Thursday 31 January 2013

Review of the Father Christmas Letters Audiobook


JRR Tolkien. Letters from Father Christmas - Audiobook read by Derek Jacobi (plus John Moffatt, Christian Rodska). 1997. Two CD set - 2:08 hours.

Four Stars (from maximum of Five)


Due to excellent personal service from an Amazon marketplace seller, who enclosed a specialized printout catalogue with the book, I came across Richard Johnson's Qoheleth Resources

from which I bought a secondhand audiobook of Tolkien's Father Christmas letters read by Derek Jacobi - presumably the fruit of the same recording sessions which left us Jacobi's  superb versions of Farmer Giles, Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major (reviewed elsewhere on this blog) which I have owned and loved for several years.

I had no idea about the existence of this recording of Father Christmas; and perhaps I would not have been very interested by it if I had been aware; since it does not seem obvious that the work would transfer well to audiobook in the absence of Tolkien's illustrations.

But it does transfer, very well - and of course I can either recall the illustrations or look at the book while listening.


Indeed, I take away from this audiobook a greatly enhanced evaluation of the Father Christmas letters, since I discovered how interesting and enjoyable they are for listening.

The great writer as father is a topic inevitably neglected by biographers - since it was not Fatherhood which made Tolkien famous - yet Tolkien comes across the years as a wonderful father - inspiring, even.

It is not just the sheer sustained effort which went into preparing these annual letters and paintings for his children - from 1920 to 1943 - twenty four years! But the details of love and concern within them.

This example of loving Fatherhood provides a 'depth' to the Letters, which underpins their more obvious storytelling charm - little comedy and adventure tales from the North Pole - usually featuring the North Polar Bear as either the cause or cure of these troubles.

Here, the Bear's voice is interjected by a deep voiced actor, John Moffatt, very effectively. Some of the later letters also have sections by the elf secretary Ilbereth (not Elbereth!) voiced by the ubiquitous and excellent English radio/audiobook character actor Christian Rodska.


I have only two complaints - there is a somewhat-excessive amount of music between the letters - often an instrumental arrangement of Joy to the World, and done on synthesizers: tastefully, but still...

Also, Derek Jacobi makes a complete Horlicks of reading-out the verse letter from 1938. I find it peculiar but true that most actors, even great actors like Sir Derek, are naturally very bad at reading verse - unless they are given detailed direction by somebody who can read verse.


What is most remarkable, considering these are letter written for private family consumption, serially over more than two decades, and spanning a time from Tolkien as young academic to a successful published author - is how well they work as a whole.

There is a definite sense of spanning the arc from the young childhood of his youngest son John to the leaving of childhood by Priscilla, his daughter and the youngest - with a bittersweet feeling about the leaving-behind of innocence and the prospects ahead.

The last letter is indeed a formal goodbye, a signing-off.


In sum, anyone who loves Tolkien's minor works (Farmer Giles, Smith, Niggle, Adventures of Tom Bombadil etc) is likely to love this recording; if you can get hold of a copy...


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