Letters from Father Christmas | The private fairytale of J. R. R. Tolkien
Before Christmas, every child writes a letter to Santa to ask him for presents. That happens in the Tolkien family, too. But before the presents appear in the Christmas stocking, a letter arrives right from the North Pole. Year after year, Tolkien’s children collect the Letters from Father Christmas, handwritten papers accompanied by drawings and fantastic stamps.
The collection of letters was published in 1976, on the third anniversary of J.R.R. Tolkien‘s death, by Allen and Unwin. Baillie Tolkien, the second wife of the writer’s son Christopher, followed the editing. One year after Houghton Mifflin published the book followed by HarperCollins in 2004.
The personal fantasy of a great storyteller
In 1920 Tolkien wrote the first of many letters under the name of Father Christmas. It was addressed to his oldest son John, who was three at that time and had asked him about Santa’s appearance. From that year on, the writer pretended to be Santa Claus for his four children, so that every Christmas they could receive a letter from the North Pole. The letters contained also drawings and abecedaries to decode the language and writing of the extreme north.
In the first missive, Father Christmas is the only character, but soon he introduces his helper, the Great Polar Bear. Although he causes a bit of trouble, he does his best to accomplish his tasks, and that is why Santa Claus keeps loving him. As time goes by, the story is enriched with secondary characters: some of them are good, while others hamper Father Christmas and his work. The Goblins, for example, cause more and more problems in the creation and distribution of presents. Despite all his (mis)adventures, the old man never forgets about the children, what they asked for Christmas, and the fact that when growing up they’ll stop writing to him.
Even when the world south of his home becomes a dark place, Santa’s letters bring hope and joy, keeping the tender fairytale alive. Even his last letter, dated 1943, encourages Priscilla (the youngest of Tolkien’s children) not to lose her happiness, before bidding her a final farewell.
“After this I shall have to say “goodbye”, more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters, and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children.”From the last letter from Letters from Father Christmas
The seeds of a masterpiece
The letter’s collection results in an epistolary for children, that under funny stories comments on real events. Differently from works such as Art Spiegelman‘s Maus, though, the raw reality never prevails over the fairytale. The book establishes a connection with classic literature such as Ugo Foscolo‘s Last Letters of Jacopo Ortis (Ultime lettere di Jacopo Ortis) and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe‘s The Sorrows of Young Werther (Die Leiden des jungen Werthers). In fact, Letters from Father Christmas recalls the epistolary form of Foscolo’s and Goethe’s works, being the book composed only of the missives of a sender, although it remains a collection of letters and not an epistolary novel.
The collection contains many seeds and hints that will find development in Tolkien’s masterpiece and its side stories. For example, the same allure of the North and its legends and the interest in mythology will inspire The Lord of the Rings. Likewise, the alphabet invented for the North Pole’s creatures reminds the whole writing system he created for the Middle-Earth.
Letters from Father Christmas gives an insight into the private life of Tolkien and his family. The writer probably never meant to publish these letters; nevertheless, they resulted in a coherent collection. Moreover, they also reveal some fantastic glimpses of what will be his future great literary work. But above all, the book is a tender fairytale, the gift of imagination and dreams from a father to his children.