The first time I heard of this book was when I read an excellent review of it on a blog I follow: https://bookowly.wordpress.com/2016/10/22/j-r-r-tolkien-letters-from-father-christmas/ It sounded like a lovely read, and so I was excited to find it – by pure coincidence – among my presents this Christmas. It kept me company on a long, cold train journey to visit my boyfriend for New Year, and was sufficiently engaging that I almost missed my connection at one point as I poured over Polar Bear’s cheeky annotations in one of Father Christmas’ letters!
Like Bookowly, I found the actual content of the letters to be a bit disappointing. The narratives of what Father Christmas, Polar Bear, et al. get up to each year are a bit pedestrian and drawn out. Perhaps young children would like them, but, as an adult, I felt they lacked sparkle, to be honest. There are many better children’s stories out there. But the little pictures are charming, and there are funny points in the letters, such as some of Polar Bear’s marginalia (I love Polar Bear – definitely my favourite character!). The context captured me too: you can see the elaborate Father-Christmas ruse Tolkien played (collecting the children’s letters to Father Christmas from the chimney in secret, and sometimes sending the replies by post, other times making them appear with special Polar stamps on them); you can also see the imaginary world expanding year by year, and the characters growing in depth; you watch each of Tolkien’s children growing older – you smile, when they are little, at their sending Christmas lists to Father Christmas much too early in the year, and writing lists on behalf of their pets and soft toys too; and you feel the pathos when they each leave the world of Father Christmas behind. There is a sad touch to this book, which makes it more enjoyable than a superficial “cute” read: even when a child stops writing to Father Christmas and his helpers, Father Christmas, and sometimes Polar Bear too, continues to send his love and ask after them, and make excuses for them, until finally the youngest child stops writing and WW2 is wreaking havoc and Father Christmas and friends write a last goodbye letter. I wonder if this touch of sadness expresses some genuine sadness on Tolkein’s part at each of the children not wanting anymore to play with the imaginary world he had created for them, or whether it’s entirely a lighthearted joke.
I’m not sure whether to recommend this, purely because of the price. I honestly feel that £8.99 (the paperback price) is rather steep for what this little book is, and I can’t imagine it working well on a kindle as it has so many illustrations interspersed with the text (although perhaps your kindle is less antiquated and more picture-friendly than mine is!). I would definitely advise grabbing it if you spot it in a second-hand bookshop, though! It’s certainly worth a couple of pounds. If you do read it, I’d advise (if you can read the tiny reproduced handwriting) reading the letters themselves rather than the transcription (except to check occasional illegible words). Unfortunately, the transcription is not very good, and misses out or even changes parts of the letters from time to time. Also, if you read the originals, you can see all the decorations and different handwritings that Tolkein so carefully put in each letter.
So, that’s the first book on my 2017 Reading List now read! On to the next 🙂