A review of ‘Leaf by Niggle’ by J. R. R. Tolkien
This short story, which is part of a book called ‘Tree and Leaf’, is, like all of the best Christian fiction, a ‘spell for the refreshment of the spirit’. However, it’s difficult to describe what the point of the story is. We were driving through France many years ago and listened to a BBC dramatization of it – on my insistence. When it was finished, Phil and the girls looked at me and said “Huh? What was that all about?” I couldn’t answer – partly because I was having a little bit of a weep at the ending!
Well, what is the answer? On one level, it is a moving and beautiful tale about a very ordinary, not particularly talented, man called Niggle who is trying to finish a painting before he dies, and who keeps getting interrupted, in particular by his unsympathetic and demanding neighbour. But it is also a parable about the importance of discipline even in the creative life, a story about purgatory and heaven, an allegory of the tension between the contemplative and the active life, and a discussion on the point of vision and creativity in a material world. Like all the best stories it has multiple interpretations. Reading it recently, it seemed to me that it might even be about Tolkien himself – writing his great Middle Earth tales against the backdrop of the demands of the world, debating their value, and continually aware that he only has a limited time to complete his work. (However, the date of publication negates this viewpoint.)
My version of this story is in a book that also includes some other works by Tolkien, including a long essay on fairy-stories which gives a lot of insight into Tolkien’s creativity and inspiration. ‘Smith of Wotton Major’ is another gem of a story, written for younger children, and with medieval-style illustrations by Pauline Baynes – famous for her illustrations for the Narnia books. But ‘Leaf by Niggle’ is, for me, the most charming and refreshing of all Tolkien’s works.