Lord of the Rings Author and His Letters From Father Christmas

J R R Tolkien is famous for his Middle-earth trilogy but his Father Christmas’ letters reveal another side of the well-known author.

By Kieren Puffett
photographs by The Tolkien Estate Limited 1976
Published 24 Dec 2017, 10:40 GMT
‘The Aurora Borealis’ - Illustration from Father Christmas letter 1926.
"Isn’t the North Polar Bear silly?...[he] turned ...
‘The Aurora Borealis’ - Illustration from Father Christmas letter 1926. "Isn’t the North Polar Bear silly?...[he] turned on all the Northern Lights for two years in one go. You have never heard or seen anything like it. I have tried to draw a picture of it: but I am too shaky to do it properly and you can’t paint fizzing light can you?" J R R Tolkien Father Christmas’s main helper was the North Polar Bear or NPB for short. Over the years the letters relate many of his escapades, accidents and adventures. Sometimes these account for presents being lost or arriving damaged.
Photograph by © The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976

It was a tradition that J R R Tolkien kept going for 23 years and was first started when his three-year old son, John, asked who Father Christmas was and where he lived. The question inspired Tolkien to pen a letter to John from Father Christmas. 

The Father Christmas letter writing started in 1920 and continued until 1943, when Tolkien’s youngest child, Priscilla was 14. These letters and the stories from Father Christmas were also richly illustrated by Tolkien, and now members of the public will be able to view them. The Bodleian Library in Oxford will have some of them on display alongside the largest array of original Tolkien materials from the UK and the USA to be exhibited since the 1950s.

Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien Archivist at the Bodleian Libraries and curator of the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibition, said: “The Father Christmas letters are some of my favourite items in the exhibition. The letters were delivered by the postman, who'd been persuaded by Tolkien to deliver them with the rest of the post, or arrived on the hearth with specially made stamps from the North Pole, marked with the cost of postage '2 kisses'.

‘Goblins!’ - December 1932 "There have been lots of adventures you will want to hear about. It all began with the funny noises underground which started in the summer & got worse & worse..." This letter was written when Tolkien was engaged in writing ‘The Hobbit’. The goblins and wargsin that story began to spill over into Father Christmas’s letters. Elves, called Red Gnomes, also appear, coming to Father Christmas’s aid in his battles with the goblins.
Photograph by © The Tolkien Trust 2012

Mcllwaine continued: “They contained news from the North Pole where Father Christmas lived with his 'helper' the North Polar Bear, who often got into trouble and caused twice as much work for Father Christmas. As the Tolkien children grew older, the letters from Father Christmas grew longer and the tales became darker and more thrilling.”

Some of his later letters contained details of goblins who lived in caves underneath the North Pole and stole some of Father Christmas’ presents intended for children. The letters provide a touching insight into Tolkien’s family life and reveal another side to the author, whose Lord of the Rings trilogy was made into a series of films–each film represented one of the books.

The Bodleian Library in Oxford is currently running an exhibition, Treasures: 21 Pairs and a Tropical Forest, which has one of Tolkien’s Father Christmas letters on display. There will also be another exhibition in 2018, Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, which will feature manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts from the Bodleian's extensive Tolkien Archive, the Tolkien Collection at Marquette University in the USA and from private collections. This exhibition will be held at The Weston Library, Bodleian Libraries, Oxford from 1 June – 28 October 2018 and admission will be free.

There will also be a book, Letters from Father Christmas, published by Harper Collins, that contains all of Tolkien’s Father Christmas letters and is available from the Bodleian Libraries shop from 25 May 2018.

The first letter and illustration from Father Christmas - 1920 When Tolkien’s three-year old son, John, asked who Father Christmas was and where he lived, Tolkien wrote a reply from Father Christmas, starting a tradition that would continue for the next twenty-three years. Every Christmas Eve Tolkien would sit in his study and write a letter to his children from Father Christmas, accompanying them with beautiful drawings.
Photograph by © The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976
Photograph by © The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976
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