When the author of the “Lord of the Rings” lent his pen to Santa


Like so many other parents around the world, JRR Tolkien, the famous author of The Lord of the Rings , has spent a lot of time and effort making Christmas a joy for his children. Except that it is about a man whose imagination has given life to a vast world , concealing thousands of years of legends. He has brought creatures of all kinds to life, described wars and battles, and even invented languages. Inevitably therefore, his family traditions were something exceptional.

Every year, from 1920 to 1942, Tolkien’s children – first John, then Michael, Christopher and Priscilla – will receive a letter from Santa Claus. It would be written in his spider-like hand (after all, it’s a very old man) and illustrated with amusing scenes of life at the North Pole. In 2018, Oxford’s “Bodleian Bookstores” exhibited these letters alongside other manuscripts, works of art, maps and other Tolkien creations from around the world.

The exhibition organized at the National Library of France from October 22, 2019 to February 16, 2020 also stops on this facet of the famous poet, professor and novelist.

American influence

Tolkien is not the first writer to send letters from Santa Claus to his children. Mark Twain wrote a famous “Santa Claus letter” for his eldest daughter, Susie Clemens. And even though Tolkien kept the character’s English name, his Santa Claus is associated with many elements of American folklore.

The representation of a Santa Claus dressed in red and white, perched on a sledge pulled by reins, and distributing gifts to children every Christmas Eve, comes from the most famous poem perhaps of the English language: “The night before Christmas . Written in the XIX th  century by Clement Moore or Henry Livingston (the authorship is the subject of debate ), this American classic poem portrays Saint-Nicolas, or Santa Claus as we know it today.

This imaginary around Santa Claus has been enriched by the German-American illustrator Thomas Nast , who has added Elves to Santa Claus to assist him, as well as a toy workshop, representing him as a resident of the Pole. North, where he regularly receives letters from children.

Tolkien borrows freely from all this American pop culture that arrives towards the end of the XIX E  century in Great Britain and there meets an immense success. But he also takes his father Christmas in other directions, around his own mythology of Middle-earth, which he elaborated in parallel.

Old and new friends

Of course, there are elves at Tolkien’s North Pole. But, beyond their small size, their jovial look and their pointed hats (far from the universe of the Lord of the Rings ), they belong to different families: the Snow Elves, the Red Elves, or gnomes, Green Elves – a bit like you can find High Elves, and Wood Elves in the novel.

Some of these Christmas elves are ferocious warriors, who made the bad goblins bite the dust during battles. These goblins are the forerunners of those we meet in The Hobbit , and later the Orcs. They live underground, like to dig tunnels and pose a permanent threat to Christmas.

Christmas, 1932: “What wonderful caves! I knew about their existence but I did not know they were so many and so vast. Of course, the goblins took refuge in the deepest cavities and corners, and we soon found the polar bear. He was all skinny, having been in the caves without eating for a fortnight … At the top of the map, you can see an image of my arrival over Oxford – I drew him first, but that corresponds more or less to reality. Your house is just where you see three small black dots coming out of the shade, right. ” The Tolkien Estate Ltd. 1976

At the same time, Tolkien greatly enriches the mythology of Christmas. Santa’s best friend (also an incorrigible bastard) is the polar bear, whose antics are at the heart of the first letters. Later, his nephews Paksu and Valkotukka (who respectively mean “big” and “white hair” in Finnish) bring comical air puffs and illustrate Tolkien’s love for that language that has influenced one of the idioms that he created, Quenya, spoken by the elves of Middle-earth.

In addition, there are some “etiological” myths that explain the origin of certain things that are happening in the real world of Tolkien’s children. If we find chocolates in pieces, it is because the polar bear would have crushed them. And if we see a bright light coming off the night sky, it surely comes from the gigantic Christmas tree of the North Pole.

Innocence lost

Other details and inventions make this frozen world wonderful and intriguing. Santa Claus has a tap in his cellar that allows him to light the Northern Lights. Rock art inherited from prehistoric people can be found in the goblin caves, including mammoth and reindeer paintings. And the little snow boys (the sons of the snowmen who live in the area) are invited to parties organized in Santa’s house.

Rock paintings, 1932: The polar bear itself was surprised when I approached the light, because all the walls of these caves are covered with images, carved in the rock or painted in red, brown and black. Some of them are very successful (mainly animals), others are weird and some are bad. And there are lots of strange marks, signs, and scribbles, some of which seem threatening. “. Tolkien Estate

Even more Tolkienian, there are invented languages ​​and alphabets. An elf named Ilbereth, who becomes Santa’s secretary, wishes the children a merry Christmas in the Elvish language, which is a variant of Tolkien’s Tengwar writing system, the same as the one on the ring. unique Lord of the Rings . And the polar bear utters an “arctic” phrase (a version of Quenya) and presents us with an alphabet that he designed from goblin symbols.

The “Letters of Santa Claus” was published after Tolkien’s death in 1973, and their enduring popularity is due, in my opinion, to the long Christmas saga they create and the fun and emotion of the paternal voice. crossing them.

Written as World War II rages, the poignant “final letter”, when Santa Claus bids farewell to children now too old to drop their slippers in front of the tree, marks the end of innocence in more ways than one. . But the myth of Santa Claus is still relevant and continues to be one of the favorite party readings of children around the world.

Author Bio: Dimitra Fimi is a Lecturer in Fantasy and Children’s Literature at the University of Glasgow