Tree and Leaf

In a letter (# 98 -18 March 1945) to Stanley Unwin, Tolkien talks about 'Leaf by Niggle':

"...that story was the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all. Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting. I woke up one day (more the 2 years ago) with that odd thing virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out."

‘Leaf by Niggle’ is very much an allegory of Tolkien's own creative process, and, to an extent, of his own life. He admitted having been just that in ‘Leaf by Niggle’ in a letter to Caroline Everett (24 June 1957):

"I should say that, in addition to my tree-love (it was originally called The Tree), it 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'. The war had arisen to darken all horizons. But no such analyses are a complete explanation even of a short story..."

Niggle is an artists who paints to please himself, living in a society that holds art in little regard. His main occupation is a huge painting of great tree. He starts with one single leaf and the painting grows around it. Niggle hoping to draw every leaf in great detail. Soon Niggle finds birds in the trees and hills that are visible from the branches. And so the painting grows and takes up all the artist’s time. Niggle takes time off from his work, because of politeness, to aid his neighbour, a gardener named Parish who is lame and has a sick wife. In the process of helping, Niggle becomes ill.

Then he is forced to take a trip, but was ill prepared for it (partly due to his illness) and ends up in an institution of sorts where he must labour each day. He is paroled and sent to work as a gardener in the country. He realizes that he is in fact working in the forest of his painting, but the Tree is the true realization of his vision, not the flawed version in his art.

Although Tolkien was against allegory, he wrote ‘Leaf By Niggle’ as an allegorical tale. As he mentions (above) in a letter, it arose from his own pre-occupation with the ‘Lord of the Rings’, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all. To think further on that sentence, the hidden meaning could be that Tolkien himself is Niggle.

Tolkien was compulsive in his writing, his revision, his desire for ultimate perfection in form and in the ‘reality’ of his invented world, its languages, its chronologies, its existence and history. Like the painter Niggle, Tolkien came to being absorbed by his personal ‘Tree’, Middle-earth, and like Niggle, Tolkien had many duties that kept him from the work he desired to complete.


1 comment:

venthesikymi said...

beautiful story!!! Thank you for that!!!