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Vincent Ferré, ‘Leaf, by Niggle: the hidden nucleus’

This story invites diverse interpretations: political, religious and autobiographical. Vincent Ferré focuses here on the link between Niggle’s tale and Tolkien’s own ‘interior tree’ and creation process.

Leaf, by Niggle (1945) may be the hidden nucleus of Tolkien’s work. It is a strange tale, in many respects unique, as the author himself acknowledged: it is the only text he was ever able to write in one sitting; but it is also the one in which he most clearly focused on his condition as a writer and on his private doubts, so much that it calls for a symbolic or even ‘allegorical’ interpretation.

As often mentioned in his correspondence, Tolkien endlessly rewrote the pages he drafted; even when his work was to be republished, he rewrote it in great part. This is not true of Leaf, by Niggle: the story appeared like a dream, and the author wrote it very swiftly, barely correcting it before it was published. As if it had always been there, in his mind, and had only to come out. This immediacy shows how very intimate the story is, beyond its strictly autobiographical nature.


Tolkien’s Tree of Amalion is a visual representation of the author’s, as yet, untold stories, tales and poems.


His love for trees and several ‘personal’ details establish quite obvious links between Niggle and Tolkien; he himself compared himself to his character in letters to various correspondents. A dissatisfied artist, who cannot complete the colossal task he has assigned himself, distracted as he was by his academic duties, the part he played in passive defence during the war, and who keenly felt the solitude of the creative process, as well as the hostile attitude shown by some towards his creation (the judgment of ‘Councillor Tompkins’ at the end of the tale, is especially severe, and condemns to death one he deems a parasite): Tolkien appears to have projected himself in Niggle. He spontaneously evoked The Lord of the Rings as his ‘interior tree’; he spoke of tales that ‘remain mere budding leaves like so many of silly Niggle’s’. Silly: it is amusing to note that he depicts a character who is not always very likeable, who is somewhat grumpy, who resents obligations imposed by others — this shows his self-detachment and humour. The most interesting aspect, however, lies elsewhere.

‘He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees’

What is most striking is the strangeness of the tale, which offers the reader a challenge as to its interpretation. As shown by Priscilla Tolkien in her article, Niggle’s journey takes on a surreal turn when he arrives at the Institution where he is sent against his free will, at the end of a train journey he has been obliged to take: Niggle falls asleep, and wakes up as he is coming out of a tunnel, symbolizing the passage to an elsewhere. The reader is made to wonder where Niggle is, a place with an atmosphere reminiscent of Kafka’s Castle; a place where a tribunal decides his fate, on the basis of a file recounting his life. This scary episode leads to a plunge into unreality: Niggle enters his picture, like the hero of ‘Dreams’ by Kurosawa.

The change of scenery is of a different nature than that of Smith of Wootton Major, where the reader becomes quickly aware of the fantastical dimension; here, we go from an apparently simple, realistic tale, in its description of Niggle’s ordinary life, to a hesitation that plunges us into fantasy.

This disturbing impression is not only an incitation to interpret the text; on a first level, it gives an unusual colouring to ‘reality’, which we observe here in a new light. This is exactly the process Tolkien describes in On Fairy-stories: literature must surprise the reader in order to make him see the world differently.

But what exactly is to be found in this text? Is there a message to be deciphered? Leaf, by Niggle evidently has a symbolic dimension, even an allegorical one, even though, according to a famous line in the prologue to The Lord of the Rings, no such interpretation is possible: ‘As for any inner meaning or “message”, it has in the intention of the author none. It is neither allegorical nor topical’. In Leaf, by Niggle, on the other hand, a religious interpretation seems, on a first level, quite obvious; Tolkien once explained that he was responding to a request from the Dublin Review for a story written in a catholic spirit, and was addressing the issues of sin and free-will.

A reflection on creation

This is perhaps still not the most important aspect. Most significant is the underlying reflection on creation, in which Tolkien and his double Niggle symbolize all creators. The difference in art forms (painting and writing) is of little importance: not only was Tolkien also an illustrator, but in his view creation often takes the form of a ‘picture’, in the abstract sense of the word; inventing a story amounts to describing the ‘visions’ and ‘horizons that open in [his] mind’. Niggle can thus be compared to him, not as an individual, but as a creator, struggling, doubting he will ever be able to complete the great story that Tolkien refers to as the ‘Frameless Picture’, and questioning his place in society. When Niggle ‘sees’ what he must paint, he doesn’t have time; when he does have time, the vision is gone… Then comes the time for a journey that he can no longer delay, putting an end to his work.

The intimate relationship with his creation is revealed in one of the most well-known and striking comments in his correspondence, where he refers to Leaf, by Niggle. Tolkien wrote to his son Christopher: ‘I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached – or if so only to become “near trees” (unless in Paradise or N[iggle]’s Parish.’

Still, prudence is required: the allegory is incomplete and does not fit perfectly, if one wishes to compare Niggle to the author of the ‘Silmarillion’; the latter was never completed by Tolkien, unlike Niggle’s Tree. This makes all the more poignant the delight felt by Niggle when he discovers his work completed, without him having himself given it his final touch:

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

‘It’s a gift!’ he said.

Thereupon a new phase begins for Niggle, a more tranquil one, in harmony with his fellow-beings, in a magnificent setting, on the edge of the Forest, with the Mountains in the distance. This is highlighted by his fruitful collaboration with Parish: together, they manage to complete Niggle’s work, and the new journey they embark on together, in freedom, is very different from the first. Symbolically, the tale ends with Parish and Niggle laughing together.

It can thus be seen that this fascinating and enigmatic tale is not secluded from the whole work, despite its originality: in itself, it symbolizes the endeavour of creating a legendarium, the sub-creation process from the Primary World, which gave birth to Tolkien’s Middle-earth.