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.
4 thoughts on ““Leaf by Niggle” by J.R.R. Tolkien”
In many ways, I think the complexity of this story and the difficulty in finding one clear “message” may have been due to Tolkien’s own doubts on the matter. As an artist, he clearly would find meaning in his work, but it’s also possible that he sometimes wondered if he could be doing something “more” worthwhile, something perhaps that had immediate and tangible results. Even C. S. Lewis in one of his essays (I read it in The Seeing Eye, though it could have been collected elsewhere) struggled with deciding whether creating art was “good”. In the end, he seemed to be saying that it was at least inoffensive or not bad, and it could at best have some good fruits (for instance, if someone read a book and it somehow inspired to them to a better life). But I got the impression when I was reading Lewis’s arguments that he was still troubled about the subject.
So I think that the two layers you mention could very well be meant to interact in some way, if Tolkien was trying to work out how dedication to and creation of art contributed to one’s journey to the afterlife. Niggle has a gift and is clearly meant to use it, but the question in the story seems to be how? What should he create? How much time should he spend creating it? Is the problem that he is creating too much (to the neglect of the charitable offices he ought to be performing) or is the problem his attitude? Maybe his kindnesses to his neighbors are lauded because those are the moments in which he looked outside himself to something else. We don’t really know what he was thinking when he was painting, but maybe he was painting in a selfish way, hoping to gain his own glory and his time in purgatory is a way to teach him to create something out of love and for others and for the glory of God.
But I agree with you. It’s a complex work and I never feel that I understand it, either.
That’s really interesting. I never knew they might have doubts about the “value” of their own writing. I guess I’ve personally always considered art “worthwhile” and assumed actual artists/writers (particularly very successful ones!) would, as well.
I think one of the Voices brings up Niggle’s dedication to art for art’s sake as a positive point in his favor, though the idea isn’t really elaborated. And then his actions helping Parish seem to be given “more value.” As you suggest, though, there’s a tension between them throughout the story that I don’t think is ever fully resolved–which may be the source of my difficulties with the story.
Have you read his essay “On Fairy Stories”? It’s relatively short, and I’m sure you can find it somewhere online to read for free. A large part of it is devoted to the defense of art. He tackles the stigma against escapist fiction and addresses a lot of aspects of the epic fantasy genre that he essentially created. I loved Leaf by Niggle, and in conjunction with On Fairy Stories, you really start to get an idea of Tolkien’s feel for art and the entire writing process. Cool post!
I have read “On Fairy Stories!” Luckily, it’s in the same collection that has “Leaf by Niggle.” It’s probably one of my favorite pieces on art and fiction, although I think I’d have a soft spot for anyone who defends fantasy. I think his views on creation and subcreation do tie nicely into “Leaf by Niggle.”