Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Father Christmas Letters, by J. R. R. Tolkien

Regular readers of The Jade Sphinx know that we find the tales of hobbits, orcs, elves and trolls by J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973) to be fairly indigestible.  The popularity of Tolkien’s fantasy oeuvre is just something we have to acknowledge, if not understand.

However, we are delighted to report that the collection of letters he wrote to his children under the guise of Father Christmas is infinitely delightful.  Beginning at Christmas, 1920, when Tolkien’s eldest son John was three years old, the author would write and illustrate letters to his children for the next 20 years (through the childhoods of Michael, Christopher and Priscilla.)  Sometimes the envelopes would have special North Pole stamps, or bear bits of snow or magic dust.  The meticulous pen-and-ink drawings would show Father Christmas with his pack in the arctic waste, or building a new home, or provide a peak into the storeroom of presents.

Over time, Tolkien would expand upon his Christmas universe – Father Christmas will acquire a new assistant, a great white North Polar Bear, the PB’s nephews would later join the narrative, and, of course, various skirmishes with goblins in their massive caves beneath the Pole.

These goblins seem to return every now and then; and the North Polar Bear in single combat takes down one hundred of them before the gnomes polish off the rest. The goblins spend the next several years building their forces for one final conflict.  When World War II breaks out, and so much of the world is occupied with the conflict, the goblins see this as their chance to mount another attack on the North Pole.

The Father Christmas Letters were first published in 1976, three years after Tolkien's death. There are several different editions, some omitting the earlier (and less interesting) letters, while other deluxe editions reproduce the letters in individual envelopes.  Depending on your pocketbook and interest in the illustrations, it is hard to go wrong with any of them.

I have been returning to this slim volume of beautifully illustrated letters every year since I first received my copy nearly two decades ago.  I respond to this simple book in ways I could never relate to the more ambitious hobbit books.  The world of Father Christmas is both more familiar and more accessible than his stories of Middle Earth; frankly, Father Christmas’ world in the North Pole is also infinitely more interesting than Bilbo and Frodo Baggins.  Also, since these were written for his children without thought of publication, the many novelistic failings Tolkien was prone too are absent.  His inability to move narrative forward, or his extremely tiresome digressions and displays of needless erudition are not in evidence. 

What is amply on display is Tolkien’s seeming kindness, his delight in folklore and myth, his simple humanity, and his delight in the holiday season.  This book contains all of Tolkien’s charms and none of his drawbacks – if you must own only one of his books, this is the one.

One last note – what a delightful thing to do for one’s children.  Tolkien not only wrote these letters in the rather shaky hand of Father Christmas, but he also created the many charming pen-and-ink illustrations, as well.  They are surely not the casual work of a moment, but the loving and thoughtful creation of a father trying to please his children.  Perhaps the reason we connect to the Father Christmas Letters so is not because of the letters themselves, but for the warmth and love that went into their creation.

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