Priscilla Tolkien, ‘Leaf, by Niggle’
“There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations.”
J.R.R. Tolkien, ‘Leaf, by Niggle’
Origin of the story
Leaf, by Niggle belongs to the period 1938-39 when my father was beginning to write The Lord of the Rings. It was first published in The Dublin Review in 1945, and subsequently in a volume Tree and Leaf, in 1964, together with his essay “On Fairy-stories” and also, in the later edition of 1988, a hitherto unpublished poem, Mythopoeia. This edition includes a foreword by my brother Christopher where he includes a passage from my father’s Introductory Note to the original edition (1964). The Note gives one reason for considering this story as unique among his fictional works. Being a writer of immense imaginative vision and one who gave enormous attention to detail, writing for him was always a great labour and never accomplished without many versions and revisions. But with Leaf, by Niggle he tells us “It has not been changed since it reached manuscript form, very swiftly, one day when I awoke with it already in mind. One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why.” The house where we were then living in Oxford at that time had an empty plot beside it cultivated as a vegetable garden and lined with trees. His bedroom had a window which faced on to the side overlooking this space, so it was a view constantly in sight.
Here then we already have reasons for describing this piece as unique among my father’s fictional works: the speed of completion, and the amount of personal background given by himself when the story was first published. It is also unique in being the most directly autobiographical. The story is twenty pages long and is written in a largely simple and direct style beginning with a formula belonging to the fairy tale or any classic children’s story: “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.” Prospective readers, however, should not be misled into thinking that this simplicity of form is being used to tell a simple story for children. It is in fact a tale of considerable depth, seriousness and imaginative force which repays as much careful attention as any of his other stories.
It is autobiographical in that it concerns the life of an artist and how an artist is to respond both to the pressures of his absorption in his creative ideas and to the demands of living an ordinary life in the ordinary world; in other words how is he to enjoy living in the life of the imagination while at the same time remaining a moral being sensitive to the needs of other people. This was a situation my father faced throughout his adult life: he was the breadwinner in a family with four children, he earned his living by working extremely hard as an academic scholar and teacher, and for many years had to take on extra work in order to meet his financial commitments.
The central figure of the story, Mr. Niggle, is a painter, living on his own, not very successful as an artist nor in organizing his life and time. He is painting a picture of a tree but gets increasingly involved in the details of individual leaves. The first part of the story concerns his relationship with his neighbor, Mr. Parish, who makes considerable demands on his time, energy and temper. It then emerges that Niggle must go on a journey and it is left to our imagination to understand that this journey cannot be put off indefinitely. Finally Niggle has to leave not fully prepared with his work unfinished. The middle section of the story concerns Niggle’s experiences in another country: his treatment, much of it hard, in a hospital and his hearing of the Two Voices debating his case, one seemingly more severe and the second more gentle.
His second period of treatment consists of his arriving in his own country (inside his painting), seeing his artistic work accomplished and his moral and spiritual life developing when he meets his old neighbour, Mr. Parish, again. They work together for a time until Niggle decides he is ready to go on to the mountains and Parish remains to wait for his wife. Then in stark contrast the story returns to this world and there is a passage of sharp social and political satire on those in power and their attitude to art in general and to Niggle in particular. The story ends with again a short dialogue between the Two Voices who have spoken earlier, from whom we learn of Niggle and Parish’s life in the mountains and of the effect of their work on those who come after them. It ends on a note of laughter.
Significance of the Story
So in the space of twenty pages we have a miniature spiritual odyssey where I believe it is clear that my father expounds his Christian belief that without our lives being seen as a journey to God our artistic or other talents will come to nothing. The story is indeed profoundly autobiographical and reveals not merely his Christianity but also his Roman Catholicism in his imaginative presentation of the doctrine of Purgatory. This being the experience of purification and healing needed by most of us after death before the individual soul can reach the full vision of God… In the Mountains.
Despite its miniature form and the need for special understanding of its theological ideas by those brought up in and continuing to live in a secular society, Leaf, by Niggle is an important story and should be seen as central to the study of J.R.R. Tolkien’s life and work.