Baillie Tolkien, ‘Letters from Father Christmas’
Baillie Tolkien, wife of Christopher Tolkien, is the editor of Letters from Father Christmas. In this article she describes the family history behind the letters and explains how they were re-discovered after Tolkien’s death and prepared for publication.
In my introduction to the various editions of the books based on the Father Christmas letters I described the history of the Father Christmas letters, beginning with the first one received in 1920 by J.R.R. Tolkien’s three-year-old firstborn son John. His second son Michael had been born in October of that year, the third, Christopher, joined them in 1924 and their sister Priscilla in 1929. A letter arrived every year until the end of 1943, and during that time, the letters and the world of the North Pole evolved and became more exciting. Their apparent authenticity was enhanced by various devices including letters by helpers of Father Christmas to the children, and the children also wrote to the North Pole.
In the course of the twenty-three year period, Snow-elves, Red Gnomes, Snow-men, Cave-bears, and the Polar Bear’s nephews joined Father Christmas and the North Polar Bear, and the adventures developed elements obviously emanating from the same imagination as that which created Middle-earth.
In keeping with the atmosphere of the published work, the introduction evades the issue of the true author of the letters who was of course J.R.R. Tolkien himself. Throughout the period in question, the older children kept the secret as they learned the truth so the younger ones could continue to enjoy the excitement and suspense. Christopher had already begun to have his suspicions — no doubt encouraged by the challenge to his belief in Father Christmas posed by schoolmates — when he came upon a drawing lying on his father’s desk when his father had been called to the telephone. That drawing was the one of the World to be found at the end of the latest edition.
At the time of my father-in-law’s death in 1973, the letters had been assumed to be lost, so it was a great delight when the whole collection turned up among the vast volume of papers he had kept throughout his life.
They were of course written in no way for publication, but the idea of making them into a book was appealing. Christopher was still teaching at Oxford, and immersed in the sorting of his father’s papers, as well as the preparation of Sir Gawain and Pearl for publication, not to mention early research into the state of the ‘Silmarillion’, and as I had previous editorial experience and was obviously readily able to consult Christopher I was asked to look at the letters with a view to their being made into a book.
It was to be the first posthumous publication, and the approach was cautious. The first edition, which appeared in 1976, titled The Father Christmas Letters, was a selection of the letters, some edited and shortened, and included a certain number of the pictures and other visual elements such as stamps and envelopes. Since then the book has been revised several times.
By 1999 the fidelity and increased enthusiasm of the readership of Tolkien’s works after his death emboldened us to go back to the original letters and pictures to create a wholly new edition including many elements that had been previously left out, resulting in the larger volume available today. We also changed the title: The Father Christmas Letters as the title was inadvertent, being simply Christopher’s designation of the contents of that particular bundle of papers and how the project was referred to as it developed. Letters from Father Christmas sounds more like the title of a book.
As the letters were neither conceived, nor written as a consistent narrative, some criticisms can be levelled at Letters from Father Christmas. It has been said that the texts are too elaborate for children of the age still to believe in Father Christmas, even if read aloud by adults. But many of you have belied this, and the book has found an enthusiastic audience among many families. People have told us how they incorporated it into their family Christmases — reading the first letter on the appropriate day before Christmas to arrive at the last letter on Christmas Eve. Other families were inspired for a time to take up the game. In our own family, for a few years, Christopher wrote letters, and I drew pictures, for letters to be discovered by our children.
The charm of the letters and illustrations is incontestable. The letters have also a certain historical and biographical interest, spanning most of the period following the First World War of the twentieth century, and continuing into the Second. (By the time the last letter was written, Michael had been in the army for three years, and Christopher had just joined the Royal Air Force.) They contain here and there indications of the atmosphere of English life in general, and Tolkien family life in particular, during that period. Moreover, we see again how his invented world penetrated every corner of J.R.R. Tolkien’s daily life, (visible elsewhere even in the doodles he left on the pages of newspapers where he did the crossword puzzle — and which he kept for future incorporation in some design), as elves, goblins, and perhaps even a hint of Gandalf in the person of Father Christmas established a presence in his family Christmas festivities.