Book Review: The Father Christmas Letters by J.R.R. Tolkien

fatherchristmasletters1Title: The Father Christmas Letters

Author: J.R.R. Tolkien

Year written: 1976

Publisher and year: George Allen and Unwin Ltd. 1976

ISBN Number: 0-04-823130-4

This is a book that I used to read fairly often in the lead up to Christmas, I don’t think I’ve read it for at least ten years, probably more like fifteen, so I thought I’d read through it and see if it held up to how I remembered it.

I’m not sure how well known this book is in the world of Tolkien as it’s not based in Middle Earth. It is full of Christmas letters from Father Christmas to Tolkien’s children, the letters in the book are from 1925 to 1939 (or maybe 1940, the last one says the last letter rather than a date). There is the odd one missing but they’re explained within the letters. These letters were written for the same people as The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings later and there is definitely Tolkien’s style in there.

As this book is the original version it’s a review for what this version contains. It seems like there have been more recent versions with more pages (officially more than three times though I don’t see how that could happen without altering the format) so those later versions will probably include extras, this review would still work for the main content though.

Back cover. Images copyright Tolkien

The book is fairly large, surface area wise, it’s the size of larger books or annuals that you get in the UK. It’s fairly slim as well as it contains the letters for the twenty years. Each letter has at least two pages in and there is a short introduction which gives a bit of an explanation about what the Father Christmas Letters are from. I like this little additional bit in this book, it would still make sense without but it does explain some bits and includes extra drawings. It says that the letters stared in 1920 but as the earliest aren’t included I guess they were excluded for a reason. At the end of the book is a small appendix, it’s just a letter from The North Polar Bear, Father Christmas’ companion, and sometimes helper, written in the goblin language he found and a key to decode it. I love this little touch and it seems like an early version of a Middle Earth language, a more basic one but it has the look of some of the letters used in the later languages he created.

The first thing I have to say about this book and the thing that I remember the most is the art in it, the pictures are scans of the original pictures that Tolkien’s children received along with the letters. It definitely reminds me of the art on the covers of the original Lord of the Rings and Hobbit books. The book itself is printed in full colour on nice quality paper, it’s the kind of paper that you get in annuals in the UK, it’s got a bit of a glossy finish rather than being normal book paper. Some of the letters come with extra art such as borders and little pictures in the middle of the text as well as the larger picture itself. All of the stories have some sort of decoration and they have a simple style but have quite a bit of detail in some of them and they’re all very pretty. They’re all done by Tolkien and I love the detail and range of landscapes or background he creates though his people and animals are more basic I think it adds to the charm as they aren’t pictures which were commissioned for a book but ones which were drawn for his children to enjoy.

Part of an introduction page. Images copyright Tolkien, I’m just using them for the review.

Although the art is a copy of the original artwork in the letters, the writing itself is typed which makes it a lot easier to read. Having seen some of the writing in the images you can see why it would be best to type it out, especially if these are meant for children to read who aren’t used to the handwriting.

The letters themselves all go together to create a story. They’re written in a way that makes it seem like Father Christmas is keeping the children up to date with the latest goings on at the North Pole but they do string together to make a story about Goblins and the other inhabitants of the North Pole. There’s history and lore involved and it’s more complex than you’d expect it to be as children’s Father Christmas letters. You can see the stories get more complex as the children get older, which makes sense, and more characters are added in alongside more adventurous or dangerous events.

The writing is probably a bit formal compared to what you would write today but as it was written in the 1920s-30s it’s not unexpected. There are parts which are less formal and the language doesn’t remove any of the comedy or bits that make you smile in the stories. Although there is a level of description it’s not as descriptive as his later books as it’s written in letter form to the children and the pictures included show the reader what he was thinking in the landscape, or in some cases events, at the North Pole.

Overall this isn’t the longest book, if you were to read it in one go it would be a short read but I think it works well to be read over a length of time, a certain amount each night in the lead up to Christmas would be a good way of doing it. I do like the style and the stories are engaging whether you’re a child or grown up if you enjoy more fantasy type stories. I think it’s the kind of book that would keep both children and adults entertained and would be good to read together.

Sometimes there are books that you read when you’re younger and you sort of build it up in your mind as being something amazing and you read it later and it really isn’t all that great. This book was one that I remember as being great and it doesn’t disappoint. I think this is one that in the future I will be buying my own copy of as this is my dad’s.

I think that this would make a great gift for children, I’d say probably around 8 or 9 year olds would probably enjoy it, though I think we had it read to us younger than that and the pictures are nice to look at anyway for younger children. They were written for his children from the age of 3 and this book’s letters start from the age of 8 for the eldest so I think it’d be safe to recommend that as a minimum.

Although it is recommended for younger readers I think it’d be good for Tolkien fans, people who enjoy his style and would be interested in possibly the place where some of the styles he included in later books began. If you’re a fan of Middle Earth rather than his writing style then maybe don’t buy it but it might available in a local library to have a look at for free. It’s one of those books that I think will be fun for adults to read as the letters are written in a way that draws you into the events at the North Pole.

When I was trying to find a version of this which is still on sale I found a few versions, on the Tolkien website there’s one that was printed in 2012 that costs £12.99 and it says there are letters not printed before. I’m not sure if that means there are more than in this original version that I have. I would say it’s probably worth getting the latest version as with a lot of Tolkien books things get added so these newer versions will probably include more than the one I’m reviewing. I’m not sure if there are additional introductions as well as that says it contains 192 pages where this one has officially 48. I can’t see how you could triple the amount in it but it would be interesting to compare so I might try and find one of them.

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