|The days are getting shorter and over here in Belgium the first cold also arrived. I can almost smell it is 'that' time of the year again. Christmas is coming, as is the yearly tradition of reading out loud from one particular book. My kids just love it, The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien.
Some of you might recall the interview with David Brawn in which he said: "This year will see Letters from Father Christmas released for the first time in a standard B-format edition, which we hope will introduce the work to readers who have never considered buying the large format. It will include the illustrations, and the larger hardback edition will still be available for those who prefer it."
No reader, young or old, can fail to be charmed by the inventiveness and 'authenticity' of Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas. To mark ten years since the publication of the complete edition of Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas in 1999, this new edition is the first time the letters have been available in B format. And having it lying next to me here, I can tell you all, it looks absolutely fabulous. My hardback now will be put aside and reading will be done from the paperback!
When John (Tolkien's son) was 3 he got his first letter from Father Christmas. From 1920 until 1943 Tolkien wrote letters, as Father Christmas, to his children. They were accompagnied by lot's of funny pictures. The Father Christmas Letters contains most of these letters and most illustrations (most in colour). I don't need to explain why this book makes a perfect Christmas present!
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.
|Letters from Father Christmas
Estimate: 160 pages
Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers Ltd
Publication date: 1 Oct 2009
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