Sunday, August 18, 2013

J. R. R. Tolkien, Roverandom


Opening Passage

Once upon a time there was a little dog, and his name was Rover. He was very small, and very young, or he would have known better; and he was very happy playing in the garden in the sunshine with a yellow ball, or he would never have done what he did.

Summary: The mistake Rover makes is going for the trouser-leg of a wizard, Artaxerxes. This gets him turned into a little toy dog, who gets sold in a shop to a little boy. He doesn't really have anything against the little boy, but, being angry at having turned into a toy (which, you must admit, you would be, too), he insists on running away as soon as he can. He quickly runs into one of the two greatest magicians in all the world: Psamathos Psamathides, who insists, like the ancient Greeks, on the P being pronounced. Psamathos finds, to his annoyance, that he cannot reverse Artaxerxes's spell, and thus sends him to the other of the two greatest magicians in all the world: the Man in the Moon. There he meets the moon-dog, who is also called Rover, and who thus insists that Rover instead be called Roverandom to distinguish the two, and they have all sorts of adventures, including being chased by the great White Dragon of Welsh myth. Eventually, the Man in the Moon has to send Roverandom to Artaxerxes, who has become the official magician of the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, a position he got by marrying one of the mer-king's daughters. In the ocean he meets a mer-dog who, as it happens, is also called Rover, and they have all sorts of adventures as well, including meeting Uin, oldest of all right whales, and a great Sea Serpent who, it turns out, is no less than Jörmungandr of the Norse myths. Artaxerxes, in a position well above his abilities, is far too busy to help Rover until some tangling with the latter costs Artaxerxes his job; but eventually all is made right in the end.

This is an extraordinarily rich story for one so short. One of the things I think is interesting is that Roverandom's tale is always threatening to blow up into mythic proportions: he is, in effect, roving randomly through a wide variety of mythologies. There are allusions to Welsh myths, to Norse and Icelandic myths, to Greek myths, to the world (as MrsD pointed out to me) of Five Children and It (since Psamathos is obviously a psammead), and even to Tolkien's own mythology, since Rover sees from a distance Elvenhome in the West and Uin himself is found in the early versions of Middle Earth. But the myth never entirely takes over, and the doggish nature of the adventure remains throughout.

There are lots of excellent little character moments, as well. I particularly like how all the dogs start the process of making friends by acting tough and barking insults at each other. There are also some truly beautiful descriptions, particularly of the forests of the Moon and of the sea.

Favorite Passage

... He went into the workshops and collected all his paraphernalia, insignia, symbols, memoranda, books of recipes, arcana, apparatus, and bags and bottles of miscellaneous spells. He burned all that would burn in his waterproof forge; and the rest he tipped into the back garden. Extraordinary things took place there afterward: all the flowers went mad, and the vegetables were monstrous, and the fishes that ate them were turned into sea-worms, sea-cats, sea-cows, sea-lions, sea-tigers, sea-devils, porpoises, dugongs, cephalopods, manatees, and calamities, or merely poisoned; and phantasms, visions, bewilderments, illusions, and hallucinations sprouted so thick that nobody had any peace in the palace at all, and they were obliged to move....

Recommendation: This has all the makings of a children's classic. Highly Recommended.

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