It’s also accurate to say that Tolkien’s work is made for the holiday season for another reason: his publishers. Seemingly every fall, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt has published a steady stream of works made possible by Tolkien’s son, Christopher, who has faithfully stewarded — and expanded — his father’s legacy since the 1970s. For many years, each fall brought us new jewels like The Children of Húrin (2007), Beren and Lúthien (2017), The Fall of Gondolin (2018), and so many more — to the point that it just wouldn’t feel like the holiday season without the appearance of another one. But Christopher Tolkien passed away last year, at the age of 95 (rest in peace and thank you), and it seemed obvious that this publishing stream, which had flowed like Middle-earth’s Great River for so long, would now dry up.
Well, not quite yet: Houghton has spared us the loss — for now — by reissuing several editions of Tolkien’s works that, while not as revelatory as The Fall of Gondolin, are as welcome as the appearance of Haldir and his elven archers outside the walls of the Hornburg in Peter Jackson’s version of The Two Towers. (And, actually, it looks like 2021 might also be a great year for Tolkien readers: Houghton recently announced that it will soon be publishing a collection of Tolkien’s essays under the title The Nature of Middle-earth. More good news!)
All of this season’s new editions — like everything else in the Tolkien legendarium — are testaments to what epic storytelling is all about. They’re more packed than a hobbit’s pantry with themes of good versus evil, intriguing etymologies, betrayals, and vast conspiracies that dwarf anything the followers of QAnon believe. And, as the magisterial The History of Middle-earth, which collects in three thick glorious hardcovers the 12 books published between 1983 and 1996, reminds us, such powerful storytelling takes time. Lots of it.
Tolkien’s epic didn’t burst from his imagination fully formed, like a Mozart symphony. Christopher Tolkien’s painstaking efforts to collect notes, drafts, and his father’s scribbles have resulted in an incredibly valuable, comprehensive, multi-volume work that reminds us that Middle-earth was a gradually evolving organism … and was still evolving when its maker died in 1973.
He makes the case for that evolution — and for his efforts to document it — in the preface to 1980’s Unfinished Tales of Numénor and Middle-earth, which has been reissued in a lovely hardcover edition with illustrations by Alan Lee, John Howe, and Ted Nasmith. The dramatic illustrations here — and in another new book this season, Lee’s The Hobbit Sketchbook — show us how much Tolkien’s work continues to feed the imaginations of accomplished artists like the three featured here.
But the most interesting offering this season — for this reviewer, at least — is a new edition of Letters from Father Christmas, published on its centenary (Tolkien’s children received the very first of these letters back in 1920) and edited with an introduction by Baillie Tolkien, Christopher’s widow. For some 20 years, Tolkien created these entertaining, lavishly illustrated letters that his four children believed were written by the North Pole’s most famous resident. This new edition offers a festive, comprehensive collection of facsimiles, with accompanying illustrations, so that we see firsthand why his children must have shivered with delight whenever a new missive arrived in the mail.
“Dear John,” the first letter begins, addressing Tolkien’s oldest son, who was three or four at the time, “I heard you ask daddy what I was like and where I lived.” The penmanship is appropriately shaky (for a very old man) and the contents simple, plain, and brief. The earliest letters appeared right after Tolkien’s service in World War I, when he was working for the Oxford English Dictionary and during his tenure at the University of Leeds.
As the years go by, and as the Tolkien children grow older, the letters become more elaborate, too. New characters are introduced, like the Great Polar Bear (who scribbles comments in the margins and sends separate notes to the children) and his mischievous nephews Paksu and Valkotukka, whose antics fill many of the letters. Father Christmas describes conflicts with the goblins that attack his North Pole home and try to destroy his supplies — which helps explain why the Tolkien children don’t always get everything they ask for (why didn’t my wife and I ever think of that?). There are gnomes, elves, and even an elvish alphabet. Even though there’s no definitive tie-in to Tolkien’s major works — for instance, no cameo appearance by Legolas or Gimli — we do see Tolkien engaging in his typical world-building here, though on a much smaller scale.
In this new edition, Baillie Tolkien also treats us to an unpublished note that her father-in-law might have been considering as a preface, in which he tells us that “F.C. was a much more easy-going English sort of bloke who filled the stockings of the good and not-so-good and paid more attention to children’s letters telling him of their hearts’ desire than to grown-ups’ behavior reports.” Father Christmas is such a durable, resilient figure that some critics say he’s one of the obvious inspirations — along with Merlin and Wotan — for the character of Gandalf in Lord of the Rings.
But there’s a lesser-known, more fascinating argument that connects Father Christmas directly to the Middle-earth cosmology as a card-carrying member of the Istari, Gandalf’s wizardly brethren. According to The History of Middle-earth, the Istari are five angelic beings who took on flesh (in an echo of the Christian Incarnation) and were sent by the Valar to Middle-earth to help guide its dwellers through dark and desperate times. In appearance, the Istari were old men with long beards who were “never young and aged only slowly” and had “many powers of mind and hand.” Could those powers, I wonder, have included slipping up and down a chimney in the wink of an eye?
Their mission, as Tolkien explained in an essay about them, was “to advise and persuade Men and Elves to good, and to seek to unite in love and understanding all those whom Sauron, should he come again, would endeavor to dominate and corrupt.” But the Istari weren’t perfect. Their human natures, as Tolkien explained, made them weak and susceptible to temptation. That’s what happens to Saruman, of course; and to a lesser extent it happens to Radagast, too — he doesn’t become evil, but he does retreat into a hermit-like existence in Mirkwood, surrounded by birds and beasts. Only Gandalf stays fully true to the Istari’s noble mission.
And what about the other two? We know little about them, and neither did Tolkien himself, apparently, as he confessed in a 1958 letter to a fan:
I really do not know anything clearly about the other two — since they do not concern the history of the [North West]. I think they went as emissaries to distant regions, East and South, far out of Númenórean range: missionaries to “enemy-occupied” lands, as it were. What success they had I do not know; but I fear that they failed, as Saruman did, though doubtless in different ways; and I suspect they were founders or beginners of secret cults and “magic” traditions that outlasted the fall of Sauron.
But the old master didn’t leave it there. Didn’t I say earlier that his work was ever-evolving? Eventually Tolkien’s thoughts turned to those two wizards again. He gave them names — Morinehtar and Rómestámo in the History; Alatar and Pallando in Unfinished Tales — and he thought more deeply about their fates. He realized that their lives hadn’t ended, as his 1958 letter had said, in failure. Instead, the two were very effective secret agents of some kind, as he wrote in this later passage from the History:
Their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship; to stir up rebellion […] and after his first fall to search out his hiding (in which they failed) and to cause [?dissension and disarray] among the dark East. […] They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of the East […] who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have […] outnumbered the West.
But once Sauron was gone and their subversive role wasn’t needed anymore, what happened to them? Here’s where the Santa connection comes in. Go back to Tolkien’s 1958 letter and what he said about how these two “blue wizards” — also known as the Ithryn Luin — may have been the founders of magical traditions. Could it be that one of them became that benevolent, friendly presence who brings hope and goodwill every winter and a sleigh-full of presents as the central figure in the popular mythology of Christmas?
It was a satisfying idea to ponder as I examined this season’s Tolkien offerings. If one of the Blue Wizards did become our Santa, wouldn’t that nicely align the Letters from Father Christmas with the rest of the Middle-earth mythology? It would, and something else occurred to me, too: it’s a satisfying touch of poetic justice to have the role of gift-giver that Sauron once corrupted — when he seduced the elven smiths of Eregion as the kindly Annatar, lord or giver of gifts — now safely in the hands of someone who really deserves it: Tolkien’s “easy-going English sort of bloke” from the North Pole.
Nick Owchar is a communications director at Claremont Graduate University and the founder of Impressive Content, an editing and content production service. He was formerly the deputy book review editor of the Los Angeles Times.