Friday, August 7, 2009

Leaf by Niggle

J.R.R. (for John Ronald Reuel) Tolkien -- you know, the English guy who invented hobbits and Middle Earth and One Ring To Rule Them All and everything else in The Lord Of The Rings, which was voted the most important literary work of the twentieth century, and I won’t even mention the three blockbuster movies based on it that were directed by Peter Jackson and filmed in (hello, Katherine) New Zealand -- also wrote a wonderful little short story called Leaf by Niggle. If you can figure out what it is about from the title alone, you’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din. No, you must actually read the story, and even then you may not know what it is about.

Here it is. I’ll wait.

Leaf by Niggle

So now that you have finished reading it, and without referring to someone else’s ideas somewhere online or in an actual book, tell me in a comment what you -- yes, you -- think Tolkien meant to convey.

I’m hoping for a lively discussion.


  1. You asked for it.

    I don't suppose I would ever have run across "Leaf by Niggle" in my readings, and I thank you for posting the link. I read the entire piece and found it to be quite C.S. Lewis-ish (Chronicles of Narnia)in its allegories.

    As to what *I* think he meant (and I think each reader will read into it what s/he will): I construed it as a tale of life and after-life. We are all "Niggle," during our earthly life, concentrating on our own visions and concerns, taking only a few moments (out of the total allotted to us) to care for the "Parishes" (neighbors, in the Biblical sense) in our lives. Despite his reluctance to tear himself away from his work, Niggle does occasionally render a service to his neighbor, which is what the majority of humans do.

    The Driver, and the imminently expected journey, was Death, and the trip was to Purgatory (a place I personally don't believe in; "This day you shall be with me in Paradise.") I can't decide in my own mind if the work he was given to do and the conditions in which he existed were intended to be a punishment for "things done and left undone" (words from the Episcopal Confession of Sin) or an instructive part of the first stage in his eternal life.

    But, it seems, from the story, that even the few moments Niggle used in helping Parish were what caused The Second Voice (Intercessor) to contend (with the Devil?) that Niggle had sufficient redeeming qualities to be sent on to the next stop in his after-life journey, where not only does he see The Tree, completed and more glorious than he could have imagined, to which he had dedicated his life, but is given the opportunity to work willingly and in harmony with Parish to create a place for Parish to await his wife (I haven't quite figured out what this represents.)

    When that work is completed, Niggle is given a glimpse of the mountains and The Shepherd (my caps, not JRRT's) and he continues his after-life journey in the company of The Shepherd, moving further and further into the reality of the scene he had envisioned in his obsessive painting.

    I found it interesting that after leaving his farm, Niggle's large painting was indeed used to patch the roof of Parish's house. I interpret this as being "see what all your earthly endeavors are worth?" The only thing that's considered of any value is what can be used to help someone else, and then the criticism was that "you should have done it when it was first needed." The shining leaf that was the remnant of the painting was some part of Niggle's life that someone recognized as being special and worthy of recognition, but that, too, passed into oblivion after a time.

    There are many more nuances to this story than I have time to try to analyze, but I found it very interesting.

    Thanks for the mental exercise.

  2. I don't think there is one right thing Niggle was supposed to do. I think he was intended to pursue his vision (or else why would he continue it after his journey) but also, as Pat pointed out, he seemed to get credit for his altruistic deeds. So, as I emailed you earlier, I think this captures perfectly the struggle to find balance between pursuing one's vision, dealing with mundane chores, and being a responsive member of a community.

    After you sent this to me, I did some research on critical analyses of the story. I don't want to summarize everything they wrote, but I will say that in the commentaries I came across, they mentioned that Tolkien admitted he identified with Niggle. He was quite a perfectionist and a procrastinator, and he feared that those qualities would prevent him from ever finishing the Lord of the Rings. (And in fact, they did prevent him from finishing the Silmarillion.) So I doubt that the story was intended to promote the doctrine that service to other people is always more important than pursuing one's vision. I've always felt that Tolkien knew well what it was like to be conflicted; it's one of the strongest aspects of his characterization. That shows in this story too.

  3. Thanks, Pat and Ruth, for commenting. I'm not ignoring you, I'm just trying to get my own thoughts in order.

  4. maybe no purgatory but in paradise two places prison and rest..really i HAVE stopped blogging...just call this missonarying

  5. Whatever it was intended to mean, the story made me feel much better about the times I 'follow my nose'and let the writing flow! Perhaps my words, too, will one day be part of a bigger picture.

  6. I was thinking of how hard it is to be creative sometimes, because all of your responsibilities intrude constantly. And how sometimes it seems people don't really appreciate what you do for them - until my son pointed out that Niggle didn't appreciate what Parish did for him either (garden produce) which was an eye opener. And I was thinking how often we want to do "big" things for God instead of what He wants us to do. We think we can't do what tears us away from what we've decided we want to do for Him, when so often it is the every day, not so exciting things that are what He wants us to do for Him. And how often we tell people, quite sincerely at the time, that we will do "anything" for them, just ask; and they invariably ask for the one thing we don't want to do, at the one moment we don't want to help them. But we are always blessed in the end by being a true blessing to others, sacrificially.

  7. I really hate that :). It was me, Rosezilla, not my hubby MDW.

  8. Wonderful story. Thank you Robert. It's in part, a discussion about if art is important, and how it fits in. To the life of the artist. At least, that's very much the bits that I picked up on. I think I'm Niggle. Right down to the painting leaves and wanting to paint a whole tree just as carefully, with every leaf different...

  9. I tried to gather my thoughts into something coherent, but so far it's been too daunting. I do like everyone's comments here.

    I am not Roman Catholic, so I don't believe in Purgatory, but the story was fascinating to read as it unfolded, and I "suspended disbelief," as they say, to enjoy the story more as I read it. Tolkien, the lifelong perfectionist who took so much time to do anything and moved so slowly, tossed this story off in a couple of hours in a single afternoon, which is is sort of a miracle in itself.

    I am not convinced that Niggle and Parish were out of Purgatory and in Heaven at the story's end. True, they had entered the Mountains, and seemed much happier, and had even been guided by a shepherd, but Tolkien had written earlier, "There were the Mountains in the background. They did get nearer, very slowly. They did not seem to belong to the picture, or only as a link to something else, a glimpse through the trees of something different, a further stage: another picture." (emphasis mine).

    What prompted this post was that I read an essay by Dr. Scot McKnight (of the Jesus Creed blog) on a website called "The Higher Calling" in which he spoke about "a theology of work": what we do now is a glimpse of what we will do then. You can read his essay here. It reminded me a bit of the line in Shadowlands when C. S. Lewis said, speaking of his wife's death, "The pain now is part of the happiness then," and also of "Farther up and further in" from Lewis's final Narnia book, The Last Battle.

    I know this is disjointed, but I wanted to get a few of my impressions on paper.

    Thanks to all for participating.

  10. Thanks for sharing this. I was looking for Niggle just because I like to read it every 10 years or so to remind myself of. . . . And that I suppose is the answer to the question you pose.

    Does our art have to be good for us to do it? Are only great artists allowed the time to paint and write - and what is the compulsion to it? I love this description of the creative force and inspiration.

    I don't see the trip as being an afterlife but a continuation of the life. When I first read it it reminded me of Mao and Siberia - that sense of confession and purging as a way of making better communitarians out of people - very utopian. (Also rather harsh in China and Russia!) But it isn't harsh here - it is purgative and ideal and not necessarily after- life.

    I remember the first time reading it how sad I was that the painting was used for the roof. But when it wasn't sad for Niggle I learned something. There was a time when my computer crashed and all my poems were lost. And I was ok with that. Because I had read and internalized Niggle, it was ok that they were gone. (They came back so maybe I am an Emily D, but I doubt it and that is not why I write - I write because I have to.)

    Anyway - it was great to be able to read this again without having to drive to the Library or a Barnes and Noble. And nice to know others read it too, what a super piece.