what he was doing with middle earth. Part of him saw the impact that his collective
work would have on people as a source of inspiration and healing. But another
part of him saw it as putting off the 'inconveniences' of everyday life that
everyone thought were so important at the time.
And now, now
all we have is that one leaf. that phrase from a passage of what he really
saw.. and while it seems like a great body of work, it's only what he was
able to put into words.. a small corner of his mind.
The allegory of "Leaf by Niggle" is life, death, purgatory and paradise.
Niggle is not prepared for his unavoidable trip, as humans often are not prepared
for death. His time in the institution and subsequent discovery of his Tree
represent purgatory and heaven.
by Niggle" is also about Tolkien's profoundly religious philosophy of
Creation and Sub-creation. True Creation is the exclusive province of God,
and those who aspire to Creation can only make echoes (good) or mockeries
(evil) of truth. The Sub-creation of works that echo the true creations of
God is one way that mortals honor God.
is evident in The Silmarillion -- one Vala, Morgoth, creates the orc race
as a foul mockery of the elf. Another Vala, Aulë, creates the dwarf race
as an act of Sub-creation that honored God, called Eru in Tolkien's invented
mythology, and which God accepted and made real, just as Niggle's Tree was
after truth and beauty (God's creations) are echoed in his great painting;
after death, Niggle is rewarded with the realization (the making-real) of
his yearning. Or, if you prefer, Niggle's Tree always existed -- he simply
echoed it in his art.
On a meta-level,
then, Tolkien's Middle-earth is itself a Sub-creation designed to honor the
true stories of the world-that-is. Thus, Middle-earth, despite its lack of
overt religious elements, is a profoundly religious work.
So, on a final
level of allegory, Tolkien himself is Niggle -- and, humorously, in mundane
matters as well as spiritual ones. Tolkien was compulsive in his writing,
his revision, his desire for perfection in form and in the "reality"
of his invented world, its languages, its chronologies, its existence. Like
Niggle, Tolkien came to abandon other projects or graft them onto his "Tree,"
Middle-earth. Like Niggle, Tolkien faced many chores and duties that kept
him from the work he loved. And like Niggle, Tolkien was a horrible procrastinator
-- late in life, he spent hours playing solitary card games instead of working
on The Silmarillion.
himself might have disagreed with an allegorical interpretation. He wrote,
in Letter 131 of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, "I dislike Allegory."
And in specific reference to Niggle, he wrote in Letter 241, "It is not
really or properly an 'allegory' so much as 'mythical'." On the other
hand, in Letter 153 he said, "I tried to show allegorically how [sub-creation]
might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my 'purgatorial'
story Leaf by Niggle."
There is an experience I sometimes have with a work of art that I have described
(badly) as having my heart filled with love. Closest to describing it is something
I read in an Anglo-Saxon language class some years ago. It was a translation
exercise, the parable of the prodigal son from the New Testament. When the
father sees his wayward son returning he is filled with "mildeheortness"
from the words that become "mild" and "heart." (I'm a
little uncertain of the spelling.) It is translated as "compassion"
but it stays a separate word for me and describes something near compassion
and near love, something "too deep for tears."
Anyway, one of
the times I have felt that way is reading "Leaf by Niggle" at the
line "It's a gift!" It seems to me an almost painful confession
by Tolkien about himself. It is someone with a great love of his own creations
who is aware of the moral dangers of Pride; W.H. Auden writes somewhere that
Pride is the only sin, that all sins are expressions of Pride.
college, my favorite Tolkien tale was not The Lord of the Rings but "Leaf
by Niggle," a short story he published first in 1947 and then, paired
with the essay "On Fairy-Stories," as the slim volume Tree and Leaf
in 1964. Both the story and the essay are defenses of fantasy, and it is the
essay that includes Tolkien's famous response to those who deride fairy tales
as escapist: "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in a prison,
he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and
talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"
As a self-contained
argument, the essay is engaging but not really complete. As a companion-piece
to the short story, it serves quite well. Faerie, it declares, "holds
the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the Earth, and all the things that
are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves,
when we are enchanted." It is this realm that the title character creates
in "Leaf by Niggle," devoting his spare hours to a vast picture
he's painting in a tall shed in his garden. Like Faerie -- or, more broadly,
Fantasy -- Niggle's art serves as an escape, a fantastic diversion from a
bland and bureaucratized life. While the world around him seems obsessed with
trite legalities and matters of state, Niggle passes his time in the act of
creation, inventing a new reality that not only is preferable to the world
of a "serviceable cog" (Tolkien's phrase), but at story's end is
truer than that world as well.
declares the chief purposes of fantasy to be recovery, escape, and consolation,
and Niggle's painting serves as each. It is a recovery of a clear view, the
work of an artist "who can paint leaves better than trees" in a
country where the individual leaf is sacrificed to the higher collective order.
It is an escape from the "nuisance" of one's "duties"
to that order. And it is a consolation, not only for Niggle but, later, for
all those who use the world he has created "for
convalescence." A theme of the essay reverberates in the story: that
the fantasist, at his best, creates something more real than can ever be fashioned
by the world's jailers, and that long after all the jails have decayed, Faerie
In time, my personal
art has narrowed down to being now almost exclusively pencil drawings of leaves.
I'm not sure where that comes from. I have tried twice to draw a picture of
the Mountain seen past the leaves of the Tree. They're pretty enough but eventually