Saturday, November 12, 2011

The New Arrivals: ART OF THE HOBBIT and MR. BLISS

So, a while back my wife saw a box from that had just arrived and asked, 'have we run out of books over here that we now have to start importing them?'

Well, maybe. It used to be in the old days that the only way to get ahold of a book published in England but not the US was to set up a trade with someone in England wherein you'd buy books for them over here and ship them over there, while they'd buy an equivalent amount of books over there and ship them over here. I've had three book-trades going on over the years (with Jessica Yates, and Christina Scull, and Charles Noad), and I have them to thank for many items I'd never have been able to come across myself (such as the limited edition HOMECOMING OF BEORHTNOTH and all those Pratchetts Charles stood in line to have signed for me), and sent off many a volume from this side to hold up my end.

Nowaday with, it's easier to just buy direct -- but not always, as some items can only be sold in one country or the other (e.g., the soon-to-be-released Kindle version of THE HISTORY OF THE HOBBIT, which initially at least will be UK-only, alas). You can get killed on the exchange rate and shipping, but for some books it's worth it. And the latest such are two that arrived together on Wednesday: the new edition of MR. BLISS, and THE ART OF THE HOBBIT

To take the first one first, I remember the days when MR. BLISS was The Great Unknown: we knew there was an unpublished hand-illustrated children's book by Tolkien at the Marquette Archives but v. little about what it was about. My first letter to the Archives (which Chuck Elston showed me still in the files years later) was in fact a request to see if I cd have a copy made (they said no). And so the first task on my first weekday in Milwaukee once I arrived there in August 1981 was to go to the Archives, introduce myself, and ask to see MR. BLISS. I spent what little free time I had (this was the opening week of grad school for me to work on my Ph.D.,* and also the week I started teaching freshmen English at Marquette, along with all the business of moving into a new apartment in a new city) transcribing it into a notebook (which I still have, having unearthed it from among The Boxes not long ago). And I remember shortly thereafter when the photographers came in to take careful pictures of the original book in preparation for its publication the following year (in 1982).

To be honest, while it was a thrill to read a new piece by Tolkien, the story itself was a bit of a disappointment. Unlike FARMER GILES OF HAM, which is a little gem in its own right, and THE FATHER CHRISTMAS LETTERS, which have a sort of charm of their own, I've never really warmed to MR. BLISS or ROVERANDOM (which I heard a lot about in 1987 but had to wait to read till 1998, like everybody else).

This being the case, I have to say I really like this new (third) edition of BLISS. The first combined a facsimile of the original with typeset text on facing pages -- not really necessary, I thought, since Tolkien used clear and highly readable 'uncial' lettering -- but unfortunately they decided to replace the original cream-colored pages (from natural browning of good-quality paper over the preceding fifty years) with greyish paper, which bleached out the art somewhat.

This was replaced by a beautiful slipcase edition in the same format (facsimile on right-hand pages, facing typeset transcription on facing left-hand pages) but kept the original paper-color, so that the art came through better). I saw this second edition in Blackwells while in England in 2007 but have never seen it for sale over here; they really did a nice job of it.

Now here comes the third edition, which is really two books in one. The front cover shifts the orientation of the book from manuscript's horizontal orientation (i.e., the pages are wider than they are tall) to a more normal vertical orientation (like, say, FARMER GILES or TREE & LEAF or any of the other smallish Tolkien volumes). They've also typeset the whole with the pictures interspersed where needed, making for an attractive little book.

And for those who prefer the original, all you have to do is flip the volume over and there's the whole story again, this time in its original horizontal orientation, facsimile pages, and facing transcription pages. So in fact here we have the same book twice, starting from the respective outside covers and both ending in the middle. It's an interesting and I thought highly effective layout; well done, HarperCollins! There's also a brief (two-page) introduction [unsigned] that sets the stage while adroitly avoiding the various unknowns about the tale (exactly when it was written, its inspiration, &c).

All in all, a nice little volume that shd get a little more attention to this minor but amusing little bit of Tolkien.


--John R.

*and also the week of the infamous episode in which I met with my advisor for the first time, and he told me "I don't want to catch you working on Tolkien while you're here". Ah, those were the days.


andrew higgins said...


Hello from the UK!! I recently read Mr Bliss and did a short blog post on at

Awaiting Kindle of History of Hobbit (it is on pre order) I now have the one volume and could not resist reading the new phase seven material first now going back to the beginning. Through Professor Corey Olsen's Mythgard Institute excellent Tolkien and Epic course we are currently studying The Lay of Leithian and we had a good talk last night about Thu/Sauron and your work on him in the Necromancer chapter.

Take care Andy

John D. Rateliff said...

Hi Andrew.
Thanks for the comment; I've just followed the link to yr own piece, wh. I enjoyed v. much.

Pity the Kindle H.o.H. looks to be limited to the UK, at least initially; I look forward to its eventually making its way over here as well.

Glad the Thu/Necromancer bit was helpful. I find myself wistful when reading Tolkien's letter to Ransome about how "you tempt me grievously to a mythological essay" re. "the exact history of the world into which Mr. Baggins strayed" [H.o.H.874]-- how I wish he'd written that essay, and how we'd all love to read it.

Here's hoping that someday we get a MR BLISS audiobook, like the ones Jacobi did for ROVERANDOM and FR. CHRISTMAS.

--John R.