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Old 06-01-2021, 03:06 PM   #1
Estelyn Telcontar
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Leaf Minor Works -- 2 - Leaf by Niggle

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Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do.
Thus Tolkien introduces the title character of this tale. The fact that he speaks very similarly of himself in the Foreword to the second edition of the LotR alerts us to the fact that the basic idea is autobiographical:
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...the years 1936 to 1949, a period in which I had many duties that I did not neglect, and many other interests as a learner and teacher that often absorbed me.
In J.R.R. Tolkien Companion and Guide by Scull and Hammond, the history of this story is shown. It was written just before WW II, while he was struggling with the writing of LotR, and published during his lifetime.

With this brief introduction I would like to open the discussion for all - what do you think of this story? What does it show us about the author? How does it make you feel?
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Old 06-01-2021, 04:57 PM   #2
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As he wrote to Hugh Brogan, “This university business of earning one’s living by teaching, delivering philological lectures, and daily attendance at ‘boards’ and other talk meetings, interferes sadly with serious work” (Letters, p.131).
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Old 06-02-2021, 03:33 AM   #3
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As a writer I love Leaf by Niggle. It perfectly captures the twin feelings that nobody properly appreciates your work (^_~) and that your work isn't any good anyway, as well as the niggling (sorry) worry that in a cosmic sense, you're just wasting your time with it all.

It also contains probably my favourite vision of Heaven - the idea that you get to see all your imaginings brought to life and perfected! I strongly suspect this is Tolkien writing his own belief in what Paradise would (or should) be; I know it's mine.

The whole story also casts something of a reflection of the Music of the Ainur. In both stories, there's an artistic creation which is interrupted and reworked during its making, which ends by being made real. And there's a definite echo between these:

Quote:
Originally Posted by Leaf by Niggle
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 Parish: there was no other way of putting it.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Ainulindale
"Seest thou not how here in this little realm in the Deeps of Time Melkor hath made war upon thy province? He hath bethought him of bitter cold immoderate, and yet hath not destroyed the beauty of thy fountains, nor of my clear pools. Behold the snow, and the cunning work of frost! Melkor hath devised heats and fire without restraint, and hath not dried up thy desire nor utterly quelled the music of the sea. Behold rather the height and glory of the clouds, and the everchanging mists; and listen to the fall of rain upon the Earth!"
I'm... not sure what it says about Tolkien that he wrote about other people (Mr Parish, as in "the men of this parish" - ie, everyone) in the same way that he did the actual devil...

hS
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Old 06-05-2021, 04:02 AM   #4
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Let's talk about the character of Niggle:

In the very first sentence he is called a "little" man - I assume that does not refer to his body height, but to his lack of importance in the scheme of the world. Tolkien goes on to give him slightly negative characteristics: "not very successful", "idle", and though "kind-hearted", not positively so. Continuing: "ineffectual", taking on a project that was "too large and ambitious for his skill". Later on, "very ordinary and rather silly". And of course the meaning of his name sounds a bit derogative - a person who spends too much time on insignificant details and loses sight of the whole. Do you think he thought of himself in these terms, since the character is definitely autobiographical?

Niggle's work needed "concentration", "hard, uninterrupted work", in order to get finished. He would have loved to get paid for doing just that. We know that Tolkien was kept busy with matters that he wasn't really interested in, such as correcting papers, and that illnesses in the family sometimes occupied his time.

How do you see the person Tolkien describes?
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Old 06-05-2021, 12:39 PM   #5
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I think it's definitely autobiographical, and T here is harping on his admitted faults: procrastination, "niggling" over details, unplanned Big Picture, being annoyed at mundane but useful work getting in the way of the huge project only he thought had any value.
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Old 06-06-2021, 06:14 AM   #6
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Originally Posted by Estelyn Telcontar View Post
In the very first sentence he is called a "little" man
C.S. Lewis is known to have described Tolkien as a little man soon after their introduction. It is not lost on me that my own nickname in this group bears a marked resemblance to it.

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what do you think of this story?
I place it in a very small class of mythopoeic stories that speak deeply to me personally. They are Leaf by Niggle, Smith of Wootton Major by Tolkien, The Great Divorce by Lewis, The Golden Key, and The Gift of the Child Christ by Macdonald. There may be others. One common element to each of these, in one form or another, is "Gift." Perhaps one could go so far as to say "Grace."
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Old 06-09-2021, 07:17 AM   #7
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Niggle is I think unique in Tolkien's career in that it is the only work I can think of which is explicitly religious.
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Old 06-09-2021, 03:37 PM   #8
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It certainly has an interesting take on the Catholic concept of purgatory - learning to work by the clock!
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Old 06-10-2021, 03:48 AM   #9
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Niggle is I think unique in Tolkien's career in that it is the only work I can think of which is explicitly religious.
I first read it a long time ago before I had any inkling (heh, heh, pun not intended, but...) about Tolkien's own religious affiliation, but I remember thinking 'hm, this sounds like an obvious allegory for purgatory'." Which on top of that was very interesting given what I knew Tolkien said about allegory in the foreword to LotR and his generally negative attitude towards it.

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It also contains probably my favourite vision of Heaven - the idea that you get to see all your imaginings brought to life and perfected! I strongly suspect this is Tolkien writing his own belief in what Paradise would (or should) be; I know it's mine.
I must confess that I am in the same boat. Also somewhere along my theology studies, I may have smuggled Tolkien into a paper we were supposed to write for one course. I don't remember the particularities, I only remember that it was quite a stretch, but in my defence, I was in my first year and I wanted to write about something I was comfortable with. It was a course with the overall theme of "work and theological ethics", and aside from some of the more obvious associations, there were various interesting niche sub-themes like "work and eschatology". And that was where I started from. I'm really sorry I can't dig it up. But it had something to do with the individual eschatology, just like in Niggle, and the ideas behind the Second Music of the Ainur (actually see below).

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The whole story also casts something of a reflection of the Music of the Ainur. In both stories, there's an artistic creation which is interrupted and reworked during its making, which ends by being made real.
Nice catch with "Mr. Melkor Parish"!

What always seemed obvious to me about Leaf by Niggle/Music of the Ainur was the parallel reflecting what I think is truly "Tolkien's eschatology", if we can find any: the restoration of everything AND "upgrading" it using the creativity and skill of humans (and Elves).

Quote:
Originally Posted by Ainulindalë
Never since have the Ainur made any music like to this music, though it has been said that a greater still shall be made before Ilúvatar by the choirs of the Ainur and the Children of Ilúvatar after the end of days. Then the themes of Ilúvatar shall be played aright, and take Being in the moment of their utterance, for all shall then understand fully his intent in their part, and each shall know the comprehension of each, and Ilúvatar shall give to their thoughts the secret fire, being well pleased.
That is very much what happens in Leaf by Niggle, too.

The whole concept is in broad terms very close to the ages-old theological idea of apokatastasis panton, or tikkun olam in Judaism and especially Hassidic mysticism. Hassidic mysticism and kabbalah contain a lot of these elements of "sub-creators" (for instance, the whole concept of Golem, if you're aware of the legend, is an example of sub-creation par excellence). There is an idea of worlds being created or of things literally coming into life by stories being told about them. And of course all this sub-creation is a part of the eschatology, too; so the idea is that by necessity one day, all these elements of sub-creation shall somehow be vowen into the restored World-To-Be.

And if that isn't the Second Music/"Niggle's Parish", I don't know what is.
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Old 06-10-2021, 03:03 PM   #10
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This sentence from Tolkien's letters ties in nicely with Niggle's Parish:

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from letter #45 to his son Michael, written in June 1941:
"There is a place called "heaven" where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued."
So he had this idea, years before writing "Leaf by Niggle"!
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Old 06-13-2021, 12:34 PM   #11
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It certainly has an interesting take on the Catholic concept of purgatory - learning to work by the clock!
A modern motif. I can imagine that before time keeping the theme could be the same, but with sunrise and sunset being the standard.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Legate
given what I knew Tolkien said about allegory in the foreword to LotR and his generally negative attitude towards it.
The only other description of purgatory I know of is Dante's. Obviously, we're dealing with a short story compared to Dante's masterwork, but the differences are striking. It seems more of an evocation of Niggle's own forced and practical reform rather than an after death millions of years long purification. Personally I wouldn't want to experience either of them!

And thanks, [b]Legate[b], for re-associating - for me - the idea of subcreation with Niggle.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Guinevere
"There is a place called "heaven" where the good here unfinished is completed; and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled, are continued."
For one such as I whose subcreation may never see print (or webpage), this is a great consolation.
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Old 06-13-2021, 04:11 PM   #12
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The only other description of purgatory I know of is Dante's. Obviously, we're dealing with a short story compared to Dante's masterwork, but the differences are striking. It seems more of an evocation of Niggle's own forced and practical reform rather than an after death millions of years long purification.
Speaking of purgatory, I'd like to mention Vane's dreams while Sleeping the Sleep in George Macdonald's Lilith, where he remembers every wrong he ever did to anybody in his life and works to make amends. I think it's interesting that his efforts include building, gardening and artistic creation:
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Originally Posted by George Macdonald, Lilith, Chapter XLIII
I was the eager slave of all whom I had thus or anyhow wronged. Countless services I devised to render them! For this one I would build such a house as had never grown from the ground! For that one I would train such horses as had never yet been seen in any world! For a third I would make such a garden as had never bloomed, haunted with still pools, and alive with running waters! I would write songs to make their hearts swell, and tales to make them glow! I would turn the forces of the world into such channels of invention as to make them laugh with the joy of wonder! Love possessed me! Love was my life! Love was to me, as to him that made me, all in all!
It's forty years since I read the book, but this passage has remained vivid in my memory, and although I'm no longer the Catholic, or even Christian, I was then, I still read this as a convincing vision of purgatory (indeed the only one that makes the concept palatable).


I may have more to say in the next couple of days (still refamiliarising myself with the story).
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Old 06-13-2021, 04:33 PM   #13
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Because of its anomalous nature as the sole allegory in Tolkien's corpus (to say nothing of the scorn visited on allegories by him) Leaf by Niggle always stands out as somehow the easiest and the hardest of his works to talk about.

Easiest, because if Tolkien is going to write an allegory, by the beard of Aulë, he writes a pure allegory! Insofar as it IS an allegory and is very easy to map onto his own experience (up to the point where he has the Driver arrive, obviously), it feels like the most truthful thing Tolkien ever wrote. Given that Tolkien is a bit prone to forgetfulness when looking back at things years later as well as being as likely as any of us to tailor his reflections for the audience, he's acquired the reputation of being something of an unreliable narrator his own motivations. I think that's a bit untrue, but if you were to present a contradiction about his feelings in writing the The Lord of the Rings between a statement in the Letters and something in Leaf, I would instinctively side with Leaf as the truer of the two, ten times out of ten.

But, on the other hand, I find Leaf quite HARD to talk about, because... what is there to say other than what the text on the page itself says? This may be the only thing Tolkien ever wrote where I can't recall a single nugget of interest ever being referred from an earlier draft or background materials.
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Old 06-15-2021, 02:14 PM   #14
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I fully agree that the work-house is in a way similar or a representation of the traditional christian believe in prugatory. And I as well can agree that "Niggle's Parish" has a big similarity to Arda-heald or Arda-remade.

But is that equal to heaven? The quote from the Letter does suggest that in a way (and some passages from the Athrabeth as well), but would Niggle search beyond, once heaven in the christain sense is reached?

Thinking farther in that direction we might have stages of prugatory here: First the work-house which seems to be a kind of punishment and than the sanatory. In both cases the means of 'correction' are pushed upon Niggle from the outside. This goes so fare that at the end of that process we do not even hear Niggles own voice any longer. It is the judges that speak about Niggle that we hear at the end of that stage.
But than comes "Niggle's Parish": I think what is descript in that part is a kind of self-refelction. And in the end it leads Niggle to let go of his obsession and to leave his creation behind by his own choice. And we hear that the same fate does await Parish one day, but that he is not jet ready for it (and therefore can not understand Niggle going away).

In that sense the judges voice that at the dabate claimed that Niggle is not jet ready was right: As soon as he got the chance Niggle starts working on his obsession again. But probably only selfrefelction could bring him to the point of going on willingly and the third judges voice does allow him that way.

At first I thought that here I would now quote some descriptions of the Halls of Mandos and the stage of self refelction that the inhabitans would expirence there, as another description of prugatory by Tolkien. But searching for the quotes, I observed that they speak mainly about Elves and therfore would not fit fully here. So I will leave it at that and only mention it as stimulus for thought.

One additional thought in the end: If Leaf by Niggle is a biographical allegory, than the end of the story is a kind of confession: Yes, it would be very fullfilling to see the own sub-creation become 'true', but we have to free ourself from that wish or desire, because it is narcissitic to a certain point.

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Old 06-16-2021, 02:21 PM   #15
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I think that's a bit untrue, but if you were to present a contradiction about his feelings in writing the The Lord of the Rings between a statement in the Letters and something in Leaf, I would instinctively side with Leaf as the truer of the two, ten times out of ten.
Agreed. It reads very much like a long, honest look in the mirror, and maybe also a bit of a plea to the Second Voice.

Like I said above, I first read Leaf as a young man near twenty, in the first rush of discovering Tolkien and wanting to read everything he'd ever written (or at least everything translated into German, which wasn't a lot back then - the Silmarillion had only come out a few years before, UT and HoME were still unheard of). I kind of got what it was about (like Form said, it's hard not to), but I didn't really feel it - I loved the tree, but I cared little for Parish and his potatoes. It reads differently now, at a time in my life when the journey to be undertaken is morphing from a distant possibility to a fact of life that has to be reckoned with sooner or later, and I find myself thinking more and more about what matters in life, what I want to get done in the time I've got left and how much of it I'm likely to accomplish. There's very much a feeling of Tua res agitur in the story, and the reminder that what writers and painters tend to experience as annoying interruptions constitute what other people call living their lives is well taken.

I concur with Findegil that Niggle's Parish, paradisiac though it seems, is not heaven but another, gentler stage of purgatory where both Niggle and Parish learn to appreciate each other fully as a necessary step in their development/improvement/purification before they are ready to move on towards the mountains (which both of them seem to have attained at the end).

Does anybody else see the passage of dialogue between Tompkins and Atkins on the penultimate pages as an intrusion that might as well have been left out? Maybe if either of them had been introduced earlier it wouldn't so much stick out like a sore thumb. The point that utilitaristic folk don't appreciate art has already been made when Niggle's painting was used to patch Parish's roof, there's no need to belabour it. I find Tompkins an overdone caricature, and ascribing an ulterior motive to him ('you had your eye on his house') feels too much like Tolkien may have taken the opportunity to grind a personal axe.
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Old 06-17-2021, 03:12 PM   #16
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Although Tompkins and Atkins are not bad representations of Oxford faculty today, in terms of regard for Tolkien's legacy. While there are a handful who value his fiction, the Consensus Position is that Tolkien frittered away what should have been a brilliant career on his fairy nonsense, instead of publishing proper papers and books on English philology: the promise of his young adulthood squandered.

(NB: why those names? Derived from Tommy Atkins? Some drollery regarding the diminutive suffix?)
----------------------------------------

It's perhaps noteworthy that Tolkien wrote Leaf in 1943- in other words when The Lord of the Rings had been stalled for at least a year and he at the time didn't see it getting on. Both the LR and his Legendarium can vbe seen as the Tree, and so it's interesting how slighting the author's voice is in regard to the Tree's quality and importance. Not really very good, but unusual and thus not entirely devoid of interest. And then Niggle's fantasy, of someone coming in and giving him a public pension so he wouldn't have to worry about anything but painting- how the overworked wartime Professor must have longed for that!
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Old 06-30-2021, 01:08 AM   #17
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I would like to add a few thoughts gleaned from Scull and Hammond's "Reader's Guide" on this story before the thread goes "treeish" (appropriately?):

Tolkien himself confirms the allegorical nature of the tale, though he writes (in a Letter to Jane Neave in 1962) that is more "mythological". His Tree is indeed the LotR.

Some commentators consider the religious nature of the allegory, others explore the connection to his views on sub-creation and eucatastrophe, to which this story gives literary form. Another (Ellison, quoted by S and H), examines it as
Quote:
...concerned with the processes involved in the translation of artistic inspiration into physical reality. Its subjects are skill, craftsmanship, technique; the essentials of bringing any large artwork to completion...
That thought is sure to resonate with those of us who are involved in creative work in any form!

Further posts are not only allowed, but welcome; however, I am ending the "official" discussion for now.
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'Mercy!' cried Gandalf. 'If the giving of information is to be the cure of your inquisitiveness, I shall spend all the rest of my days in answering you. What more do you want to know?' 'The whole history of Middle-earth...'
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Old 07-05-2021, 02:22 AM   #18
Huinesoron
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I actually have no idea which branch of Christianity I picked up the following idea from, but: there is a belief that God the Father has created a system of perfect justice, under which any sin or transgression deserves punishment; and since God's authority is absolute, the punishment is also absolute. In other words, in strict justice, everyone should go directly to Hell, neither passing Go nor collecting 200 currency units.

That's where God the Son comes in. Christ's sacrifice, through complex theological reasons, let him take responsibility for all those sins; but because he didn't actually do them himself, he can plead for mercy on behalf of the people who did. Thus, through Christianity, sinful humans can neverthless have a hope of Heaven.

This is the viewpoint on which my firm identification of the First and Second Voices as the Father and Son rests. Their talk of Justice and Mercy is that intercession. I've kind of always treated that as a certain fact, but it occurs to me - rather late - that there probably could be other interpretations. ^_^ (I think Catholicism talks about Mary interceding with Christ on behalf of the faithful, for example.)

~

I also realised a couple of days ago, that the Voices have an echo in the Legendarium. There are two Valar with authority over the dead - Mandos, the Doomsman of the Valar, who stands in judgement; and Nienna, the incarnation of Pity, who pled for mercy for Melkor, and alleviates the sorrow of the dead. Justice and Mercy, Voices One and Two.

What's interesting is that this isn't how they were originally. Fui Nienna of the Lost Tales is a full on dark goddess; her roof is made of bat's wings! It's only later that she became Mercy; and if that change came in the 1930s Silmarillion, then it's just about the same time he was writing the Two Voices in Leaf by Niggle.

hS
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