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CARPE LIBRUM: Celebrating fatherhood and the holidays with Tolkien’s Father Christmas

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Wilmington’s literary community keeps gaining accolades (two National Book Awards nominees in 2015) and attention in the press. With multiple established publishers in the state (Algonquin, Blair) and new smaller presses gaining traction (Lookout, Eno, Bull City), and a pair of well-regarded literary magazines out of UNCW, it is timely to shine a light on discussions around literary publishing. More so, it shows the importance of communicating a truthful story in our present world.

Welcome to Carpe Librum, encore’s biweekly book column, wherein I will dissect a current title and/or an old book—because literature does not exist in a vacuum but emerges to participate in a larger, cultural conversation. I will feature many NC writers; however, the hope is to place the discussion in a larger context and therefore examine works around the world.

Letters From Father Christmas
J.R.R. Tolkien
Houghton Mifflin, 2004, Pgs. 111

Finding books about the holidays that don’t make me feel physically ill (for a variety of reasons) is very difficult. I can’t do “A Christmas Carol” anymore; it is too upsetting and I cry uncontrollably. Books retelling the first Christmas are not for me and, frankly, books about Hanukkah, though quite beautifully illustrated most of the time, lack much in the way of a sense for real urgency.

A copy of “Letters From Father Christmas” found its way to me through a friend’s estate a few years ago. I found myself flipping through it, mesmerized and charmed by the unexpected volume.  J.R.R. Tolkien would apparently write his children letters from “Father Christmas” every year that would appear on the mantle or hall table. He started when the oldest child, John, was three. The letters are written in a shaky hand—for Father Christmas is, after all, over a 1,000 years old!  They feature Tolkien’s illustrations of life in the North Pole. 

The Polar Bear is his friend/helper who writes editorial comments in the margins and tends to be at the center of a variety of adventures that Father Christmas recounts each year. Polar Bear frequently is responsible for the destruction of stored gifts awaiting delivery. Later, Polar Bear is essential in a battle against goblins, who pose an imminent threat to Father Christmas and the gifts intended for children. After many years Father Christmas adopts/acquires/hires a secretary who is an elf.  Now, Tolkien is producing three distinct sets of handwriting for the children’s letters and illustrations. The text of the letters are carefully typed out in the book for the reader, and each letter and accompanying illustration is reproduced in full color.

It is not a traditional Christmas story or short-story collection. The story that unfolds from 1920 to 1943 is of a very put-upon Father Christmas and the loved ones he surrounds himself with, in his attempts to bring children joy. The first letter appears in 1920 and is addressed to John. As each successive child (Michael, Christopher and Priscilla) joins the family, the letters begin to include them. So, we watch the family and children grow.

John stops writing Father Christmas as he gets older, then Michael ages past Christmas letters. Christopher, who has been the most closely connected with the Tolkien estate and posthumous publications of his father’s works (including drawing the maps for “Lord of the Rings”) lingers longer in the letters than his brothers did.

Perhaps it is the letters written to Priscilla Tolkien during WWII that are the most telling. How does Father Christmas talk to a little girl about Christmas during WWII?  How does he bring light and happiness during the Blitz? The letters in the book end in 1945 when Priscilla war 14, turning 15, and rebuilding after WWII was the next step for Britain. As a glimpse into history from a very personal perspective, it is invaluable.

Tolkien fans will be thrilled by this book. In addition to the insight into the man’s private life, we see many elements that made Tolkien’s work vibrant. The Polar Bear speaks Arctic and doesn’t like to spell in English. Eventually, the children receive a copy of the Goblin alphabet and rough translation guide in one of the letters. Languages were Tolkien’s passion, so of course he would have shared that with his children in the Father Christmas letters.     

The art is surprisingly beautiful.  After the high production quality of “The Lord of the Rings” films, it is really lovely to see the colored pencil drawings—simple, and thoughtful and friendly, with a very early 20th century look. It isn’t just the texts of the letters that is interesting, it really is the total visual package: the handwriting and alphabets he devises for each character; and the beautiful illustrations of life at the North Pole. It is imaginative and whimsical and more so: It is Tolkien as a father, not Tolkien as a professor or author. This is Dad, at home, during the holidays, making something incredibly special to share with his children.

It can be a rough time of year, emotionally, for any of us, but imagine a Christmas during war time, with two sons in service. Their younger sister is at home, scared, learning about evacuees from London, and this is one of the few consistent things in life to offer her. One thing war can’t take away are letters from Father Christmas, and stories that follow.

If you are looking for a gift for the Tolkien fan who has everything—or if you are trying to find a holiday book that avoids sap and instead vibrates with meaning, look no further. This is it.

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