Goodreads: The Tolkien Reader
Published: January 1945
Niggle is trying to finish painting his masterpiece before he has to embark on his journey, but he faces constant interruptions from his neighbor Parish, who always seems to need his help. So when the date for Niggle’s journey finally arrives, he is unprepared and he has nothing with him but his creativity and the tally of his past deeds.
“Leaf by Niggle” has always struck me as a particularly difficult story to review. In some ways, I struggle with reviewing all of Tolkien’s work, partly because it is always easier to say why something is bad than to explain why it is good, and partly because it is always so complex and so immense. People have written books on The Lord of the Rings alone, so how can I try to fit my opinion of it in just a few paragraphs?
“Leaf by Niggle” does not have as much scope as The Lord of the Rings; it is a short story, not an epic novel. Nonetheless, it is still complex. On the surface level, “Niggle” seems a bit one-dimensional, a bit heavy-handed, and, ironically, exactly the thing Tolkien claimed to hate: allegory. Readers follow Niggle through life as he puts off preparing for a “journey” (coughdeathcough) and then through the afterlife itself, where he clearly experiences Purgatory and then part of Heaven. There are clear messages about what it means to do the right thing in life, and how God and the Son might judge one’s choices after death.
However, “Leaf by Niggle” has a second layer, and the story can as easily be about art, and its meaning and value, as it is about preparing properly for the afterlife. Niggle spends much of his life painting, an occupation the majority of his neighbors consider a waste of time. Some even have a debate about the worth of his art, and art in general, after Niggle’s death.
The “problem” of “Leaf by Niggle,” then, is whether these two themes—right living and art—are two distinct layers of the story, or whether they in some way comment on each other. Trickily, the story implies that art does have intrinsic value, but the Voices (God and the Son) seem to think the times when Niggle abandoned his art to help his neighbors were some of his most important acts. The temptation is to say that the story advocates balance, but that somehow seems reductive.
“Leaf by Niggle” continues to intrigue me because it evades classification. Although it seems straightforwardly allegorical, it always reveals something new. The characters, too, continue to be complex and surprising—to be ordinary people who do every day acts of extraordinary kindness (even if they grumble about it). I admit, after multiple readings, I do not entirely understand “Leaf by Niggle;” I only understand parts and facets. But I will continue to read it in hopes of getting an ever-clearer picture, of finally seeing the tree instead of just the leaves.