“A palace with a thousand and one entrances, J.R.R. Tolkien’s world can be explored through a thousand and one doorways … doors and corridors leading into often unexplored aspects of his universe.” – tolkienestate.com
If you’ve never visited the Tolkien Estate website, you’re in for a wonderful treat – one of seemingly endless discovery and learning about everything Tolkien. If you’re one of the lucky ones who have already discovered this gem of a site, it’s time to revisit it!
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 ofThe 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!
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!
Artistic Tolkien fans united on twitter this year for #Tolkientober to share new illustrations and representations of Middle-earth. Both fun and personal, the charge was led by Molly Ostertag who here pulls a small sample of the 1000’s of outstanding drawings.
EDITORS NOTE: Guest author Molly Knox Ostertag was invited to showcase the great artistic work done by fans worldwide for #Tolkientober. She is one of 2020’s Forbes 30 Under 30 media professionals, a NYTimes best-selling author and a leading illustrator for Disney animation.
A common theme of 2020 (besides mounting existential dread and the strange feeling that it’s lasted several centuries) has been people finding comfort in a return to their teenage passions. This is my sole excuse for why I have become as obsessed with Lord of the Rings this year as I was when I was 12 and would literally lie on the floor with giant speakers on either side of my head, playing the Return of the King soundtrack and crying about the Grey Havens.
I’ve been having fun drawing and writing and indulging this obsession, but there’s a limit to how much hobbit fanart a bored lesbian in lockdown can produce. Craving more content in much the same way Thorin & Co crave their ancestral treasure, I started a drawing challenge for October called #Tolkientober (I couldn’t think of a better name; please let me know if you come up with one). Each day had a theme, sometimes obvious things like ‘a dwarf’ and sometimes more interpretative, like ‘a guardian’. With weekends off, of course – no one better than Tolkien understood the importance of having periods of rest and healing in between efforts.
I recently visited “Tolkien – Maker of Middle-earth”, an exhibit at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, which runs through May 12. The exhibit is the most extensive display of original Tolkien material gathered in one place for several generations. It includes pieces from The Morgan, The Bodlein Library archive at Oxford University, the Marquette University Libraries in Milwaukee, and private lenders. It takes you on a journey through the life of John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (or as we know him – J.R.R.) with photos, letters, text, and Tolkien’s own work. For me, it was a truly awe-filled and emotional experience.
To enter the exhibit, you walk through the round green door of Bag End to behold a wall-sized mural of Tolkien’s painting of Hobbiton. There are other murals throughout the exhibit, and it is cool to see his work so large because things that are usually seen as tiny details are suddenly more apparent, and you are drawn in to the landscape. But the real attraction of the exhibit is Tolkien’s actual work.
On display is an extensive selection of his original drawings, paintings and hand-written manuscripts. I can’t possibly describe in words what it is like to stand in front of the original hand-painted dust jacket for “The Hobbit”, replete with Tolkien’s handwritten comments in the margins; to view “Conversations with Smaug” so closely that you can see J.R.R’s brushstrokes; to revel in the light of “The Forest of Lothlorien in Spring.” One of my personal favorites is “Bilbo Comes to the Huts of the Raft Elves”, the image chosen for the exhibition’s catalog cover. If you can’t make it to the museum, I highly recommend this book with the same title as the exhibit. It is available online and includes full color images of every piece in the exhibit along with the accompanying text.
There are early sketches for The Doors of Durin, which were a special treat for me because I recently painted a life-sized version of the West-Gate of Moria (Speak “Friend” and Enter) at Scum and Villainy Cantina in Hollywood, where Torn Tuesday is broadcast from. There are even pages Tolkien created to look like they were from The Book of Mazarbul – the book that the Fellowship finds besides Balin’s tomb – hand-calligraphed, painted, torn and burnt. Tolkien the artist could have found himself a place on the team at WETA.
There were many manuscript pages filled with Tolkien’s tight, flourishy handwriting, written first in pencil, then erased and crossed-out, then written over in ink. It’s amazing to me that these were able to be deciphered and included in the books.
There were quite a few different, and often large, hand-drawn maps of Middle-earth; original book jackets for LotR; some of the charming drawings and letters from Father Christmas that Tolkien sent to his children. And there were illustrations I’d never seen before – beautiful pieces expressing Tolkien’s vision of Fairy and his ideas about how creativity flows. There were even full-sized newspaper pages crammed with his colorful doodles, some quite Elven in style.
One thing that really struck me was a hand-calligraphed
letter that was meant to be reproduced and included at the end of the Lord of
the Rings, but unfortunately, the publishers nixed the idea. The letter was
from Aragorn to Master Samwise, letting Sam know the King would be stopping for
a visit outside the Shire. The letter has two versions side-by-side written in
Tengwar – one in Sindarin, the common tongue, and one in the high-Elven speech,
And there was mention of an epilogue for LotR that Tolkien wanted to write. In it Sam was to tell his family what happens to all the characters after the end of the Lord of the Rings. When I researched this further, I found a snippet of his intended conclusion, which appears in the ninth volume of “The History of Middle-earth”:
‘… said Elanor. “A story is quite
different, even when it is about what happened. I wish I could go back to old
of our sort often wish that,” said Sam. “You came at the end of a great age,
Elanor; but though it’s over… things don’t really end sharp like that… There
are still things for you to see, and maybe you’ll see them sooner than you
It makes me think Tolkien knew that his epic story would go on and on, even if he could never have imagined the film-making technology that would become available to make it happen.
I hope you have a chance to see the
exhibit, for it is truly incredible and a joy to behold.