[What is #52Stories? Check it out.]
Today’s #52Stories selection is a religious allegory/fable by arguably the greatest fantasy author of the 20th century, the architect of Middle Earth himself, J.R.R. Tolkien. (Thank you to Matthew Marks on the Goliverse Facebook page for the recommendation!)
So, does Tolkien’s genius extend to his short fiction? Let’s take a walk together and find out!
A would-be painter struggles to finish his masterpiece before taking the long journey that awaits all flesh.
This one turned out differently than I expected! In a few theology books I’d read in the past, I came across summaries of this story, but those summaries (at least how I recall them) were quite different from how the story itself actually resolves. It seems that Tolkien, who was famously negative towards allegory, couldn’t help himself when writing this parable–and readers familiar with that other famous Inkling’s writing will see similarities. It’s a pleasant journey with a decidedly theological flavor, and definitely worth the trip.
So what was it about “Leaf by Niggle” that I found so charming? Err, um, just–okay FINE, hang on a moment while I put down my writing… I really need to get back to that soon, but if you MUST know, let the Seurat-style spoilers (i.e. in “pointilist” prose) commence!
- Note: Okay, so what follows ended up being essentially a summary of the full story with commentary. It’s longer than I had planned. I don’t normally like to summarize these stories in their entirety, but I just found this one so interesting and pleasant that I can’t help myself. So, again, if you haven’t read the story, the following will spoil everything for you. Please seek it out and read it on your own, and then come back.
- First paragraph: “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go; indeed, the whole idea was distasteful to him, but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, be he did not hurry with his preparations.” From the outset, the reader can see the obvious metaphor Tolkien establishes. The “journey” is referring to death–but much more than that, to the world-to-come. Niggle, like so many of us, knows it awaits him but does his best to busy himself with other things rather than prepare for the inevitable.
- In the summaries I’d read before, Niggle was presented as someone who selflessly put aside his own desires to pour out for others. Yet, as it’s actually written, Niggle is like so many of us: frustrated by interruptions of his own plans, irritated by the thoughtlessness of others, yet softhearted enough to at least feel bad that he doesn’t do more to help. In this, I really appreciate how Tolkien doesn’t describe his main character as an alabaster saint. Niggle does indeed help others, but does so with grumbling, sighing, and some muttered curses. His heart, while somewhat tender, is not completely bent toward loving others. There is still some soul-work to do.
- Niggle’s neighbor, Mr. Parish, is the greatest source of his distraction and frustration. Parish is a constant source of need, often requiring Niggle’s assistance due to his infirmities. He critiques Niggle’s failure to maintain his garden well, but yet ignores or secretly mocks Niggle’s paintings, which are the joy of his life. The fact that the neighbor is named “Parish” is noteworthy here, as a “parish” is also the word for a district that is under the care of a specific church and priest. I’m sure there are many in ministry who at times find their own “Parish” to be a source of criticism and neediness, with little thanks or praise. (Not me, certainly, but others, I’m sure…)
- As his days run out, Niggle realizes that his great masterpiece is not going to be finished as he likes. His best laid plans have gone awry, and in the end, he embarks on a rain-soaked bicycle ride to get a doctor for Parish’s wife, knowing it may well cost him the last of his productivity. It does; Niggle “recovers” in time for the House Inspector to arrive and inform him he failed to help his neighbors properly with their house, and for the Driver to pick him up for his long journey.
- Two notes here: I’m not sure if the House Inspector is meant to be metaphorical in the context of the story, but I’m inclined to think he is–a representative of the Law who weighs Niggle’s life and finds him wanting.
- Also of note is that the Driver comments how little luggage Niggle has prepared for his expected-if-unplanned journey. All Niggle finds he has in the bag he grabbed are his paint box and sketchbook, representative of the thing he loved most. But he has failed to store up treasures for the life to come, and this will come back to haunt him.
- Here’s where the story takes a sharp turn from what I was expecting: I had heard the story related that Niggle then arrives at his “destination” to find the perfect, beautiful Tree that he’d always been trying to paint but never could because he kept stopping to help others–in other words, his “masterpiece” is the life of service he lived. But that’s not how it goes at all! (Could I have misread them so badly?) Instead, Niggle is taken to what he describes as a prison or work camp, where he is forced to labor for what seems like hundreds of years. In the context of the allegory, Niggle ends up in Purgatory!
- In this purgatory, Niggle is left to his thoughts as he is force to do “work” that echoes the works he failed to do properly or speedily in life: digging holes (gardening) and building (repairing his and Parish’s house). This period of confinement results in regret over his failings as a neighbor. His heart softens to Parish’s natural infirmities and limitations. His past selfishness becomes a point of sorrow and repentance.
- As Niggle’s “case” is reviewed by unseen Voices (which reminded me of conversation between the “angels” Joseph and Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life), it is noted that Niggle’s heart was in the right place but hadn’t functioned as it ought, and that his “head wasn’t screwed on properly.” Yet, despite being a “little man,” his sacrifice at the end stood in his favor, as does his current disposition toward Parish. Niggle graduates to the next level of purgatory. No longer confined to a prison, he is given stewardship of a house and property with a view of The Tree and The Mountains that had so filled his dreams and imaginings in life. This is Niggle’s do-over, in a sense–but he won’t be alone. Parish has made the journey and joined him. Now, Niggle and Parish become friends, and learn how to be good companions and neighbors as they share this place and build their adjacent cottages. Finally, the time comes for Niggle to move “further up and further in,” heading to the mountains (following a shepherd, it should be noted), while Parish waits at their pleasant plot of land (which comes to be called “Niggle’s Parish”) for his wife to join him.
- The final scenes of the story provide a dual-ending. There’s a conversation on Earth between a school master and town councilor about Niggle’s estate being sold off and the pitiful legacy he left. (This section seemed a clever twist on the “Christmas Future” scenes of A Christmas Carol.) The greedy councilor is dismissive of Niggle’s “foolishness” but the teacher is taken by a fragment of Niggle’s painting, which he keeps and later displays in an art gallery: “Leaf, by Niggle.” Meanwhile, in the Other Place, “Niggle’s Parish” becomes a convalescent home for souls making the journey to the mountains, and it is noted that this caused the home’s namesakes to laugh until the mountains rang with their joy.
In the final tally, Tolkien’s religious parable is really about a man who struggles to value the things that matter most in this life and whose heart must be reshaped before receiving his final rest. Tolkien’s Catholicism shapes this narrative, as he takes Niggle through a few stages of “purging” before he is ready to ascend the Mountain of the Lord.
Even for Christians who don’t hold to this doctrine, the story is still a good reminder that, no matter what other plans or pursuits we have in this life, there are some things that matter most and have eternal impact. Our days on earth are limited, so if we are to be faithful followers of Jesus, we should be about our Master’s business while there is yet daylight.
I was surprised by this story (and by its overtly Catholic nature) and enjoyed reading it very much. After reflecting on it, I find myself thinking about what I value most and how I can spend my days pursuing things with lasting impact. That alone makes this a worthwhile read.