J.R.R. Tolkien is best known for his epic fantasy books The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Tolkien labored over these works for many years never satisfied with their imperfections. During the decade long hiatus between The Hobbit and the publication of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien wrote a short, semi-autobiographical story about a painter, purgatory, and everlasting life titled Leaf by Niggle.
Leaf by Niggle Summary
Leaf by Niggle is one of J.R.R. Tolkien’s few short stories. The story is about a painter named Niggle who is preparing for a journey. Before the journey, he was obsessed with finishing his masterpiece painting of a tree. Niggle was always better at painting leaves than trees. He wanted each leaf in this painting to be perfect and so the painting took him a very long time. He suffered many interruptions from people especially his poor neighbor Parish who had a lame leg.
After finally helping Parish, it was time for Niggle to go on his journey. He never finished his painting.
Before the journey could begin, Niggle got sick at the train station. He went to a hospital, but it felt more like a prison.
Finally, after two Voices permit Niggle to leave, the man went to the station and then to a great green hill with a gate and a bike for him to ride into a forest.
To his surprise, he found his Tree in the forest! His painting had become real and he was experiencing it for himself.
He soon found that he wasn’t alone. His neighbor, Parish, was there and the two of them built a house and a garden with joy. Parish was grateful because it was Niggle’s request to see Parish again that enabled him to be there with him.
Finally, a shepherd came from the mountains. Parish stayed behind to wait for his wife, but Niggle joined the shepherd to learn about the sheep and head towards the mountains.
Niggle had died, of course, and after some time in purgatory found himself united with his friend Parish and the Good Shepherd, Jesus Christ.
Back on earth, some people talk about Niggle for one last time. After that he was forgotten.
There was, however, his painting.
A piece of his painting was preserved in a museum. It was titled “Leaf: by Niggle.”
But even the museum burnt down and the painting was lost along with any memory of its painter, Niggle.
Leaf by Niggle Meaning and Symbolism
Although Tolkien was not a fan of allegory, Leaf by Niggle was an allegorical story about life, death, purgatory, and heaven. To put it in a term that Tolkien preferred, Leaf by Niggle is a myth about life and death.
Niggle = Humans, Artists, Sub-creators
Parish = Our Neighbors (as in “love thy neighbor”)
Journey = Death
Hospital/Prison = Purgatory
Forest and Field = Heaven
Shepherd = Jesus
Leaf by Niggle Reflection Questions
After reading the full story, consider the following questions for reflection and discussion:
- Why did Niggle have such a hard time finishing his painting?
- What were some of Niggle’s biggest regrets in the hospital-prison?
- How was Niggle and Parish’s relationship different in heaven than on earth?
- What are you focused on creating in your lifetime?
- What are your greatest “interruptions” and how can you see them as opportunities instead?
- What so you think God wants you to create to show the beauty of his creation?
- Tolkien wrote this story before publishing his masterpiece, The Lord of the Rings. Do you think he might have a different ending for the story? Why or why not?