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Tolkien’s Dogs


Although the philologist and fantasy writer J.R.R. Tolkien did not himself keep a dog, he put several memorable canines into his books. Indeed, a dog is the “start” of the most recent of his stories to have been published, Roverandom (1998). In 1925, Tolkien and his family were on a seaside holiday when his middle son, Michael, lost a beloved toy dog on the beach. To console him, Tolkien invented a story in which a real dog, named Rover--no points for an original name!--annoys a wandering wizard, is turned into a toy as punishment and goes on adventures to the moon and under the sea. On his travels he meets two other Rovers, a moon-dog and a mer-dog, while he himself is renamed Roverandom, because he doesn’t know where he is going to next.


One never doubts that Rover/Roverandom is a dog, or rather a puppy, young, impetuous, prone to mischief. When we first meet him he is playing with a ball; by page two he has bitten the old wizard’s trousers. Even when given wings or webbed feet he remains true to his canine nature, and he reacts just as a dog would when he is on his way to the moon on the back of the seagull Mew and sees a dark island below:


Over the water and up to them came the sound of a tremendous barking, a noise made up of all the different kinds and sizes of barks there are: yaps and yelps, and yammers and yowls, growling and grizzling, whickering and whining, snickering and snarling, mumping and moaning, and the most enormous baying, like a giant bloodhound in the backyard of an ogre. All Rover’s fur round his neck suddenly became very real again, and stood up stiff as bristles; and he thought he would like to go down and quarrel with all the dogs there at once--until he remembered how small he was.


“That’s the Isle of Dogs,” said Mew, “or rather the Isle of Lost Dogs, where all the lost dogs go that are deserving of lucky. It isn’t a bad place, I’m told, for dogs; and they can make as much noise as they like without anyone telling them to be quiet or throwing anything at them. They have a beautiful concert, all barking together their favourite noises, whenever the moon shines bright. They tell me there are bone-trees there, too, with fruit like juicy meat-bones that drops off the trees when it’s ripe.”


Of course there really is an Isle of Dogs, without the bone-trees: a tongue of land the projects into the River Thames in southeast London. Its name, on which Tolkien is playing, may have come from Henry VIII of Elizabeth I having kept hounds at that place when in residence across the river in Greenwich.


A rather different dog, Garm, appears in Tolkien’s mock-medieval tale Farmer Giles of Ham, first published in 1949. Garm is Welsh for “shout” or “cry,” and is also recorded as a dialect word in Cornwall meaning “scold, vociferate loudly.” The name suits Farmer Giles’ dog very well. Dogs, Tolkien writes, “had to be content with short names in the vernacular: the Book-latin was reserved for their betters. Garm could not talk even dog-latin; but he could use the vulgar tongue (as could most dogs of his day) either to bully or to brag or to wheedle in. Bullying was for beggars and trespassers, bragging for other dogs, and wheedling for his master. Garm was both proud and afraid of Giles, who could bully and brag better than he could.”




Wayne G. Hammond is Assistant Librarian in the Chapin Library of Rare Books at Williams College. Christina Scull is the former Librarian of Sir John Soane's Museum in London, England. They wrote J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator and have produced annotated editions of Tolkien's Roverandom and Farmer Giles of Ham. They are writing a major reference book about Tolkien.

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