Bodleian reveals Tolkien's 'Father Christmas' letters

Bodleian reveals Tolkien's 'Father Christmas' letters

The Bodleian Libraries in Oxford are unveiling a series of previously unseen letters that J R R Tolkien wrote to his children “from Father Christmas” every winter for 23 years.

The “wondrously imaginative” handwritten and illustrated letters will be displayed at a major Tolkien exhibition at the libraries opening in June next year.

When the author’s three-year old son John asked who Father Christmas was and where he lived, Tolkien wrote a reply from Father Christmas, starting a tradition that would continue for the next 23 years. Every Christmas Eve, from 1920 to 1943 when his youngest child Priscilla was 14, Tolkien would sit in his study and write a letter to his children from Father Christmas, accompanying them with detailed illustrations.

The letters include “far-fetched and captivatingly detailed tales” of Father Christmas’ life in the North Pole, where he apparently lived with his faithful helper ‘North Polar Bear’. As the Tolkien children grew older, the letters from Father Christmas grew longer and the tales became darker and more thrilling, according to a Bodleian Libraries spokesperson. The appearances of goblins and gnomes in these letters seem to correlate with the time that Tolkien was writing The Hobbit.

A group of goblins make an appearance in a 1932 letter, living in the caves underneath the North Pole and stealing the childrens’ presents from Father Christmas’ cellars. The goblins and wargs in that story began to spill over into Father Christmas’s letters. Elves, called Red Gnomes, also appear, coming to Father Christmas’s aid in his battles with the goblins.

The Father Christmas letters will be on display alongside the largest array of original Tolkien materials from the UK and the USA to go on show since the 1950s. "Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth" will feature manuscripts, artwork, maps, letters and artefacts from the Bodleian’s extensive Tolkien Archive, the Tolkien Collection at Marquette University in the USA and from private collections. The exhibition will examine the scholarly, literary, creative and domestic worlds that influenced Tolkien as an author and artist.

Tolkien, who was an Oxford professor for 35 years, left the bulk of his archives to the Bodleian. The father-of-four was also a scholar of Old and Middle English and a philologist “intimately concerned with the creation of language”.  

Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the Bodleian Libraries and curator of the exhibition, described the letters as “some of my favourite items in the exhibition”.

She said: “The letters were delivered by the postman, who’d been persuaded by Tolkien to deliver them with the rest of the post, or arrived on the hearth with specially made stamps from the North Pole, marked with the cost of postage ‘2 kisses’. They contained news from the North Pole where Father Christmas lived with his ‘helper’ the North Polar Bear, who often got into trouble and caused twice as much work for Father Christmas. As the Tolkien children grew older, the letters from Father Christmas grew longer and the tales became darker and more thrilling.’

The exhibition will be accompanied by Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, a collection of illustrations, letters and other material published by Bodleian Library Publishing on 25th May 2018. The book and exhibition were announced in March on the first day of the London Book Fair.

The complete collection of the documents, Letters from Father Christmas, were published by HarperCollins in 2012.

"Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth" will run from 1st June to 28th October 2018. For more information, visit the Bodleian Libraries website