“The bicycle was rolling along over a marvellous turf. It was green and close; and yet he could see every blade distinctly. He seemed to remember having seen or dreamed of that sweep of grass somewhere or other. The curves of the land were familiar somehow. Yes: the ground was becoming level, as it should, and now, of course, it was beginning to rise again. 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.”
Leaf by Niggle by J.R.R.Tolkien
A funny little tale. Just 43 pages.
At the beginning of the Second World War J.R.R.Tolkien was called into active service. He’d been writing one book for some years. Now, he despaired of ever fully realising his work, The Lord of the Rings.
His characters and storyline were so grand. Worm-holes of plots and sub-plots had developed in his imagination, creatures and landscapes so ambitious, so intricate, he wondered if he could ever really put it all down on paper – or when even?
Without further ado: Leaf by Niggle.
In his foreword Tolkien claims that Leaf by Niggle, published in the Dublin Review in 1947, came to him suddenly when he woke one morning with the entire story in his mind:
Niggle is a not-so-very-good painter obsessed with a particular canvas of a curious and beautiful tree. In his mind, the tree grows bigger and bigger; birds nest in it’s branches; seasons change; streams, dales, whole villages and snow capped mountains begin to appear in the vast landscape of his imagination, but he can’t quite capture it all with his paintbrush.
The canvas grows and grows, but Niggle finds himself stuck on the detail of a leaf – trying to capture its veins, the shimmer of sun on its surface, the curl of its tip.
The other problem is that Niggle is not very organised – he procrastinates, fusses, daydreams and is plagued by interruptions from his pesky neighbour who always seems to need help and has no eye for art – nor any appreciation for the urgency of Niggle’s task – and who is far too quick to criticise Niggle’s neglected garden.
You see, Niggle is distinctly aware that his time in this world is running out and soon he must make his journey to the next.
One ordinary day of endless interruptions and little concentrated painting, DEATH comes calling for Niggle, his beloved canvas still unfinished.
Niggle’s disappointment weighs heavily on him as he journeys, unprepared, to the “new country” as Tolkien calls it.
At a junction in the journey, Niggle hears two voices discussing his fate: one judgement and one mercy.
According to the first voice, Niggle’s faults are many.
Niggle feels at once guilty. There were really so many more things he could have done in the old country and with “less grumbling!”
The second voice is firm, but gentler.
Yes, Niggle had cursed his neighbour’s irritating disruptions and yes, Niggle neglected his garden. But the errands he’d run for his neighbours and the time taken, showed that Niggle had been kind and generous, even though all these distractions took him away from his painting. These, argued the second voice, outweighed Niggle’s many imperfections.
The gentler voice has the final say and so Niggle’s train chugs on and comes to stop in a vast field.
There, Niggle is surprised to find his tree. HIS Tree!
Finished “… its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind Niggle has so often felt or guessed, and yet so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It is a gift!’ he said.”
His Tree is, after all, not lost – not just a figment of his fancy that died with his death. In the “new country” it is a living, breathing, finished realisation of his life’s work.
I wonder wide-mouthed at the ordinariness of Tolkien’s little tale.
Niggle is Tolkien. Niggle is you and me.
The year of ‘dabbling’ continues, I guess. Following Niggle’s advice, I am going to try to do said dabbling with less grumbling.
A blessed Easter to you all.
For Hubby and me, I predict a long weekend of sight-seeing, over-indulgence, church-going, Spring sunshine or showers, cycling the Tarka Track, a steep walk down to Clovelly, family time with the in-laws, my mamma’s birthday, a taste of chocolate bunny, a prayer offered up for my dear friend Birdie running the Two Oceans Marathon and Devon.
P.s. At the end of the story we learn that back in the “old country” Niggle is all but forgotten, apart from a small piece of his canvas which eventually finds itself framed in an art gallery entitled ‘Leaf’ by Niggle.
P.p.s. John Ronald Reuel Tolkien was born, I’m pleased to say, in South Africa.
P.p.p.s. In my research I found a blog called ‘Leaf by Nadia’ which is all about pictures of leaves – see opposite :).