J.R.R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle": An Allegory in Transformation

By Nelson, Marie | Mythlore, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
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J.R.R. Tolkien's "Leaf by Niggle": An Allegory in Transformation


Nelson, Marie, Mythlore


J.R.R. TOLKIEN'S ESSAY "ON FAIRY-STORIES," with its presentation of the essential features of the fantasy genre, and his story "Leaf by Niggle," which I intend to show is a re-telling of the story of the late fifteenth century play Everyman, were both first separately published, Tolkien explains in his "Introductory Note" to their re-publication together in Tree and Leaf. My primary purpose here is to present a reading of "Leaf by Niggle" with reference to its apparent source and to terms Tolkien defines in "On Fairy-Stories," but, since Tolkien tells the Everyman story in ways that can readily be related to his own life story, I will also give attention to this story as Humphrey Carpenter and T.A. Shippey tell it in J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography and J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century; as Wayne G. Hammond and Christina Scull tell it in J.R.R. Tolkien: Artist and Illustrator; and as it can be read in Carpenter and Christopher Tolkien's edition of The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien.

As the following sequence of parallels shows, Tolkien re-tells the basic Everyman story in "Leaf by Niggle."

   Everyman (1)
   God decrees that each man must
   face a "rekenynge" (lines 45-46).

   "Leaf by Niggle" (2)
   Niggle has "a long journey to
   make" (87). Aware that little time
   remains, he nevertheless allows
   frequent interruptions to keep him
   from completing his painting of his
   Tree.

   Everyman
   Death appears and says to Everyman,
   "thou must take a longe Iourney" (103).

   Everyman offers Death a thousand
   pounds to delay his departure. He asks
   that Fellowship, Kindred, Cousin, and
   Goods be allowed to accompany him.
   All refuse, but Good Deeds, if he were
   not so "sore bounde" (487) by
   Everyman's sins, would be willing to
   help.

   Knowledge leads Everyman to
   Confession, who gives him a "precyous
   Iewell [...] Called penaunce voyder of
   aduersyte" (557-58).

   Everyman accepts the gift and the duty
   to scourge himself that accompanies it.

   Good Deeds and Knowledge
   accompany Everyman as he continues
   his journey.

   Beauty, Strength, Discretion, and Five
   Wits appear and offer support, but
   cannot go with Everyman as he
   continues his journey.

   Everyman travels on and meets an
   Angel who will lead him on to heaven.

   "Leaf by Niggle"
   An Inspector and Driver appear. They
   announce that Niggle must set forth
   (94-95).

   The Driver refuses to grant Niggle's
   request for delay and takes him to the
   train station from which he must depart
   (96).

   Niggle is transported by train through a
   "dark tunnel" to a place where he is put
   in an ambulance that takes him to a
   "Workhouse Infirmary" (96-97).

   Niggle learns through confinement and
   hard work how to "take up a task the
   moment one bell rang, and lay it aside
   promptly the moment the next one
   went, all tidy and ready to be continued
   at the right time" (98).

   Niggle, awakening from a "gift" of
   Gentle Rest, hears two Voices debating
   his fate. His complaints may negate
   their redemptive value but he has often
   performed good deeds, and the First
   Voice reluctantly agrees to let him "go
   on to the next stage" (102).

   Niggle's unaccompanied journey by
   train continues--now through a world
   of bright daylight--to a place where
   "Before him [stands] the Tree, his Tree,
   finished" (103).

   A shepherd comes who may, when
   Niggle is ready, guide him to the
   Mountains he has glimpsed between
   the leaves of his Tree.

As Shippey observes, "Allegorical meaning is signaled at once by the first sentence [of "Leaf by Niggle"]" (267). This sentence reads "There was once a little man named Niggle, who had a long journey to make" ("Leaf" 87), and it is immediately evident that Niggle's story will be the story of Everyman retold. And if there is any doubt about this, when Tolkien, having told of Niggle's preoccupation with his life work--the painting of his Tree--and of the many interruptions to his progress, writes that "At length Niggle's time became really precious.

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