Leaf by Niggle: A Life Worth Living

While checking up on blogs this morning, I discovered a new post by Brad Birzer at The Imaginative Conservative. I took Dr. Birzer’s course on Jacksonian America at Hillsdale College, and fell in love with his mythic kind of history. Far from the fact-obsessed history of Civil War enthusiasts, Birzer approaches history in the line of Herodotus and Christopher Dawson. For him, history is first and foremost an amazing story. In this post, he mentioned a short story by Tolkien I had never read before (accessible here) called “Leaf by Niggle.” This story is lovely, showing clear plot movement and character development. It illustrates the connected nature of the Inklings’ writing; I don’t know if Tolkien influenced Lewis or vice versa, but this story strongly resembles The Great Divorce and The Last Battle. In its conclusion, “Leaf by Niggle” highlights two visions of human nature, leaving the reader’s sympathies clearly directed towards the humane.

The story follows a man named Niggle. He is a nice old man who knows he will one day take a journey. His consuming passion is artistic: Niggle loves painting leaves, and works on a masterpiece of a tree set against a mountain range. He is never able to finish his work, because his neighbor Parrish (a man lame in one leg) always needs a favor. Just when the story starts to drag, Niggle begins his long journey, a Tolkien euphemism for death. Niggle’s death begins in a hospital where he must serve for a long period of time. Eventually, he is judged worthy of moving to the next stage. At the next level, Niggle sees the real tree made from his vision! Here is the perfect form, better than he made. Shockingly, Niggle recognizes that in the leaves were “Some of the most beautiful – and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style – were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parrish: there was no other way of putting it.” There is still work to do: the Tree is in a garden, which needs to be perfected. Niggle goes on to partner with Parrsh, whose gardening prowess enables Niggle’s imagination to plan how they can work the garden forest.

Tolkien envisions a character with an artistic obsession finally seeing the reality, and that reality is actually a composite effect. He highlights the nature of masterpieces. No great book, poem, song, or painting is created in isolation, but is a product of humanity. Further, Tolkien crafts a small character, much like his hobbits. Niggle’s willingness to still love his neighbor without expectation is his strength. When he is released from the purgatory hospital, his judge says, “And there is this: he never expected any return.” Niggle had no grand ambition, no desire to fix all the problems with the world. Instead, he wanted to paint the perfect leaf. His joy was in the little things: small art, caring for weak neighbors, and minding his business in a very English sort of way.

After Niggle and Parrish build a garden beyond the tree, Niggle is taken away up into the mountains. Tolkien builds a progressive eschatology: Niggle is purified, perfects his life’s work, and then goes beyond where the author can describe. This scene sounds almost exactly like the heaven described in The Great Divorce. Lewis envisions a final post-mortem opportunity for salvation, where saved souls try to convince the damned to travel with them across a desert of burning sand into the mountains. In The Last Battle, Aslan’s country is composed of a ring of mountains which surrounds all possible worlds. These two Inklings shared a common love of mountains, and used them to symbolize eternal joy.

Following Niggle’s ascension and departure from the story, Tolkien concludes with a conversation between two men who evaluate Niggle. Their conversation is worth quoting at length, because it highlights two different views on human value.

“I think he was a silly little man,” said Councillor Tompkins. “Worthless, in fact: no use to Society at all.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Atkins, who was nobody of importance, just a schoolmaster. “I am not so sure: it depends on what you mean by use.

“No practical or economic use,” said Tompkins. “I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business. But you don’t, and so we get useless people of his sort. If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I would put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”

“Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?”

“Yes, if you must use that meaningless expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”

“Then you don’t think painting is worth anything, not worth preserving, or improving, or even making use of?”

“Of course, painting has uses,” said Tompkins. “But you couldn’t make use of his paintings. There is plenty of scope for bold young men not afraid of new ideas and new methods. None for this old-fashioned stuff. Private day-dreaming. He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life. Always fiddling with leaves and flowers. I asked him why, once. He said he thought they were pretty! Can you believe it? He said pretty! ‘What, digestive and genital organs of plants?’ I said to him; and he had nothing to answer. Silly footler.”

On the one hand, Niggle represents a view of life which finds beauty worth appreciating for itself. A job and career enables a life of leisure appreciating the beauty of the world. Beauty is an end unto itself, for Niggle. For Tompkins, however, nothing is worthwhile unless it can be put to a practical end. His pragmatic viewpoint sees no value in Niggle’s life nor in his painting; unless a painting can be subverted to governmental use as propaganda, Tompkins has no use for it. All the little people in the world, those who have no demonstrable material contribution to Soceity, Tompkins would have them done away with long before their nature death, making way for those “young bold men not afraid of new ideas.” Education then suits men for their role in the machine of the state. The traditional organic nature of society stands in opposition to the pragmatic mechanical view which reduces man from a participant in a good cosmos to a cog in a machine.

Reading Tolkien is a bit like reading Homer. Just when I think I understand a particular passage, image, or figure a new layer of meaning opens. “Leaf by Niggle” deserves to be read, and read again as a reminder of the need to pursue beauty in the small things and to value beauty as an end. In these short twenty pages, Tolkien packs in most of what Evelyn Waugh does in Brideshead Revisited: these two worldviews are incompatible with one another, and the traditional view has all the beauty.

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