Perhaps the most influential novelist of the 20th century is the late J. R. R. Tolkien. His middle-earth fantasies, most notably The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, continue to mesmerize and entertain millions of new readers. In recent months I have made a concerted effort to read and re-read much of Tolkien’s middle-earth stories while simultaneously exploring the story behind the stories. Tolkien the man is almost as fascinating as Bilbo, Samwise, and Aragorn.
A few years ago I read for the first time one of Tolkien’s most overlook short-stories, Leaf by Niggle that has little to do with middle-earth. I say “little” but in reality, it provides the philosophical and biographical foundation for all we find in Tolkien’s fantasy. More recently, with fresh eyes, I’ve re-read the story and then re-read it to my entire family and want to offer a few thoughts as to why it is one of Tolkien’s best works and why all true Tolkien fans should read it regularly.
The short story is broken down into three parts. In part one, we meet Niggle who will soon be on a journey – a journey he cannot delay or avoid. The identity of this journey is key to the interpretation of the allegory. Prior to the journey, Niggle is obsessed with his painting. He imagines a tree with beautiful mountain range in the background and dedicates the rest of his time producing this tree. The problem is that Niggle is not much of a painter. He is fine at leaves, but not as gifted with trees. He focuses primarily on a single leaf and works tirelessly to get it just right. As he works, the painting gets larger and larger requiring more paint and canvass.
Then come the distractions. Weather tears up his house and his neighbor’s, Mr. Parrish. His neighbor has a weak leg and limited in his mobility requiring Niggle to help Parrish repair his home. Then he discovers Parrish’s wife is sick requiring Niggle to ride in town, fetch a doctor and a builder on behalf of his neighbor. The trip results in catching a severe cold himself which keeps him from his painting. And on and on the distractions come until he finally returns to his painting.
Then Inspector arises. Inspector is critical of Niggle for not helping Parrish more. What his neighbor needs is paint and canvas to help repair his home and clearly Niggle has both in abundance. Doesn’t he know, people are more important to paintings?
At this point the driver arrives. His journey was about to begin thus beginning part 2. Here Niggle finds himself far away from his painting and paint. Instead, he performs the work of a gardener and carpenter. At first, the work is tedious and painful but overtime, Niggle finds enjoyment in the work. During this stage we find a real transition of Niggle. Before he was very private, now he is communal. Before he cared only about his painting, now he cares more about work.
Before long, (and I am skipping much here) Niggle finds himself off the train again into the third and final stage of his journey. Most striking to him in this new, fantastic land, is a tree – the Tree. And with great detail, Tolkien describes how Niggle is now living in his the painting he once imagined, yet it is more real. Together with his old neighbor Mr. Parrish they cultivate a garden and work the area and somehow make it better. Niggle has truly grown and is complete as is his neighbor.
In the end, we are taken back to a group of men discussing the strange, incomplete painting of Niggle now that he is gone. They largely write Niggle off as a quack (though one finds enjoyment in “The Leaf” by Niggle) and before long, the painting is destroyed along with the museum that housed it. Niggle is all but forgotten to history.