Leaf by Niggle
"Leaf by Niggle" is a short story written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1938–39 and first published in the Dublin Review in January 1945. It can be found, most notably, in Tolkien's book titled Tree and Leaf, and in other places (including the collections The Tolkien Reader, Poems & Stories, A Tolkien Miscellany, and Tales from the Perilous Realm). This is notable because the book, consisting of a seminal essay called "On Fairy-Stories" and "Leaf by Niggle," offers the underlying philosophy (Creation and Sub-Creation, see below) of much of Tolkien's fantastical writings.
"Leaf by Niggle" is often seen as an allegory of Tolkien's own creative process, and, to an extent, of his own life.
In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not much value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.
However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.
At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.
Also, Niggle's next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, is the sort of neighbour who always drops by whining about the help he needs with this and that. Moreover, Parish is lame and has a sick wife, and honestly needs help – Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help.
And Niggle has other pressing work duties that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.
Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day.
In time he is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place 'for a little gentle treatment'. But he discovers that the new country he is sent to is in fact the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting, now long abandoned and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the title which is placed in the local museum) in the home to which he cannot return – but the Tree here and now in this place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete form of his painting.
Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.
Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely field that they built together becomes a place for many travellers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name "Niggle's Parish."
A religious reading of Leaf by Niggle could lead to the conclusion that the allegory of "Leaf by Niggle" is life, death, purgatory and paradise. In this allegorical view, 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.
But Leaf by Niggle can also be interpreted as an illustration of Tolkien's religious philosophy of creation and sub-creation. In this philosophy, 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 honour God.
This philosophy is evident in Tolkien's other works, especially 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 subcreation that honoured Eru Ilúvatar (The equivalent of God in Tolkien's writings), and which Eru accepted and made real, just as Niggle's Tree was made real.
Niggle's yearnings after truth and beauty (God's creations) are echoed in his great painting; after death, Niggle is rewarded with the realisation (the making-real) of his yearning. Or, if you prefer, Niggle's Tree always existed – he simply echoed it in his art. From a metanarrative viewpoint, Tolkien's Arda is itself a subcreation designed to honour the true stories of the real world. Thus, the Middle-earth legendarium, despite its lack of overt religious elements, can be interpreted as a profoundly religious work.
An autobiographical interpretation places Tolkien himself as Niggle — 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.
Tolkien himself might have disagreed with an allegorical interpretation. He wrote, in Letter 131 of The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, "I dislike Allegory." 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 [subcreation] might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my 'purgatorial' story Leaf by Niggle."
- Tolkien, J.R.R. "Tree and Leaf." George Allen & Unwin, 1964.
- Sebastian D. G. Knowles, A Purgatorial Flame: Seven British Writers in the Second World War (University of Pennsylvania Press, 1990), pp. 140–141, cited in Perry C. Bramlett, "I Am in Fact a Hobbit" (Mercer University Press, Macon, Ga., 2003), specifically, " 'Leaf by Niggle' follows Dante's 'Purgatorio' in its general structure and in its smallest detail."
- http://library.taylor.edu/dotAsset/afcf88aa-52b7-4dda-8e6b-d5efd2e6b1f6.pdf Creation and Sub-creation in Leaf by Niggle J. Samuel Hammond and Marie K. Hammond, published in Iinklings Forever, Volume VII, A Collection of Essays Presented at the Seventh Frances White Colloquium on C.S. Lewis & Friends, Taylor University 2010 Upland, Indiana
- Michael D. C. Drout, ed., "J.R.R. Tolkien encyclopedia: scholarship and critical assessment" (Routledge, New York), p. 134, specifically, "The myth of the Dwarves' creation illustrates Tolkien's theory of subcreation as expressed in 'Mythopoeia,' and may indicate anxieties about the independent value of art."
- Drout, p. 639, specifically, "While 'Lord of the Rings' contains many elements from Northern Mythology ... it has at its heart several Christian themes."
- Tom Shippey, "J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century" (HarperCollins, London, 2000), p. xxxiii, specifically, " 'Leaf by Niggle' and 'Smith of Wooten Major' are in their different ways 'autobiographical allegories'."
- Carpenter, Humphrey J R R Tolkien: A Biography (HarperCollins, London, 2002), Part Seven, Chapter I: "Headington".