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A Father's Gift

  • Katherine Anderson Becoming Family
  • 2001 11 Nov
  • COMMENTS
A Father's Gift
Have you ever felt like the proverbial shoemaker...like your children weren’t getting enough of whatever it is that you do best?

In the busyness that is life, it is sometimes easy to miss out on some of the richest parenting gold--that of sharing your passions and talents with your children, grandchildren, or whomever it is that you love most.

In this, writer J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973) serves as a wonderful example and inspiration to us all. Not just a fine storyteller, John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was in fact the author of three of the 20 best-selling books of our time. And while The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy may be Tolkien’s best known works, it is through his four children--John, Michael, Christopher, and Priscilla--that his love for language and literature truly lives on and filters down from one generation to the next.

Two of Tolkien’s children went on to author the Tolkien Family Album. And Tolkien’s youngest son, Christopher--a writer, professor, and editor in his own right--assisted in publishing a collection of his father’s letters.

Both Tolkien and his wife, Edith, were orphaned at a young age. And as a result, they were determined to provide their own four children with the strong and loving family life that they missed. This meant that initiation into the life of the imagination came early in the Tolkien family home. From the time the eldest, John, was very small, inventing stories was bedtime ritual. Later, during the long winter months, the older boys would request "winter reads" after tea in the evenings, writes Tolkien’s biographer, Humphrey Carpenter.

In the Oxford home where all four grew up, Bilbo Baggins came to life for the very first time, complete with all his enduring idiosyncrasies and his amusing distaste for adventures. "Nasty disturbing uncomfortable things! Make you late for dinner!" comments the home and hearth-loving hobbit, who has since become a beloved favorite in children’s rooms around the world.

And in fact, writes Joseph Pearce in his study, Tolkien: Man and Myth, "It is fair to assume that if Tolkien had not been blessed with children he would never have written either The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings." Even The Silmarillion’s first rapt audience was none other than Christopher Tolkien. In his father’s biography, we are granted a picture of the young Christopher, "huddled for warmth by the study stove" listening "motionless" while his father recounted stories of the quest for the three great elfish jewels.

But even before there were hobbits, elves, and dwarfs occupying the halls of the Tolkien home on Northmoor Road, there were simpler stories that began when John had trouble going to sleep at night. Among the characters that occupied these bedtime hours, according to Carpenter, were "Carrots, a boy with red hair who climbed into a cuckoo clock and went off in a series of strange adventures," and "Mr. Bliss, a tall thin man who lives in a tall thin house and who purchases a bright yellow automobile for five shillings, with remarkable consequences, and a number of collisions."

To delight his children further, Tolkien also composed letters from Father Christmas every year. The letters started when John was three and continued for over 20 years. Written in shaky handwriting, the letters were accompanied by Tolkien’s own illustrations. Over the years, story lines expanded to include the adventures of many characters including an accident-prone polar bear and an elf who is Father Christmas’s secretary and who sometimes finishes the letters, sketching his own drawings.

After spending time composing such epistles, Tolkien took great care in delivering these letters as well. Carpenter writes, "...the local postman became an accomplice and used to deliver the letters himself, so how could the children not believe in them?" Indeed they went on believing until each in turn reached adolescence and discovered by accident or deduction that their father was the true author of the letters. Even then, nothing was said to destroy the illusion for the younger children."

Through the magical voice of Father Christmas in these early letters, Tolkien encourages his children, amuses them with the tales of Polar Bears and goblins, and always in the end, assures them of his steadfast love.

One year, for instance, he writes, "I’m specially pleased with Christopher’s card, and his letters, and with his learning to write, so I am sending him a fountain pen and also a special picture for himself."

Much later, when the children were grown and busy with their own lives, Tolkien continued to write to his children, and even sometimes for them. While he was writing The Lord of the Rings, it became Tolkien’s custom to send the finished chapters to his son, Christopher. At one point he writes to Christopher, away in the Air Force, "I chiefly want to hear what you think, as for a long time now I have written with you most in mind...I eagerly await your verdict. Very trying having your chief audience ten thousand miles away..." (Letters From J.R.R. Tolkien).

Though not many of us can send completed chapters of books to our children for their amusement, enjoyment, and criticisms, we all have strengths and passions to share with the little ones entrusted to our care.

Some of us work magic in the garden, or craft masterpieces out of wood, others simply appreciate beauty in all its forms and facets. The gardeners among us might start out by carving space in the backyard for a child’s vegetable patch--cultivated just for fun. If physics is your forte, try setting up a "laws of motion" fair in your backyard one Saturday morning. Or for those with an eye for beauty, something as simple as always taking the time to arrange and appreciate the fistfuls of dandelions your child picks can be the start of sharing--and spreading--your joy.

No matter what it is that we do best, we would do well to follow Tolkien's lead--to use the gifts we have been given to enrich the lives of our children, who indeed are every parent’s legacy.

To receive a free issue of the Becoming Family issue featuring "A Father's Gift," visit www.becomingfamily.com/specialoffer