Tuesday, December 11, 2012


WITH THE HOBBIT COMING OUT IN THEATERS and Christmas only two weeks away, the time is right to bring out J.R.R. Tolkien's The Father Christmas Letters. Tolkien, in case you somehow have missed this, is the most important fantasy writer of all time. His Lord of the Rings defined high fantasy: an intricately detailed fictional world (Middle-Earth) and a heroic epic quest (Frodo's imperative to destroy the one ring). Tolkien, a professor at Oxford, spent much of his life chronicling Middle-Earth's history, creating whole new languages and alphabets, complicated mythology, and international politics. And since the books' release in the 1950s, billions of dollars in revenue from books, films, and merchandise have proven that almost everyone loves it.

Now imagine if the guy who did all that was your dad. What kind of cool bedtime stories would he tell? What would he say when you asked him if Santa Claus was real?

Tolkien had four children--John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla. Starting when John was three in 1920 and continuing for the next twenty-four years, Tolkien wrote and illustrated a personal letter from Father Christmas to his children each year. The letters were delivered to the house in envelopes bearing North Pole stamps and postal cancellations, except when they were marked "By Elf Messenger" or "by direct Reindeer Post." Father Christmas's handwriting was often shaky--he was "nineteen hundred and twenty-four, no! seven! years old on Christmas Day" 1923, and it was cold at the North Pole. Eventually his elfin secretary Ilbereth took over some of the writing duties in 1936.

But what did Father Christmas write about? Well his boon companion was the North Polar Bear, who had a way of getting himself into trouble. In 1925, he climbed the North Pole to retrieve Father Christmas's hood, and the North Pole broke, destroying Father Christmas's house in the process. In 1928 he fell down the stairs and in 1936 he fell asleep in the bath, flooding one of the gift sorting rooms.

Eventually, the cast of characters grew to include two of the North Polar Bear's nephew's, Pasku and Valkotukka, and countless unnamed Elves, Snow-Men, Red Gnomes, Green Gnomes, Cave-bears, and starting in 1932, Goblins.

Apparently, Father Christmas has been at war with the Goblins for centuries. In 1932, the North Polar Bear stumbles into one of their deserted underground caves, the walls covered with paintings, some by goblins, some by men. Soon, sensitive to the smell of Goblins, the North Polar Bear uncovers a system of tunnels that lead in to the kitchen of Father Christmas's old house. Father Christmas thought the goblins were taken care of after the trouble they caused in 1453, but with evidence of at least one hundred years of activity, Father Christmas knows he must take action. He smokes the Goblins out into the hands of the Red Gnomes who chase them out of the land. The threat has passed, although Father Christmas believes "they will crop up again in a century or so."

They crop up the next year, however, and the North Polar Bear in single combat takes down one hundred of them before the Gnomes arrive to handle the rest. This sets the Goblins back many years, but they spend that time rallying their forces. 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. They are, of course, defeated.

The Father Christmas Letters were published in 1976, three years after Tolkien's death. The original edition omitted many of the letters from the early 1920s, as those letters were short and lacked the narrative elements of the later letters. It also left out the letters from the early 1940s. A complete edition of the letters, along with scans of many of the envelopes and letters in addition to the illustrations, was published in 2004, a paperback of which is still in print.

While written for children, the letters from Father Christmas were written for a very specific group of children with the conceit that the letters were authentic, so the book might not be of that much interest to children today. But it is of great interest to any fan of Tolkien, a way to imagine what it was like to have a dad who invented Gandalf, Bilbo, and Frodo.

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  1. Wow, he was one special Dad, what? One can only imagine having him as a Father. It would have changed a lot of childrens worlds from a life of fear and violence to one of dreams and love.
    Such an excellent blog, thank you!

  2. I had SO much fun reading this when my children were young. As they got older I even wrote them a couple of letters from Father Christmas. Some of our best Christmas memories! I would recommend this book to everyone!