Tolkien had four children and throughout their childhood he entertained them by making up stories. He wrote some of these stories down and illustrated them. The Hobbit is the most famous example but he also wrote a wonderful series of illustrated letters from Father Christmas; the tale of the enchanted dog, Roverandom, and the slightly surreal adventures of Mr. Bliss.
‘From Father Christmas: Me [and] My House’. In December 1920 Tolkien’s eldest child, three-year-old John asked who Father Christmas was and where he lived. An answer came in the form of a letter and painting from ‘Father Christmas’, starting a family tradition that would last for twenty-three years.
Four-year-old Michael received his own letter from Father Christmas in 1924. The envelope had a special North Pole postage stamp attached, showing the Northern Lights and the ‘actual’ North Pole.
Over the years, the children learnt more about Father Christmas and his helpers, especially the North Polar Bear, who was naughty, clumsy and sometimes rude. His escapades usually ended in disaster and must have caused much glee among the Tolkien children.
In 1926 the North Polar Bear (NPB for short) set off all the Northern Lights for two years in one enormous explosion. Underneath Father Christmas’ illustration is a sketch by NPB of the reindeer taking fright and presents spilling from the sleigh.
The following year in 1927, an unusual illustration arrived: an icy white painting on a black background. The Great Bear constellation (Ursa Major) can be seen in the sky; perhaps indicating a growing interest in astronomy amongst Tolkien’s children.
This series of three drawings tells its own story: Father Christmas hard at work in his study, Polar Bear opening a window to get some fresh air with disastrous consequences, and the celebratory bonfire party with fireworks held annually on Boxing Day.
In 1931 the North Polar Bear (whose real name was Karhu) drew two pictures for the children: a self-portrait and the sun rising between the mountains. His writing is angular, resembling runes, as he found it hard to hold a pen in his paws.
‘rough sketch of cracker accident’, 1931. These two hastily made drawings show yet another ‘accident’ at the North Pole, with a more domestic scene underneath of Father Christmas making pastry.
As Tolkien’s four children grew up, the letters began to relate more thrilling adventures at the North Pole. In 1932 goblins appeared and had to be driven out of the caves by the NPB assisted by the Red Gnomes from Norway.
These cave drawings, sent in 1932, were discovered by the North Polar Bear underneath the North Pole. Amongst the recognizable creatures, such as woolly mammoth, reindeer and bison, are mysterious human figures with strangely shaped heads – some sprouting antennae.
This painting of the earth seen from space was probably drawn in 1932. The monogram, ‘NC’, can be seen bottom right, which stands for ‘Nicholas Christmas’. Here Tolkien is associating Father Christmas with Saint Nicholas, his Christian fore-runner.
This colourful series of images shows part of a tremendous battle that took place at the North Pole in 1933. While goblins invaded the store-room hoping to steal some presents, others crept into Father Christmas’s bedroom, apparently intent on setting fire to his bed.
In 1936 as the North Polar Bear took a leisurely bath and dreamt of chasing seals, he left the taps running and accidentally flooded the store rooms below.
‘A diary of 1936 to 1937 by Ilbereth’. New characters appeared in Father Christmas’s letters over the years. In 1936 the Elf Ilbereth was introduced as Father Christmas’s secretary. His illustrated diary gives a glimpse of life at the North Pole throughout the year.
By 1940 only the youngest child, Priscilla, eagerly awaited the letter from Father Christmas. It contained sad references to the Second World War (including rationing, evacuees and bombs) but the picture emphasized the spirit of international friendship and co-operation shown by the penguins who swam up from the South Pole to help Father Christmas.
‘So he turned sharp to the right at the next turning, and ran straight into Mr. Day, coming from his garden with a barrow-load of cabbages.’ An illustration from Mr. Bliss, a picture book written for his children, probably in the early 1930s.
‘he was looking down into his own village and could see his own house in the distance on a further hill.’ Mr. Bliss is the only picture book Tolkien produced. He probably wrote it in the early 1930s but it was not published until 1982.
‘House where Rover began his adventures as a toy’, September 1927, an illustration for Roverandom. Tolkien made up this story for his young sons during a family holiday in Filey in 1925. He painted this idyllic scene two years later for his youngest son, Christopher.
‘lunar landscape’, 1925, one of Tolkien’s illustrations for Roverandom. The title is written in Valmaric, an alphabet invented by Tolkien.
‘The White Dragon pursues Roverandom and the Moondog’. This illustration was drawn for his eldest son John in 1927. It is similar to later drawings of Smaug flying around the Lonely Mountain which he drew for The Hobbit in the 1930s.
‘The Gardens of the Merking’s palace from The tale of Roverandom’, September 1927. This underwater scene illustrates Rover’s adventures in the kingdom of the Merking as he seeks to escape his enchantment and regain his true form.