In the previous post, we explored briefly the story of J. R. R. Tolkien’s short narrative “Leaf by Niggle.” In this post, we want to examine it’s interpretation.
Despite his dislike of allegory, “Leaf by Niggle” is no doubt an allegory. The names of the characters, from Parrish to Inspector to Porter to Driver, make that abundantly clear. As such in order to understand what Tolkien is doing here, let us explore a few points Tolkien is making.
This little allegory is clearly autobiographical. Niggle is an artists who obsesses with an entire world and yet in his perfectionism seems unable to finish even the smallest parts of his work. Given that Tolkien’s son, Christopher, has spent the rest of his life following his father’s death finishing his father’s work, no doubt Niggle is a painter’s version of the late fantasy novelist.
Tolkien obsessed over his work and cared deeply about consistency, backstories, histories, language, and the impact his work would have on England. He sough to create an English myth – something he felt was sorely lacking. As such he spent an enormous time on the trilogy which originally was supposed to just be a simple sequel to The Hobbit. In the meantime, he was working on The Similarion.
Yet what Niggle discovers in the end is that his work on that simple leaf was not for naught. It was a genuine work of art and was part of a grandeur and more real story.
“Leaf by Niggle” seems to be have been a personal confession by Tolkien of his own weaknesses and also an expression of his own hopes. Middle-earth was more than a fantasy tale in a century of fantasy stories, it was something more. Tolkien might be guilty of niggling, but he was by no means a waster of time.
Life, Death, and the Afterlife
When I read the story to my children I asked them to consider what the journey was. Immediately we are told that Niggle had to go on a journey. We then discover he was ill prepared for it and his first stop on this journey was anything but pleasant. In fact it kept him from his painting and forced him into the sort of labor he despised. The final stage of the journey is more pleasant and, dare we say, eternal.
When we understand that Tolkien was a Catholic whose faith deeply shaped all of his writing, especially his work in Middle-Earth, the journey story line makes more sense. He leaves his painting behind and on his journey becomes the man he ought to be. He already was a good artist, now he becomes a more gifted gardener, carpenter, and the like so that when he arrives at his final destination, he has all the skills necessarily to finish the cottage with his old neighbor Mr. Parrish.
Clearly this is an allegory of life, death, Purgatory, and the afterlife. Given the autobiographical nature of the story, we are drawn into the serious nature of the piece. Tolkien is confessing his own unpreparedness for the afterlife which, for him, begins in Purgatory but will be completed in heaven – a place where true creation is witnessed and our work is completed. Thus in this personal spiritual journey, we see the hope of eternal life (even with the added stage of Purgatory) in Tolkien’s theology. His work was not complete, but he could see God’s work in it.
The most significant aspect of the story as it relates to Middle-earth regards its illustrating of what Tolkien means by subcreation. He purposefully wants the reader to grasp this idea. This is evident in that “Tree by Niggle” was published in a book entitled Tree and Leaf which included the long-form essay “On Fairy Stories” where, among other things, Tolkien explores the idea of subcreation.
For Tolkien, myth and fantasy was the creator’s best effort to create. Tolkien’s desire was to tell stories that reflect his worldview, that reflect God’s creation. That is why the Middle-Earth stories are so rich. Good and evil are clear and developed, there is redemption, folly, temptation, heroism, love, hope, providence and all one would expect from a true piece of subcreation.
Yet the best efforts of men are but paintings on a canvas or words on a page. Niggle imagines what this tree would be like in the midst of a forest with a mighty mountain range behind it. He sets out to create it with mere paint but it isn’t until he reaches heaven does he see the real thing.*
Tolkien’s development of subcreation is one of the most significant contributions he made to theology and why I reject any argument critical of fantasy and myth. John MacArthur publicly condemned both Tolkien and CS Lewis’s fantasy works on flimsy grounds (see my piece in response to that). Tolkien’s work, then, is a work of theology, not just fantasy.
“Tree by Niggle” is one of the great gems by the late J. R. R. Tolkien. No doubt he penned many, yet this is perhaps the most overlooked. In it, one will find no dwarves, elves, dragons, magical rings, or hobbits, but you will find the source of all of them; an abiding faith rooted in Christ. So if you want to understand the beauty of the Middle-earth stories and the man who wrote them, I can think of no where else to turn than here.
*It was this argument of subcreation that led CS Lewis to embrace Christianity which he heard from Tolkien. He argued that the death and resurrection of Jesus was a myth, in the academic sense, but what set it apart was it was a true myth. Throughout history, mankind has sought to express divine truths but fell short. The gospel is precisely that, yet truth.