The Hobbit and the Father Christmas Letters

By Swank, Kris | Mythlore, Fall-Winter 2013 | Go to article overview

The Hobbit and the Father Christmas Letters


Swank, Kris, Mythlore


AN OLD MAN FAMOUS FOR PREWORKS. A last homely house in a desolate landscape. Elves. Goblins. Dragons. A gruff but affable bear. These are all familiar story elements from The Hobbit, the fantasy novel that earned J.R.R. Tolkien popular acclaim when it was first published in 1937. Before, during, and after his work on The Hobbit, Tolkien was also engaged in an annual holiday tradition of sending letters and pictures to his children in the guise of Father Christmas. These Father Christmas Letters also featured an old man with fireworks, a homely house, elves, goblins, dragons, and a gruff but affable bear. The worlds of Bilbo Baggins and Nicholas Christmas are very different, yet they have several striking similarities in character-types, settings and plotlines.

Tolkien famously discussed how new stories are constructed from the bones of old legends, tales and history. He said "the Pot of Soup, the Cauldron of Story, has always been boiling, and to it have continually been added new bits" ("On Fairy-Stories" ["OFS"] 125). Several scholars have shown how Tolkien himself made liberal use of the great world Cauldron of Story to create his own, new tales. (1) But in addition to the great Cauldron, Tolkien created his own Pot of Soup, recycling and recasting figures and devices from his personal legendarium into new and different stories. Elves and dragons, for instance, appear repeatedly in Tolkien's tales. The Hobbit recycles character- and place-names (such as Elrond and Gondolin) from the bones of Tolkien's older "Lost Tales," the stories and poems which would evolve into The Silmarillion. In their introduction to Tolkien's children's story, Roverandom, Christina Scull and Wayne G. Hammond remark that "As more of Tolkien's works have been published [...] since his death, it has become clear that nearly all of his writings are interrelated, if only in small ways, and that each sheds a welcome light upon the others" (xix).

Comparing The Hobbit to early Christmas letters--those written prior to and during Tolkien's work on The Hobbit--interrelationships become apparent in at least three different ways:

1. both the Father Christmas Letters and The Hobbit contain story elements which have common roots in Tolkien's early Lost Tales and poems;

2. some story elements in the Father Christmas Letters appear to have been borrowed from The Hobbit; and

3. a few story elements in The Hobbit appeared in the Father Christmas Letters first, suggesting that borrowing may have gone both ways.

Like the master chef who uses similar ingredients to create two very different flavors of soup, a master storyteller can use the same character-types, settings, and plotlines to create different stories. Analyzing these three types of interrelationships between The Hobbit and the Father Christmas Letters may shed light--if only in small ways--on Tolkien's creative process, how he added to and drew from his legendarium, his own Cauldron of Story, to produce new tales.

Father Christmas and the Letters

Each winter from 1920-1943, envelopes bearing hand-drawn stamps from the "North Pole" arrived for Tolkien's children. Inside were letters and pictures he created in the guise of Father Nicholas Christmas or one of his companions. At first these were simple greetings, but over the years Tolkien added colorful characters and exciting stories. The family preserved these artifacts and, after Tolkien's death, published them as the Father Christmas Letters in 1976. The collection has been revised and republished several times with the latest edition, Letters from Father Christmas, in September 2012. (2)

Father Christmas was, of course, already a familiar figure in England's Cauldron of Story, the personification of the Christmas spirit in the British Isles. "Some have pointed to a pagan origin (a perceived resemblance to Saturn, Neptune and Odin), but the term comes into use only in the 15th century" in Christmas carols (Bowler). …

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