The son and literary executor of JRR Tolkien’s estate, Christopher Tolkien, has passed away at the age of 95. I and millions of other readers owe him an inestimable debt for his life work. Without him, nothing of The Silmarillion or the other posthumous works of Tolkien would have been published, stories which have made my life so much better. Rest In Peace, Christopher. May we meet again in our Lord’s presence.
- Letters from Father Christmas
- by J.R.R. Tolkien
- Goodreads link
- Pages: 110
- Published: first in 1976, this edition 2004
- Spoiler-free Synopsis: From 1920 to 1943, the children of J.R.R. Tolkien would write letters to Father Christmas. Every year, Father Christmas answered them, often with accompanying pictures. These are those letters and pictures.
- Re-readability: I do believe this will be an annual tradition for me, from now on. It is highly rereadable, both for its relative brevity and its abundance of charm and invention.
- Recommendation: If you have children, this book can quickly become a beloved yearly tradition for your whole family, as it was for Tolkien’s. I think I would have loved it as a boy, as much or moreso than I do as a man. However, I imagine that if I become a father one day, and read this to my children as I plan to, it will set an impossibly high bar for what my children would expect from their father! I’m a writer too, and occasionally a doodler, but I’m no Tolkien! But I enjoy this book so much that I’d read it to them anyway.
I knew this book would be charming and inventive, and it absolutely was. What I didn’t expect was how hilarious it could be, and, nearing the end, a bit bittersweet.
We meet a family of lovable characters at the North Pole in these letters. Father Christmas is, as we expect, quite generous and affectionate towards the children he writes to, but he’s often exasperated when things interfere with his busy preparations for Christmas and is quick to complain about his helper, the North Polar Bear. The P.B. (everyone gets abbreviations in these letters) is really a good bear, but a bit foolish and clumsy; he gets to make his own comments in the margins and post-scripts, defending himself against unfair accusations or making other remarks, often funny. Late in the book (16 years into the letters), Father Christmas gets an elf secretary, Ilbereth, who writes for him and carries on a truly amusing banter with P.B. in the margins.
It has gone on being warm up here, as I told you – not what you would call warm, but warm for the North Pole, with very little snow. The North Polar Bear, if you know who I mean, has been lazy and sleepy as a result, and very slow over packing, or any job except eating. He has enjoyed sampling and tasting the food parcels this year (to see if they were fresh and good, he said).
Somebody haz to – and I found stones in some of the kurrants.
But that is not the worst – I should hardly feel it was Christmas if he didn’t do something ridiculous. You will never guess what he did this time!December 23, 1931 [bold script is the North Polar Bear, regular is Father Christmas.]
There are other characters and many interesting stories that serve to make the North Pole feel like a real, lived-in place, though never mundane or un-magical. The letters tell of mending broken roofs and silly accidents that P.B. has as often as they do battles with evil goblins.
Most of the letters are accompanied by Tolkien’s drawings and paintings, ostensibly in the hand of Father Christmas or one of his helpers. It must be said, Tolkien was an outstanding artist, and his drawings of the North Pole are a delight to behold.
With each letter or two, a year ticks by, and we realize that Tolkien’s children are growing up. Some are no longer receiving letters. Baby Priscilla is now quite a big girl. And that’s where the bittersweetness comes in. It can’t last forever, and Father Christmas knows it; so does Father Tolkien. The final letter is for 1943: the “horrible war” is making rations tight even in the North Pole, and some of Father Christmas’ messengers haven’t come back. But he tells us not to worry. He assures Priscilla that even though she will soon be too old to hang her stocking at Christmas, he will continue to serve other children, and he’ll be happy to write again once she has children of her own.
And that is why this is a perfect Christmas book — at least insofar as it doesn’t address the religious meaning behind the holiday (which I’m a little surprised it doesn’t, considering how Tolkien passionately wove his faith into his Middle-Earth mythology). Christmas culture in the West is a potent mix of peaceful beauty, reverent magic, and affectionate humor, but also has a streak of melancholy in its winter air. We grow older, and so do our kids. The old magic is hard to recapture. Sad memories accumulate around the holidays that are hard to shake. But it remains a time to remember hope, and beauty, and family. “Letters from Father Christmas” gets all of that, and I love it.
Very much love from your old friend, Father Christmas.Christmas 1943
Tolkien: The Monsters and the Critics
Audiences seem to have ignored Tolkien at the box office, but it raised quite a noise among the Tolkien fandom. Many regard its inaccuracies and dramatizations as a kind of betrayal of the man, whereas its supporters say that its accuracies and artistic truths make it a beautiful and moving tribute to the Professor and much that he valued.
What I caution is this: it simply isn’t helpful or honest to be polemical. For one, Tolkien is a drama, and to demand that a drama be instead a documentary is ludicrous. Likewise, to demand that the film be either a perfect success in all areas biographical and artistic, or else be judged a vulgar failure and disgrace, is to apply a standard so hideously unfair that nothing not divine could satisfy. Any good standard must acknowledge the imperfection of every human work and counter that with, as Christians ought to know, grace. Some films, even after this grace, will seem bad. In others, we begin to marvel at the good that flourishes in spite of the flaws. And this is how I see Tolkien. It is not a great biography, nor artistically a truly Great Film, but it is a good and unique film that deeply loves J.R.R. Tolkien the man and tries very hard to do right by him. Its stumbles are disappointing, but when it stands tall, strides purposefully, and finds deep meaning in dancing, it manages to evoke and celebrate much that I love about John Ronald Reuel Tolkien and his work.
Plot summary, please
Plot summaries are boring and have little to no place in a review because they reveal next to nothing about the story’s quality. Reviews should be concerned primarily with a story’s quality.
Getting curt with your section titles, are you? Seems a bit self-indulgent, but it’s your blog, I suppose. Still, what’s actually in this film?
Tolkien covers J.R.R. Tolkien’s teenage and young adult years, ending before the publication of his famous novels. A wise choice, I think, as his later years were fairly sedate, to my understanding, and would have been difficult to dramatize. Instead, the film specifically examines his relationship to his future wife Edith Bratt, his deep friendships with the club known as the T.C.B.S., and how his love of and affinity for languages fed into his desire to change the world through art.
Opinion summary, if it ain’t too much trouble, guv
While not a definitive exploration of the themes or events of Tolkien’s life, Tolkien is very good and I strongly recommend it for fans of the man. The film is sincere, good-hearted, and often beautiful, though it sometimes stumbles and loses sight of the real man at its heart.
But is it ACCURATE?
The film does alter or gloss over some details of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life, which is simply a thing that all biopics do for their subjects, and frankly Tolkien changes far less than most. I commend it for including so much:
- his hatred of his childhood move from the English countryside to dirty Birmingham
- his early interest in languages
- the stern but generous help from Father Francis
- his lack of academic diligence and direction until his meeting with Professor Joseph Wright (who provides two of the film’s best scenes)
- the loyalty and idealism of his early friendships
- the ways in which he and his romantic interest Edith gave each other a unique support in difficult times
- the way he was kind of an obsessive nerd, but also was an aggressive rugby player
- that he also was a passable artist who illustrated his own work
- the fact that this period of his life was characterized by some benign trouble-making and testing of boundaries (i.e. the scene where he and friends “steal” a bus is based on a real incident)
- that he was a somewhat lower social status than his three friends in the T.C.B.S., being a poor orphan living on scholarships and charity whereas they were all from rich families, and yet they all not only accepted him as a brother, but counted him as the most worthy of their number for academic and artistic success
- and so, so much more detail and nuance from Tolkien’s biography that the film portrayed quite nicely
The film plays with the chronology of real events as it attempts to emphasize certain themes and relationships. Sometimes I think the result was less effective than the real history; for example, its alterations to the timeline of Tolkien and Edith’s relationship felt less meaningful and were awkwardly conveyed, whereas the account in Humphrey Carpenter’s biography was clear and moving.
What about his Christian faith and the Catholic Church?
One notable glossing is in the area of religion: the role of the Catholic Church in Tolkien’s life is mentioned a handful of times, and positively, but he is not shown to personally participate in it. I’ve heard people complain about this, as though there was some attempt to erase or downplay Christianity in the film. And while I get that complaint, I think it is also based on some misunderstandings.
On the one hand, I would have loved for the film to address his spiritual development directly, and to have shown how it influenced his relationships and work. But in actuality, this period of Tolkien’s life is one that he himself regarded as spiritually weak. He went an entire year without once hearing mass, and Dr. Corey Olsen, a Tolkien scholar, believes that the religious influence on Tolkien’s writing at this time was pretty slight. From what I can tell, the film’s portrayal is a much smaller deviation than many reviewers seem to think. It wasn’t until later that he began attending mass every day and taking an active role in his own spiritual development.
The film’s representative for Catholicism, and indeed for any Christianity, is in Father Francis, Tolkien’s legal guardian. It’s a very fair portrayal, quite in line with what we know. He was stern, but very generous and sincere in his concern for Tolkien. He forbade Tolkien from seeing Edith until he was an adult, partially on account of Edith being Protestant but also because Francis knew, correctly, that romance would distract the easily-distracted Tolkien from his already struggling studies at Oxford, and could seriously endanger his future. Rather than fashion Father Francis into a symbol of a repressive and unforgiving Church, the film acknowledges his generosity and the perfectly valid reasons he has. It’s a refreshingly true, even-handed portrayal.
The other thought to keep in mind has to do with the art of adapting someone’s life for a dramatic medium. You simply can’t cover every aspect of the subject’s life, you have to choose which threads are most relevant to the story you want to tell. And since Tolkien’s religious practice was weak both outwardly and inwardly during this period, it makes sense for the filmmakers to leave it at the barest mention and spend more time on the aspects of his life which were dominant. If a film wanted to examine Tolkien’s faith and its relation to his life and work (and I very much want to see that film), it would probably choose his later years with the Inklings.
How is the portrayal of Tolkien himself?
Nicholas Hoult is excellent as the young John Ronald Reuel Tolkien, and this sentence is a relief to type. He has a sort of nervous energy, as though his intelligence is itching for the chance to express itself creatively but hasn’t quite found the right outlet; which is fair, because while Tolkien was in fact already writing and studying languages by this point, his imaginative ideas hadn’t quite coalesced in the way we think of them now. He is brilliant with languages but slacks off at school. He plays rugby confidently but his words stumble over themselves when he tries to express himself. He adores Edith, but also sometimes overlooks her until she stands up and demands his attention. And he is deeply loyal to his friends, even though it was they who sought him out rather than he them. All of this is close enough to the Tolkien I met in Carpenter’s biography and in the earliest of Tolkien’s letters.
If there is one part of him I wish they had portrayed more, it is Tolkien’s humor. His earliest letters have a light, wry touch even when describing unpleasant circumstances. “I had to pay a duty call to the Rector in the afternoon which was very boring,” he writes to Edith in Letter 1 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. “His wife is really appalling! I got away as soon as possible and fled back in the rain to my books.” I was also disappointed to see no reference in the film to the time at university when Tolkien acted in a student play and made his role, a grumpy old battleaxe of an aunt, the most hilarious and memorable part on the stage! Hoult’s Tolkien is too serious for all that, able to enjoy his friends’ jokes and silliness without offering much of his own.
But Hoult does portray Tolkien’s passions, loyalty, and intelligence quite well. It’s a nuanced portrayal that held my interest the whole way through.
And the others?
Tolkien’s friends made for the strongest thread in the film. They met each other at King Edward’s School and formed a club they called the Tea Club, Barrovian Society (or T.C.B.S.), after Barrow’s Stores where they took their tea and discussed art, literature, and the future of the world. The actors all do fantastic jobs, portraying young men intoxicated with the possibilities of the future, with the strength of their education, with their own artistic talents, and especially with the bonds of brotherhood that were growing between them. They have a natural charisma as a group, and the growing realization that their fellowship is destined to be torn apart by a world war that none of them wanted or anticipated is upsetting.
Edith Tolkien, as portrayed by Lilly Collins, is a sharp-witted, beautiful young woman who is frustrated at being trapped in a boring life of servitude to an old woman, and who challenges Tolkien to think more carefully about the meanings of words and how they affect people. We don’t actually know much about Edith from history, as the Tolkien Estate and family have elected to keep much of that information private. Collins’ spirited portrayal is pretty close to what we know of her, and makes for a good dramatic foil for the more stoic Tolkien. My one complaint is that in their attempt to have her contribute to Tolkien’s intellectual development, the filmmakers give Edith credit for certain ideas about language and story that I’m pretty sure Tolkien already was espousing before he met her. Still, it’s a fair enough change in service of the greater story: she did support his writing in reality, even though she didn’t share his enthusiasm for languages.
What of those “stumbles” you mentioned?
I can think of three main areas of the film that felt weaker than they should have been. The first is his relationship with Edith. The movie fumbles their first meeting by not really showing it! We see him get a first glimpse of her while she plays the piano, unaware of him. Then later we see them sit down to dinner at the house they both live, which is presumably the first time she’s seen him—but no acknowledgment of that is made. And then it literally cuts to a scene of them having a private, familiar talk together, as if they were already past introductions and into a fast friendship. By making their first meeting confusing this way, we lose the impact that meeting her really had on him. There are more pacing stumbles in the later parts of their relationship, too, where the timing of events becomes a little unclear to the point where the movie forgets to actually show their wedding.
Another concerns the T.C.B.S. – we needed to learn more of what really made them tick as a group, what their ambitions really were, especially regarding Tolkien himself. I loved watching them interact and encourage each other, but the film didn’t really show us how the four of them might have been able to change the world together, had they all survived World War I. And they never really let Tolkien himself share his writings with the group. The film will leave you thinking that Tolkien barely wrote anything of his own during this period, where in reality he wrote quite a lot of poetry (some of it gorgeous) that he was sharing with his friends and occasionally publishing.
The T.C.B.S. were Tolkien, Smith, Gilson, and Wiseman – Tolkien writes in Letter 5 of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien that they had believed they were “destined to kindle a new light, or, what is the same thing, rekindle an old light in the world; that the TCBS was destined to testify for God and Truth in a more direct way even than by laying down its several lives in this war.” He wrote that in a 1916 letter to Smith, after they had both received news of Gilson’s death. The way he writes to his friend sounds very much like the friendship portrayed in the film, with the exception that in the letter Tolkien is more explicit about his ambitions for the future than film made clear, and more confident in his beliefs as he tries to make sense of his friend’s death.
Which brings me to my final frustration with the film: its portrayal of Tolkien dealing with the horrors of war by hallucinating fantasy creatures on the battlefield. I think the filmmakers were trying to show how Tolkien’s trench fever and shell shock were causing him to process the battlefield in terms his imagination already understood, as a way of shoring up Tolkien’s belief in the ability of fantasy and myth to help us understand the real world. But because the film hadn’t showed Tolkien writing any of his own fantasy yet, nor even talking much about it, these scenes instead conveyed the idea that he got his ideas for stories from the hallucinations themselves. This all contradicts what Tolkien himself said about his experiences at war and writing his first fantasy stories in the trenches, it trivializes the process of art creation, and it also ends up downplaying the real horrors of the Somme.
And yet even as I acknowledge these genuine problems, I can’t help but remember all the stuff I loved in the film. The T.C.B.S. especially, but also Hoult’s performance, and his genuinely romantic chemistry with Edith. There are at least three brilliant conversations in the film: one where Edith chastises Tolkien for a moment of selfishness, one with Prof. Joseph Wright discussing the importance of the history of words, and a final, heart-wrenching conversation with the mother of Smith, who was killed in the war. Then there is fact that the movie portrayed a world in which platonic friendship could be one of the most passionate and pure forms of love, and in which even romance was stronger when it was moral. It is an essentially Christian worldview, and that a film today would advocate for such a worldview by showing it stoking healthy passions, self-sacrifice, and creativity is, in its own way, wildly, dangerously radical.
All film images from IMDb. Photo of the real Tolkien from Wikipedia.
Humphrey Carpenter met with J.R.R. Tolkien once before the Professor’s death. He made an appointment, showed up promptly, and was ushered into the man’s cluttered study, which was in a converted garage separate from the main house. It is some time before he is able to state his business, as Tolkien seemed to treat a new pair of attentive ears much the same as he would a blank page: as an opportunity to talk at length about things that interested him.
“He says that he has to clear up an apparent contradiction in a passage of The Lord of the Rings that has been pointed out in a letter by a reader… He explains it all in great detail, talking about his book not as a work of fiction but as a chronicle of actual events; he seems to see himself not as an author who has made a slight error that must now be corrected or explained away, but as a historian who must cast light on an obscurity in a historical document.
Disconcertingly, he seems to think that I know the book as well as he does. I have read it many times, but…” (Carpenter, Humphrey. J.R.R. Tolkien: The Authorized Biography, 4-5)
…but The Lord of the Rings and its multifaceted legendarium is vast enough for even the most ardent explorer to get lost in from time to time. Such was my thought when I read that passage in Carpenter’s biography of Tolkien, the only such biography authorized by Tolkien’s family. I’ve lived with Tolkien’s works for so long, and read through many other books about his world produced by other authors, that I think I know it all fairly well. But I fear if I too were face-to-face with the Professor himself, listening to him ramble delightfully to the air around me about all sorts of minute details of the world of Arda, I too would soon be lost. Happy and fascinated, but at least a bit lost!
But part of what makes Carpenter’s biography so excellent, is that it at least never loses sight of the real, human man behind the legends. Here was an excellent man, a good man, but not a perfect one. He could be overly stubborn and picky, and seems to have gotten moreso as he aged. His marriage was imperfect, though loving. His friendship with C.S. Lewis became strained in later years, and it seems to have mostly been Tolkien’s own fault (though his grief at Lewis’ death is a very moving thing to read about). But he was generous, often very patient, and devoted to his friends. While he treated Faerie seriously, he had quite a roguish streak in him as well—in college he acted a crossdressing role in a comic play that apparently got rave reviews as the most hilarious performance of the evening!
Many other studies have been published about Tolkien’s life, which I hope to delve into before too long. The Authorized Biography, however, remains an essential and warm-hearted starting point. Each page of Carpenter’s book gave me a better understanding of the man whose writings have shaped so much of my own life. He is less a pristine statue in my mind, and more a real human whom I cannot wait to meet in heaven.
Following from the post on some of my favorite history podcasts, I want to let you know about some of my favorite literary podcasts. Today, it’s The Tolkien Professor!
Look, if you’re a fan of Tolkien and have some listening time, you should check this one out. Corey Olsen is a professor of things medieval, Christian, and literary, and is a MASSIVE fan of all things J.R.R. Tolkien. His long-running podcast has grown to include several different series. He has seminars on several Tolkien and Tolkien-related books, courses on other famous fantasy books, Q&A episodes, interviews with people like Tolkien artist Ted Nasmith, and even fascinating reviews of The Hobbit films.
If you just look at his podcast list in iTunes, it can be overwhelming, but fear not! His website organizes all his many series and links to each episode. And they’re all lively and entertaining to listen to!
Some of my favorites are his courses going through The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion chapter-by-chapter. Even after some two decades of being a Tolkien reader myself, I still learn new things from these. Olsen’s work has also expanded to include courses on other subjects, such as medieval literature that Tolkien knew and loved, and even free courses through Mythgard Institute on other great works of fantasy and science fiction.
If all this college-level material (however entertainingly delivered) sounds too intense for you, fear not! He’s also been leading a merry band of conspirators on dreaming up just what an ideal Silmarillion TV-show would look like –freed from the depressing constraints of money and marketing, of course! It’s a fun exercise in speculation.
And don’t forget you can get a taste of what he has to offer by tuning into his livestream of the latest Lord of the Rings seminar on Tuesdays at 9:30PM EDT, or checking out the videos of the stream that get posted on his YouTube channel.
What Tolkien book would you recommend to a reader after they’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings?
There are a few possibilities for this one, depending on your tastes. But my first answer would be The Silmarillion. This is the book with all the tales of how Middle-Earth came to be. It has the history of the Elves, Men, Dwarves, and a bit of hobbit history too, although for such unadventurous folk their origins are rather mysterious. It is a magnificent tapestry of hundreds of stories that all form a cohesive, meaningful whole. Anyone who reads the tales of Bilbo and Frodo and wants to know more about Middle-Earth should turn first to The Silmarillion.
But perhaps you’re intimidated by the size and density of The Silmarillion? You’ve heard it described as “the Old Testament with Elves” and worry that it will be too dry or complicated to jump right into. Even in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien’s language has a dense, old flavor to it that can be hard to swallow for readers unfamiliar with that style, and the promise of more stories told in a still denser, older style can intimidate even those who want to experience the stories themselves. In that case, I would recommend The Children of Húrin. This book tells one of The Silmarillion’s stories in an expanded form closer to a short novel. The language is still high and beautiful, but it’s a quicker, more self-sufficient read, and will give you a good taste of what to expect in The Silmarillion. I do warn you, it’s a dark, tragic tale, but as epic and moving as they come. If you like it, you can rest assured that you will find more of that quality in The Silmarillion, but also many stories that are happier and more hopeful.
Next up: Is the Phantom of the Opera abusive or romantic? (You can discuss the musical or the book version, or the differences between the two.)
Hail and well-met!
Forgive me for not mentioning this a few months ago, but Dr. Corey Olsen — a.k.a. The Tolkien Professor of so many incredible podcast episodes — has been running a free weekly online seminar going through The Lord of the Rings chapter-by-chapter. Every Tuesday at 9:30PM EDT.
He broadcasts live on Twitch, and there’s an active chat room on Discord that runs simultaneously. Sometimes he even responds to viewer comments and questions! There’s also a forum here where you can carry on discussions throughout the week and post questions in advance for him to answer during the broadcast. I’ve done that a few times and definitely found my appreciation of Middle-Earth broadening.
If you play The Lord of the Rings Online (LOTRO), he’s actually broadcasting from within the game, and you can join him and other players there in Hobbiton. But even if you don’t play the game, as I don’t, you can watch and take part in the discussion. After the chapter discussion, he takes viewers on a field trip through locations in the game that correspond to the locations that have just been read about in the book, and discusses the ways in which the game developers have interpreted Tolkien’s writing.
I’m in the middle of tonight’s broadcast right now, and hope some of you can join us later. Godspeed!
In a wood filled with a cloud of white flowers, a soldier walked in the spring of 1917 with his wife, and she sang and danced for him. To that battle-worn lieutenant, J R R Tolkien, Edith’s dance was an unforgettable glimpse of unearthly joy in the midst of sorrow and horror. It inspired the story he saw […]
A new Tolkien book is always exciting! Granted, this sounds like it might not have any new material that isn’t already published in other books. But still, the story of Beren and Luthien is one of my absolute favorites, and I welcome the chance to read even many variations of it in its own book, accompanied by the lovely art of Alan Lee.
Also, as a little heads-up for you guys, I’m preparing another book review of a more recent (well, no more than 10 years old…) fantasy novel, so look out for that in the next week or so. Happy reading!
The morning of truth arrives. I’m off to see The Desolation of Smaug.
I’m not quite sure what to do with my expectations. On the one hand, An Unexpected Journey set them very, very low. And reviews from some friends and others confirm this. On the other hand, I now know not to expect anything remotely faithful to Tolkien, and still have good reason to expect Lee Pace’s Thranduil to be amazing. Some other reviews have indicated that the pacing — one of the first film’s major flaws — is much sharper this time around, and that the action and drama are more effective. These give me hope for an enjoyable experience, if one that is divorced from my book experience.
Or maybe the purist in me will get all mad regardless of what I already know. We shall see, my friends, we shall see.
It seems fitting that I finally posted my post of the first Hobbit movie on the Professor’s birthday. According to my calculations, this is his one hundred and twenty-fourth birthday. And still timeless in our minds and hearts.
If you catch this post tonight, pop on over to the Live Birthday Toast Celebration hosted by Dr. Corey Olsen, The Tolkien Professor, and his friends. It’s a video stream of them chatting entertainingly about Tolkien, his books, and the films, accompanied by a chat window for average viewers like us. Even if you can’t stay for the whole thing, you can pop in and out with ease. Highly recommended.