Tolkien for the Holidays

Posted by Marie on Wednesday, January 21, 2015 in , ,
Christmastime is J.R.R. Tolkien.

 As a kid, the holiday break has always been my chance to read Lord of the Rings in one go. Then in college, watching The Lord of the Rings film series was a December tradition with my friends, that later turned to watching The Hobbit trilogy post-college. I cannot remember a time that I haven't turned to Professor Tolkien for some holiday cheer. This year is no different. But this time, I'd took on Professor Tolkien's earlier works, particularly The Hobbit (published on 1937) and Letters from Father Christmas (published posthumously on 1976).

Anybody who had read Lord of the Rings most likely would have also read The Hobbit (or There and Back Again), or at the very least would have watched it on the big screen.

It is the story of Bilbo Baggins, a quiet, normal hobbit living in the very normal suburbs of Bag End, Hobbiton. Hobbits are a race similar to men but shorter in height. The hobbits sensibly love creature comforts like second breakfasts and snug, comfy holes in the ground. Bilbo was recruited by the wizard Gandalf for a quest to the Misty Mountain, to recover treasures that were guarded by the dragon Smaug. He is joined by twelve dwarves led by Thorin Oakenshield, the King under the Mountain. A lot of things happened on the course of their adventures, culminating into a battle between different races, all vying for the dragon horde.

I had always read the story (yes, I forgot how many times I've reread the book) as being the tale of Bilbo Baggins' evolution from a scared, timid hobbit to a selfless hero and full-fledged leader. That a person sometimes starts his journey as one thing and comes home as another, changed irrevocably, (sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but most of the times for both) is a constant theme in Professor Tolkien's stories, not just in his Middle-earth books, but also in his other writings. In The Hobbit, it can be summarized by Bilbo's poem during his return to Hobbiton:

"Roads go ever ever on,
Under cloud and under star,
Yet feet that wandering have gone
Turn at last to home afar.
Eyes that fire and sword have seen
And horror in the halls of stone
Look at last on meadows green
And trees and hills they long have known."

As a veteran of the First World War, he certainly knows how war permanently changes people, exactly like how fierce battles and the death had changed Bilbo.

"One has indeed personally to come under the shadow of war to feel fully its oppression; but as the years go by it seems now often forgotten that to be caught in youth by 1914 was no less hideous an experience than to be involved in 1939 and the following years. By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead." (Preface to the second edition of Lord of the Rings)

So yes, two conclusions. The first is that The Hobbit is not some silly Lord of the Rings prequel published primarily for kids; and two, that there's nothing like war and death to make you appreciate the things that you have and the existence of people who love you.

Let's now go to something lighter. In 1920, J.R.R. Tolkien's son, the then three-year-old John, received a letter from Father Christmas.

Father Christmas described in words, pictures, and even poems his house at the North Pole, his assistant, Polar Bear (or P.B.), his secretary, the elf, Ilbereth, P.B.'s mischievous nephews, Paksu and Valkotukka, and other various characters which includes snow elves, red gnomes, snow men, cave bears, and nasty goblins. For the next twenty years, these letters regularly arrive in the Tolkien household during Christmastime, while reply letters made by the children (John, then Michael, Christopher, and finally Priscilla) mysteriously vanish from the fireplace.

Throughout their childhoods, the Tolkien brood were regaled stories of the adventures and misadventures of Father Christmas, Polar Bear, Ilbereth, and the rest of his household, from the time the North Pole broke, to when they needed to move to another house, to when Father Christmas lit some of his wonderful fireworks to celebrate the holiday, to when P.B. got lost in the caves, to the times of the goblin attacks, and their successful defenses. It is very easy to note how strikingly similar Father Christmas to the wizard Gandalf, and, as you can see in the image on the right, P.B. to Beorn, the mysterious man-bear in The Hobbit.

The 1937 letter is funny because Father Christmas mentioned to the children that he initially though of sending them this book 'Hobbits' (which he had been sending loads to other children - mostly second editions), but he thought they might have already have many copies (duh) so he had instead sent them another 'Oxford Fairy Tale' (which I am now intrigued into finding a copy).

By 1943, most of Professor Tolkien's children had grown up (John is 26, Michael is 23, Christopher is 19, and Priscilla is 14). Father Christmas' missive that year was a letter of goodbye. He also notes that his messengers is calling the year "grim" (indirectly referring to World War II), but is glad that in the children's household, it is not as miserable as they were expecting it would be.

"... I shall not forget you. We always keep the old numbers of our old friends, and their letters; and later on we hope to come back when they are grown up and have houses of their own and children."

Which the Tolkien children did. They kept the letters and, three years after Professor Tolkien's death, compiled it into a book with Christopher's wife as the editor. I personally like it. It is a testament of a father's love and willingness to provide boundless imaginative delight to his children. I am glad that the Tolkien family published it since it had now also provided joy to other children of various ages.



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