J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” must rank as one of the finest short stories of the twentieth century, breath-takingly beautiful, even by the highest Tolkienian standards. As with so many of his writings, “Leaf” takes seriously issues of goodness, free will, destiny, subcreation, and eternity.
One very late night or early morning in 1939, J.R.R. Tolkien awoke, a full story ready to burst from his already imaginatively feverish brain. Contrary to his normal hesitation and typical obsessive writing and rewriting, Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle” emerged “virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out.” If Tolkien had ever toyed with the ideas found in the novel—in terms of setting, character, or plot—he had no recollection of them or of any of it. Like Athena emerging whole out of the head of Zeus, “Leaf by Niggle” simply appeared on paper that very late evening or early morning in 1939, just prior to the beginning of the Second World War. Sometime in 1940, he read the story—presumably to an approving audience—to the Inklings. Again, the story just emerged, and Tolkien never even edited it after his initial copying it down. It was, he remembered fondly, “the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all.”
Tolkien, though, sat on the story until the editor of The Dublin Review, Christopher Dawson, Tolkien’s fellow parishioner at St. Aloysius in Oxford and the famed Catholic man of letters, requested something fictional in October 1944. Though Dawson lost his job as editor a month later due to a power struggle with the publisher, Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle” appeared in the January-February-March 1945 issue of The Dublin Review, along with articles on Thomas More, the Roman Empire, England’s Christian tradition, Czechoslovakia, and Augustan literature.
Whatever its origins, “Leaf by Niggle” must rank as one of the finest short stories of the twentieth century, breath-takingly beautiful, even by the highest Tolkienian standards. As with so many of Tolkien’s writings, “Leaf” takes seriously issues of goodness, free will, destiny, subcreation, and eternity.
Having mentioned Free Will, I might say that in my myth I have used ‘subcreation’ in a special way (not the same as ‘subcreation’ as a term in criticism of art, though I tried to show allegorically how that might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story “Leaf by Niggle” (Dublin Review 1945) to make visible and physical the effects of Sin or misused Free Will by men. Free Will is derivative, and is only operative within provided circumstances; but in order that it may exist, it is necessary that the Author should guarantee it, whatever betides: sc. when it is ‘against His Will’, as we say, at any rate as it appears on a finite view. He does not stop or make ‘unreal’ sinful acts and their consequences.
Not surprisingly, Tolkien considers all of these issues in poetic depth.
Annoyed at himself for being too kind hearted (thus, being “taken in” by the whims of neighbors), Niggle often swears to himself in frustration. His closest neighbor, Parish, is especially troublesome, and Niggle helps him but only with the self-realizing embarrassment that he “was merely soft without feeling at all kind.” When he’s not hesitating in or grumbling about his charity towards others, Niggle should be preparing for an end-of-life journey. When he can, though, he devotes nearly all his time painting. In particular, he paints the leaves of a tree, though every once in a while, birds appear, mountains appear, and, sometimes, even the branches of the tree appears. These birds, mountains, and branches, though, emerge only reluctantly and, typically, off in the distance. Almost no one cares about Niggle’s paintings, and he longs for someone to proclaim, “Absolutely magnificent! I see exactly what you are getting at. Do get on with it, and don’t bother about anything else! We will arrange for a public pension, so that you need not.” No such C.S. Lewis figure, however, ever arrives in Niggle’s life.
The painter, it turns out, lives in a slightly utilitarian and dystopian society that sees its members as only cogs in a vast machine. Little love or creativity is encouraged, as it is seen as a waste of time and resources.
In an act of softness or kindness—Niggle wasn’t sure—he caught a flu and began his end-of-his-life-journey. Set on an industrially-bland train, Niggle arrives in an industrially-bland work house and is immediately placed in the infirmary for impoverished illness. There, he accepts the bitter medicine and spends his days at monotonous work as he recovers. He learns many basic skills all over again, discovers how to work hard, and begins to find not happiness, but “satisfaction” in his labors. Whether his recovery took weeks or centuries, he was unsure. He finds, though, that even his old annoyances and curses have fallen out of usage.
One day, while feeling somewhat light from his many tasks done properly, he hears two voices. The first voice is strict, stern, and commanding. The second voice is compassionate, temperate, and sad. He grumbled and complained about everything before his journey, the first voice rightly notes. Yes, the second voice admits, but he did what he should, whether he complained or not, and he had never been made to be a big man. He was, though, “a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own.” Further, whatever his complaints, Niggle never expected good deeds to be reciprocated. He did them for the sake of being good. When the two voices agree to a reprieve for Niggle, Niggle felt so relieved that he believed he had received a “summons to a King’s feast.”
After some nourishing bread and wine, Niggle finds himself in a fantastically-colored railway station, boarding a train bound for some woods and hills and in view of some mountains. When Niggle arrives, he finds that the leaves he had painted prior to his journey are the real leaves of a real tree. “It’s a gift” he cries! The birds are there, and the mountains he had once painted loom in the background. As he begins to garden this little plot of land, he realizes that he needs his old, troublesome neighbor, Parish, a great gardener in his own right.
Parish arrives and the two men set to work. One day, after vast amounts of healthy labor, a man arrives, telling Niggle and Parish, “It is Niggle’s Country. It is Niggle’s Picture, or most of it: a little of it is now Parish’s Garden.” Astounded and embarrassed, Parish apologizes to Niggle for having made fun of him, having dismissed him, and having had no faith in him before the journey. Niggle, of course, admits that he had done the same regarding Parish.
In the meantime, three bureaucrats have arrived at Niggle’s original, pre-journey home. One of them remembers Niggle as a “silly little man. Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all.” Had the schools done their job properly, they could have at least turned him “into a serviceable cog of some sort.” Niggle’s vast painting, they note with some satisfaction, has been broken into pieces to patch the roofs of neighboring houses.
The final scene returns to the two voices. Their laughter rings across the mountains as they note the newly-worked land as “Niggle’s Parish.”
Nearly two decades after it appeared in The Dublin Review, Tolkien remembered the story with great fondness.
I find it still quite moving, when I reread it. 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.) Of course some elements are explicable in biographical terms (so obsessively interesting to modern critics that they often value a piece of ‘literature’ solely in so far as it reveals the author, and especially if that is in a discreditable light).
As Tolkien realized, Niggle was not allegorical, but he was autobiographical. “Leaf By Niggle” “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’.”
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 JRRT to Stanley Unwin, March 18, 1945.
 JRRT to Stanley Unwin, March 18, 1945.
 JRRT to CJRT, October 12, 1944.
 JRRT to Peter Hastings, September 1945.
 Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle, in Tales from the Perilous Realm, 291.
 Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tales, 298.
 Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tales, 300.
 Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tales, 303.
 JRRT to Jane Neave, September 8-9, 1962.
 JRRT to Caroline Everett, June 24, 1957.
The featured image is “The Charter Oak” (1857) by Charles De Wolf Brownell (1822-1909), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.