As we prepare to hang up our stockings on Christmas Eve, hoping for a visit from a certain gentleman dressed in red, let’s take a closer look at a wonderful, festive book for Tolkien fans of all ages.
Released in time for the 2020 holiday season, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has followed the path of its British cousin Harper Collins in publishing a striking new edition of the Letters from Father Christmas. Hitting the American market in late October, this oversized hardback beauty boasts 208 pages of colorful Christmas chronicles first designed to enchant Tolkien’s growing family with seasonal tales from the North Pole. This is the first three-digit milestone for the Tolkien corpus: as a “Centenary Edition”, the publication date marks the 100th anniversary of the first letter from Father Christmas reaching three-year old John Frances Reuel Tolkien in December 1920. These letters would continue over the next 23 years, welcoming Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla into the society of Father Christmas, the Great (Polar) Bear and his two sidekick nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka, and an elvish secretary, as they cope with everything from goblins to general clumsiness.
This latest (and more affordable) edition, like the slipcase “Deluxe Edition” published in 2019 by Harper Collins, contains transcriptions and facsimile pictures of the entire collection of “F.C.” letters, along with their assorted envelopes and stamps so characteristic of Tolkien’s meticulous attention to detail. It also includes an introduction from the book’s editor and Tolkien’s daughter-in-law, Baillie Tolkien, who married Christopher in 1967. Also included is a personal note from the Professor himself, reproduced for the first time.
Tolkien likely began these letters as a whimsical family flourish, designed to make Christmastime a bit more magical for his children. But as with most of his projects, the tale grew in the telling. The letters began with a simple note of less than 100 words to his firstborn, accompanied by an iconic Father Christmas “self-portrait” and picture of his house.
Over the years, these evolved into occasional notes to each of his children, much lengthier epistles, occasional poetry, a more extensive cast of recurring characters, and assorted annual calamities to be overcome: from a plumbing disaster, to a broken North Pole, to reindeer on the loose, to an unexpected visit from the Man in the Moon. Occasionally, there is even a faint early echo from Middle-earth, with the appearance of elven aid “Ilbereth”, a single vowel away from his more famous star-kindling forebear; extensive new languages and calligraphy for multiple races, and a great (polar) bear fighting off goblin hordes in ways that would make Beorn proud.
The art of The Father Christmas Letters proves to be the most engaging element of the books, including meticulous hand drawn stamps and envelope decorations, spidery handwriting in Tolkien’s favorite black and red mix (nearly illegible in some cases), and above all the host of water color illustrations that surely captivated the imagination and speculation of Ronald and Edith’s young family, even as they continue to do for us (especially for any who have had a chance to see some of the originals under glass at recent exhibitions in Oxford, New York, or Paris).
This combination of text and illustration is a likely contributor to the Letters’ complicated publishing history. They first appeared three years after Tolkien’s death with a greatly abridged 1976 edition that focuses on pictures (not always reproduced in their complete form), partial texts, and only token reproductions of the original and elaborate written and decorated letters.
Even in this premier edition, there are hints from Baillee Tolkien that we were only getting a sampling of a richer treasure. Further editions followed, largely keeping to a similarly abridged approach.
It was not until 1993 that Tolkien scholars began to appreciate the full extent and complexity of what was still missing from the Father Christmas saga; and inquiring minds wanted to know more.
The first response was a delightful new edition published by Houghton Mifflin in 1995, introducing a novel approach: ten letters enclosed in actual envelopes, sprinkled with recaps and illustration highlights. While still not exhaustive, this latest installment began to recreate some of the delight of actually receiving and opening these annual updates. The book also included three previously unpublished pictures.
Finally, in 1999, we received a new “revised and enlarged” version, with the complete set of more than 30 letters and all of Tolkien’s pictures, some with a lesser quality color reproduction. For the truly deep-pocketed, there was also an opportunity to add to their Easton Press library of well-bound leather books. These were particularly fine editions for those who love distractingly enlarged details as page decorations.
Now that the complete set of letters was finally available to the public, we could enter the era of anniversary editions. The first on the scene came after five more years, in 2004, with fewer pages and illustrations, but at least fewer marginal distractions. The 2009 edition – or 10th anniversary of the complete set – proved that the 1999 version was only mostly complete, adding several omitted pages from letters in 1937 and 1941. An updated version of the same edition in 2012 provided 39 new images covering all but a few pages of the actual letters, and much improved reproductions.
For the truly dedicated enthusiast, the upgraded Collector’s Edition of the Bodleian’s exhibit catalogue, Tolkien, Maker of Middle-earth, includes a facsimile version of the Christmas 1936 letter and its accompanying explanatory picture.
Tolkien’s family tradition ended on a bittersweet note in a 1943 letter (“a grim year”) to a 14-year-old Priscilla. Father Christmas muses, “After this I shall have to say ‘goodbye’, more or less: I mean, I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters; and later we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children.” The 2020 Centenary Edition of The Father Christmas Letters offers just that kind of opportunity: to reminisce, to return, to find great hope and cheer in small things, and to consider how we might pass this joy to future generations. Merry Christmas!
(Looking for further gift ideas, as you rush to complete your shopping? Check out TORn’s holiday gift guide!)
Editor Note: Throughout the month, and as part of our Tolkien Advent Calendar celebration, we are featuring news and resources for fans of J.R.R. Tolkien, his worlds and works. Today’s official advent calendar is below!