“Leaf by Niggle” is one of Tolkien’s lesser-known works, a short work which Tolkien noted in a letter to Stanley Unwin “cost me no pains at all” (Letters of JRR Tolkien 98). This was a rarity, because Tolkien notoriously plodded through his writings and revised extensively.
“Leaf by Niggle” was likely written some time in late 1938, shortly after Tolkien had begun The Lord of the Rings and began to feel it likely that he would never finish it.
The story was first published in The Dublin Review in 1945. It is most commonly issued today as part of a book called Tree and Leaf, where it is produced in tandem with “On Fairy Stories”, one of Tolkien’s most well-regarded essays, or in The Tolkien Reader, where it appears alongside several of Tolkien’s other minor works.
“Leaf by Niggle” illustrates Tolkien’s writing philosophy of “creation” and “sub-creation” that he lays out in “On Fairy Stories”.
Tolkien mentioned on several occasions his extreme dislike for allegory, and yet it is hard to read “Leaf by Niggle” as anything but an allegory of the creative process (particularly Tolkien’s creative process), and in many ways also an allegory of the Christian belief system.
“Leaf by Niggle” introduces us to Niggle, a painter “who had a long journey to make” but “did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him”.
Instead of planning for his journey, he consumed himself with his painting and “a good many odd jobs for his neighbor” which he saw as an annoyance and a waste of time but because “he was kindhearted, in a way” could not turn down (Leaf pg. 100).
The other feature of importance about Niggle is that he was obsessed by details. “He was the sort of painter who could paint leaves better than trees” and “spent a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen…” (Leaf pg. 100).
He begins painting a leaf, and from that leaf a landscape evolves – a tree, a forest, distant mountains. The painting obsesses him, and he cannot stop adding to the picture.
He knows he has only a very limited time to finish the painting, but a rash of distractions come up. His neighbor, Mr. Parish, falls ill, and so Niggle rides his bike into town (in the rain) to fetch the doctor.
After this, Niggle falls ill, and so gets no further on his painting before the time arrives for his “trip”.
Unprepared, he is spirited away to some sort of institution, where he is set to menial, repetitious work. He remains there for some time and “got no pleasure out of life” (“Leaf by Niggle” pg. 109).
Eventually he is given “complete rest – in the dark”, and wakes from that rest to hear three voices conferring over his “condition”. The voices debate…one puts forth the idea that “he should stay some time yet”, while another argues that his past kindnesses, especially toward his former neighbor, Mr. Parish, should allow him “a little gentle treatment now” (pg. 111).
They finally agree on the “gentle treatment” and send him off. He arrives at a green hill, where his bicycle awaits him. He soon comes to the realization that he had been dropped off in his painting. The “Tree” stood before him, and nearby was the forest, and further off the snowcapped mountains.
Mr. Parish soon arrives, “looking round rather bewildered”. He and Niggle live in the enchanted land for some time, until Niggle begins to itch to explore the distant mountains and sets off to do so.
From an allegorical Christian (and in Tolkien’s case, specifically Catholic) standpoint, “Leaf by Niggle” can be seen as a very simple Life, Purgatory, Heaven cycle. The journey that Niggle could not put off is the journey that no mortal can long evade…death.
And yet, in spite of his grudging kindnesses to neighbors, Niggle thought primarily of himself and his painting. This earned him an extended and “purging” stay in Purgatory. Eventually, his good deeds in his former life earned him a trip to the “next stage”, a kind of personal paradise.
Outside of its religious implications, Tolkien uses the story to illustrate his ideas on fairy tales and world creation set forth in his classic essay, “On Fairy Stories”.
In that essay he discusses the creation of “fairy tales”, and uses the term sub-creation to describe the method of creating a secondary world. Sub-creation is an imitation of God, building a secondary world in honor of the one created by God, rather than in mockery of that world.
Niggle’s created world, far from being a mockery, was very much an imitation, down to the slightest details, of the real world.
“Leaf by Niggle” is also allegorical of Tolkien’s own life. Tolkien himself was obsessed by details, particularly those of his created worlds.
This obsession with detail hindered him as much as helped his writing. He started many things, but tinkered so much along the way that he seldom finished any of them.
Niggle possesses no end of biographical elements, and can be related to Tolkien in any number of ways. Dr. Thomas Shippey gives a wonderful account of Niggle’s relationship to Tolkien in his book, JRR Tolkien: Author of the Century and ends with the following thought:
- “’Leaf by Niggle’ ends as a comedy, even as a ‘divine comedy’, on more levels than one. But while it looks forward to ‘divine comedy’, it incorporates and springs from a sense of earthly tragedy: failure, anxiety, and frustration.” (pg. 277).