Recommended Reading, Christmas Edition: Letters from Father Christmas, by J.R.R. Tolkien

photo (1)If you’re looking for the perfect Christmas book—and maybe inspiration to write the small people in your life some larger-than-life letters—look no further than Tolkien’s Letters from Father Christmas. 

I’ve had my eye on this book for a long time, but the number of editions and their varying states of completeness put me off buying it until this year, when I came across what I think is the best edition out there: the HarperCollins hardcover edition published in the UK in 2012 (my copy came from the Book Depository). The only thing that could make it better? Bigger pages.

In this collection, edited by J.R.R. Tolkien’s former secretary (and his daughter-in-law) Baillie Tolkien, you’ll find over twenty years’ worth of correspondence from Father Christmas (with interpolations by the North Polar Bear and later notes from the Elf secretary Ilbereth) to the Tolkien children. What’s especially wonderful is that the transcriptions of the letters are accompanied by facsimiles of the letters, envelopes, and drawings themselves, so you can revel in Father Christmas’s shaky writing, the Polar Bear’s hilarious marginal commentary (and goblin alphabet!), and the beauty of Tolkein’s drawings.

You’ll find tales of mischief and eleventh-hour turnarounds, reindeer on the loose, and lots of firecrackers in these pages, and something more, too—a record of the joys and interests of the Tolkien children, and their father’s sadness at the woes of the world around them. The Depression and the Second World War do not go unnoticed, but Father Christmas’s reassurance that hope and light will return again is touching and poignant, and a good reminder for our own times.

Highly recommended reading for parents, children, Tolkien fans, and anyone who’s looking for Christmas cheer.

“Who now shall refill the cup for me?”

Today is Veterans Day in the United States, and Armistice Day and Remembrance Day in other parts of the world; we honor military veterans on this date because the armistice that ended World War I went into effect in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month.

I thought I’d mark the day by discussing a poem by one of the war poets; as regular readers know, the literature of the Great War is one of my particular areas of interest, though I’ve been delayed  when it comes to my World War I Reading List post (I should have it in time for the centenary of the end of the war . . . ). However, since I’ve talked about Sassoon, Owen, Graves, Rosenberg, and Blunden already this year, I thought I’d detour (though that’s a misleading word) into the work of one of their contemporaries.

"Tolkien 1916". Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons -

“Tolkien 1916”. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons –

Typically pictured as a twinkly-eyed, pipe-smoking scholar,  J.R.R. Tolkien is not often remembered as a veteran, though readers of The Lord of the Rings, The Silmarillion, and The Hobbit may know that he served during the First World War; he fought in the Battle of the Somme. Most of his comrades were killed after he was sent back to England to recover from an illness; he spent the rest of the war weak and ill, though he served in various garrisons on the home front.

In the preface to the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote, contradicting those who supposed the work was an allegory for the Second World War, that the book was not an allegory, and that in any case the war that shaped him first began in 1914: “By 1918 all but one of my close friends were dead.” In 1918 Tolkien was twenty-six.

Here’s a link to Tolkien reading “Namárië,” or Galadriel’s Lament, the poem of the week in honor of Tolkien and all other veterans. He reads the poem in Elvish (Quenya, for those keeping score), and you can read the English version below the video.

If you’d like to read more about Tolkien’s experiences during the First World War and their influence on his writing, reliable sources recommend John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War: The Threshold of Middle-earth.

In Which I Eviscerate the First Hobbit Movie

It’s Hobbit time again, Charlie Brown. All across the interwebs, people are writing handy “Previously on The Hobbit” recap pieces in preparation for the next movie’s opening today. Here’s my humble contribution.

As a nine-year-old, I thought the narrator of Tolkien’s The Hobbit was talking down to me, and thus disliked the book immensely — so much, in fact, that I delayed reading The Lord of the Rings until I was seventeen. It didn’t help that I hated the narrator of the audiobook version, which I was obliged to listen to during one of our family road trips (perhaps this is the source of my dislike for the medium?). The Hobbit

So, if you will, imagine my surprise when I picked up The Hobbit last year, before the movie came out, and found it charming, exciting, and full of respect for its intended audience. The narrator I once found condescending now seems conversational, inclusive, inviting. It’s a children’s book, yes, but the kind that an adult can read with enjoyment.  It’s like an amuse-bouche before the main courses — The Lord of the Rings and The Silmarillion.

Now, before I start in on the movie, let me disclose that I thoroughly enjoyed Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, a view not shared by many die-hard Tolkien fans, I know. But I thought Mr. Jackson handled the necessary exigencies well. Sure, I could have done without the Elves at Helm’s Deep and the ill-contrived Aragorn-isn’t-ready-for-kingship plot line, and yes, I would have liked to see Tom Bombadil & Goldberry, and the Scouring of the Shire, but these are issues I can live with.

And before you ask, there were some positives to my Hobbit movie-going experience: I thought the casting of the major characters was spot-on, and I loved Howard Shore’s score. But alas, not enough for the movie to avoid my wrath.

Herewith I present, in no particular order, my objections to Mr. Jackson’s treatment of The Hobbit:

Three movies out of a 275-page book? That’s just turning a beloved story into a cash cow. I know I’m not the first to make this argument, but I think it needs to be out there. Yes, asking people to buy three movie tickets instead of two will increase your profits by one-third. But that’s not a good reason to expand a story so drastically. (Much as I wish I hadn’t, I saw a preview for the second installment that featured Legolas and an Elf played by Evangeline Lilly. Oh, PJ. Please. Creating characters out of whole cloth? Where do you and Fran Walsh and Philippa Boyens get the nerve? If you REALLY need a female character, turn Beorn in a woman. For serious. That would work better.) I get that filmmakers have to make tough choices about what to cut from beloved books in order to make a reasonable run-time, but adding material to a fully-realized Tolkien story is sheer hubris.

Perspective: The narrator of The Hobbit shadows Bilbo, for the most part. When Gandalf disappears, Bilbo doesn’t know what he’s up to until Gandalf shares information with him. In this way, Bilbo is placed in the position of a child, not always allowed access to the adult world, unless it’s through a gate-keeper. He’s on an important quest with the Dwarves, but it’s the grown-ups — Gandalf in particular — who will deal with The Necromancer (aka Sauron) who gains power in Mirkwood. Here’s what The Hobbit has to say on the subject:

[. . .]but every now and again he would open one eye, and listen, when a part of the story which he did not yet know came in.

It was in this way that he learned where Gandalf had been to, for he overheard the words of the wizard to Elrond. It appeared that Gandalf had been to a great council of the white wizards, masters of lore and good magic; and that they had at last driven the Necromancer from his dark hold in the South of Mirkwood. (266)

Yep, that’s pretty much it. If Tolkien thought a blow-by-blow of the Battle of Dol Guldur was necessary to elucidate the plot of The Hobbit, he could have included it. But he doesn’t. And apparently Mr. Jackson knows better: In the first Hobbit movie, we’re shown Gandalf deep in conversation with Elrond & Galadriel (and good old nefarious Saruman, nice to see you as always, Mr. Lee), and that’s just a taste of what’s to come. I understand that in some quarters, there are calls to get as much of Middle Earth on screen as possible. But guess what? There are other books for that!  Seriously, quit calling the movies The Hobbit: An Obvious Subtitle. Call them Money-Making Lord of the Rings Prequels.

Violence: The Hobbit is a children’s book that doesn’t gloss over difficult choices, the risk of death, or various fantastic dangers. However, there were a couple instances of gore (especially the beheading of Thorin’s father) that make the movie a no-go for kids 8-10. I know that they don’t belong to the coveted ticket-buying demographics, but you think Mr. Jackson could have flexed some muscle with the studios — or exercised some self-restraint — and toned it down a notch or two, so that Tolkien’s intended audience could be his audience, too. He lost a great opportunity to make a family film — and not in a schmaltzy (or cartoon) sense.

Radagast: Oh dear, where to begin. Radagast is, as anyone who’s read The Silmarillion can tell you, a Maiar, a being of divine origin though not one of, and less powerful than, the Valar. Like Gandalf, Radagast walks Middle Earth is the guise of an old man, but unlike Gandalf, his affinity is for flora and fauna, not Elves and Men and Hobbits. A little odd he may be, but the totally bizarre movements and costume Mr. Jackson gave him are a bridge too far. I was viscerally angry with this portrayal, which is in line with Mr. Jackson’s choice to turn Gimli into a buffoon to play for cheap laughs in LOTR. Mr. Jackson has departed from Tolkien’s nuanced, gentle laughter with the characters (and sometimes at their foibles) and created his own brand of cruel comedy that attacks Radagast. And the bird excrement (this is a blog for all readers, but you know what I’m saying) on his head? BAD FORM, Mr. Jackson.

An effects issue: While Gollum, played by the always-amazing Andy Serkis, was graced with the best CGI effects ever, Azog was just atrocious. Totally fake-looking.

And the cherry on top of my dislike sundae: my favorite musical section of the movie, which worked so well in the trailer, is the Dwarves’ song (not the over-long dishwashing one — the other one). And it’s cut off too soon! Gah!

Essentially, I think Mr. Jackson shows a significant lack of respect for his source material.

Here’s hoping I’ve saved you twelve — make that twenty-four — bucks.

A Literary Wedding, or, “Earth’s the right place for love: / I don’t know where it’s likely to go better.”

our rings

Our wedding rings

We were married three years ago this week, back in the olden days before Pinterest provided endless helpful suggestions regarding how to personalize your wedding with monograms and mason jars.

Now, I love a mason jar as much as the next gal, but our last name’s initial looks a heckuva lot like a circle, so I didn’t (and don’t) see much point in monogramming anything. I think it would have confused people. (“Which table are you sitting at?” “Table 0.” “Oh, I thought we were at table O.” “Oh dear.”) Personalizing one’s wedding ought to mean something more than splashing one’s initials all over it in in perfect wildflower hues, right?

Our wedding would never make the pages of Martha Stewart Weddings. We didn’t meticulously handcraft garlands of paper cranes from the pages of vintage books. We didn’t do favors, rice, confetti, a “real” wedding cake (we went with the Heart of Darkness chocolate torte, with mango coulis), or a “normal” ceremony.

What we did do was try very hard to make the wedding our own, an event that expressed not only who we are as a couple but where we came from — the people and words and music that shaped our lives.

The program included the line from “Birches” I’ve used in this post’s title, and Juliet’s immortal lines, “My bounty is as boundless as the sea / My love as deep. The more I give to thee / The more I have, for both are infinite.” The lettering on the front of the program used a font based on Jane Austen’s handwriting; on the last page we reprinted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130 in memory of absent friends.

The processional was “Building the Barn” from Witness, because, well, just watch that part of the movie (bonus: Viggo Mortenson cameo!). And the recessional was “Everyone” by Van Morrison because, well, watch the end of The Royal Tenenbaums. But only if you’ve seen the beginning and the middle.

While guests waited they had the option of tinkering with a crossword we made about us, our friends, and families, or looking out over a little river and falls, or browsing in the bookstore.

Yes, we were married at a bookstore. Well, technically, we were married on a deck that’s part of a restaurant that’s located in an old mill that’s been converted into a used bookstore in a town called, of all things, Montague. But I just tell everyone that we were married at a bookstore. It’s easier that way.

[It’s lovely to be able to return to a place that holds such beautiful memories for us; we try to go back at least once a year. I’ll post pictures from our latest visit tomorrow.  I bet you’ll want to go there too.]

Our ceremony was comprised of the usual wedding bits, retooled to suit our beliefs and preferred wording, and literary readings. Each of us asked a parent, a sibling, a friend, and an aunt or uncle to read during the ceremony, in groups of two.

Which readings, you ask?

  • “In Lands I Never Saw,” by Emily Dickinson
  • “The Owl and the Pussycat,” by Edward Lear
  • Most Like an Arch This Marriage,” by John Ciardi
  • Sonnet 116, by William Shakespeare
  • “The Master Speed,” by Robert Frost
  • a selection from the Song of Songs
  • a selection from Emma, by Jane Austen
  • a selection from The Lord of the Rings, by J.R.R. Tolkien

I can still hear each one of these people reading, people we love who shared these words that mean so much to us. Because a marriage ceremony is an act of speaking something into being, and it’s important to get the words right.


So, since today is Tuesday, and therefore a poetry day around these parts, I thought today I’d highlight a poem that wasn’t read at our wedding.

You read that right. We both love Robert Frost’s “Birches” — so much so that my husband’s wedding ring is etched to look like birch bark — but it is long, and not really related to marriage, so we chose a different Frost poem for our set of readings. Now, though, after three years and one child together, this poem has taken on even more significance to us. Sometimes I imagine my son as the boy in the poem, confident though solitary. Sometimes I turn to the poem when things get hard, as they are wont to do, when

I’d like to get away from earth awhile
And then come back to it and begin over.

But above all, we love the poem for its abiding love for the beauty and promise of this world and its often-anonymous inhabitants. After all, “one could do worse than be a swinger of birches.”

Three years later, at the bookmill.

Three years later, at the Bookmill.

Did you incorporate readings into your wedding ceremony? How did you choose your readings?