Plot Summary: Niggle, a small “insignificant” man knows he needs to start on a dreaded journey. But he is a painter and needs to finish the most important project of his life before he leaves. With the weeks winding down, and many interruptions, what will become of Niggle’s masterpiece? And is it really a masterpiece, or just insignificant craziness? This short story is often viewed as an allegory to Tolkien’s life as a writer.
My Review: I wanted to read this story as part of accomplishing my goal to go through the entire original fantasy writings of J. R. R. Tolkien. Thinking this was a book, I was quite surprised when I found it was in fact a short story about 25 pages long. I finished reading the entire work in about an hour’s time.
I recently had a dream in which I was rushing around Sunday morning getting ready for church, but one thing after another made me later and later. Little did I know that this story would be quite similar to my dreamworld. And this story does take on a mythical, dreamy quality where details are interpretive. It makes for a story deeper than you at first realize, but then with Tolkien should we really be surprised?
That was what I liked about this complex little tale. Niggle is so very much like the rest of us—undisciplined, procrastinating, preferring to do what most pleases himself at the moment, and motivated by guilt to do good for others. There are so many things you could take away from it. SPOILER: It is interesting how Niggle’s masterpiece in the end was the Tree, and he and his friend plant a garden together in what (I suppose) was Paradise. If you think about it, this is more reality than fantasy. God originally created the Garden of Eden and in it placed a Tree. Who is to say that God would not take our best efforts at artistic creating and turn them into reality, and who is to say He would not allow us to continue to create and reflect Him when we reach our True Home? END OF SPOILER. The book, “The Garden at the Edge of Beyond,” by Michael Phillips came to mind as I read.
Prior to beginning this story, I had just finished watching the 10-part documentary series based on the book, “How Shall We Then Live?” by Francis Schaeffer. Parts of Leaf by Niggle made me think of it (particularly the parts about Manipulation and the New Elite and on Modern Art). There is a spot near the end of Tolkien’s story, where the character of Councillor Tompkins makes the comment (referring to Niggle):
I think he was a silly little man… Worthless, in fact; no use to Society at all… No practical or economic use… I dare say he could have been made into a serviceable cog of some sort, if you schoolmasters knew your business… If I ran this country I should put him and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something… Or I would put them away… I should have put him away long ago… Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap…
There are some cold-hearted folks who do not see the use of certain people to society, like those who are disabled. Hence, we see increasing examples of human beings treating other human beings as things as though they were without feelings (read here for one heartbreaking example). I will not go into a full-blown debate here about the subject of elitism. But I do believe that Tolkien was hinting at the shadow of the corrupting idea of socialism. Was Niggle off his rocker, or was he the real genius? In the end, it doesn’t really matter. No one has the right to determine that a human life is not worth anything just because he or she doesn’t measure up to another human’s standards. Something to think about during the ushering in of America’s new health care laws.
Another interesting quote made by Councillor Tompkins:
“There is plenty of scope for bold young men not afraid of new ideas and new methods. None for this old-fashioned stuff… I asked him why, once. He said he thought they were pretty! Can you believe it? He said pretty!”
This, too, made me think of Francis Schaeffer. Why is it that the good and the beautiful are often being casually torn down in one fashion or another and replaced by something cheaper and uglier? I believe that the closer you get to the heart of God, the more you find light and purity and loveliness. The farther you drift from Him, the more you will find chaos and ugliness. Hence, we have Councillor Tompkins, –so far removed from what is true that his soul cannot make sense out of what is truly beautiful.
This story is not without Tolkien’s Catholic connotations. SPOILER: I am personally not a Catholic, but I assumed the Workhouse represented Purgatory. END OF SPOILER.
I really enjoyed reading this little work, my favorite part being when Niggle was able to explore the world he created and even had all the time in his world to improve on it. It is very easy, light reading and a good place to start for a beginner to Tolkien. I recommend this for any Tolkien lover, or for those interested in fantasy, allegory, or inspirational fiction.