"You are a funny little dog, Little Dog! Indeed I don't remember ever having seen another little dog that was quite such a little dog, Little Dog!"
Once upon a time, in a far-away magical land that is now lost forever, a little boy went to the seashore with his family. He brought a favorite toy with him: a little porcelain dog, painted black and white, eternally sitting up and begging.
The little boy (affectionately called 'Little Boy Two' by his father) carried Rover with him wherever he went. But one day. while scrabbling about on the beach with Little Boy One, he set the toy down and lost track of it. By the time he realized Rover was missing, the little black-and-white dog was nowhere to be found, indistinguishable from the black-and-white shingle of the beach.
Father and Little Boy One searched for the toy for days but could not find it. Soon afterwards, an immense storm lashed the coast, and carried away any hope of ever finding Rover again.
Little Boy Two was very sad at having lost his favorite toy. But Father happened to be one of the great storytellers of his age, and was very fond of making up stories for his children. And so, to console Little
Boy Two, he made up the story of Rover, a real dog who foolishly bit a hole in the pants of a powerful wizard, who turned him into a porcelain statue, how Mother gave Little Boy Two the toy, how the willful, irresponsible dog wriggled out of Little Boy Two's pocket that day on the beach, and all the adventures that ensued: being carried to the Moon on the back of a seagull, being renamed 'Roverandom' so that he wouldn't be confused with all of the other Rovers who happened to be inconveniently appearing in the story, being given wings of his own and flying around the Moon, and being chased by a dragon, travelling to the other side of the moon to play with dream-children, being carried to the bottom of the ocean to beg the wizard's pardon, and living among the folk of the Mer-King for a time, and eventually returning as a real dog to be reunited with Little Boy Two.
The story was wonderful enough to console Little Boy Two, but Father, as all good storytellers must, became interested in the story for its own sake. Little Boy One also took interest, being old enough, and understanding his father well enough, to realize there was more. So over the next several years, while the two boys and their baby brother were growing up, Father, in his spare time from working on a much more important and better-known story, took the tale of Roverrandom and developed four successive versions of it, each longer than the last.
Eventually, Father decided to ask his publisher to print the tale of Roverandom for other children to enjoy. But the other story had been such a success that the publisher asked instead for a sequel. And it's hard to complain about this decision, for the sequel turned out to be the most important piece of literature Western Civilization has ever produced. At any rate, the tale of Roverandom was forgotten.
A little while later, the boy's father gave a lecture which was to have a great influence on stories of this type, in which he wrote:
"Drayton's Nymphidia is one ancestor of that long line of flower-fairies and fluttering sprites with antennae that I so disliked as a child, and which my children in their turn detested. Andrew Lang had similar feelings. In the preface to the Lilac Fairy Book he refers to the tales of tiresome contemporary authors: 'they always begin with a little boy or girl who goes out and meets the fairies of polyanthuses and gardenias and apple-blossom...These fairies try to be funny and fail, or they try to preach and succeed.'...It would have been beter if Lethe had swallowed the whole affair."
At the time, he was probably glad that the words he had written earlier:
"They visited the valley of the white moon-gnomes (moonums, for short) that ride about on rabbits, and make pancakes out of snowflakes, and grow little apple-trees no bigger than buttercups in their neat orchards."
had never seen print1. Although given this story's history, there is no way to fault its author: Cutesiness is an inevitable outcome of designing a story as being for children first and a story second. The story itself, while hardly as fully integrated and polished as his other works, is nonetheless charming, and has a special aura to it, being first and foremost a work of love. You will find family in-jokes, peppered with references to classical mythology, the culture of the time, and the author's witticisms and opinions about some current events. Also appearing are some allusions to the overarching mythos the author invented for his other works.
"John...does not recall that either he or his brother Michael was bothered by anomalies when the tale was told to them, and points out that Roverandom was of course written for young children, to whom such matters are merely part of the wonder of the story."
Much, much later, when all the magic was gone from the land, and Little Boy Two and his Father had grown old and passed away, publishers were hungry to print anything the boys' father had ever written. A lady scholar and a colleague were given permission by Little Boy Three to edit and publish the story of Roverandom. It is a slim little volume2 of 105 pages, with four wonderful watercolor paintings the author made of scenes from the story, as well as a pen-and-ink sketch of another scene. At the beginning is a scholarly introduction detailing the tale's history, as well as all possible analysis you might get out of it. At the end is a glossary where the editors explain all of the story's inconsistencies, connections with the author's better-known works, all of the allusions and references I mentioned earlier, as well as things like 'tea-time' and 'sea dog' and 'drink like a fish' and others they imagined people on the other side of the ocean could never understand. I gather that they never integrated the author's own words:
The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things...And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost."
Don't read the glossary unless you're inured enough to pedantry to not have it spoil the story for you. But get a copy of Roverandom if you can, and read it to your children, or even read it for yourself!
1This is a point made by the editors, but it was the only bit of analysis I thought worth repeating (see the later quote from On Fairy-Stories). I picked alternate passages to represent it.
2ISBN 0-395-89871-4. Found on the discount table, if you can imagine!