Influential stories: Leaf by Niggle (or: Never getting anything done)
Leaf by Niggle is probably the J.R.R. Tolkien short story that I have read or listened to the most. My view of it has changed over the years, most significantly shortly after deconverting when I realised my vision was fundamentally different from Tolkien’s. But I continue to love it and it continues to influence me.
As promised, here is the obligatory spoiler alert: This post contains spoilers for Leaf by Niggle.
Are you surprised?
A “Tale from the Perilous Realm”
My first encounter with this tale was as one of the tales on the BBC radio dramatisation Tales from the Perilous Realm. At the time, it wasn’t even my favourite (that would have been Farmer Giles of Ham). However, as I grew older it became my favourite and the one I listened to the most (it wouldn’t surprise me if I’ve literally listened to it 100 times).
Unlike other Tolkien tales, this one polarises my family: Some really love it, and some really don’t (I think mostly because they consider it too Catholic).
Trying to complete his great picture
Niggle is a painter with a grand vision:
There was one picture in particular which bothered him. It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow. Niggle lost interest in his other pictures; or else he took them and tacked them on to the edges of his great picture. Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get a ladder, and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there.
He is a perfectionist who can spend a long time getting a single leaf right. However, the great picture continues to grow, and he has limited time to complete it before he goes on a journey. Concentrated effort is needed, but finding the time is difficult: Not only is he sometimes idle, but he also has many mundane obligations which he calls “interruptions”.
That was the part of the tale that caught my attention in my teens and early twenties. I think it’s something that many, including me, can relate to. Rightly or wrongly, we feel like we could achieve so much more if we didn’t procrastinate and if we didn’t have so many mundane obligations.
The tale first came to Tolkien in a dream sometime between 1939 and 1942. He had been working on The Lord of the Rings for a few years, but it would be years before he even completed it, let alone managed to get it published. As he wrote later:
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’.
So it’s hard not to see Niggle as a somewhat critical self-portrait. Tolkien too was a perfectionist with a grand vision and many obligations. I wonder if he ever felt about The Lord of the Rings like Niggle felt looking at his picture:
Actually it seemed to him wholly unsatisfactory, and yet very lovely, the only really beautiful picture in the world.
Purgatory and a personal heaven
In truth, the story is a fairly simple allegory. I took most of the message from Niggle’s time in this world, but it was clear that the journey Niggle was to go on is death, and he isn’t properly prepared. Coming to a station destitute, he is sent to a workhouse (purgatory). After time in the workhouse, he is judged ready to move on and sent to a kind of heaven. I said my family found it too Catholic!
However, there is much more to the tale than that. Both the purgatory and the heaven are specifically tailored to Niggle and related to his picture. There’s no one-size-fits-all vision here.
In the workhouse, he learns better time management and organisation. It had been one final act of service to his neighbour that cost him his last chance to complete the picture - but as a result of that act of service he is sent on early to the next stage. And at that next stage he finds his tree, not just a painting, but real and complete:
A great green shadow came between him and the sun. Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.
He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time.
There the skills he learned in the workhouse come in handy, as he is able to collaborate with his neighbour to complete the gardens and surrounds, before he finally sets off for the mountains. And that, perhaps, is the true heaven: Even his completed masterpiece was only a preparation for the mountains.
An Edinburgh Fringe experience
In 2016, shortly after officially quitting religion, I spent three months in the UK. Near the end of that time, I completed the Pennine Way and had a day in Edinburgh. Edinburgh Fringe was on, including Richard Medrington’s performance of Leaf by Niggle.
Since this isn’t a well-known story, it was rare opportunity, so I took it. And it was a really wonderful performance. I still treasure my copy of Leaf by Niggle signed by Richard Medrington.
However, it was during the performance that I realised that the story relied heavily on the wonderful afterlife I’d rejected. This is why I wrote about The Last Battle before Leaf by Niggle. I had already started to come to terms with the loss of eternal life, but it was a shock to find it in a story I knew well, and when I was on holiday and supposed to be having fun. I mostly stayed in control, but definitely felt tears coming to my eyes.
At the time, it was less than four months since I quit religion. Perhaps I was perhaps more fragile and uncertain about what came next than I realised.
But it wasn’t just about the loss of eternal life. It was also about my uncertainty as to what came next for me and how much anything mattered. That evening I was saying farewell not just to Edinburgh, but also to the UK and pretty much to the travelling life that had occupied me. This left a bleakness that hung over my spirit the rest of the day.
Four years on, I can see that this was completely fine. I’d had a great time in the UK, achieved some things I was proud of, learned some things about myself, and had ideas about what might come next.
But the truth was that I couldn’t be on holiday all my life: I needed to test those ideas in “real life” back in Melbourne. And it worked. Some of the ideas fell by the wayside, of course, but others I’m still following today, and they have taken me to places I could never have imagined back then.
Creativity in the presence of death
Looking at Leaf by Niggle now, I see a different question: What is the purpose of creativity in the presence of mortality? Of impermanence? Of death?
I started with a quote about Niggle’s great painting that always captivated me, but here’s how Tolkien started it:
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 sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.
The shadow of that journey lies over Niggle’s whole time in this world. He tries to ignore it, but when he does remember it it interferes with his painting:
Also, now and again, he remembered his journey, and began to pack a few things in an ineffectual way: At such times he did not paint very much.
In the end, after he has sacrificed his last chance to complete the painting to help a neighbour who doesn’t even recognise the painting’s value, the incomplete canvas will be used to mend that neighbour’s roof. Niggle is sent off on his journey in despair:
Not finished! Well, it’s finished with, as far as you’re concerned.
If no-one around you will recognise the greatness of your creativity, and if it’s not going to last, why even bother? When he gets to the workhouse, Niggle can’t even remember what he had been trying to achieve.
Two views of Niggle’s work
Niggle setting off for the Mountains isn’t actually the end of the story. At the end, Tolkien presents two views of Niggle’s work:
Our world’s view: Some consider Niggle’s work impractical. A fragment with a single leaf is kept in a museum until the museum burns down - then all memory of Niggle has gone.
God’s view: The country with Niggle’s completed tree is useful for preparing people for the Mountains.
Tolkien viewed “sub-creation” as very important, so that second view makes sense for him. However, part of my realisation has been that I only believe the first one. I may spend this life frustrated by the things I don’t get done - but even if I completed them, they wouldn’t last for ever.
Back in Edinburgh, I wasn’t yet ready to deal with that. Now I think I am. But first let’s go back to Tolkien.
Tolkien’s later life and legacy
As it turned out, within 10 years Tolkien had completed The Lord of the Rings, and within 15 years it was published. He did achieve fame in his own lifetime, with its benefits and drawbacks. What’s more, he left his son Christopher as his literary executor, and as a result much of his surrounding legendarium has been published.
I’m sure there were many things he wished he could complete, and only some of them could be completed by Christopher. However, he won’t be forgotten in this world any time soon. In fact, he may be better appreciated now than in his lifetime. His books remain popular, of course, but his vision is now probably better known through the Lord of the Rings movie trilogy (shot in beautiful New Zealand). There was also a Tolkien biopic last year, and there are plans for an Amazon TV series.
I don’t know whether Tolkien looked forward to a wondrous afterlife with Middle Earth properly completed and better than he ever imagined. However, if he did, I don’t see any reason to believe that afterlife exists. Middle Earth will not serve as an introduction to heaven.
Today he continues to be remembered as a writer, but I think there would be few who remember him as a person (even Christopher Tolkien died earlier this year). I believe there will come a time when no-one remembers him: Maybe because English has gone out of fashion, maybe because humanity itself is finished.
In the words of my favourite quote from The Fault in our Stars:
“There will come a time,” I said, “when all of us are dead. All of us. There will come a time when there are no human beings remaining to remember that anyone ever existed or that our species ever did anything. There will be no one left to remember Aristotle or Cleopatra, let alone you. Everything that we did and built and wrote and thought and discovered will be forgotten and all of this”—I gestured encompassingly—“will have been for naught. Maybe that time is coming soon and maybe it is millions of years away, but even if we survive the collapse of our sun, we will not survive forever. There was time before organisms experienced consciousness, and there will be time after. And if the inevitability of human oblivion worries you, I encourage you to ignore it. God knows that’s what everyone else does.”
So what about me?
I’m not going to claim I have some grand vision like Niggle’s Tree or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, because I don’t. However, it always feels like there’s so much more I could write. I have spent a lot of time trying to understand the many ways in which my view of the world changed since I left religion, and being able to write that down systematically could be helpful to me and useful to others. But I never seem to be able to do more than chip away at that vision.
That’s why the story first appealed to me as a teen, and part of why it continues to appeal to me today. Life can be full of distractions and obligations and mundane tasks, and as a result it does feel like I could achieve so much more if only I could focus, and if only there weren’t so many interruptions.
At the same time, though, the story of Niggle doesn’t give the complete picture: Tolkien saw Niggle as a single person completing his tree and then walking towards the mountains, but he still had obligations to his neighbours. Tolkien himself had a wife and children that we know he loved and cared for, and one of the things that ate into his creative time was taking on side jobs to support them better.
As I wrote last year about NaBloPoMo, this blog is not my number 1 priority. I have obligations to family and friends, sure - but I also happen to like spending time with them. I enjoy hiking and exploring the world and trying to understand it, and those things end up taking a lot of my time.
Sometimes I wonder whether I’ve inherited a worldview that discourages me from taking breaks. A worldview that makes me feel like I should be “doing something”, no matter what it is and whether it’s actually useful. Relaxation is important too, whether it’s time spent by myself or with family and friends.
Maybe part of the problem is that, like Niggle, I’m idle - but maybe I’m actually better off using that down time for other things I value, whether or not they seem “productive”.
In Niggle’s case, helping his neighbour meant losing the last chance to complete his painting - but also essentially gave him brownie points so he could sooner see the completed Tree. I don’t have that, but nor do I necessarily need it. The truth is that doing things for or with others, particularly others that you care about, can be both an annoying interruption and a joy at the same time.
Finally, unlike Tolkien, my blog is out there, and that does force me to complete things at regular intervals. At the moment, I aim for at least one post a month. I’m sure if I were revising some of my earlier posts I’d approach them quite differently, but at least they’re done. I may still end up with many incomplete posts sitting unpublished for years, but at least I publish something.
I don’t expect to turn up in some perfect afterlife with my life story and life philosophy properly told. This blog may not be everything I want it to be, but I try to make it enough.
It might be nice in some ways to have my ideas and opinions better known and more complete. For them to be better able to reach the people who need them. But the truth is that, whether or not it helps others, I know it helps me writing it, and it may not be my top priority but I’m glad I have it.
We make our own meaning
Growing up, I was taught to expect eternal life. All the problems in this world would be fixed in the next. Temporary things weren’t supposed to have meaning: Only permanent things did. It took time to come to terms with losing this.
But I think the question Leaf by Niggle poses is still worth considering: What is the purpose of creativity in the presence of death? Why bother finishing at all? Is it just to be remembered after death? If so, even that memory will be temporary: Why bother with things that will be gone one day?
Every time I publish a post I feel the joy of success. Of achievement. Those posts may not be read by many people, but I do get comments on them. I can feel the appreciation of others, and also learn from the experiences of others. This matters.
It might be nice to think of people still reading my writings in a hundred years, but I don’t really expect it, and it doesn’t necessarily matter. If the blog vanished tomorrow, I would still value the experiences I’ve had writing and sharing that writing. But even if I died tomorrow, it wouldn’t change the fact that I had had experiences that I valued.
The truth is that this is the one life we know we have, and we get to choose what we value. We get to choose what’s important to us. We may not get to keep it forever, but we do get to accept the opportunity and try and make it enough.
As it was a warm day here in Melbourne, consider the simple act of eating an icecream. At the end, the icecream is gone. In a week’s time I may forget that I even ate that icecream. Or maybe I’ll remember what flavour it was and that I enjoyed it, but not really remember exactly what it tasted like. Taking the long view, in a million years there will probably be no icecream anywhere on Earth, and there will definitely be no me. Does that icecream matter?
I don’t have to worry about any of that - I just enjoy the icecream.
Maybe our creative endeavours feel like they should last longer than an icecream. But why should no-one reading my writings in 10 or 100 years time remove the value I have felt right now writing and sharing them?
I certainly didn’t answer all my questions that evening in Edinburgh. It took time. However, it turned out the answers I found were often, at least in part, a continuation of who I already was and what I was already doing.
This was certainly true in the short term: The next day I flew to Switzerland with many unresolved questions, and there I discovered the very mountains Tolkien was writing about. And that changed my view of Leaf by Niggle and of Tolkien again.