Christmas Audiobook Review: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Letters from Father Christmas”

Christmas Audiobook Review: J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Letters from Father Christmas”

About the book: From 1920 to 1942, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote letters to his kids from Father Christmas. The annual North Pole updates were full of juicy details about the comic exploits of “North Polar Bear,” the logistics of sorting gifts for millions of children around the world (eventually, the bear convinces Father Christmas to institute a numbering system), and eventually reports on battles between the goblins and their mortal enemies, the gnomes.

Most of the letters were first published in 1976, three years after Tolkien’s death, in a collection edited by Tolkien’s daughter-in-law Baillie. A new edition, published in 1999, added material left out of the first volume. The fact that the letters weren’t conceived as a book means that the “story,” such as it is, is open-ended and elliptical…but it also adds to the material’s charm, as Tolkien responds to the developing appreciation of his young audience.

There are a few clear parallels between these letters and Lord of the Rings, which Tolkien started writing in the mid-1930s. The fearsome subterranean goblins are ancestors of the LOTR baddies, and the fatherly Gandalf could be a descendant of Tolkien’s Santa. The letters also reflect Tolkien’s obsession with invented languages: at the North Pole, they speak “Arktik,” and the goblins have their own language written vertically.

About the audiobook: The 2005 HarperCollins release is a fairly lavish production, with separate voices Father Christmas (Derek Jacobi), Polar Bear (John Moffatt), and the elf Ilbereth (Christian Rodska), as well as chirpy holiday tunes punctuating the letters. (Since the early letters are much shorter, this makes for a front-loaded playlist.)

The producers seem to realize that they need to work to make up for the loss of Tolkien’s illustrations, which were integral to the letters. The audio is still engaging, but you’ll find yourself wanting to borrow a copy of the hard copy later.

Most Christmasy moment: Father Christmas clearing up some misconceptions about his reindeer team. “I am coming from the north, and note, NOT with 12 pair of deer, as you will see in some books. I usually use 7 pair (14 is such a nice number), and at Christmas, especially if I am hurried, I add my 2 special white ones in front.”

Least Christmasy moment: The goblin wars. “The ground was black with goblins under the moon when we looked out, and they had broken up my stables and gone off with the reindeer.” Damn.

Jay Gabler is listening his way through some of the season’s most festive audiobooks.