Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished.
Leaf by Niggle
The Perilous Realm p.302J. R. R. Tolkiwn
As must as I love The Lord of the Rings, it isn’t my favorite Tolkien piece. That dubious honor goes to a short story called “Leaf by Niggle.” First published in 1945, Leaf by Niggle is a story pretty much anyone can relate to, especially if you’re a creative trying to make your way in the world.
In a nutshell, a man who loves to paint and dreams of painting a tree that he sees in his dreams never gets to complete his painting because he is always called away to attend to other matters. While he worries over his painting and fulfilling his other obligations, he knows he’s supposed to go on a journey, and should do things to prepare, but somehow even that doesn’t get accomplished.
The time for his journey arrives and he cannot finish his painting. He’s deposited in a workhouse/hospital and he’s made to do a lot of jobs he doesn’t particularly like to do, but he eventually learns to get satisfaction from them.
But, the climax of the story is when he’s finished a course of treatment and is taken to a place that is almost like a garden. There, he sees his tree in all its fulsome glory—exactly how he’d imagined it would look.
There are, of course, very obvious religious overtones to this story. It mimics The Pilgrim’s Regress by C. S. Lewis in some respects and echoes other epics like The Divine Comedy and even The Aeneid. All of which deal with life, death, and the afterlife.
But there are some pretty valuable insights to being creative as well.
You have to learn self-discipline and time management for your art to really thrive.
He had no ‘time of his own’ (except alone in his bed-cell), and yet he was becoming master of his time, he began to know just what he could do with it.
Leaf by Niggle
The Periolous Realm p. 297J. R. R. Tolkien
Niggle doesn’t learn time management, initially. He’s constantly late, in a hurry, or forgets what he’s meant to do. When he’s at the hospital after his journey, he has to be taught self-discipline and time management, and it’s not pleasant at first. He doesn’t enjoy the refining process of doing what he doesn’t like to do.
If you’re naturally of a creative bent, then Niggle’s struggles probably echo your own. It’s so easy to get distracted by other things, even when real life does actually take you away from being able to create. There are bills to pay, groceries to buy, jobs to work, and, yes, even books to read. I’m especially guilty of that last one.
But in order for you to thrive, you have to make room in your life for it. And what better way to do that than to manage your time better? I love Tolkien’s turn of phrase for time management. He says that Niggle learns to be “master of his own time.” It implies that time, instead of being his enemy, becomes his tool.
We don’t like the word “master” these days because of the connotations it has with slavery and because it’s one of those words which is inherently gendered, but I think there is something to being the “master” of a resource, like time. Or the master of a craft.
Worry about your art, not your “legacy.”
Later he left it to the Town Museum, and for a long time while ‘Leaf: by Niggle’ hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes. But eventually the Museum was burnt down, and the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.
Leaf by Niggle
The Perilous Realm p.311J. R. R. Tolkien
When Niggle leaves his home to go on his journey, his beautiful canvas is almost destroyed except for a single leaf. This gets framed and put in the local museum as a curiosity. What happened to the rest of the canvas?
It was used for other things. No one saw the value in a painting of a tree, but they saw value in the canvas and the wood. Since Niggle wasn’t around anymore, they thought they’d might as well put the canvas to good use. What’s the use of a painting, anyway? The tree meant nothing to anyone but Niggle.
For Niggle, the tree embodied his dreams, his hopes, and his desires. But it wasn’t any of those things to anyone else. It was a bunch of canvas going to waste.
The moral? Don’t create with the expectation of a legacy. Don’t think anyone will love your work, your characters, your shapes, or your designs as much as you do. In fact, be prepared for people to not like your work. Niggle’s work certainly wasn’t appreciated when he was in his old country.
His new country, however, loves his work.
You may create for an audience you can’t yet fathom.
‘It is proving very useful indeed,’ said the Second Voice. “As a holiday, and a refreshment. It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many, it is the best introduction to the Mountains. It works wonders in some cases. I am sending more and more there. They seldom have to come back.’
Leaf by Niggle
Tales from the Perilous Realm, p. 311-312J. R. R. Tolkien
Niggle comes into his own when he goes on his journey and then finds his tree. But his journey doesn’t end there. His old neighbor, Mr. Parrish, meets him there. Together they build, plant, and tend a garden in a place that is just called the Forest. It’s this work the “Second Voice” refers to in the quote above.
Think for a minute of all the great writers and artists of the world. For that matter, consider Tolkien himself. How wide is his audience? Millions, if not billions, of people in the 68 years since The Fellowship of the Ring first came out. He knew very few of them.
His work was dismissed as “escapist,” silly, childish fantasy, and even at the academic level, his work wasn’t studied seriously until really the past decade. When I was getting my bachelor’s, pop culture conferences still carried with them a certain stigma, as did any serious work, into fantasy.
But none of those barriers stopped him from creating his world and sharing it with the world.
And he’s not alone.
Anyone who creates anything that is of worth and value is making something for people they have never seen or imagined. You just don’t know what life you are touching when you sent your art out into the world. It’s humbling in a way. For me, that realization makes me want to work even harder to produce something of quality.
Because I’m writing for someone out there I’ve never met, and I hope that, like Niggle’s work in the Forest, it’s exactly what they need to hear.
The Text Used
eaf by Niggle is available through multiple platforms. If you prefer audiobooks, I can highly recommend the recording narrated by Sir Derek Jacobi. He does a stellar performance, and he has the kind of gentle voice that you want to hear the most when times are rough. It almost reminds me of being read to sleep at night when I was a child.
If you want to read it, however, then find a copy of Tales from the Perilous Realm from Houghton Mifflin. Not only does it have illustrations from Alan Lee—one of the most recognizable Tolkien-related artists, but you get a slew of other minor works too.
Including Tolkien’s “On Fairy-stories”, which outlines much of his thought on fantasy and its role in human history. If you have read none of Tolkien’s more academic work, then you are missing out. He was a brilliant mind in more ways than just in the worlds he created!
All my quotes and references come from Tales from the Perilous Realm and have the necessary page numbers should you choose to get yourself a copy, and read it for yourself. I highly recommend you do. I don’t think any library is really complete without it.
On Amazon’s New Series
There’s been a lot of debate about Amazon’s new series based upon the Second Age, as told in the Appendices of The Return of the King. I do not intend to add to that speculation until I’ve watched the entire season through. Unless it is truly horrible, then I will not torture myself.
Just a reminder: Peter Jackson didn’t get everything accurate in his moves—no movie of Tolkien’s work is 100% accurate. This is why you should read the books. All of them.
There are things in the written word that are harder to portray on screen and with that comes inevitable change. Any sane person knows this. Just how much is too much? Well, we’ll see, shan’t we?
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