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. …