I first read J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy in sixth grade. I did not know about Tolkien, the artist, until Glynn Young wrote about the exhibition at the Bodleian Library, an exhibition which is now in New York City at the Morgan Library, through May 12. Then, while searching my library’s return cart, I discovered Mr. Bliss, by Mr. Tolkien, complete with the master’s own pencil and watercolor illustrations and his own lettering.
Tolkien and a yellow motorcar. Bliss indeed!
The jacket cover explains, “Tolkien himself bought a motorcar in 1932 and suffered some misadventures that prompted him to produce this book.” Similarly, Mr. Bliss believes his new car will bring him bliss, but he runs amock — into a wheelbarrow of cabbages and a donkey-pulled cart of bananas as well as into some unusual characters, as is wont to happen when one goes on an adventure.
Every page has typed words on the left and the same words in Tolkien’s handwriting on the right. His script is not only legible and beautiful, it’s exactly the way you’d think the linguist who created all the languages of Middle Earth would make his capital Ts.
Mr. Bliss is eccentric. He wears tall hats. He wants a yellow car with red wheels. He rides a silver bicycle that lacks pedals, but that’s fine because he only rides it downhill. The illustrations are often funny, in a comedy of errors sort of way (not an easy feat). Cabbages and bananas and a somersaulting donkey, oh my!
My favorite picture is of Three Bears Wood at night, a haunting place that begs exploration.
Dark was coming on and the moon was rising when they came to the edge of the Wood.
Even Mrs. Knight began to wonder whether her bananas were worth all the trouble, when she saw how bluey-dark the wood could look. She thought ‘the dogs will look after us!’ but the dogs thought: ‘It is one thing to chase bears out of the garden in the afternoon, and quite a different thing to hunt them in their own wood after dark. Where are our nice comfy kennels?’”
In this land, creatures think and talk — the dogs, the bears, and the Girabbit (a gigantic rabbit), who lives in Mr. Bliss’s garden. At one point the bears play a trick on their visitors. We see the trick illustrated, but there is no explanation: “How did the bears do it? That is their own private secret,” Tolkien writes.
Then all is forgiven over a very English supper of cold chicken, ham, lettuces, beetroot, tomatoes, trifle, cheese, brown bread, asparagus, birthday cake, and beer.
It’s a thoroughly wacky story. It does not feel like something created for posterity, to last forever and ever, but something created for fun. I was not at all surprised to learn that Tolkien wrote the story in 1936 for his own young children. There are differing reports as to whether he himself was the bad driver or whether the motorcar was based on a toy that belonged to his son, Christopher. The book, originally rejected because of the cost of reproducing the illustrations, was published posthumously in 1982, then reissued in 2007.
Because the book is made from facsimiles of Tolkien’s original work. There are cross-outs of part of a sentence on page 16 and a note on page 19, “Teddy, I mean!” There are visible marks where tape held pages together.
Tolkien adds his own illustrator notes, such as, “Herbert is not in this picture. He swallowed a crumb the wrong way and is coughing in the scullery. He was sitting beyond Egbert, next to Teddy.” And in another illustration he notes, “The car is just here (and the ponies and donkey) but I am tired of drawing it.”
Although this book was written and illustrated before The Hobbit and LOTR, there are unmistakable seeds of what is to come. In the midst of a crisis, Mr. Bliss “did not put off breakfast, nor did he hurry over it.” Then he had “a kind of breakfast-lunch (or brunch).”
[Warning: spoiler ahead.]
There’s also an appearance by a Gamgee (old Gaffer Gamgee) and a Fattie reminiscent of Fatty Bolger. Also, like Tolkien’s later tales, the ending is not a happily ever after; there are consequences for Mr. Bliss’ reckless sojourn, mostly monetary. But if Samwise and Rosie were reading this tale to their thirteen young ’uns, they would appreciate the romantic ending: the marriage of Mr. Day and Mrs. Knight, who open a shop called Day and Knight’s.
This book is early Tolkien — Tolkien before the world knew him by last name only. But the signs of John Ronald Reuel’s imaginative style are already visible. There’s whimsy at work amid the chaos and a promise that no matter how dark the woods get, somehow the path will be found.
“The wood got darker and darker as they went deeper and deeper. All they could see was the faint signs of a path—the path the bears made going to and from their house.”
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, April 12. We will read Wolf in the Snow by Matthew Cordell.
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“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist