Today is J.R.R. Tolkien’s 120th birthday. Known, of course, mainly for The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, one of his most under appreciated works is a gem of a short story called “Leaf by Niggle.” This simple story is a beautiful allegory for the creative life and for the transition into eternal life. Similar to C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce, “Leaf by Niggle” is much more subtle. It is also deeply spiritual and rooted in a solid Catholic theology of art and afterlife. “Leaf by Niggle” complements and brings to life Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy Stories,” in which he expresses his philosophy of creation and sub-creation.
Here’s an excellent analysis of the story from Tolkien-Online:
From an allegorical Christian (and in Tolkien’s case, specifically Catholic) standpoint, “Leaf by Niggle” can be seen as a very simple Life, Purgatory, Heaven cycle. The journey that Niggle could not put off is the journey that no mortal can long evade…death.
And yet, in spite of his grudging kindnesses to neighbors, Niggle thought primarily of himself and his painting. This earned him an extended and “purging” stay in Purgatory. Eventually, his good deeds in his former life earned him a trip to the “next stage”, a kind of personal paradise.
Outside of its religious implications, Tolkien uses the story to illustrate his ideas on fairy tales and world creation set forth in his classic essay, “On Fairy Stories”.
In that essay he discusses the creation of “fairy tales”, and uses the term sub-creation to describe the method of creating a secondary world. Sub-creation is an imitation of God, building a secondary world in honor of the one created by God, rather than in mockery of that world.
Niggle’s created world, far from being a mockery, was very much an imitation, down to the slightest details, of the real world.
“Leaf by Niggle” is also allegorical of Tolkien’s own life. Tolkien himself was obsessed by details, particularly those of his created worlds.
This obsession with detail hindered him as much as helped his writing. He started many things, but tinkered so much along the way that he seldom finished any of them.
And if you love Tolkien as much as I do, you might want to join the rest of Tolkien fan-dom today in raising a glass to the late Professor.