Home / Writing / Nadia Drici, ‘Leaf, by Niggle: the peculiar tale of a painter who liked to draw trees’

Nadia Drici, ‘Leaf, by Niggle: the peculiar tale of a painter who liked to draw trees’

Nadia Drici explores the power of this (modernized) fairy tale, the duality of its protagonist and the political and social lessons that the reader is invited to draw from this allegorical tale.

Published in 1945, Leaf, by Niggle is a short story, relatively unknown to the general public, and, among Tolkien’s works, a rather anecdotal piece. In what seems at first glance to be a well-crafted fairy tale, Tolkien tells the extraordinary story of a small painter who loved to draw trees.

But, within what is apparently a harmless and rather naïve fairy tale, sits a text which is most enigmatic. Is this a dreamlike tale, a metaphysical story, the confession of a writer struggling with his inability to complete his work? For critics, the story — variously seen as a synthesis of many forms of storytelling, a fictional autobiography, a biblical parable — belongs to several genres. And this difficulty of classification is not surprising since the author himself highlighted the ambiguities in his work, describing it as ‘part-apologia, part-confession’ in a letter written in 1945: ‘Well! “Niggle” is so unlike any other short story that I have ever written, or begun, that I wonder if it would consort with them’ (letter to his publisher, Stanley Unwin, March 1945, Letters, no. 98).

Most original among all his work, this brief story seems even to escape its own author. Combining the qualities of the storyteller with an unparalleled inventive ability and an original narrative technique, Tolkien in fact produces a metamorphosis of the fairy tale not only by freeing himself from a classic architectural construction but also by the ambiguous nature and political dimension of the situations he describes. 

Niggle and his double

Tales of this sort, written in the manner of myths, speak to the reader’s unconscious.

They have, in most cases, the quality of an initiatory narrative in which the actions of the characters testify to man’s difficulties in the face of nature and society and the questions they pose.

Bruno Bettelheim, who in his work, Psychoanalysis of Fairy Tales (1976), draws inspiration from Tolkien, in particular from his essay On Fairy-stories (1947), shows how European fairy tales draw their power directly from the anxieties generated by experience of the world and how these result in something salutary and formative. 

In the story, Niggle is ordered to leave his home. He has enjoyed to this point a passive existence, centred on the satisfaction of his immediate needs and organised around a paradoxical but almost total ignorance of the outside world. Apart from some rare excursions into the town, the hero remains essentially at home and hearth. But he will be forced to leave the reassuring environment of his home, to become aware of his identity during a strange journey and to evolve as a person to avoid being locked up forever in an asylum.

This is, of course, the most obvious lesson of the tale: an inner evolution made necessary and inevitable by external influences. 

But above all, these influences reveal the different and contradictory elements of his personality. Because Niggle is torn between two wills. The first, which is the dominant, is the wish for a quiet life, a withdrawal into oneself that requires neither effort nor understanding of others and which is based on satisfying his individual pleasures, linked mainly to his activity as a painter. The second is a desire to develop a greater affinity with those around him. In order to draw out Niggle’s anxieties, the tale finds ways to master these contradictory tendencies so as to end up in an affirmation of the self. Thus, in a kind of schizophrenic burst that places him both in and out of the narrative, Niggle invents a double, another ‘me’ who congratulates him on a job that even the narrator deems mediocre. By choosing his own fragmentation in this way, Niggle displays principles of ambiguity and dichotomy characteristic of a denial of reality and a lack of recognition of the outside world. 

Without becoming a central element of the narrative, his double also symbolises the difficulties of a mind living with its contradictions, the pain of a man in the face of a part of himself which he belittles but which, despite everything, he seeks to know.

If it is not a question of pushing these considerations too far, if this hypothetical encounter with the double remains in a state of suspicion, it nevertheless opens up a fundamental space for reflection on appearance and reality, and triggers a circularity of meaning as well as a multiplication of points of view which it is essential to emphasise. Because, fragmented, disaggregated, condemned to the risk of a loss of identity, the figure of the double is above all that of the writer doomed to incomprehension and constrained by solitude.

Indeed, unfortunate habits insidiously prevent Niggle from working as he would like, which seems to be something he has in common with his creator. Referring back to the writing of Leaf, by Niggle, Tolkien leaves no doubt as to the obvious analogies between the taste for detail that leads Niggle to lose himself in his canvas and the abyss of his own fictional universe: Also, of course, I was anxious about my own internal Tree, The Lord of the Rings. It was growing out of hand, and revealing endless new vistas — and I wanted to finish it, but the world was threatening’ (letter to his aunt, Jane Neave, September 1962, Letters, no. 241).

In Leaf, by Niggle, the secondary characters have no consideration for the artistic work of the hero, and Mr Parish himself is concerned only with the desolate state of the garden that the painter allows to wither away to the great displeasure of all his neighbours. Even more serious, he does so in favour of an abundance, as chaotic as it is incomprehensible, of uneven leaves that are scattered on precious canvases (which according to Parish would be better used to cover roofs battered by bad weather, not least his own).

This tree with disparate leaves that invades the canvas of Niggle, the little painter who literally niggles over his work, could be taken as a metaphor for the work of the author of The Lord of the Rings himself, who incessantly reworked his original texts because they did not measure up to his expectations.

Niggle has therefore often been identified with Tolkien; but the author is never just one character in a single novel, or even in an entire oeuvre; the opposite is perhaps the case: all of the characters of a novel might reflect the personality of its author, since most works are polyphonic. Just as we cannot say that Tolkien is Bilbo or Aragorn or Fëanor, so we cannot say that he is Niggle either.

The real and the wonderful

The supreme ‘escape’ in the context of a fairy tale is death, as Tolkien says in his essay On Fairy-stories.

Just like an exile deprived of his native land, Niggle leaves the village where he was born and his new environment is a totally unknown world, at least at the beginning of his adventures. The constant reminder of his coming journey and his reluctance to set out impose the immediate image of death, the great journey for which it is very difficult to prepare.

From a purely Christian perspective, Niggle’s adventures, his journey, would be nothing more than a slow and painful descent into Hell through increasingly suffocating concentric circles; and if it were not for the unconditional love that the hero dedicates to his art, his Dantesque trajectory would forever prevent him from overcoming his fears and weaknesses. It is thus his love for his art that allows Niggle to find salvation and his canvas is no more nor less than the Paradise he succeeds in finding, as Priscilla Tolkien underlines in her article about this work.

The role of faith in Tolkien’s work is one legitimately debated and not in question here. The arrival of Niggle in the Asylum and the emergence of the Voices both evoke obvious biblical resonances, unsurprisingly in the work of a devout Catholic. Indeed, a whole symbolism, as in the case of the black tunnel or the black habit of the Driver, undoubtedly evokes the image of death. But the author warns us:

It is not really or properly an “allegory” so much as “mythical”.  For Niggle is meant to be a real mixed-quality person and not an “allegory” of any single vice or virtue. The name Parish proved convenient, for the Porter’s joke, but it was not given with any intention of special significance. I once knew of a gardener called Parish. (I see there are six Parishes in our telephone book.)’ (Letter to Jane Neave, 1962, Letters, no. 241).

Applied to a very particular context, that of the beginning of the Second World War, the Christian interpretation is shaken by the political significance that the narrative engages. If the allegory is to make sense, in Leaf, by Niggle, it is to the extent that characters, settings and metaphorical language refer to events and that tales are applicable to existing realities even though fiction is much more often related to ideals than to political realities: ‘I have no didactic purpose, and no allegorical intent. (I do not like allegory (properly so called: most readers appear to confuse it with significance or applicability) but that is a matter too long to deal with here.)’ (Letter to Walter Allen of The New Statesman, April 1959, Letters, no. 215).

As early as 1957, Tolkien had already expressed his fears of an enclosed view of his text, whilst not dismissing the various and abundant scope for autobiographical readings:

Looking at it myself now from a distance I should say that, in addition to my tree-love (it was originally called The Tree), it arose from my own pre-occupation with The Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be “not at all”. The war had arisen to darken all horizons. But no such analyses are a complete explanation, even for a short story’. (Letter to Caroline Everett, 24 June 1957, Letters, no. 199).

We observe then, in Leaf, by Niggle, a formal permeability which gives rise to a particularly remarkable fusion. It consists in drawing inspiration from the structural and rhythmic techniques specific to the fairy tale in order to adapt them to those of the short story or novella, thus opening up new ways of reading and interpretation. If one were to delete the last paragraph of the text or, rather, reverse the two epilogues, one could even wonder whether this were not simply a fantastic novella, so true is it that the effects of reality combine in this text in an atmosphere of singular strangeness. The boundary between the genres is then deliberately blurred between fairy tale, fable, myth, dystopia and allegory.

 The political dimension of the tale

If we look at the fairy-tale elements of Leaf, by Niggle, it is curious to note that Tolkien oversteps the norms of writing within the framework of time and space, and places his story not in a legendary Middle Ages with imaginary and blurred contours, but in a reality that could perfectly well be contemporary to his writing.

Although constantly invested with a supernatural element that colours or veils them, the actions of the main protagonist are part of a world known or likely to be recognised by the reader and describe a daily life with which a reader would be familiar. Nevertheless, society as so described can be perplexing. The laws of Niggle’s land are excessively demanding and seem to leave little room for the blossoming of the individual imagination. 

When Niggle leaves, the Inspector, relaying Parish’s words, declares, relieved, that he will finally be able to make good use of the canvas of the little painter, and this confiscation of individual property for the collective well-being is reminiscent of the worst days of totalitarianism. The character, then facing a government as absurd as it is rigid, comes up against the prejudices of a world where obscurantism and intolerance reign. Favouring the maintenance of common interests to the detriment of real democracy, the official punishes Niggle and forbids him from painting in the same way as, in Kafka’s The Trial, Joseph K. is punished for a crime the details of which he does not get to know. The story, eminently political despite its appearance as a wonderful and dreamlike tale, describes then how a country may be placed at the pleasure of a dictatorial government which finds no usefulness in art.

This indictment of the psychological oppression visited on the story’s hero, placed alongside this re-evaluation of the place of art in society, provides us with a double denunciation of political and social tyranny.

The author thus denounces the arbitrariness of governmental authority and castigates totalitarian systems whose precepts are the doors that the vilest obscurantism borrows. These political reflections led Tolkien in his correspondence to issue certain ‘sentences without appeal’, though not without humour:

My political opinions lean more and more towards Anarchy (philosophically understood, meaning abolition of control not whiskered men with bombs) — or to “unconstitutional” Monarchy. I would arrest anybody who uses the word State (in any sense other than the inanimate realm of England and its inhabitants, a thing that has neither power, rights nor mind); and after a chance of recantation, execute them if they remained obstinate!’ (Letter to his son Christopher, November 1943, Letters, no. 52).

The denunciation of this social system in Leaf, by Niggle is expressed by the regime with an absurdity already perceived in other authors in collision with the society of their time. Indeed, through the Kafkaesque tribulations of a character plagued by the absurdity of administrative decisions, Tolkien denounces the state of a society characterised by a disintegration of the norms which regulate the conduct of men whilst paradoxically upholding the social order. The secondary characters that surround Niggle and Parish also fit into this perspective and are the typical characters of a poisoned system. The Inspector, the Driver and the Porter are all officials of the institution, just as we meet them in the works of Kafka or Dostoevsky. It is with this paralysing society, where materialism and pure rationality predominate, that the author wishes to break; and through his tale he delivers a fundamental message, that of an indisputable faith in the magical forces of art and nature. By a destabilising effect, the work detaches words and situations from their ‘logical’ and usual connotations, and Tolkien is therefore able to use the fairy tale to take a critical look at the society of his time but also to recall the universal:

In a larger sense, it is I suppose impossible to write any “story” that is not allegorical in proportion as it “comes to life”; since each of us is an allegory, embodying in a particular tale and clothed in the garments of time and place, universal truth and everlasting life’.  (Letter to W.H. Auden, June 1955, Letters, no. 163).

Niggle and his author (in his correspondence) are united in their way of perceiving the world, a world subject to the laws of totalitarianism and the rigidities of social barriers, a world that has betrayed man as much as art.

In this way, the threads of comforting magic are unravelled in this tale to give victory to the soul over the body; and a skilful imagination proves to be conducive to the development of a world in which the abomination of dictatorships is writ large. Thanks to this liberation of the imagination, the mysteries of a totalitarian power, which imposes ignorance and fear and which must be overturned, are deciphered. These are humanist and modern views of a society where rigorous laws require a certain type of behaviour governed by prohibitions and constraints: the duty to take care of one’s neighbour, the importance of the collective over the individual, the negation of art and its usefulness.

An eminently modern tale, Leaf, by Niggle features a hero different from the archetypal characters of folk-tales since he does not take up the typical postures that are expected of him. If the story responds to the usual narrative pattern of fairy tales, it turns out here that Niggle’s incongruous reactions evade the very moral laws which the traditional fairy tale observes. The story proposes a metaphysical reflection on the place of man in the world through the questioning of the place of art, analysing, under the guise of a naïve narrative, its role in the task of rehabilitating the individual within the community. Allegorical fairy tale and realist novella with a political reach perhaps come together most clearly in the astonishing duplication of epilogues.