J.R.R. Tolkien, Letters from Father Christmas [audio, read by Derek Jacobi] (Harper Collins Audio, 1997; Houghton Mifflin Company, 2000)

Most children have at one point or another written a letter to Father Christmas (or Santa Claus or Saint Nicholas or whoever brings your presents). Now imagine one day finding a reply to your letter. Not only would that cement your belief in said mythological figure, but would just be totally cool to boot. If your father was J.R.R. Tolkien, you experienced just such an occurrence. Of course, most of our fathers are not Tolkien, but now we can experience the thrill of receiving Letters from Father Christmas.

In his review of the bound and printed version of this collection, our esteemed Editor-in-Chief, Cat Eldridge, states that, "the Letters truly don't come to life for modern-day readers unless they are treated to a oral performance of them by accomplished actors."

Fortunately, Sir Derek Jacobi -- who reads this unabridged recording -- falls solidly into that category. (Some say that he deserves his own category.)

For those who may not be familiar with his work, I'll simply say that you are in for a treat. Jacobi was the perfect choice for this reading. Not only has he read other Tolkien works but his voice resembles that of a kindly grandfather, ideal for the character of Father Christmas. In addition, the voices he uses for the other characters (North Polar Bear and Ilbereth, the elf secretary) are almost totally unlike his own. On first listen, I was convinced that someone else was doing the voices, but then came to the conclusion that some minor mechanical assistance was involved, although this was only noticeable with Ilbereth.

The letters themselves are divided by charming renditions of various Christmas carols (with "Joy to the World" being used most often). This is a very festive touch as it almost subconsciously put me back into the Christmas spirit. In fact, the only downside to this recording is the absence of the author's illustrations, published in the text version. Nevertheless, Jacobi's reading of the descriptions lends itself to easy visualization (which, I've found, is often superior to any tangible renderings).

The letters end on a sad note as the children are growing up and the world is in the midst of war (this is only hinted at, though, by Father Christmas's statement that "there is no damage in my country"), but this did not detract from the delightful feeling I had from listening to these cassettes. In fact, the ending is much more poignant, seeing it from Father Christmas's hopeful point of view.

Tolkien's wonderful language and evocative prose combined with Jacobi's smooth voice and skill at characterization combine to create an audiobook that belongs on any family's Christmas shelf in a place of honor beside Patrick Stewart's classic adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol. This is one that is going to be played over and over.

[Craig Clarke]