Christina Scull & Wayne G. Hammond, ‘Mr. Bliss’
In this article Scull and Hammond summarize the story, examine its origins and recount the history of its publication
An eccentric tale
Mr. Bliss is the most eccentric of Tolkien’s books. Its title character lives in a tall house, wears tall hats, and keeps a tall pet called a Girabbit, a hybrid creature with a rabbit’s ears, legs, and tail, a giraffe’s long neck, and a skin of mackintosh.
On impulse, Mr Bliss buys a bright yellow car with red wheels, leaving his pedal-less bicycle (because he ‘only rode down hill’) as security. Setting out in the car to visit the Dorkins family, at the first turning he runs into Mr Day, damaging his barrow and cabbages, and at the second smashes into Mrs Knight and her donkey-cart filled with bananas.
Mr Bliss, Mr Day, and Mrs Knight are soon joined in his car by three ‘fierce’ bears, Archie, Teddy, and Bruno, and together they crash into a picnic held by the Dorkinses. Misadventures follow, as the bears raid the Dorkinses’ kitchen-garden and escape into a dark wood, pursued by the others.
Frightened, Mr Bliss returns home, only to be pursued himself by Mr Day, Mrs Knight, the Dorkinses, and the bears, as well as by the motor-car dealer, whom he has failed to pay. All of them demand from Mr Bliss money for goods, damages, or services rendered. He settles their claims, gives his car to Mr Day, and takes to driving a donkey-cart instead.
Critics have compared this odd tale with its many absurdities to the little stories of Beatrix Potter, to Kenneth Grahame’s Wind in the Willows, and (in terms of its art) to comical drawings by the nonsense poet Edward Lear. In the end, Mr. Bliss defies classification, and is another example of Tolkien’s remarkable originality as an author.
Mr. Bliss crashes into Mr. Day and his barrow of cabbages.
Even among his own works, it is unique in format, recorded not simply as a story with illustrations, but as a picture book in which the words and art support each other. He wrote its calligraphic text and drew its pictures on large sheets which he folded into book form, complete with coloured paper covers. For the art, he began in pencil or black pen, then embellished with a wide range of coloured pencils and occasionally coloured inks.
A work of uncertain date
According to the author’s son Christopher, Tolkien’s handwriting in the finished manuscript of Mr. Bliss appears to date from the 1930s; and according to the biographer Humphrey Carpenter, its story was inspired by Tolkien’s purchase of a car in 1932 and his own mishaps while driving. Tolkien’s second son, Michael, however, is said to have recorded the telling of the story in a diary (no longer extant) kept as a school summer holiday project in 1928, and Michael’s wife Joan has said that Mr. Bliss was inspired not by Tolkien’s own experiences, but by a cherished toy car and driver owned by Christopher (which he cannot recall). The three bears, moreover, are said by Joan Tolkien to have been based on the teddy bears then owned by the three Tolkien boys.
The car that appears in Tolkien’s pictures does, indeed, look like a toy. Archie, Teddy, and Bruno are also obviously toy-like as drawn, with visible seams, glassy eyes, and unjointed limbs. In contrast, interiors, street scenes, and landscapes in Mr. Bliss are rendered with more reality. The world of the story contains villages, hills, walled gardens, and timbered inns such as might be found in the English countryside. As always in Tolkien’s art, trees are drawn with sensitivity. His pictures of the bears’ wood recall his drawings of Mirkwood, and his dust jacket art for The Hobbit, from the early to mid-1930s.
History of publication
Whatever its date of origin, the manuscript of Mr. Bliss was in existence by late 1936, when Tolkien submitted it to the publisher George Allen & Unwin as a possible successor to The Hobbit. The firm’s production manager, C.A. Furth, felt that Mr. Bliss was in a class with Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but declared the cost of reproducing its delicate, lavishly coloured drawings prohibitive if the book was to be sold at a reasonable price.
Mr. Bliss looks across the valley to his house in the distance and sees the Girabbit’s head sticking through the roof.
Although Tolkien offered to make his pictures less elaborate, and so less expensive to print, he hesitated to use only three colours and black as advised by Allen & Unwin. His heart was not in it, and he felt that he did not have the talent to make the attempt: the pictures, he told C.A. Furth, mostly proved that the author of the book could not draw! In fact, Tolkien had the talent to revise his art but not the time, as duties at Oxford during the Second World War and other projects demanded his attention.
By late 1964 Mr. Bliss came to the attention of the American scholar Clyde S. Kilby, who proposed that it be published. Tolkien was willing to consider this, depending upon the method of printing to be used and the terms to be offered. He had not forgotten the difficulties that prevented publication by Allen & Unwin, and as ever, he had high standards when it came to the reproduction of his art. But he had not looked at the manuscript of Mr. Bliss since it was sold to Marquette University of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1957, and was uncertain of its quality. When other proposals for publishing the book were put to Allen & Unwin, photostats were obtained from Marquette, and Tolkien decided with his publisher that his calligraphy in the manuscript was not clear enough for easy reading, while substitution of typeset words for his handwriting would destroy some of the book’s charm. In any case, the cost of printing was still excessive, and by now Tolkien had come to see Mr. Bliss as a private joke which he did not want to be published during his lifetime.
By the 1970s, printing technology had improved to the point that it would have been entirely possible to make a good printed facsimile of Mr. Bliss. But Tolkien’s request was honoured, and the book was not published until 1982, nine years after his death. As finally printed, Tolkien’s calligraphy and original art were retained, but with typeset transcriptions added on facing pages. A high quality facsimile of the book was published by HarperCollins in 2007.