MR. BLISS is a rambling nonsense tale about a man
who buys a car for five shillings-sixpence, and proceeds to have a series of misadventures. These will be dealt with in a moment; it seems more appropriate to begin with the history of this work written by Tolkien for his children some 50 years ago--the exact date is uncertain--for it is in many ways more interesting a story, particularly for Tolkien fans, than that of the hapless Mr. Bliss.
Tolken bought a car himself in 1932, and seems to have had a number of mishaps with it which led to the writing of Mr. Bliss. He illustrated the story with ink and colored pencils, wrote out the text by hand, and bound the whole into a little book, but did not at first seek publication for it. Some years later, in 1937, when his editor was eager for something new to follow up the success of The Hobbit, which had just been published, Tolkien took it to him along with several other stories. Mr. Bliss was received with enthusiasm--not as a successor to Bilbo Baggins but rather as something pleasant to fill the space while new hobbit tales were in the making. However, producing a picture book in full color was, then as now, an expensive undertaking, and Tolkien was asked to redraw the pictures to make Mr. Bliss more economical.
Tolkien was quite willing to take on the task, but somehow never seemed to find the time. He put Mr. Bliss away in a drawer and began on what was to become, after 12 years of work, The Lord of the Rings. I suspect, though I cannot find corroboration, that by this time Mr. Bliss must have seemed to him very slight, as certainly it is. However, the enormous financial success of The Lord of the Rings--all three volumes appearing between August of 1954 and October of 1955--brought with it serious tax difficulties, and so when Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, offered to buy his manuscripts, he sent off to them the originals of The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and Farmer Giles of Ham. Mr. Bliss, still unpublished, came along, too-- whether by accident or design I do not know--and has at last been brought to light by the executors of the author's estate.
Tolkien himself might or might not be pleased with this overdue birth. Mr. Bliss is a dizzy tale--perhaps one ought to say "balmy in the crumpet"--in which the protagonist, wearing an extremely tall green hat and leaving behind his Girabbit, a creature all giraffe except for ears and cottontail, drives off in his brand-new car to visit his friends, the Dorkinses. En route he upends first Mr. Day and a barrow-load of cabbages and then Mrs. Knight with her donkey-cart full of bananas. Taking them, their produce, and the donkey along, he proceeds into a forest where he runs afoul of three bears. The story continues in this way, rather aimlessly piling upset on upset, and at one point Mr. Bliss vanishes entirely, so that the story is carried for several pages by the other characters. There are frequent asides to the reader, and the whole sounds exactly like what it is: a charming but careless tale drawn out well beyond itself to please the author's own uncritical children. The voice recalls The Hobbit now and then, but it is a light-hearted voice with no undertones--a casual voice out merely for a good time.
Still, Mr. Bliss, for Tolkien buffs, is a book worth owning, a beautifully produced facsimile which contains on every right-hand page Tolkien's picture and the text recast in a clear and helpful typeface which retains all of the author's punctuation and, when reasonable, his layout as well. The pictures, by the way, are all small and as casual and slight as the story--the characters are drawn a good deal less convincingly than the settings, some of which are very pleasing--but all are valuable as part of the oeuvre. If you love Tolkien and are interested in him as a man as well as a great talent, you will want to own Mr. Bliss to round out your collection. And if you want to introduce small children to Tolkien, this is not a bad way to begin.