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

By Nelson, Marie | Mythlore, Spring-Summer 2010 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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

   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

   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

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

   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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

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


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?