‘A Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own’ (The Second Voice)

Among Tolkien’s non-Middle-earth related works, Leaf by Niggle has always had a special place, allowing its readers to acquire a very personal insight in the Professor’s thoughts at the time of the writing of The Lord of the Rings. It was conceived between 1938 – 1939 and first published in the Dublin Review in January 1945.

At a first glance, the story seems quite simple in its development and meanings. Niggle is an artist bound to live in a materialistic society, with no regard for high endeavours such as painting. Not willing to forsake his passion, he continues to paint, trying to make the most of all spare moments that his social duties will allow him. There was one picture that he was particularly fond of. It had begun with a mere wind-caught leaf, before growing into a magnificent Tree, with a wide country stretching around, a forest, and distant mountain peaks. Niggle is so absorbed by the unfolding of his canvas that he soon takes no more heed of his other pictures, or just includes them in the great one. He gives much thought and attention to each leaf in turn, yet at the same time he wishes to finish his picture, for he is aware that a long journey awaits him, and he deems his departure close.

In spite of his artistic enthusiasm, various responsibilities get in the way, and Niggle accomplishes them as best he can, though ever holding his beloved Tree in mind. The nuisances that distract him from his painting include his neighbour, Parish, a man with a lame leg who is always asking for help. Having a good heart, Niggle feels pity toward his neighbour, and when Parish asks him to get a doctor for his wife, he tries to help him, in spite of the bad weather. As a result, Niggle catches a chill and his illness hinders him even further from finishing his picture.

In the end, Niggle has to leave on the voyage, long expected, but not properly prepared for. He arrives at a kind of institution, where he has a strict program of work. The routine activities, though boring to an artist like Niggle, teach him to effectively manage his time, and so he becomes better organized in performing his tasks. After a while his case is discussed and he is sent away to the country. To his astonishment, he finds himself arriving inside his picture. Everything seems familiar; he recognizes each blade of grass and curve of the land. Yet this vision has no flaws, and Niggle understands that this is the finished picture, the one that had been inside his mind all along and that he didn’t get the chance to finish. Soon afterwards Niggle meets Parish again, and together they build a house and a garden, turning their surroundings into a more beautiful land than before. They learn to appreciate each other’s qualities – Niggle becoming interested in building and gardening, while Parish discovers the miracle of art.

Eventually, Niggle leaves Parish and takes another journey, this time towards the Mountains, not knowing what lies there since even back home, when painting them, he had only caught a glimpse of their glimmering peaks.

Tolkien’s dislike of allegory is well known, and referring to Leaf by Niggle he wrote “It is not really or properly an ‘allegory’ so much as ‘mythical’.” (Letter 241). Yet it is difficult for one not to read it in allegorical terms, as even Tolkien admits in Letter 153 : “I tried to show allegorically how [subcreation] might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story Leaf by Niggle.

In this allegorical light, hidden meanings seem to arise from almost every character and action. The story as a whole could be seen as a passage experience – death is the long journey we all have to take. It cannot be avoided, yet many just like Niggle, are not prepared for it. Tolkien’s Catholic beliefs reveal themselves in the next stages of the journey – purgatory (the time spent in the institution) and paradise (the country and his Tree).

Another allegorical aspect lies in the relationship between Creation and Subcreation. In Tolkien’s vision, Creation is a unique attribute of the supreme divinity, while all the attempts to imitate it result in Subcreation. A parallel can be drawn with The Silmarillion, where two cases of Subcreation appear. The first is a mockery of the Creation, belonging to Morgoth, who creates the Orcs by corrupting Elves, and another one, belonging to Aulë, who creates the Dwarves in order to praise Ilúvatar. The divine acceptance of Subcreation with ‘good intention’ is present in both cases – Ilúvatar accepts the Dwarves and lets them live, just as Niggle’s Tree becomes real.

But Niggle’s reasons for painting his Tree don’t come from a need to praise divinity through Subcreation. They are mostly related to his aesthetic taste – ever searching for beauty, ready to ‘niggle’ on each and every detail in order to achieve it. Thus, through the act of artistic creation, the author’s vision comes to life. Niggle’s story resembles the one of Pygmalion, the talented Greek sculptor who, through his love, brought one of his sculptures to life and it became the beautiful Galatea, his future wife. Of course, one could always view Niggle’s story the other way around, meaning that Niggle’s Tree had always existed in a parallel world, and that he simply echoed it in his art. His depiction of the Tree is therefore like a shadow, giving us hints about the object it comes from, but never revealing it to us as a whole.

On a higher level of allegory, Leaf by Niggle can be perceived as an accurate picture of Tolkien’s creative process, and even of his life, at least during the creation of his masterpiece, as he admits in Letter 241 : ‘I was anxious about my own internal Tree, The Lord of the Rings. It was growing out of hand, and revealing endless new vistas – and I wanted to finish it, but the world was threatening.’ Like Niggle, Tolkien had many duties, both social and academical, that kept him from his Tree, yet he eventually succeeded. But the similarities don’t end here, for Tolkien’s passion for details and perfectionism, reflected in the innumerable revisions of his works, echo Niggle’s, as well as the loss of interest in other works.

The way Leaf by Niggle came into being suggests a divine rapture, the likes of which were found in ancient Greece, where Muse-inspired poets weren’t aware of the creative process at all, so powerful was the influence of the Muses. Afterwards, when the rapture had passed, they could hardly understand their creations. In Letter 98 Tolkien tells us, “…[Leaf by Niggle] was the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all. Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting. I woke up one morning…with that odd thing virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out. I am not aware of ever ‘thinking’ of the story or composing it in the ordinary sense.”

To conclude, I hope my analysis convinced you to go ahead and read this wonderful tale, or to appreciate it (even) more than before. It’s amazing how even a short story such as Leaf by Niggle reflects the larger concerns of Tolkien’s work (like Subcreation in The Silmarillion). No matter the scope or the apparent significance of Tolkien’s works taken separately, they all share the one authorial vision, reflecting it in the manner in which light is reflected by the different facets of the same diamond. Like Hermes Trismegistus would say, ‘What is below is like that which is above, and what is above is like that which is below, to accomplish the miracles of the one thing.’ A water drop bears inside the memory of all the rains in the world, and within a grain of sand hide endless deserts.

Article by Nenyia

-J.R.R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle, published in Tree and Leaf, Harper Collins Publishers, 2001
-J.R.R. Tolkien, The Silmarillion, edited by Christopher Tolkien, Harper Collins Publishers, 1999
The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien, Harper Collins Publishers, 1995