I had the absolute pleasure of reading several of Tolkien’s unpublished children’s books over the last week, and while birthday celebrations have wound down and come to a close, I wanted to drop in with one last hurrah with some mini reviews.
Letters from Father Christmas
If you’re going to read any edition of Letters from Father Christmas, let it be the centennial edition. The sheer beauty of this edition is worth it alone, and I was just stunned by the visual aspect of it. Not only are all of Tolkien’s original letters reprinted so we can experience the fine detail that he put into the penmanship that differed between characters, the little pieces of artwork doodled into the corners, and the sweet addresses on the envelopes, but there are beautiful full pages of artwork that he created to go along with his letters.
And the letters themselves! There’s not just a simple story here, but one that transcends years, that develops and changes and becomes something else entirely with each new letter. I love the fact that Tolkien’s children started writing to Father Christmas earlier and earlier until he had to create a reason why he wasn’t responding until November, or when he would explain away why certain gifts weren’t available because goblins had attacked the North Pole. The elaborate stories that he creates with characters that are complex and interesting is just astonishing, and his creativity makes these letters something not to just appreciate, but to come back to time and time again.
I am so excited to gift this to one of my friends, who is a new mom, so that she can read these to her son around Christmas and create something even more special out of the holiday.
This was so cute! Truly, that’s the best word to describe this, and the background makes it even more so. When Tolkien’s middle son, Michael, lost his toy dog on the beach and was unable to find it again, even after hours searching with his father and brothers, Tolkien wrote a story about a real dog who is turned into a toy after he angers a wizard and all the adventures that that toy dog goes on, from being flown to the moon to swimming with mermaids. It’s a wild story that twists and turns and travels all the over the place, and it was such a joy to read.
We’re not only shown how deeply Tolkien loved his sons, enough to create a story to explain away a lost toy, and not just a story, but a series of continuing adventures, but Tolkien’s true prowess with language is on full display here. There’s such a difference between the language required for adult novels compared to that required in children’s & middle grade, and Tolkien is a master at settling into the level of language necessary. And it’s not that he’s dumbing down his language–far from it! When I teach a standard yoga class versus a beginner’s one, it’s often the beginner’s one that’s harder to teach because I have to focus so much on what’s being taught and work through explaining what we’re doing and why, and the same can be said for children’s & middle grade. You have to be so careful not to write something that’s going to go over their heads, but instead write for that age while often being much, much older. And that takes a certain skill, to change the style of your writing to suit the younger audience that you’re reaching for, and getting to watch Tolkien do it is just magical.
The story itself was a wonder, too, and I’m so excited to carry on and read more of Tolkien’s unpublished works. I knew that he was incredible from his Middle-earth legendarium, but to see that carried throughout other works is just bringing me so much joy.
Smith of Wootton Major
I would read an entire children’s series set in this world. Smith of Wootton Major has a lot of Hobbit vibes, and I can see pretty clearly where Tolkien eventually drew inspiration and bled it into his published works, but this definitely stands up on its own, too. There was something so wonderfully innocent and fun about the whole story, and I only guessed the twist in it a page or two before it was revealed, which just heightened my enjoyment of it immensely.
I do think that I loved this even more because I’ve read so much recently about Tolkien’s love of the concept of Faery and the fairytales that he grew up on and wanted to reinvent. He spent so much of his time translating old epics and refashioning them into something bigger and grander than they ever were before because he put so much dedication and careful attention into them, and Smith of Wootton Major just feels like the most wholesome expression of that love of fairytales. There’s so much common magic sprinkled throughout this, and so much rich history lingering in the background. It feels like a quintessential Tolkien story, and I really do honestly wish that there were so many more because this would make such a good series.
Farmer Giles of Ham
Tolkien is truly such a weirdo. Farmer Giles of Ham is a strange story that weaves through Britain in a way that’s meant to explain why certain towns are called certain things based on completely fictional events that include a farmer who becomes a king after he captures and befriends a dragon. Like, what a ride. There’s this bit at the end:
Now those who live still in the lands of the Little Kingdom will observe in this history the true explanation of the names that some of its towns and villages bear in our time. For the learned in such matters inform us that Ham, being made the chief town of the new realm, by a natural confusion between the Lord of Ham and the Lord of Tame, became known by the latter name, which it retains to this day; for Thame with an h a folly without warrant.pg 153
In the introduction, when he’s describing why this story has been translated out of “Book-latin” and into the “vulgar”–this man literally wrote a fictional story and made up an entire history for why that fictional story was written the way it was–Tolkien writes, “An excuse for presenting a translation of this curious tale, out of its very insular Latin into the modern tongue of the United Kingdom, may be found in the glimpse that it affords of life in a dark period of the history of Britain, not to mention the light that it throws on the origin of some difficult place-names.”
Truly, what a nerd, I love Tolkien.
Even beyond the wild reasoning that “explains” why Farmer Giles of Ham is written the way it is, this was just as delightful. Again, I’d read this as a whole series of children’s books, and it was be just wonderful. I’ve so enjoyed getting to read a few of Tolkien’s posthumously published children’s books, and while the Middle-earth legendarium is always going to remain my favorite, these will hold a special place in my heart, too.