Tolkien's 'Father Christmas' letters to go on show in major new exhibition in Oxford

He's best known for being the man behind the epic battles and adventures of Middle Earth - but JRR Tolkien was also a devoted father of four, with a keen sense of humour.

Nowhere is this clearer to see than in his Christmas letters to his young children.

The talented author and artist dreamed up a fantastical world based at the North Pole, posing as Father Christmas as he penned letters each year detailing thrilling adventures and hidden worlds.

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Catherine McIlwaine, Tolkien archivist at the University of Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, has been poring over the works for five years in preparation for a major new exhibition about the author next year.

She said it all began in 1920, when his eldest son John was just three years old.

"He'd asked daddy 'who was Father Christmas? Where did he live?' so Tolkein went into his study and drew a beautiful painting of Father Christmas setting off through the snow with a sack of presents,” she said.

The very first letter, written in 1920.

“And he wrote the first letter in red ink, in a shaky hand, telling his son John 'I'm just setting off for Oxford now with my sack of presents, and some of them are for you’.”

The tradition continued for 23 years, until his youngest daughter Priscilla was 14.

In one, ‘Father Christmas’ told how he and his reindeer had fought off an invasion of goblins with the help of Norwegian Red Elves.

"There's a really lovely end to that story in the letter,” Ms McIlwaine said.

The tradition went on for 23 years.

“He says to the children: 'I do hope your presents don't have a smell of goblin about them'.

"And you can just imagine the children opening their presents and then smelling them all to see 'does this smell of goblin, what does goblin smell like'.

“I like to imagine that the Tolkien children thought they really could smell a bit of goblin about their gifts that year.”

This piece, entitled Conversations with Smaug, will also go on display.

The letters will go on display at the exhibition, which will last just five months beginning in June, along with other original works, photographs, and family keepsakes.

One piece shows the moment The Hobbit’s hero Bilbo Baggins faces Smaug the dragon.

Another depicts Bilbo travelling down the river as he and the dwarves escape the Wood Elves in wine barrels.

Bilbo rides the barrel down the river.

Perhaps most interesting of all is Tolkien’s original artwork for the cover of The Hobbit.

It is on display alongside notes exchanged between the author himself and his publisher, who - amid concerns over the cost of ink - refused Tolkien’s request to have the colour red included.

Tolkien’s notes indicate that he would like both the sun and the dragon to be coloured in red; however, it’s clear who has the final word.

Tolkien had wanted red to be included in The Hobbit's cover art.

The phrase ‘Ignore red’ was written a number of times on both sides of the paper, underlined for emphasis.

Many of these works have not been on public display in more than 25 years, after an exhibition was held in 1992 celebrating 100 years since Tolkien's birth.

And this time, the exhibition will be more special than ever.

The publisher wrote 'ignore red', despite Tolkien's request to have the colour included.

For the first time since Tolkien sold them to an American university in 1957, original manuscripts for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings will join them.

“We’re so excited to have these pieces coming back to Oxford for the first time in over 60 years - the place where Tolkien lived for most of his life, and where he wrote those key works,” Ms McIlwaine said.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for Tolkien fans to see so much of his original work all in one place, and learn a bit more about the man behind these incredible stories.”

  • Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth will be held from June 1 until October 28 at the Weston Library, Oxford