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Easing the Journey Through Shadow & Light

  • Dawn

Leaf By Niggle

This post is about one of my favorite stories, a fable (or parable) by J.R.R. Tolkien called "Leaf by Niggle." Or a "fairy-story" as he identified it. By that he did not mean a story about tiny and overly cute Tinkerbell-like creatures who reside in flowers, but rather a story which, at least temporarily, opens the gates to the beautiful--and perilous--land of Faërie, as he describes it:

The realm of fairy-story is wide and deep and high and filled with many things: all manner of beasts and birds are found there; shoreless seas and stars uncounted; beauty that is an enchantment, and an ever-present peril; both joy and sorrow as sharp as swords. In that realm a man may, perhaps, count himself fortunate to have wandered, but its very richness and strangeness tie the tongue of a traveller [sic] who would report them. And while he is there it is dangerous for him to ask too many questions, lest the gates should be shut and the keys be lost.

I first read the story as the "leaf" portion of a book by Tolkien called Tree and Leaf, published in 1964 by Houghton Mifflin. It was also published as part of Ballantine Books' The Tolkien Reader.

The "tree" of Tree and Leaf is a long, sometimes esoteric, sometimes thrilling essay entitled "On Fairy-Stories," the second paragraph of which is quoted, in full, above. Tolkien shared "Leaf by Niggle" as an example of the kind of story he described in that essay.

"Leaf by Niggle" is a simple story, as parables often are, of two very ordinary, very flawed yet gifted men, Niggle and Parish, who are neighbors somewhere out in the country. Neighbors who often irritate, misuse or ignore each other, too caught up in their own worlds and needs and differences to appreciate the gifts they could have been sharing.

Niggle is a painter, who sees beauty in distant mountains, but also in a single leaf, and is sometimes able to capture echoes of that beauty in his paintings. He is also an impractical dreamer, and is completely taken over by, one might even say addicted to, his vast and complex painting of a Tree, and its surroundings. It is magical. It calls to him. It consumes him.

He also has, however, a kind heart, and does respond, albeit with much grumbling, when Parish and others ask for assistance: to fix a leaking roof, to fetch the doctor when Parish's wife falls ill, to spend time with visitors who come to the country for refreshment (and to take advantage of Niggle's reluctant generosity), when he would really much rather be working on his Tree. With all this going on he is taken completely by surprise when the Driver appears to take him on his Journey, the Journey he was supposed to have been preparing for throughout his life.

Niggle is often seen as Tolkien's parable-ized self-portrait, with the Tree and it's surroundings representing the profoundly complex worlds of Middle Earth and beyond, which sprang--and kept springing and springing and springing--from Tolkien's remarkable imagination.

Parish on the other hand, is very practical and a wonderful gardener, but he and his wife have no truck with artistic pursuits, thinking of Niggle's vast Tree as "Niggle's Nonsense" or "That Daubing," even to the point of using pieces of it to patch that leaking roof. Tolkien, always the master storyteller, fleshes out their grouchy, sometimes amusing, and rather inept relationship in fine detail, without too many words.

Eventually Parish goes on his own Journey, and he and Niggle, both much changed, meet again. From there it moves forward as a quiet story of redemption, which still makes me grin sometimes--and cry. I don't necessarily agree with the theology undergirding the story, but it is the deep themes of grace and growth that touch my heart. Without being at all sappy, it is, ultimately, a deeply kind and hopeful story.

I won't give away any more of it. I hope you can locate it and read it yourself; it is only twenty some pages long. Both "Tree and Leaf" and "On Fairy-Stories" are available in The Tolkien Reader and Tree and Leaf from used book dealers AbeBooks and Alibris, and new or used from Amazon.

Near the end of "On Fairy-Stories," Tolkien explains part of the deep attraction many of us feel for true fairy-stories:

"The consolation of fairy-stories, the joy of the happy ending: or more correctly of the good catastrophe, the sudden joyous “turn” (for there is no true end to any fairy-tale): this joy, which is one of the things which fairy-stories can produce supremely well, is not essentially “escapist,” nor “fugitive.” In its fairy-tale—or otherworld—setting, it is a sudden and miraculous grace: never to be counted on to recur. It does not deny the existence of dyscatastrophe, of sorrow and failure: the possibility of these is necessary to the joy of deliverance; it denies (in the face of much evidence, if you will) universal final defeat and in so far is evangelium, giving a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief....

"It is the mark of a good fairy-story, of the higher or more complete kind, that however wild its events, however fantastic or terrible the adventures, it can give to child or man that hears it, when the “turn” comes, a catch of the breath, a beat and lifting of the heart, near to (or indeed accompanied by) tears, as keen as that given by any form of literary art, and having a peculiar quality."

Until next time,


Photo credits:

Tolkien, HarperCollins (?)

Leaves, Grace Hues, unSplash

Tree, Johannes Plenio, unSplash

Faërie, Boris Baldinger, unSplash


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