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!

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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: