Personal Reflections on “Mr. Bliss” by J. R. R. Tolkien

 

A cousin (by marriage) of mine, a British physicist, said to me in the summer of 1983:

“I hear it said that Tolkien would have been a fine scholar if he hadn’t wasted all his time writing silly stories.”

I was young and little prepared to rebut. I knew, of course, of Tolkien’s important and influential lecture “Beowulf: The monsters and the critics” and he was sort of an eminence hanging over my Old English studies. And I knew that the influence on me of Tolkien the storyteller and philologist was a major part of why I was in Europe that summer, digging in Roman dirt and visiting a Book in Exeter.

Now I’m older than Tolkien was when The Hobbit was published and rapidly closing the distance to his Lord of the Rings age. I know now that Tolkien didn’t waste time writing silly stories. He spent time on some very fine scholarship and teaching, he devoted much time to being a loving father and husband, and to finally come near to my point, he wasted a lot of time mucking around trying to satisfy his sequel-hungry publisher after the success of The Hobbit (and of The Lord of the Rings later). Which brings me to Mr. Bliss.

When I was very small my father would tell me bed-time stories of Murgatroyd the rabbit and Farmer MacGregor. I know now that he agonized over the creation of those stories. When I was a little older, my mother read all of Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia to me at bed time. Lewis would perhaps be disappointed to learn that his books instilled no Christianity, although they did help interest me in pagan Classical mythology, and, for a time, gave me a tendency to speak to trees. After Narnia, my mother read through The Hobbit and maybe half of The Lord of the Rings before saying, in essence, “Read it yourself!”

I will be forever grateful to my parents for their herculean storytelling efforts during my childhood.

Those who know a little of Tolkien know that he spent a great deal of time telling stories to his children. A number of his posthumous volumes are those stories, formalized as submissions to George Allen & Unwin, his publisher, as potential follow ups to The Hobbit. Mr. Bliss is such a volume. Mr. Bliss was rejected by George Allen & Unwin due to the expense of publishing the many illustrations, and so, Tolkien cast about a little and decided to just start work on another story about Hobbits, almost certainly unaware that an epic had taken him over.

Mr. Bliss was finally published as a facsimile of Tolkien’s manuscript in 1982, almost ten years after Tolkien’s death. That edition is interesting from a scholarly point of view, but the author’s handwriting is often difficult to read and the illustrations are not always ideally placed.  When I first read the Mr. Bliss facsimile many years ago, my reaction was lukewarm.

But in 2011 a new edition was published in which the illustrations have been properly placed within a nicely typeset text, and the result is startling! Mr. Bliss, now that it has been artfully formatted, is an entirely charming children’s book which should be discovered by adults while they read it aloud and by laughing children hearing it and looking at Mr. Bliss’ tall green hat, yellow motorcar and unusual pet girabbit and enjoying the gentleman’s adventures in and around an unnamed English village. Certainly Tolkien’s illustrations are at times ham fisted, but they always have a remarkable fluidity and a strong sense of an England now gone, if it ever were.

I highly recommend this at last truly finished version of Mr. Bliss to parents of young children. It is a refreshing new Tolkien, and a story to be read aloud, with feeling, expression and playfulness.

And, consider: what if George Allen & Unwin could have afforded the cost of illustrations as World War II loomed? What if Mr. Bliss, not The Lord of the Rings, had been the follow up to The Hobbit? What a different world it might have been! And how fortunate we are to enjoy a world with both the dark, sweeping mythic vision of The Lord of the Rings and the sunny, silly joy of Mr. Bliss.

This latest edition of Mr. Bliss, with the 1982 facsimile reprinted at the back, is published by HarperCollins.

Ever since I was little . . .

Every since I was little I figured a human being would want to strive for a certain level of cultural literacy. And, by “culture” I mean “the things that people do and think about. Their tools, games, work and works, their understandings and misunderstandings.”

I figured a person would want to have a certain level of mathematical literacy (arithmetic, algebra, geometry, etc.), a good understanding of science and the method of science, and a bit of a knowledge of at least a second language. I figured a person would want to have some understanding of the major world religions, of the remarkable fact that there are as many religions as there are believers, that there are more sects of Islam and Christianity and . . . than there are preachers on street corners in all the world.

I’ve figured that a person would want to have a pretty good familiarity with the great literary works of their language and some familiarity with the great works of other traditions. I figured a person would want to be able to at least plunk out a tune on a musical instrument, compose a sonnet, draw a picture, even if they produce pretty crappy art. I figured people would want to know a little about the history of Art.

I figured a person would want to have enough knowledge of the popular sports in their community that they could watch with understanding even if they never actually played the game.  I thought they’d want to know a few good jokes and maybe a card trick or two.

I figured a person would want to have a fairly good understanding of the workings of their country’s political system, would want to be able to manage money competently, do minor household repairs, grow food in a garden, understand the use of basic hand tools (knife, axe, hammer, saw, etc.). A grown-up would want to be able to sew on a button. As technology has “advanced” in my lifetime, I’ve figured people would want to keep up to some extent.

A grown up would want to be able to prepare a meal for guests, prepare their culture’s staple food (bake bread [without a machine], I guess, in my case).

And I’ve always sort of figured that grown ups would always want to learn new skills, find out new things about the universe and the people around them. Explore! Grow! Build!

But sometimes I look around at humanity, at the pride so many take in their ignorance, at the anti-intellectualism, at the mysterious and peculiar devotion to magical thinking, and particularly when some elected official holds up a snowball as a demonstration that the climate isn’t changing or blathers on twitter about evolution just being a theory and I think —

“They’re all nothing more than a bunch of monkeys throwing poop around.”

Then, I pause. And I look up at they sky and–

The Sky is Filled with Ships!

image

The sky of our Science Fiction world is filled with the robots that some of those monkeys built to explore. And I look around at the monkeys I know, in my neighbourhood, my city, my country, and all over my planet and I start to feel like maybe some of these monkeys are pretty impressive little monkeys doing exactly all that exploring, growing and building I always figured they all would want to be doing.

I wish all the other ones would want it, too.

Note: the initial version of this rant, which I posted to Facebook, read “should” in each place in which it now reads “would want to”. As I thought about it, I realized that I never really had a prescriptive feeling about this subject. Rather, I always had an expectation that people simply would desire to learn and grow, and as I grew older I was perplexed that some — many — people seemed to have no such desire.  I grew up in a world that I understood had moved beyond superstition. When I was a kid, Science was flying us to the Moon. Then, a few years later when I was about fifteen a schoolmate told me that she “didn’t believe in dinosaurs because they’re not in the Bible”. Of course, I thought she was joking. When I realized the truth, that she actually somehow didn’t “believe in” Reality, I was horrified. Much later l’esprit de l’escalier suggested I should have asked “What about trains? Do you believe in trains? They’re not in the Bible.” Since that day, I’ve never stopped being horrified.

“The Mothers”, by Nicole Moeller, at SkirtsAfire Festival

Be warned: The Mothers is pretty intense.

Sort of like motherhood.

Nicole Moeller’s new play premiering as part of the SkirtsAfire Festival is a gruelling experience, an inducement to  κάθαρσις (catharsis) by which Aristotle would be startled.  Annette Loiselle’s performance as Grace, the only character on stage (although she has a few smile and tear inducing moments as Grace-imitating-son-Ben and Grace-imitating-husband-Chris, and Grace-having-conversation-with-Grace-imitating-woman-sharing-a-smoke), is rivetting and wrenching.  Loiselle metamorphosizes instantly between beyond-exhausted ex-alcoholic mother-and-wife, emotionally-repressed-manly-husband, slouching-black-hoodied-outcast-teenage-boy, and a thousand other moments of shatter and agony and despair.

About my only criticism of the play and production is a small and doubtful one: it might have ended better, with more punch, without the final sentence.

The new Black Box Theatre in the Alberta Avenue Community Hall is a wonderful addition to Edmonton’s Arts infrastructure, particularly in this still young annus horribilis of Roxy fire and ARTery eviction.  Every Community League in the city would be well advised to take a look and consider the possibilities of a small, flexible, versatile arts space right in their neighbourhood.

Danielle Masellis’ set design I realize in hindsight is in a way reflective of the Black Box itself.  As the audience enters the simple space of the auditorium, they see the simple space of the stage.  It is clearly a pretty dingy basement room. Square grey short-pile carpet. Square, low ceiling with one dim light fixture that was already old in everyone’s childhood.  The room is about to be moved out of or about to be moved into. Empty furniture, full boxes. A guitar case. A floor lamp. One door, closed. A dusty heat vent high in the back wall.  A teenage boys room, or an exiled woman’s flop-house, or a 21st century Gregor Samsa’s final dwelling.  The transformation of the set at Loiselle’s hands, from empty, blank slate to the cluttered shambles of a teen boy’s bedroom is a sort of organic magic, the magic that live theatre can bring to the simplest of Black Box spaces.

I’m not sure if Sound Designer Paul Morgan Donald is responsible for the choice of Kate Bush’s Ariel as the music playing before the play begins, but the fact that “Bertie”, Bush’s song for her own son, was the song playing as the house lights dim seems a stroke of either intentional or serendipitous genius.  The tolling bell of the grandfather clock which appears a few times is nicely Donne, as well.

As I often do at the theatre, I made fairly extensive notes about details of the play.  I know that director Glenda Stirling and the Company don’t want details of the fundamental  situation of the play leaked: I certainly won’t be doing that.  I will, however, remark on a few specifics while avoiding spoilers.  The family trauma is gradually and organically revealed through Grace’s extended apostrophe to her son, Ben.  The recurrent references to “Forgiveness” and some other verbal threads masterfully further the progress of understanding for both Grace and the audience. The literary references, particularly to Kafka, are startlingly spot on. And Grace’s description of a mother looking at her adult child and feeling the body-memory of the pre-birth Kick Inside is a simply exquisite moment, one of many in The Mothers.
As in real life, everyone has clay feet – there are no heroes in The Mothers, only Survivors.

And maybe surviving is the most heroic thing.

The Mothers, by Nicole Moeller and starring Annette Loiselle will be playing through March 8th, 2015, at the Black Box Theatre in the Alberta Avenue Community Hall, 9210 118th Avenue, as part of the SkirtsAfire Festival

Let’s close with “Bertie”, by his mother, Kate Bush:

“The Interstellar Age” by Jim Bell: to the highth of this great Argument

Taking advantage of a rare celestial alignment of the planets, those two robots, Voyager 1 and Voyager 2, gave us all our first detailed, high-resolution, glorious views of the solar system beyond Mars, revealing the giant planets Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune, and their panoply of rings and moons, in all their awesome wonder — not just for scientists, but also for poets, musicians, painters, novelists, moviemakers, historians, and even kids.

The Interstellar Age, p.2.

 

I’ve just finished reading Jim Bell’s The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty Year Voyager Mission, and, what a ride for an old space nerd like me!  The book is a bit of a hybrid, at once a biography of the ongoing Voyager mission and of Bell the Planetary scientist and President of the Planetary Society.  I’ll say right off, I didn’t learn a whole lot about the Voyager missions.  Bell and I are near contemporaries – I was born at the beginning of the 60s and Bell in the middle.  Certainly we took very different educational paths, though we apparently shared unexemplary dedication to our studies.  But what Bell and I do share is a passion for discovery and the very human idea of exploration.

Bell emulates our shared inspiration, Carl Sagan, emphasizing that Voyager isn’t about robots exploring the universe – it’s about humans, very real, next door neighbour, funny, quirky, artistic humans exploring the universe with tools they have made with their ingenuity and the creativity of generations of engineers, technicians, mathematicians, writers, artists, musicians and poets.  Bell met Sagan.  I only read his words and saw him on television.  Bell was at times in the thick of the Voyager excitement, was on the sidelines for the rest.  I was always up in the cheap seats with a pair of binoculars and one bad eye.  I watched Star Trek. Bell watched Star Trek, but for some reason doesn’t mention Voyager’s appearance in Star Trek: The Motion Picture.

Despite our different paths, Bell and I have watched the Voyager probes carefully for all our adult lives, so, there wasn’t much new to me about Voyager in The Interstellar Age.

But I couldn’t put it down!

The book opens with frequent references to the Arts and Sagan’s friend and collaborator, artist Jon Lomberg is mentioned and cited throughout.  The book is about the creativity of science, the joy of collaboration, and the sheer human exhilaration of being part of a huge, multi-generational creative process.  The Interstellar Age is an inspiring celebration of the human spirit, the spirit expressed in the Golden Records we all sent to the stars on the two Voyagers.

Bell’s book is not about robots, planets and orbital mechanics. It is about the wonder of being human in this infinitely discoverable but never fully knowable universe.  That’s a great Argument I’m glad to be a part of!

The Interstellar Age is published by Dutton.

 

Just after I finished writing and posting this review I learned of Leonard Nimoy’s departure. Nimoy’s portrayal of Spock, the Scientist-as-Hero-in-Space, I know inspired many of Bell’s and my generation to pursue careers or life-long interest in Space Science.    The One made such a difference to the Many.
Thank you, sir.

Scott Berry’s “Confusement”: Two Video Walk-Throughs and a Thought or Two

Confusement – The feeling of being stared at but no one can see who you are.
– Scott Berry

We hoped to collaboratively create an environment for the viewers to experience and make their own meaning.
-from the program accompanying Confusement

Scott Berry’s installation, Confusement, a collaboration with dozens of fellow members of the Nina Haggerty Collective, staff, volunteers and visitors, is a breathtaking mirror held up to each of us.  Anyone who has spent time with people who are “different”, who have “disabilities” or “challenges” or “special needs” is familiar with the double takes, the brief or extended stares, the uncomfortable smiles that inevitably are directed their way.  Berry has turned the tables on “us” with Confusement.

Here we are surrounded by thousands — possibly tens of thousands of unblinking eyes (and a few blinking ones). Voices are whispering around us, but its hard to catch any words.  Bits of music float by, scales on a piano.  A mirror faces us at the end of the entrance corridor – this is about us. Hands reach out from walls, ghostly figures (packing tape whole body casts of Collective artists) loom above us and around us.  Just before turning the corner into the heart of Confusement – a party of ghostly figures in conversational knots surrounded by yet more eyes – one is mesmerized by Berry’s computer video of floating lidless eyeballs, staring, somehow blinking their irises, unpredictably and uncannily.

For all the Lovecraftian spookiness such a description might imply, Confusement is not frightening.  It is certainly designed to confuse, to playfully unsettle, but also to amuse, pleasantly mystify, and stir us to beneficial thought.  These eyes mean no harm. These unknowable figures are busy about their own affairs.  The curtains of eyes are the environment we all move through every day, but some of us are forced to swim more deeply in that sea of benign, but too often unseeing eyes, the world of Confusement.

The day before the dismantling of the installation, I made two impromptu video walk-throughs.  They do little justice to the powerful effect of the vision of Scott Berry and the Nina Haggerty Collective.

 

 

 

Confusement was at the Stollery Gallery of the Nina Haggerty Centre for the Arts in Edmonton from February 12-27, 2015.

On the Misattribution of Quotations

Whoever in discussion adduces authority uses not intellect but rather memory.  

– some Italian guy whose name I can’t remember and what’s it matter anyway?

For all my adult life I have found the misattribution of quotations to be a crime akin to plagiarism and theft, indeed, it is a sort of cultural vandalism, an appropriation committed against a usually dead author and the framing of another for the crime.

Social media have increased the incidence of the crime and may anxiety level over it.  When I come across a tweet in which Sinclair Lewis is given words about fascism, flags, and Bibles, or Voltaire defends to the death the cartoonists of Charlie Hebdou, or any of the countless other bits of pith that echo through cyberspace attached to the names of great wits who likely said no such thing, I grab a book of quotations, then another, and another. Then I google.  Rarely does it turn out that the attribution is correct.

For the record, Voltaire did not offer to defend to the death anyone’s right to say something:, those were his biographer’s words. And there is no record of Sinclair Lewis talking of fascism wrapped in a flag holding a Bible — and there is significant record of other people saying similar things.

Sure, we all make mistakes.  I confess I spent a number of years quietly convinced that”What tangled webs we weave when first we practice to deceive”was in Shakespeare’s Macbeth, never imagining it was from Scott’s Marmion.  Thankfully, I never exposed such an error on social media, and I was glad when I learned the truth.

Some will ask “what’s it matter?”

I’m sorry, but I think it important to accurately give credit to the persons of the past who had the wit, who spoke the words which capture our attention and express our feelings today.  Giving credit to the wrong person is little different from claiming the credit oneself.  If we don’t care to remember by name the giants upon whose shoulders we sit (to paraphrase Newton [1676] paraphrasing Bertrand of Chartres [12th Century], Burton [1621], et. al.), are we not remarkably tiny people?

Perhaps a reason I am so obsessive about the problem is that I was, as a young boy, framed for the theft of some of the most beautiful lines of English poetry.

As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, sometime before my fourteenth birthday I discovered the poetry of Yeats while reading Carl Sagan and I. S. Shklovskii’s Intelligent Life in the Universe.  In those days, I had youthful dreams of becoming a science fiction author (instead, I came to live, as we all do, in the science fiction I read as a teen).  For an assignment in my grade 8 English class in late 1974 or early 1975, I wrote a short, two page science fiction story about a young man searching the universe for eternity for his lost sister.  My story closed with the young fellow recalling some lines from The Song of the Wandering Aengus by Yeats.  I clearly included attribution!

Some time later my teacher, Mrs. Whittaker, approached me with the news that the yearbook committee would be interested in printing my story in the literary section of the yearbook.

“Cool,” I thought.

“Okay,” I said.

At the end of the year I got my copy of the yearbook and was absolutely horrified.  My story was not in the yearbook.  Instead, there were Yeats’ lines, lines that had inspired Ray Bradbury, there they were, perpetually preserved, with my name attached as author!

I immediately crossed out my name and wrote “WBYeats” in an emphatic but kind of ragged scrawl. image The idea that someday, somewhere someone would think I had claimed Yeats’ words for my own has haunted me now for almost forty years.  I am horrified today as I look at the evidence.  In all seriousness, I feel like I have been framed for a truly heinous intellectual crime, a false accusation which hangs over every academic paper I’ve published and sullies those achievements with the guano of injustice.

For decades I’ve hidden this undeserved shame, but now I’ve finally come clean.

Despite what the nameless members of that yearbook committee accused me of, I never claimed the words of Yeats as my own! (Using Yeats’ line “Through hollow lands and hilly lands” in my poem “Elven-Maid: A Consciously Archaic Fragment” was an homage.)  Seriously, after forty years, it still hurts, and I’m still ashamed of an intellectual crime I was wrongly accused of committing.

However much the Twitterati may shrug it off, proper attribution is important!  For god’s sake, do your due diligence before you hit “retweet”!


 

A note of due diligence:

the epigram at the head of this post is from The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci, as “rendered into English” by Edward MacCurdy, London, 1954, p. 85.

Another brief thought on Canada Reads 2015, Barriers, and Alberta

This my second post about Canada Reads 2015. The first is here.

In my reading of things, (some of) the Barriers to be broken down in Canada Reads 2015 are, in a few little nutshells:

Native Canadian/Settler Canadian

Immigrant experience/”native” Canadian Experience

“Muslim World”/everybody else

(L)Gay(BT) youth/everybody else

Elders approaching end of life/the young

I don’t think anyone can legitimately deny these barriers exist and need to be breached. What I couldn’t help fell as I read the five books was how much Albertans – those wacky, pickup driving, dilbit swilling, trucknut swinging, two-fisted cowboys with the sunburnt necks – how much Albertans had already done to  chip at those barriers.

Native Canadian/Settler Canadian

Edmonton has the second largest urban-Aboriginal population in the country. Big civic events now routinely open with Elders praying and smudging followed by an apparently grateful acknowledgement that we are on Treaty 6 Land. I could go on about Alex Decoteau, Douglas Cardinal, Alex Janvier, and the young vibrant generation of First Nations and Métis artists, chefs, business people, office workers, politicians . . .
And I will also shout loudly that the racism is still rampant, and ugly, and lethal.

But I have stood in a crowd, in the heart of Alberta’s Capital City, and I, an Old White Guy, was in the minority. And there has been nothing in my life better than again seeing Aboriginal people confident (they’ve always been confident, but not always seen), again the majority, if only for a day, for a round dance, for a moment that can’t ever be ended.

That wall is coming down.

Immigrant experience/”native” Canadian Experience

If the immigrant experience has ever been forgotten in a Province in which few people have an Albertan-born – or even Canadian-born – grandparent, the Temporary Foreign Worker Program, with its rampant abuses and even tragic deaths has undoubtedly put a jack hammer to that barrier.

“Muslim World”/everybody else

I live in an Edmonton riding which elected the first Muslim MP in Canadian History. And Rahim Jaffer showed with great panache that stereotypes of Muslims have little basis in fact. And, Calgary’s Naheed Nenshi, the first Muslim to be elected Mayor of a major city in Canada, is a Super Hero, not a jihadi at all.

The cracks are speading in that wall.

(L)Gay(BT) youth/everybody else

Premier Prentice’s  absurd Bill 10 fiasco in response to Liberal MLA Laurie Blakeman’s uncontroversial private member’s bill mandating Gay-Straight Alliances in schools where students requested them, and the “consultation” following, has shown clearly that Albertans, in general, are more homophiles than homophobes, and that they love their children, all their children, no matter what and unconditionally.

Again, there are ugly homophobes out there – many in government – but, still, the wall crumbles.

Elders approaching end of life/the young

I confess, I hesitated on the Elder/youngster barrier. But then I remembered the ongoing outrage about the treatment of Seniors in care, the physical abuse that has come to light, the deaths through negligence, understaffing, poor training, budget cuts. . . and I realize: we all have aged family members, and soon most of us will be facing the assisted living institution. This barrier is aleady being assaulted by a grey horde with raging siege engines of experience and their children and grandchildren – all of us – are at the charge.

Cautious Optimism

Please don’t mistake my hopeful tone for naive complacency. I see a long and difficult struggle ahead in the breaking of each of these barriers. But the very fact that Alberta, a jurisdiction with such a reputation for conservatism, reactionism, cowboy insensitivity, that such a place is actually ahead of the curve on so many fronts, truly makes me feel that we will, together, soon, see a much better, mutually supportive tomorrow.