I do not usually spray Lysol on library books, but when I do, I do it thoroughly. (Yes, I feel you cringing.) Rest assured—under normal conditions, I do not spray books. I do not write in books. I do not highlight books. But desperate times call for desperate measures.
Like the semester my dorm room was infested with bedbugs. Apparently rubbing alcohol kills the nasty things, so I sprayed the covers of my books with it before taking them home. Just in case. (The books survived quite nicely.)
In this case, the library book smelled rank, and not from mildew, either. I’m not entirely sure why, and I don’t want to speculate. Anyway, it was either Lysol the book or send it back. I didn’t want to send it back. The book was Roverandom, by J.R.R. Tolkien. I figured that Tolkien is worth a little Lysol.
The story was occasioned by a trip the Tolkiens took to the seaside. Michael Tolkien, who was three at the time, brought along a little black-and-white toy dog, which he carried everywhere. One day he took it on a walk along the shore, and it was lost. J.R.R. Tolkien searched the rocks where it had fallen, but he was unable to find the toy. Michael was terribly upset, so Tolkien made up a story about the dog’s adventures to comfort him. Incidentally, John ended up more interested in the story than did Michael, who was apparently satisfied by the explanation in the first chapter—that the toy dog once was a real dog, but had been enchanted by a wizard, put into a toy shop, sold and given to Michael, and then had run away while they were at the seaside.
Tolkien sent the story to his publisher when the publisher wanted a sequel to The Hobbit, and The Lord of the Rings was slow in coming. But Roverandom is clearly a pre-Hobbit story. While Roverandom includes some elements of Tolkien’s later mythology—giant spiders, and an Elvenhome in the far West, for example—the story reads more like E. Nesbit’s Psammead stories. Clearly Tolkien was still working out some of his ideas about fantasy. The few times Elves are mentioned, they are more Tinkerbell than Elrond.
Roverandom is not a life-changing story—Tolkien hadn’t readied it for publication, after all—but it is an entertaining look into the development of Tolkien’s style and subject matter. The three wizards in the book are each, in their own way, prototypes of Gandalf. Fortunately, Gandalf was not prone to exclamations like “Idiot! Be a toy!”
Otherwise, The Hobbit might have had a very different ending.