Discover J.R.R. Tolkien’s Little-Known and Hand-Illustrated Children’s Book, Mr. Bliss

His were usu­al­ly humor­ous sto­ries, full of mag­ic, and very often, they con­tained a con­nec­tion to the children’s lives, because it was pri­mar­i­ly for them that he invent­ed them.

–Sarah Zama

The fact that “much of the inspi­ra­tion of the Lord of the Rings came from [J.R.R. Tolkien’s] fam­i­ly,” Danielle Bur­gos writes at Bus­tle, has become an oft-repeat­ed piece of triv­ia, espe­cial­ly thanks to such pop­u­lar treat­ments of the author’s life as Humphrey Carter’s autho­rized biog­ra­phy, the Nicholas Hoult-star­ring biopic, Tolkien, and the Cather­ine McIl­waine-edit­ed col­lec­tion Tolkien: Mak­er of Mid­dle-Earth. As much as Tolkien drew on his exten­sive knowl­edge of Norse, Ger­man­ic, and oth­er mytholo­gies and lin­guis­tic his­to­ries, and from his har­row­ing expe­ri­ences in WWI, his career as a leg­endary fan­ta­sy author may nev­er have come about with­out his chil­dren.

“In just one exam­ple,” notes Bur­gos, a col­lec­tion of Tolkien’s let­ters shows that the char­ac­ter of Tom Bom­badil “was based on son Michael’s wood­en toy doll.” Tolkien’s old­est son John remarked before the release of the first Peter Jack­son adap­ta­tion, “It’s quite incred­i­ble. When I think when we were grow­ing up these were just sto­ries that we were told.”

Tolkien stren­u­ous­ly resist­ed the label of children’s author; he “firm­ly believed,” Maria Popo­va points out, “that there is no such thing as writ­ing for chil­dren.” But the degree to which his sto­ry­telling and char­ac­ter­i­za­tion devel­oped from his desire to enter­tain and edu­cate his kids can’t be over­stat­ed in the devel­op­ment of his ear­ly fic­tion.

We see this in a small way in the lit­tle-known chil­dren’s book Mr. Bliss, writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Tolkien some­time in the 1930s, kept in a draw­er until 1957, and only pub­lished posthu­mous­ly in 1982. The sto­ry itself “was inspired by his first car, which he pur­chased in 1932.” As evi­dence of its impor­tance to the larg­er Tolkien canon, Popo­va writes, the author “went on to use two of the char­ac­ter names from the book, Gaffer Gamgee and Bof­fin, in The Lord of the Rings.” In oth­er respects, how­ev­er, Mr. Bliss is very unlike the medieval fan­tasies that sur­round­ed its com­po­si­tion.

The book, affec­tion­ate­ly hand­writ­ten and illus­trat­ed by Tolkien him­self — who, also unbe­knownst to many, was a ded­i­cat­ed artist — tells the sto­ry of Mr. Bliss, a lov­able eccen­tric known for his excep­tion­al­ly tall hats and his “girab­bits,” the giraffe-head­ed, rab­bit-bod­ied crea­tures that live in his back­yard. One day, Mr. Bliss decides to buy his very first motor car[.] But his first dri­ve en route to a friend’s house soon turns into a Rube Gold­berg machine of dis­as­ter as he col­lides with near­ly every­thing imag­in­able, then gets kid­napped by three bears.

Tolkien sub­mit­ted the book for pub­li­ca­tion after the run­away suc­cess of The Hob­bit cre­at­ed a mar­ket demand he had no par­tic­u­lar desire to meet, telling his pub­lish­er that the sto­ry was com­plete. But Mr. Bliss was reject­ed, osten­si­bly because its illus­tra­tions were too expen­sive to repro­duce. In truth, how­ev­er, the pub­lic want­ed more hob­bits, elves, dwarves, wiz­ards, and poet­ry and song in beau­ti­ful invent­ed lan­guages.

Tolkien would, of course, even­tu­al­ly deliv­er a “New Hob­bit,” in the form of the The Lord of the Rings tril­o­gy—books that weren’t specif­i­cal­ly “writ­ten for his chil­dren,” Sarah Zama writes, but in which “the sto­ry he had indeed cre­at­ed for his chil­dren weighed heav­i­ly.” See sev­er­al more Tolkien-illus­trat­ed pages from one of the trilogy’s whim­si­cal ear­ly ances­tors, Mr. Bliss, at Brain Pick­ings and pur­chase a copy of the book here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

110 Draw­ings and Paint­ings by J.R.R. Tolkien: Of Mid­dle-Earth and Beyond

How J.R.R. Tolkien Influ­enced Clas­sic Rock & Met­al: A Video Intro­duc­tion

The Largest J.R.R. Tolkien Exhib­it in Gen­er­a­tions Is Com­ing to the U.S.: Orig­i­nal Draw­ings, Man­u­scripts, Maps & More

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

by | Permalink | Comments (0) |

Sup­port Open Cul­ture

We’re hop­ing to rely on our loy­al read­ers rather than errat­ic ads. To sup­port Open Cul­ture’s edu­ca­tion­al mis­sion, please con­sid­er mak­ing a dona­tion. We accept Pay­Pal, Ven­mo (@openculture), Patre­on and Cryp­to! Please find all options here. We thank you!

Leave a Reply

Open Culture was founded by Dan Colman.