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Notebook for Topics in Literature: Imaginary Worlds (Spring 2005)
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~~ Leaf By Niggle ~~


dicot root

When this story was originally published in book form, in a slim book called Tree and Leaf, it was paired with an essay Tolkien wrote called, "On Fairy Stories." The two works complement each other very well. Although it's not necessary to read the essay to understand the story, it does help us gain a little more insight into some of the finer shades of allegorical meaning the story has to offer.

In the essay, Tolkien tries to answer three broad questions: what are fairytales (he calls them "fairy stories" but "fairytale" is our more familiar term), what is their origin, and what is the "use" of them. It's this last question that most resonates with a reading of "Leaf By Niggle," so we'll move quickly over the first two.

Briefly, for Tolkien, a "fairytale" (which is what we would call "Leaf by Niggle") is the kind of tale that places us in a state of "enchantment," a land where magic is possible, where the question "is this real?" applies only to the world that the tale creates. Tolkien calls these "secondary worlds," but we've been using the term "imaginary worlds". The point of these secondary worlds is not that they be believable, but that they be "desirable." Of course, his detailed answer is a bit more complex than that; this is merely a thumbnail summary.

The origins of the fairy tale are as old as language itself, as old as the brain that can see green grass and yellow sun and abstract the green and put it on the sun to create a "green sun." Very old, suffice to say. The history of the fairytale isn't as important to Tolkien as the fact of its existence, and our observation that the human mind, with its powers of generalization and abstraction, is built for fantasy. Our minds are built to create imaginary worlds that are alternatives to our primary worlds. Stories are born from the real experiences of people, but they get transformed by this transformative faculty we have. Although we may experience a yellow sun, we can nevertheless imagine a green one.

Tolkien also tackles an explanation of the "uses" of fairytale, and this is what I think you can directly apply to your reading of "Leaf By Niggle," and maybe to your reading of our imaginary worlds in general. First, let's understand what Tolkien says in his essay, and then we can move on to an analysis of the story. Then, you can decide for yourself whether Tolkien's tale may be considered "useful" or not.

The Uses of Fairy Tale

Here is the squashed, nutshell version of Tolkien's ideas about the uses of fairytale: we use these stories for fantasy, recovery, escape, and consolation.

  • Fantasy. For Tolkien, fantasy is high art, the purest art. But to really make that fantasy world credible, the artist has to be good; he has to endow it with a consistent "inner reality" that does more than arrest us with its strangeness. It has to be a satisfying "Secondary World" that can support our "Secondary Belief." It has to be good enough to deliver us into a state of enchantment. Although it's "unreal," it is hardly a "lie," and there's nothing juvenile about it. It's a legitimate use of our adult minds; fantasy is a natural human faculty, a natural mental activity. It doesn't compete with or destroy reason; in fact, the sharper the reason, the better the fantasy. Of course, fantasy can become delusional when it's irrational. The God-making machinery in our brains can make false Gods as easily as it can make genuine ones; and we can make our false Gods out of anything…out of stubborn notions, out of money, out of science, or economics, or social theory—any of which may "demand human sacrifice." Some people might say that right now our nation is mired in a delusional fantasy involving the "price of freedom." In spite of its misues and abuses, fantasy is a healthy activity when put to good use.
  • Recovery. The imaginary world of fairy tale helps us recover the ability to see old things in a fresher light, a "proper" light—the world as it exists distinct and apart from ourselves, from our blind "familiarity" with it. The familiar, which is so familiar it can become invisible, is "freed from the drab blur of triteness"—the elemental, primary substances are "recovered," their potency and wonder released once again. A tree, a leaf, a stone, a horizon gain back their elemental power.
  • Escape. Tolkien does not consider escape a bad thing. When "progress," our "real world," is unspeakably ugly or sad, it's not unreasonable to want to escape from it for a while into an imaginary archaic world. When the modern world offers only "improved means to a deteriorated end," why not escape, at least for a while? We may return refreshed. Tolkien identifies several other profound escapisms: escape from limitations (into an imaginary experience we deeply desire and can't have any other way); and the "Great Escape," the escape from death, from annihilation.
  • Consolation. According to Tolkien, a fairytale needs a happy ending. (And here's where "imaginary world" begins to seem like the broader term, encompassing stories with unhappy endings as well happy ones.) For Tolkien, the happy ending is necessary because the key function of the tale is to produce the effect of happiness, of joy. The tale gives readers a sudden glimpse of an underlying truth and reality which is satisfying and profoundly happy. The feelings of joy produced by such a tale is akin to grace. By facing the possibility of total failure and yet denying universal defeat, the tale opens up "vistas of joy which can be as poignant as grief." Although Tolkien doesn't push this point too firmly, it must be said that only a great artist can achieve that kind of happy ending without making the whole thing seem sappy and contrived.

A Reading of "Leaf By Niggle"


pine leaf

Although its author didn't always like to admit it, he finally did. "Leaf By Niggle" is an allegorical tale. An allegory, remember, is a "symbolic story," a kind of disguised representation for meanings other than those indicated on the surface.

On the surface of the story, you have Niggle, an amateur painter who is not very good but who nevertheless has a painter's "nature," and loves to paint. While he's supposed to be preparing for a journey, he gets started, instead, on a painting that keeps growing and growing in size and in potential until it's the most absorbing work he's ever done, and he's completely forgotten about the need to "prepare." Human society is a nuisance to him; he'd rather not be interrupted. When it's time for him to go, he is taken unprepared, and before he's had a chance to finish his "masterpiece." The journey takes him to a "workhouse" where, because of his impoverished state, his lack of preparation, he has to serve at various kinds of manual labor until gradually his former life and ambitions are completely forgotten. Niggle adjusts to his duties quite well, but no sooner is he well adjusted than he is cast into repetitive hard labor that breaks him physically. He's "sentenced" to rest in the dark. Lying there, he hears two Voices arguing about how he should be judged. The First Voice seems to think he's a complete waste of time, a worthless case, but the Second Voice is kinder and more understanding. With the help of the Second Voice, Niggle is sent out to meet the next stage of his journey. He travels by rail until he arrives at … his Tree. The one from the picture he'd painted. Niggle steps into his painting like he's stepping into a park. Everything is familiar, as it had appeared in his imagination, and not by his slight hand. It is lovely, but incomplete. Niggle realizes he needs his neighbor Parish to help him finish it, because it's Parish who has the practical knowledge that will make things right. Almost instantly, Parish does in fact arrive, and together they complete the picture by adding a house, a garden, and various necessary details. Parish is changed by his experience in Niggle's garden. The two neighbors, who barely got along back home, have reached a new appreciation for one another. Niggle is ready to go on to the next stage, to the mountains off in the distance, but Parish hangs back, waiting for his wife. "Niggle's Parish," now that it's fully created, has taken on a life of its own, helping people in ways that were originally unexpected.

The allegorical meaning extends beyond this surface. Perhaps this is the tale of the journey of the soul towards joy, towards the bliss of heaven. The journey is "death" and the first stop is purgatory. Then, when the soul is "ready," it's on to Mount Joy. Perhaps it's not about "heaven" at all, but simply happiness. Or perhaps it's an allegory to illustrate the value and uses of art, the worthiness of the artist, the relationship of the artist to the rest of society.

It can be all of these and none of these. It can be a small tale about a strange little man called Niggle. It can be an eloquent argument that favors "art for art's sake." Or it can be an allegory to illustrate the ancient Chinese proverb: If I keep a green bough in my heart, the singing bird will come. Niggle paints a leaf, but from that leaf an entire world emerges to fill the space around it, including singing birds, and fields, and distant mountains. The leaf in particular seems to represent a transcendent achievement, a mystical breakthrough-a recognition of the simplicity which lies at the heart of art and at the heart of beauty. Walt Whitman wrote, "The art of art, the glory of expression and the sunshine of the light of letters, is simplicity." Niggle's simple leaf is the height of art, perhaps. Walt Whitman also wrote, "I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars." Maybe, like a character in a Bob Dylan song, Niggle "sees the Master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand," and this is enough to "save" him. Or perhaps, if we understand the poet William Blake, Niggle landed laughing like the Buddha in Eternity because his "leaf" is a kind of key which unlocks Infinity? Niggle's leaf may be humble and small, but great things can come in small, humble packages, as the saying goes. Walt Whitman again:

"I celebrate myself, and sing myself,
And what I assume you shall assume,
For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.

I loafe and invite my soul,
I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass."

This is perhaps what Niggle has always wanted the time to do, the mood out of which he drew his leaves in the first place. Parish, lumpish and lame, never could have imagined loafing on the grass, celebrating the mystical joy of being alive, enjoying the sunshine and the play of universal microcosms, enjoying leaves or clouds, or anything, if there weren't some practical purpose to it. Yet he's enjoying those very things as we leave him waiting for his wife. He's changed.


mancot root

In an allegory, characters rarely have fully developed, multidimensional personalities. Except in rare cases, they tend to be types rather than individuals. Often their names give us the best clue as to which dimension of their personality we should most observe, and this is true in Niggle's case. "Niggle," as a verb, means "to argue over petty things, or to worry excessively or unnecessarily." It can also mean "to be finicky or excessively critical; to potter; esp., to work with excessive care for trifling details" (Hyperdictionary.com). This tells us a little of what we need to know about Niggle, especially Niggle as Artist, for that is what he seems to represent allegorically in the story. Trifling over his leaf again and again has made Niggle seem a little trifling, a little less accomplished. As an Artist, he seems not very successful-and yet he proves successful in the end.

Niggle's character seems to represent the artist, and the artist's problems. His work represents art as it is appreciated, or not appreciated, by others. The story seems to be an argument about the uses of art, its value beyond its value to the artist who creates it. Niggle has some of the stereotypical characteristics we may associate with artists: he's relatively isolated, dreamy and distracted; his priorities are different from those of most people. His imagination keeps him preoccupied. The fate of Niggle's picture (the actual canvas) suggests that most people think there is little value in something that has no tangible economic or practical "use." As soon as Niggle is gone the canvas is used as a roof shingle. Only one leaf survives (somehow). There's a small consensus (Parish, his wife, Tompkins) that Niggle and Niggle's art were of no use to society at all. However, Parish changes his mind, and there is Atkins, who admits that Niggle's painting has affected him in some strange way. Then, there's the magical world that's created from Niggle's picture, which has such a beneficial effect on so many people. These are Tolkien's arguments that Niggle and his art are useful after all, that they have a place in society, an important role to play, and that they should be appreciated.

This debate about the "usefulness" of art can be stated another way: can art exist for its own sake (for its own reasons, for its own effects)-the "art for art's sake" argument-or should it only exist in order to be of service to some external idea (as a kind of dressed-up, attention-grabbing ideology) or agenda? Tompkins argues that Niggle was a worthless artist because he couldn't even make a useful poster, as if the function of art is to be merely the window-dressing for some message that needs communicating-in other words, propaganda. Tompkins calls the "art for art's sake" credo "old-fashioned," but Tolkien seems to be in favor of this "older" view. Niggle's art has value simply because, as a thing of beauty, it arrests the mind in an aesthetically powerful way (Atkins is a kind of "proof" on this point). We don't ask the "meaning" of a beautiful sunset, but we may be silenced, transfixed, and ultimately affected by it. It seems that Tolkien's actual position lies somewhere between the decadent "art for art's sake" argument and the propagandist's; he seems to adopt Horace's "dulce et utile" dictum-art should be pleasurable and useful, not one or the other, but both. In the end we learn that "Niggle's Parish" has been, not just beautiful, but also very useful, a great success, in fact, in helping people rest, recover, and prepare successfully for the next stage in their "journey." Through the magic of art we ward off annihilation, Tolkien declares in "On Fairy Stories"; "Leaf By Niggle" is almost as didactic in its defense of art, its conviction that "pottering around in beautiful images" is not a waste of time. On the contrary, the work of art is a profound gift to us all.

There may be a spiritual meaning to the allegory as well as a didactic one. Tolkien seems to imply that, yes, art is useful-because our experience of beauty promotes spiritual growth. The experience of beauty produces joy; without joy, without bliss, there is no heaven. Joy is the stairway to heaven.

In "On Fairy Stories" Tolkien makes the grand claim that (great) art has the power to take the callow, selfish, lumpish, oafish soul of youth and transform it into something wise and dignified. He never says life experience can't do the same-but you if you consider reading a form of experience, you'll see there's really no important distinction to make. There's no way to argue with him about this claim other than to ask whether, in your own case, he's correct or not. You might remember a time when you became so arrested and absorbed in a work of art (literature, music, painting-whatever kind) that you were somehow changed by it. It may have happened early, with a Dr. Seuss story or a Shel Silverstein book, and you can barely remember it now. Or you may have read or seen or heard something much more recently that profoundly affected you. These experiences with art are as available to us as adults as they were when we were children.

Perhaps the argument at the heart of "Leaf By Niggle" is that we can all imagine something beautiful, and if we don't we should try. At the very least we should give ourselves the opportunity to respond to the beauty around us. Otherwise it's a barren world out there, an industrialized, dehumanized, beaurocratic wasteland, overwhelming in its ugliness. To be human is to imagine, and to be fully human, to reach our great potential, is to imagine beauty in order to create beauty. Beauty is a doorway to joy, a stairway to heaven. We can be too superficial about our notions of beauty-what it is, where to find it, what it really looks, feels, sounds, or tastes like. We look for it in the media, in the shopping malls, in our faces and the clothes we wear, but shouldn't we also look for it in the world around us, in our environment, in our souls?

 

 

 

     

 


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