Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Review - Letters from Father Christmas by J.R.R. Tolkien

Short review: Twenty-three years of illustrated letters from Father Christmas to the Tolkien children.

Tolkien's children wrote
Letters to Father Christmas
And then he wrote back

Full review: Before The Lord of the Rings, before The Hobbit (read review), when Middle-Earth itself was nothing more than an embryonic idea that manifested as a handful of unpublished poems, Tolkien was writing for an eager audience. Like many children, Tolkien's offspring wrote letters to Father Christmas every year, but unlike the experience of many other children, Tolkien's offspring received letters back. Beautifully written and illustrated letters that tell tales of whimsy, adventure, and love. Most of these letters and all of the paintings and drawings that accompanied them are collected in this volume, meaning that Tolkien's labor of love and affection can be read and enjoyed by everyone else.

The letters themselves span the period between 1920, when Tolkien's oldest son John was three, and 1943, when his youngest child Priscilla was fourteen. In between, Tolkien crafted a masterfully creative series of characters and adventures to delight and entertain his children, starting with simple missives showing Father Christmas and his house next to the North Pole, but quickly escalating to silly tales involving the Great Polar Bear of the North doing well-meaning but rather foolish things and Father Christmas cleaning up the resulting mess. The letters respond to what would seem to be typical concerns expressed by children in their letters to Father Christmas: Letting them know what gifts had been brought for them, answering questions as to Father Christmas' home and appearance, and so on. But Tolkien was not content to write only about such mundane matters, and went on to craft increasingly elaborate stories involving an increasingly large cast of characters. And although the Tolkien children probably mostly looked forward to the model trains, books, and other toys, it is these stories that were the real treasures in their stockings.

The first letter is quite short, more or less just telling John that Father Christmas is on his way to deliver gifts to Oxford and includes a picture of both him and his house at the North Pole. But the letters quickly became more elaborate - within five years the annual letter included a story involving the Great Polar Bear climbing (and breaking) the North Pole to retrieve Father Christmas' hat, and in the process wrecking "Christmas House", prompting the construction of a new dwelling for Father Christmas perched upon a conveniently nearby cliff resulting in the name "Cliff House". And from this beginning the stories and accompanying cast of characters grew every year. Father Christmas soon had a gardener - the Snow Man. The Great Polar Bear soon had a name, Karhu, and mischievous nephews underfoot - Paksu and Valkotukka. Eventually Father Christmas had red gnomes helping him package gifts and fend off goblins, and enlisted an elvish secretary named Ilbereth to help him manage his household. Eventually even penguins briefly join the menagerie, having swum from the South Pole to see if there is anything they could do to help out.

An interesting element to these letters is that they were written before the modern mythology surrounding Father Christmas has solidified, giving Tolkien a little bit of room to define the character as he wished. Hence, Father Christmas is aided by Karhu the polar bear, and the reindeer, while needed to pull his sleigh, aren't named at all, and for the most part do not show up in the stories as active characters. Even the count of reindeer is not set, as the letters suggest that Father Christmas varies the number of reindeer hitched to his sleigh, and that he prepares several different sleighs for Christmas so as to be able to handle the enormous volume of presents to deliver. Eventually Father Christmas had an array of helpers, and also the black goblin adversaries, some of which rode giant bats to attack Cliff House, and while the Polar Bear served as a powerful guardian, Father Christmas also got into battle, firing off gunpowder rockets at his enemies - a decidedly different vision of the character than current lore presents. Many of the elements that show up in Tolkien's vision of Father Christmas and the magical North Pole landscape he inhabits are clearly the seeds of things that ended up in later works such as The Hobbit. As an interesting aside, despite his obvious love for Father Christmas and his attendant mythology, Tolkien, unlike C.S. Lewis with Narnia, resisted inserting the character into his secondary world of Middle-Earth.

The letters end on something of a melancholy note. In addition to the sadness of the last of the Tolkien children growing older and leaving behind the wonders of childhood, the last four years worth of letters were written in the shadow of World War II. Among the most touching letter is a short note dated December 23rd, 1940, in which Karhu assures Priscilla Tolkien that Father Christmas has received her note letting him know that she had moved. Given the timing of the note, it seems possible that the Tolkien's had left their home to escape from the specter of German bombers (although there is no evidence one way or the other that this was the reason for their move). But from 1939 through 1943, the letters are clearly the effort of a parent to reassure a bewildered child who was attempting to make sense of the overwhelming insensibility of a world at war.

From the very first letters and illustrations to the very last, Letters from Father Christmas is a testament to the love of a father for his children. The care, attention, and affection that is evidenced in this collection is touching and endearing. The imagination and creativity that fills the pages shows Tolkien's mastery of myth, language, and storytelling which is all woven together into an adorable and engaging twenty-three year long story. Without even knowing it, merely by trying to entertain his own children, Tolkien ended up writing one of the best Christmas books ever put on paper. Tolkien's children were exceedingly lucky because they got to read this story before anyone else, but now that the letters have been published in this volume, the rest of us are now lucky enough to be able to enjoy them as well.

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  1. It's been a long time since I read this but I remember really enjoying it.

    1. PS .. I didn't see a twitter for you but I wanted to tell you real quick I have been bee-bopping around your blog tonight and love it!!!

    2. @My anxious life: I am on twitter as @AaronPound.