Friday's book: Roverandom by J R R Tolkien

That huge paperback in almost every 1970s student bedroom (which disintegrated the moment you lent it to someone) is probably still the popular image of a Tolkien book. The seemingly endless volumes of The History of Middle-Earth by Tolkien's son Christopher reinforce the idea: Tolkien's books are big.

It's a delight, then, to see this slim volume - 106 pages including notes - which is, astonishingly, the first publication of one of Tolkien's short stories. The author of the massive Lord of the Rings was also a master of the short form, whether in poetry or fiction. He was also an accomplished artist; five of his paintings illustrate this book.

Tolkien created Roverandom to cheer up his five-year-old son Michael after he lost a favourite toy dog on the beach at Filey in 1925. In the story, a pet dog, Rover, is rude to a wizard, who turns him into a toy. In a series of adventures he is taken to the Moon, then lives among the mer-people of the Pacific Ocean before being returned, restored to size and doghood, older and wiser, to the boy who lost him.

This is an old-fashioned story - it was, after all, written 70 years ago - yet it still speaks freshly today. It is essentially an oral tale, which would leap to life when read aloud to a child. Just listen to this description 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 bloodhouse in the backyard of an ogre."

Tolkien's fantasy is always rooted in reality. In Roverandom we see his distress at the pollution of the world through industrialisation and carelessness - "Motor after motor racketed by ... all making all speed (and all dust and smell) to somewhere" - and several comments on man's tendency to leave litter wherever he goes, including the summit of Snowdon.

Tolkien gave intellectual credibility to the fantasy genre, as he did to fairy-stories - which, he said, offer "Fantasy, Recovery, Escape, Consolation, all things of which children have, as a rule, less need than older people. Most of them are nowadays very commonly considered to be bad for anybody."

Half a century on, that attitude still seems to be received wisdom: the Criterati were horrified when Lord of the Rings led the Waterstone's/Channel 4 Books of the Century poll. Perhaps they need to consider what Tolkien wrote in "On Fairy Stories": that fantasy is "not a lower but a higher form of Art, indeed the most nearly pure form, and so (when achieved) the most potent". Roverandom is hardly Tolkien's greatest work, but it still contains that potency.

HarperCollins, pounds 12.99

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