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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.”

 

Garm is a coward in other respects too, a selfish animal more interested in saving his own skin than in protecting his master’s, and as such is an ironic opposite to the Garm (or Garmr) of Norse mythology, the powerful dog who guards the gates of Hel. But Giles’ Garm is not so afraid of his master that he won’t sneak out of the kitchen at night without permission and roam the fields looking for rabbits. Unluckily for Garm, one night he comes upon a giant, and on a longer expedition runs into the tail of a dragon. Giles deals with both menaces, with no help from man’s best friend: In the face of danger Garm runs away, or hides. Nevertheless, when Giles becomes lord of his land, Garm also rises to a higher station: Though he does not deserve it, he is given “a gold collar, and while he lived roamed at his will, a proud and happy dog, insufferable to his fellows; for he expected all other dogs to accord him the respect due to the terror and splendour of his master.” In contrast, dogs make only brief appearances in Tolkien’s most famous book, The Hobbit (1937) and The Lord of the Rings (1954-55). In the former, very much in the realm of children’s fairy-tale, the shape-changer Beorn has “several large long-bodied grey dogs” among his servants--”the dogs could stand on their hind-legs when they wished, and carry things with their fore-feet”--while in The Lord of the Rings Frodo and his friends encounter three huge “wolvish-looking dlogs,” Grip, Fang and Wolf, who belong to Farmer Maggot. But the lack of canine characters in these works, set in the Third Age of Middle-earth, is more than made up for by the greatest of Tolkien’s dogs, Huan, the wolfhound of Valinor, who plays an important role in a key tale of the First Age. Huan means “great dog, hound” in one of Tolkien’s invented Elvish languages.

 

He first appears in the “Tale of Tinuviel,” one of Tolkien’s early “Silmarillion” legends published in The Book of the Lost Tales, Part Two (1984). There Huan, Captain of Dogs, is the sworn enemy of Tevildo, Prince of Cats, and in their enmity is reflected the rivalry of all cast and dogs. In those days long ago, many dogs had chosen to dwell with Men and guard them, while cats, led by Tevildo, were inclined toward the dark lord, Melko. “Did ever any of these” dogs who were foes of evil “viewTevildo or any of this thanes or subjects, then there there was a great baying and a mighty chase.” With guile and strength Huan defeats Tevildo but sets him free. “Little to Huan’s liking was it that Tevildo lived still, but now no longer did he fear the cats, and that tribe has fled before the dogs ever since, and the dogs hold them still in scorn since the humbling of Tevildo in the woods nigh Angamandi; and Huan has not done any greater deed. Indeed afterward Melko heard all and he cursed Tevildo and his folk and banished them, nor have they since that had had lord or master or any friend, and their voices wail and screech for their hearts are very lonely and bitter and full of loss, yet there is only darkness therein and no kindliness.”

 

This tale over the years evolved into the version published in The Silmarillion (1977), in which it is told that Huan was born in the Blessed Realm far in the West of the world, and raised by Orome the hunter, one of Valar, or angelic powers. Therefore he was of a special breed: “Nothing could escape the sight and scent of Huan, nor could any enchantment stay him, and he slept not, neither by night nor day.” He understood human speech, and was permitted himself to speak with words three times before he died. It was decreed moreover that he should not meet death until he encountered “the mightiest wolf that would ever walk the world.” He aided the Elf-maiden Luthien Tinuviel and the mortal man she loved, Beren, in their quest to wrest a great jewel from the crown of evil Morgoth, and at last he fought to the death Carcharoth, the Wolf of Angband: “No battle of wolf and hound has been like it, for in the baying of Huan was heard the voice of the horns of Orome and the wrath of Valar, but in the howls of Carcharoth was the hate of Morgoth and malice crueller than teeth of steel.”

 

One of the results of the fame Tolkien enjoyed from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings was that readers asked his permission to name their pets after characters. To one of them he replied that Bilbo, after Bilbo Baggins in The Hobbit, seemed a good animal name, and indeed, his own brother had given the hobbit’s full name to his dog, a young animal of “variable behaviour.” The dog was called Bilbo when good and Baggins when bad--he knew the implication of each.

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This article first appeared in The Bark,
Issue 18: Spring 2002
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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