Beyond The Hobbit
J.R.R. Tolkien's Other Works for Children
JANET BRENNAN CROFT
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien is best known to the world as the author of the classic fantasies The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. In his professional life, he was a superb philologist, a skilled translator, the author of a seminal essay on Beowulf, and a contributor to the Oxford English Dictionary. As a father, however, Tolkien also loved to make up stories for his four children, write them down, and in many cases illustrate them himself. In addition to The Hobbit, widely considered a classic of children's literature, he also wrote four shorter works, two published during his lifetime and two posthumously, as well as several poems and a delightful collection of annual illustrated letters from Father Christmas.
Roverandom is Tolkien's earliest known work specifically for children. It began as a story told to two of Tolkien's sons a year or so before he started work on The Hobbit. The tale had its origins in an incident that occurred during a seaside vacation the family took in September 1925. Tolkien's second son, Michael, then five years old, had a miniature toy dog of which he was very fond. One day he lost it on the beach, and it was never seen again. To console the boy--after all, the loss of a beloved toy is a traumatic event for a child--Tolkien made up a story about a real dog turned into a toy by an enchanter and his adventures under the sea and in the moon. Michael's older brother, John, was particularly taken with the story, and Tolkien retold and embellished it before beginning to write it out and illustrate it in 1926-27. He submitted it to his publishers while The Hobbit was in production, but after that book became an unexpected success, they wanted more stories about hobbits instead.
Roverandom was recently published with Tolkien's own illustrations from manuscripts held at Oxford. Tolkien was an enthusiastic amateur artist with a unique style, who usually worked in pen and ink or colored pencil. He was not very proficient at drawing people or animals, and was far better at painting evocative landscapes. His illustrations for The Hobbit are his most sophisticated and polished, but the picture chosen for the cover of Roverandom is a fine example of his work.
The story itself is episodic and charmingly surreal. A dog named Rover offends a wandering wizard named Artaxerxes and is turned into a toy as punishment. He is given to a small boy, who loses him on the beach. There Rover meets another wizard, who turns him into a toy-sized real dog and sends him off to stay with the Man-in-the-Moon, a powerful wizard in his own right. He visits the land where children go when they dream and meets the little boy again. Rover wants to go back home, but Artaxerxes's spell cannot be broken until the little dog pleads with him in the mer-king's palace under the sea. Finally, Roverandom, as he is now known, is reunited with his boy.
The reader familiar with Tolkien's works may notice echoes of some incidents and characters from The Hobbit. There are three irascible wizards in Roverandom who bear a close kinship to Gandalf, and a dragon with a "particularly tender" spot on his stomach. A seagull flies the little dog to the moon, just as the Eagles carried Bilbo and the dwarves to the Carrock, and there are giant spiders weaving bad dreams in the moon-mountains. There is also a surprising link to the larger "legendarium" that lies behind all of Tolkien's Middle-earth tales, when a great whale carries Roverandom in sight of fair Elvenhome itself. The narrative voice is similar to that in The Hobbit, with a sense of sheer delight in words for their own sake. There are, for devotees of biography, tantalizing glimpses of what might have been family jokes--the little boy talking to his new toy in "the best dog-language he could manage" for example. Roverandom lacks the sense of realism and serious purpose of The Lord of the Rings and even The Hobbit, however. It is whimsical and "miniaturized" in a way Tolkien later came to dislike, which he condemned in his 1939 essay "On Fairy-stories."
Mr. Bliss, like Roverandom, was inspired in part by Tolkien's children's toys. Mr. Bliss is an eccentric gentleman fond of very tall hats, who keeps an odd creature called a Girabbit in his garden, and one day decides to buy a motorcar. A series of comic accidents ensue, involving, among other things, cabbages, bananas, a donkey, a trio of bears, and a policeman. Humphrey Carpenter reports in his biography that Tolkien's own misadventures with his first automobile, purchased in 1932, were the source of some of Mr. Bliss's escapades. Tolkien was known to accelerate across busy intersections crying out "Charge 'em and they scatter!" and once knocked down a stone wall during a family vacation. As it turns out, however (according to Michael Tolkien's diary), the car in the story was based on a toy car owned by Christopher in 1928. The three bears in the story were also inspired by stuffed bears owned by the Tolkien sons.
Tolkien's illustrations for Mr. Bliss, which is a picture book rather than a story with occasional illustrations like Roverandom, are reminiscent of both Beatrix Potter and Edmund Lear. It was mainly the difficulty of reproducing these illustrations at a price that would keep the book affordable that prevented it from being published. It is intriguing to note the sophistication of Tolkien's picture-book technique--the text frequently comments on the pictures, and the pictures sometimes invade the text itself, as in a picture of the Girabbit jumping over a fence. Along with Roverandom and Farmer Giles of Ham, Tolkien submitted Mr. Bliss to his publisher while The Hobbit was in production, and it was considered for publication several times before Tolkien sold the manuscript to Marquette University in 1957. Eventually he decided it would best be published posthumously, and in 1982 it was printed as Tolkien wrote it but with transcriptions of his calligraphy on facing pages.
Farmer Giles of Ham also started out as a tale told to amuse Tolkien's children, but in its finished form it is earthy, humorous, and filled with philological jokes. Marquette University owns several versions of the story as it evolved over the years. First, there is the bare skeleton of the tale, as it was told to his children in the late 1920s when they were caught in a rainstorm after a picnic. A more polished version was sent to Tolkien's publisher shortly after they decided to publish The Hobbit, but it was not accepted at that time. Tolkien then revised it for presentation to a learned society (in lieu of the lecture on fairy stories they had been expecting!), and this is where the more sophisticated linguistic jests and digs at academia were added. For instance, the learned parson is characterized as "a grammarian, [who] could doubtless see further into the future than others," with grammar punning on its more occult relatives glamour and grimoire and slyly poking fun at Tolkien's own profession.
After The Hobbit was published, Tolkien again revised Farmer Giles, adding a satirical foreword presenting it as an actual ancient text newly translated. Some of the opinions he expressed in his essay on Beowulf become, in this introduction, subtle jokes at the expense of the sort of critics who can't see the forest for the trees. The fictitious writer of the foreword praises the story highly for its glimpses of medieval history and explication of antique place names, adding disparagingly: "Some may find the character and adventures of its hero attractive in themselves."
Tolkien had not created any illustrations for Farmer Giles of Ham, so his publisher commissioned Pauline Baynes, whose wonderful mock-medieval vignettes, in Tolkien's words, "reduced my text to a commentary on the drawings." She went on to illustrate his Smith of Wootton Major, Adventures of Tom Bombadil, and Bilbo's Last Song, as well as his friend C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia.
In Farmer Giles of Ham, the hero, Ægidius Ahenobarbus Julius Agricola de Hammo, has to dispose of a giant who has invaded his fields and squashed flat his favorite cow. The King of the Middle Kingdom hears of his bravery and resourcefulness and sends him an old sword as a token of his esteem. But when a genuine dragon invades the kingdom and his knights prove unenthusiastic about fighting it, the king remembers Giles and sends for him to join the expedition. Like Bilbo and Frodo, Giles is a reluctant hero with more to him than one might guess. With the help of the sword Tailbiter, which turns out to be magic, and his brave (and wise) gray mare, Giles conquers the clever (but not clever enough) dragon and forces him to give up his gold. The king tries to claim the gold for his own, but Giles, disillusioned by the king and his court, and as independent-minded as any hobbit, sets up his own little kingdom and rules it long and merrily.
Smith of Wootton Major is different from all of Tolkien's other children's works and is perhaps closest kin to his adult short story "Leaf by Niggle." It is mature, late work, written when Tolkien was in his seventies, and started as a foreword to a book by George MacDonald rather than as a story told to children and polished by retelling. The simple introduction Tolkien had planned, explaining Faery by means of a fable about a cook and a cake, grew into a dreamy and elegiac story with allegorical and autobiographical undertones, a subtle meditation on the life of an artist concealed inside a short and deceptively simple fairy tale. At a children's party, young Smith eats a piece of cake containing a magic star from the land of Faery, which enables him to visit that enchanted land as often as he wishes. Nevertheless, after many years and adventures, including dancing with the Queen of Faery and meeting the king in unexpected guise, he learns it is time to pass on his gift to another child, and reluctantly but freely does so.
Tolkien generally avoided allegory in his writings, but it is tempting to see Tolkien himself in the boy Smith, who discovers he can sing in Elvish on his tenth birthday, and later shares stories and gifts from Faery with his wife and children, who can see the star on his brow. Smith's mysterious adventures hint in metaphor at the perils and rewards of the creative process in general, and Tolkien's own life as a writer in particular, but their exact meaning always hovers just out of reach. This melancholy and atmospheric tale is not to every child's taste, but it is a text to be reread and pondered again and again by those to whom it speaks.
Two collections of Tolkien's shorter works and a picture book also deserve mention. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Other Verses from the Red Book is a collection of sixteen poems, purporting to be from The Red Book of the hobbits. Some date back in their earliest versions to poems Tolkien originally wrote in his youth ("Princess Mee," for example, first appeared in much simplified form as "Princess Ni" in Leeds University Verse, 1914-1924). Tom Bombadil, who was based on a Dutch doll that belonged to Michael Tolkien, is the subject of two poems, one of which predates his appearance in The Lord of the Rings, and which explains how Tom met and wooed Goldberry, bested Old Man Willow and the Barrow-wight, and spent a merry evening at Farmer Maggot's house.
Another poem, Bilbo's Last Song (at The Grey Havens) was published as a picture book with color illustrations by Pauline Baynes. This three-stanza poem, in which Bilbo bids farewell to his friends and anticipates his journey from the Grey Havens to the Uttermost West, does not appear in The Lord of the Rings, but it is reminiscent of "Bilbo's Song" and "The Old Walking Song." Baynes's illustrations recount two stories--Bilbo and the Elves riding to the Grey Havens through an autumnal landscape at the top of the page, and incidents from The Hobbit along the bottom.
Letters from Father Christmas is a collection of the annual illustrated letters (1920-43) Tolkien wrote to his children, which he left for them to find on the mantle on Christmas morning. They were lavishly and delightfully illustrated with drawings of Father Christmas, his assistants and neighbors, their home at the North Pole, and their misadventures. Father Christmas writes about the children's letters sent to him, how they are doing in school, the toys he has brought them (or not been able to find), his ongoing problems with goblins and his clumsy polar bear assistant, and events in the wide world. As the years go by, the younger children are added to Father Christmas's greetings and their elders outgrow him, until only Priscilla receives the last few letters. There is also a stocking-stuffer-sized miniature edition, which reproduces several of the letters and illustrations.
Tolkien's lesser-known children's works are worth reading for a variety of reasons. All are enjoyable in their own right, especially for the mix of humor and scholarship in Farmer Giles of Ham, the dreamlike atmosphere of Smith of Wootton Major, and the charm of the Father Christmas letters. But for anyone with a more than casual interest in Tolkien as a writer, they shed invaluable light on his creative process, his family relations, and the themes that underlie all his writing. His concern about humanity's depredations on the environment and the effects of war are evident as far back as Roverandom and are particularly clear in Father Christmas's letters during World War II. Tolkien's family is shown to be a source of inspiration, especially during the period when his children's imaginative life revolved around their toys and their father's stories about them. Especially fascinating is how these children's stories demonstrate the maturation of Tolkien's skill at creating a coherent fantasy world--evolving from the oddly mixed cultural references and disjointed picaresque adventures of Roverandom and Mr. Bliss to the economically sketched world and mature authorial voice of Smith of Wootton Major. Reading Tolkien's children's works shows us how his greatest work of subcreation, the world and story of The Lord of the Rings, fits into the pattern of his development as a writer.
University of Oklahoma
Tolkien's children's books
Tolkien scholars Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull have edited definitive versions of two of these works, with excellent introductions and notes that are very helpful to understanding the genesis of these stories and their relation to the rest of Tolkien's work.
Bilbo's Last Song: At the Grey Havens. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. 1st American ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990.
Farmer Giles of Ham: The Rise and Wonderful Adventures of Farmer Giles, Lord of Tame, Count of Worminghall, and King of the Little Kingdom. Ed. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond. Illustrated by Pauline Baynes. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Father Christmas Letters. Miniature ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
Letters from Father Christmas. Ed. Baillie Tolkien. Revised ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1999.
Mr. Bliss. 1st American ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1983.
Roverandom. Ed. Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1998.
The Tolkien Reader. New York: Ballantine, 1966. Includes Smith of Wootton Major, Farmer Giles of Ham, and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, as well as two other works mentioned above, "Leaf by Niggle" and "On Fairy-stories."
Carpenter, Humphrey. Tolkien: A Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977.
Hammond, Wayne G., and Douglas A. Anderson. J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Bibliography. Winchester, UK: St. Paul's Bibliographies, 1993.
Hammond, Wayne G., and Christina Scull. J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1995.
Janet Brennan Croft, who earned her Master of Library Science degree at Indiana University in 1983, is the head of Access Services at the University of Oklahoma Libraries. She is the author of War in the Works of J.R.R. Tolkien (Greenwood, 2004); has published articles on Tolkien in Mythlore, Mallorn, and Seven; and is editing a forthcoming collection of essays on the Peter Jackson movie adaptations of The Lord of the Rings.
“From the January-April 2004 issue of World Literature Today (78:1), pages 67-70. Copyright 2004 World Literature Today.”