Tolkien’s Christmas letters to his children by Maev Kennedy


From the north pole to Middle-earth: Tolkien’s Christmas letters to his children
Bodleian library to exhibit illustrated letters from Hobbit author, masquerading as Father Christmas

In December 1920 Father Christmas wrote a letter to a modest house in the Oxford suburbs, enclosing a watercolour sketch of his own rather more exotic domed snow house, approached by a flight of steps lit by ice lanterns. “I heard you ask Daddy what I was like and where I lived,” he wrote to three-year-old John Tolkien, and as the family grew to four children, he continued to write every Christmas for 23 years, until the youngest, Priscilla, was 14.

The letters followed the children to several addresses in Leeds where their father, JRR Tolkien, took up a university post, and then back to Oxford when he became became professor of Anglo-Saxon. They were eventually delivered to a much larger house, which has now been listed, despite its scant architectural interest, as the birthplace of the books that spawned a publishing and movie empire, The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

The 1932 letter told how goblins had attempted to steal presents stored ready for Christmas.
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The 1932 letter told how goblins had attempted to steal presents stored ready for Christmas. Photograph: The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976
The illustrated letters continued to arrive every Christmas Eve, sometimes delivered by a postman who had been persuaded to include them with the more boring letters and cards, sometimes materialising on the hearth rug with a handmade stamp. Some years Father Christmas was evidently very busy, and could only pass on the briefest snippets of news, and other years, when he had time on his hands, he could include elaborate multi-layered paintings. One showed his reindeer and sleigh arriving over the Oxford skyline – “your house is just about where the three little black points stick up out of shadow on the right”.

Many recount the adventures of his friend and helper the Polar Bear – in 1926 he accidentally switched on all the Northern Lights – or the goblins who attempted to steal the stored presents in 1932. In one letter Polar Bear “found a hole in the side of a hill & went inside because it was snowing”. He slid down a rocky slope, more rock fell on him, and he could not climb back: “But almost at once he smelled goblin & became interested & started to explore. Not very wise for of course goblins can’t hurt HIM but their caves are very dangerous.” The snow, the entrance to treacherous caves and the smell of goblin will be instantly familiar to readers of the book Tolkien was working on at the time, The Hobbit, the first of the adventures of Middle-earth.

The letter from 1926.
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The letter from 1926. Photograph: The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976
The letters were kept in immaculate condition by the children for decades, but are now among the treasures of the Bodleian library in Oxford. They will feature in its major exhibition next summer devoted to Tolkien’s work, including manuscripts, maps, letters, personal possessions and his own original illustrations for his books, drawn from the archive and many loans.

“The Christmas letters are probably my favourite things in the whole collection,” said Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian, who will curate the exhibition. “They really show you another side of Tolkien, as a loving family man. There’s something so touching about the image of him, no matter how many demands there were on his time in the university or in his writing, finding the time to sit down in his study and produce these wonderful letters, so detailed and beautifully illustrated.

Drawings from the 1932 letter.
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Drawings from the 1932 letter. Photograph: The Tolkien Estate Ltd 1976
“At the time, he was much better known as one of the most distinguished Anglo-Saxon scholars, which can sound a bit dry, but there was nothing dry about these letters at all.”

McIlwaine thinks people will be astonished at how good Tolkien’s artwork is, for somebody who would have been forced to drop art lessons in school for more academic subjects.

“The other reason I find the letters so touching is there couldn’t be a clearer demonstration of how important his family was to him. He was orphaned from the age of 12, when his mother died, and then he spent years boarded out in lodging houses in Birmingham. He actually met his wife, Edith, as a fellow boarder: the family home they made together, and their children, meant everything.

“I really think people will be blown away by the exhibition.”

Tolkien, Maker of Middle-earth, Bodleian library, Oxford, 1 June to 28 October 2018.


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