales.

Here the name Rover is explained, and we see how well it suits both dogs, the moon-dog especially. He got on the Moon after running away, wandering and roving too vigorously, too much and eventually falling off the edge of the world. The Moon was passing beneath the Earth at that moment, which is also a nod towards the cosmology of Arda in its evolution, and Rover landed there safely. He has been dwelling with the Man-in-the-Moon since then.

The two dogs become very good friends and go on with wandering all over the white side of the Moon, venturing into a lot of places, and explore the Moon to their hearts’ delight. The white side of the Moon is full of curious insects, creatures and plants. There are also grey spiders there, weaving their silver nets. Spiders occupy a big place in Tolkien’s Legendarium. They are usually evil, monstrous creatures of different origin, like Ungoliant, Shelob or the spiders of Mirkwood and cause a lot of trouble. The Moon spiders are afraid of the Man-in-the-Moon, so they do not act up much for fear of him.

Roverandom the Earth dog is thus beginning to justify his name by going into various places and encountering wonderful things. But he is also learning his lesson and tries to be careful in his adventures. The Moon is full of curious insects, creatures and plants, and its white side is notably deprived of much colour, with white, grey, silver being the dominant ones. The creatures Roverandom sees on the Moon blend with its landscape, match it in colour, thus forming a harmonious unity with the place.

One of the most interesting spots Roverandom explores is a forest where birds are quiet, but flowers make music and have names that feature musical instruments. Tolkien was very fond of nature and he loved music, though, as the Professor himself said, he little understood its technical aspect. Music plays a significant part in the Legendarium as the world of Arda was born out of the Music of the Ainur. So this wood Rover and Roverandom walk into combines two very important to the Legendarium concepts, and we get a very Tolkienian forest.

During one of their wanderings the two dogs get lost and very close to the dark side of the Moon and venture into a dangerous territory. The landscape changes considerably, becomes less welcoming and more hostile, which must serve as a warning to them. The mountains are dark and lifeless, the paths are confusing. The snow, which is cold contrary to the warm snow on the white side of the Moon, forces the two wanderers into a cave. Their biggest mistake is that they fail to check whether it is safe or not before crawling in.

A similar careless attitude led Bilbo Baggins and the Dwarves into the Goblins’ territory. Crossing the Misty Mountains, they sheltered from bad weather in a big cave without caring to explore it well first and ended up inside the Mountains in the Goblins’ tunnels. Rover and Roverandom get into a decent mess, too. They encounter the Great White Dragon — “the one that was only half-afraid of the Man (and scarcely that when he was angry)” (Roverandom, p. 85-86) unlike other dragons of the Moon. Annoyed, the White Dragon gives the two dogs quite a chase and a fright.

Illumination of a 15th century manuscript of Historia Regum Britanniae showing king of the Britons Vortigern and Ambros watching the fight between two dragons. (Wikimedia Commons)

In this episode we learn a bit about the dragon. This serpent is an old thing that has been to the Earth and back. His battle with the Red Dragon is mentioned, and it is an allusion to the Arthurian myth. Betrayed by the Saxon warriors and bereft of his strongholds, King Vortigern of the Britons sought advice of his councillors. They told him to build a fortress which could keep him safe from the invaders. Having found a place for construction, the King began to raise the castle near Mount Snowdon in Wales. But every night it fell down in ruins. Advised by his councillors, Vortigern ordered his men to look for a fatherless boy. On finding such a boy they were to kill him and sprinkle the building with his blood in order to make it stand and cure the curse.  The boy the King’s men found was young Merlin. Facing Vortigern he explained that sacrificing him would not help, told the King to uncover the pool at the foundations of his castle and then drain it. When Vortigern did so, he found two sleeping dragons there. One was white and another — red. Once woken, they began to fight fiercely and the red dragon had an upper hand for a while, but then they disappeared down into the pit and were seen no more.

This legend refers to the long battle between the Saxons represented by the white dragon and the Britons, represented by the red dragon. The Britons suffered bitter defeats in their wars against the Saxons and were pressed severely. Nevertheless they were not fully defeated, managed to preserve their identity. They were the people who are now called the Welsh.

Another tale of two dragons, explaining how they got into a pit, is told in The Mabinogion. King Lludd and his people suffered from three plagues, one of which came in the manner of horrible screams every May Day. These screams had disastrous effects on people, and King Lludd was distraught. He sought the advice of his brother Llevelys, dwelling in France. It turned out that the screams came from two fighting dragons. One was native to the island and the other was a foreign dragon. To stop their battle and thus the misfortunes of his people Lludd was to dig a pit in the very centre of the island, place a vat full of the best mead there and cover the vat with a silk sheet. Tired of their fight, the dragons would descend onto the sheet in the form of small pigs, drink the mead and fall asleep.

Lludd did exactly as he was told, so when the dragons did go down onto the sheet, they dragged it to the bottom of the vat, drank the mead and fell asleep. The King wrapped the silk sheet around them, locked the bundle with the dragons in a stone chest and hid it in the most secure place he could find in his realm. That place was afterwards called Dinas Emreis.

Alongside mythological references, Tolkien addresses another issue in the passage when Rover and Roverandom encounter the White Dragon. It is the matter of industrialisation. The cold snow makes the moon-Rover homesick and reminds him of burning furnaces of the Earth or references to people’s dropping litter in Snowdonia, making the world dirty, are among the aspects that Tolkien disliked about progress and humans’ influence on the environment. Various showcases of industrial revolution are notably absent in his works or mentioned in connection with evil characters. Tolkien saw progress as a threat to nature and to people’s imagination, so his attitude enters Roverandom, too.

The two dogs’ safe return to the tower is ensured by the Man-in-the-Moon who deals with the dragon. He sets off a rocket, which explodes in the manner of fireworks, as a warning, and then hits the dragon with a spell in his tender tummy. The dragon retires back to his mountains and the two rovers have a chance to catch their breath before more adventures come their way.

The chapter is delightful in Tolkien’s use of language, play on words, subtle jokes he inserts here and there. Various phenomena, like eclipses or the colour of the Moon surface are explained through the tale, like myths explain natural phenomena. Roverandom is learning a lot, and with all his wanderings he is beginning to properly justify his name. The white side of the Moon is an interesting place with a lot to explore, but we get hints that there is also a dark aspect to the Moon, which appears in the next chapter.

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 3.

Reading Roverandom

Works consulted:

  1. J. R. R. Tolkien – Tales From the Perilous Realm; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2008.
  2. J. R. R. Tolkien – Roverandom (edited by Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond); HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2013.
  3. Jeffrey Gantz (transl.) – The Mabinogion; Penguin Books; 1976 (E-book edition).
  4. S. Baring-Gould – Curious Myths of the Middle Ages

5 thoughts on “Reading Roverandom /// Chapter 2

  1. Tolkien’s particular talent, when it comes to children’s stories, is to put all the fantastical things right up front and make all the details beneath them perfectly credible. If new things keep needing explanations, it drasg readers out of the story. But we smart-aleck readers don’t have to ask why the dog can have wings (low gravity, duh). And what happens if you fall into a tube cut through the center of the earth is familiar from science class. Secondary belief is tougher to get from children; this is how it’s done.

    (Also bonus before-the-fact Monty Python reference for the grownups.)

    1. Tolkien talked quite a lot about writing such believable tales in On Fairy-Stories. Despite his being really humble concerning his knowledge of fairy-stories, he succeeded at making even the craziest details perfectly credible.

  2. I loved the reference here to the Arthurian dragon legend. Also, we cannot possibly ignore the reference to the dragon’s rather vulnerable underside, when we know about Fafnir/Glaurung and, of course, Smaug himself. We of course do not know how Ancalagon the Black was eventually thrown down by Eärendil but I have very little doubt it will have involved an attack on the dragon’s soft underbelly.

    1. It’s a good one indeed! Tolkien could place these references so well all over the story.
      I believe your theory about Ancalagon is right. Seems like the very way to overcome a dragon.

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