J.R.R. Tolkien is of course best known for his epic fantasy "Lord of the Rings" and his studies in myth and language. But Tolkien was also (just like me) the proud dad of four kids - and he didn't just read "Hobbit" to them at bedtime (and nor do I!). Over the course of many years, he wrote and illustrated detailed, whimsical letters from Father Christmas, populated with a clumsy polar bear, elves and goblins.
In these letters, Father Christmas kept the Tolkien children updated with stories about the hijinks at the North Pole - the slapsticky North Polar Bear and all the things he broke, firework explosions, the discovery of ancient caves full of old cave drawings, and battles with the goblins. (When Father Christmas couldn't write, his Elvish secretary filled in)
tolkien's old-school style of writing is a bit formal and very correct, but he tosses in comments of exasperation, amusement, and in the last letter, a sort of sad resignation that children will grow up. Maybe it is because they were given to real children, not intended for publication, that the letters are only a little cutesy, and never cloying.
And of course, tolkien's detailed, colorful, fantastical, intricate pictures are what make the letters come alive; you can imagine the Tolkien kids eagerly examining the pictures as well as the written words. They aren't terribly realistic - Father Christmas never looks quite real - but their detailed fantastical charm makes up for it, such as the murals on Father Christmas's walls, with suns, moons, stars and trees.
Tolkien also sprinkles the stories with things that his kids were probably intrigued by, like prehistoric cave paintings, fireworks, and a comic bear who causes all kinds of mayhem. And fans of tolkien's fantasy works will probably enjoy checking out things like the invented Elf language (as written by the secretary Ilbereth) and goblin language. Tolkien includes a letter from the North Polar Bear in the latter language.
"Letters From Father Christmas" won't exactly make you believe in Santa Claus again, but it is one of the prettiest and most charming Christmas picture books out there. Definitely recommended - and not just for Tolkien fans too.
As for the illustrations, JRRT had a wonderful sense of color and line. He was very good at drawing stylized landscapes and interiors. Who wouldn't want someplace like Cliff House? He was less successful at drawing people and animals, probably because he knew very little about anatomy. Still, the portrait of Father Christmas wrapping a package is very fine; his features look somewhat Asiatic. I don't know if it is because JRRT had trouble drawing European round eyes, or if the Tolkien children were old enough to have seen pictures of Lapps and Eskimos and would have felt that such features would be appropriate to a man who lived at the North Pole. Also, the picture of the Polar Bear battling the Goblins to save the Good Children's presents was full of movement and spirit enough that one didn't mind the questionable anatomy; the same could be said of the illustration of the accidental flooding of the English Deliveries room.
If you have children in your life, get a copy. Younger children will love to have these read to them, while older ones will love reading them themselves.
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