For nearly a quarter of a century, J. R. R. Tolkien sent his children elaborate letters and pictures from the North Pole. Ben Lerwill explores the penmanship, kindness and magic that went into Letters From Father Christmas.
One hundred years ago, in late December 1920, a letter landed on the doormat of an Oxford home. It was addressed to a three-year-old boy named John and the envelope bore an exotic stamp priced at ‘2 kisses’. Inside was a hand-painted card showing a familiar, red-coated whitebeard treading patiently through the snow. Underneath, painted by the same hand, was a yurt-like, snow-covered dwelling tucked behind pine trees. The two intricate little artworks were captioned ‘Me’ and ‘My House’.
The strange, shivery handwriting inside the card informed young John that the sender was ‘just off now for Oxford with my bundle of toys — some for you. Hope I shall arrive in time: the snow is very thick at the North Pole tonight’. With this brief, but beautifully rendered picture card, a tradition was born that would last almost a quarter-century, at the same time shining a spotlight on the creativity and affections of one of our most celebrated writers.
J. R. R. Tolkien needs little introduction, even for those who don’t know their Balrogs from their Bagginses. The pipe-puffing creator of high-fantasy novels and ardent lover of the British countryside was in his late twenties when he penned the card above. He went on to repeat the correspondence, using ever more inventive designs, language and ideas, every Christmas for the next 23 years.
As with so many things in his life, he gave the task dedication. By the time he sent his final letter from Father Christmas, a poignant wartime dispatch in 1943, his four children (John being the eldest, followed by Michael, Christopher and Priscilla) were all well into their teens and twenties.
The letters were far more than cursory festive greetings. As time went by, Tolkien fleshed out his North Pole world with recurring characters, notably a note-scrawling polar bear with a spelling problem and a multi-lingual elf named Ilbereth with a knack for clerical work. Fire-starting goblins, snowball-throwing red elves and partying cave cubs also appeared, turning each year’s letter into a fresh instalment of a richly entertaining — and often hilarious — winter saga. Some ran to more than 1,000 words.
In 1976, three years after the writer’s death, these lovingly crafted letters and artworks were gathered together and published by the Tolkien estate. The resulting book, Letters From Father Christmas, enjoyed little of the fanfare of his best-known works, but warm praise still came its way. The Times described it as ‘Tolkien at his relaxed and ingenious best’ and The New York Times decreed: ‘Father Christmas lives. And never more merrily than in these pages.’ Almost 45 years on, the book stands not only as a little-heralded festive classic, but as a touching snapshot of another time.
Much of what makes the letters so special is the thought behind them. When that first envelope appeared on the doormat in 1920, Tolkien was not yet an Oxford professor, much less a well-established author. He had been recently demobbed from the army, after contracting trench fever as a young lieutenant at the Somme. The Hobbit — also initially written for the entertainment of his children — was still some 17 years from publication and The Lord of the Rings was more than three decades away.
The letters, for all their elaborate calligraphy, dense narratives and colourful penmanship, represent something simple: the time, kindness and attention of a parent. When, in 1926, Tolkien’s Father Christmas explains that a giant firework ‘turned the North Pole black, shook the stars out of place, broke the moon into four — and the Man in it fell into my back garden. He ate quite a lot of my Christmas chocolates’, the writer’s playful relish is tangible.
Likewise, when Polar Bear interrupts the 1931 missive to admit to sampling food parcels (‘Somebody haz to — and I found stones in some of the kurrants’), it’s easy to picture the family flocking to the letter, their Christmas excitement being cranked higher. And when, in 1932, the correspondence is accompanied by a gorgeous multi-part painting showing reindeer swooping over the Oxford skyline and Father Christmas creeping through a grotto with a flaming torch, we get a sense of the hours that have gone into its creation. The book, incidentally, reproduces all letters, envelopes and artworks.
There’s something deeper on show than good humour and fatherly indulgence, too. The architect of the labyrinthine world of Middle Earth frequently included fantastical events and otherworldly flourishes in his letters that could be straight from the pages of his novels. There are examples of the filmic, sweeping mountain illustrations that would appear on the original cover of The Hobbit. We hear about a 400-year-old great horn (‘its sound carries as far as the North Wind blows’), as well as the goblin war of 1453. Tolkien goes to the trouble of creating an entire goblin alphabet of hieroglyphs and even a letter for his children to translate.
Tolkien’s stories have always been wonderful hybrids of the known and the unknown. The Warwickshire countryside, the Malvern Hills and Lancashire’s Ribble Valley have all inspired various settings in his works. Yet he imbues them with an extra magic — and the same is true of his Father Christmas letters.
The final letter, in war-torn 1943, hints at the intrusion of modern life more than any other. At the same time, it displays an optimism that can still be valued, in 2020 as much as ever. ‘My dear Priscilla, A very happy Christmas!… After this I shall have to say “goodbye”, more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you… My messengers tell me that people call it “grim” this year… and so it is, I fear, in very many places I was specially fond of going; but I am very glad to hear that you are still not really miserable. Don’t be! I am still very much alive, and shall come back again soon, as merry as ever.’