Some Personal Thoughts on J.R.R. Tolkien’s Short Story: LEAF BY NIGGLE


In a previous post [ ], I talked about the significant beneficial influence Tim Keller’s podcast had on me in 2022 and now in 2023. In another recent podcast, Keller introduced me to a short story of Tolkien’s that I had not read before: LEAF BY NIGGLE.

This story was especially poignant for someone who is a writer and sometimes wonders “if all this work that goes into writing a story is worth it.”

A word of caution. My thoughts on this story contains spoilers, so perhaps you’d like to stop here and read the story before you continue.



“He [Niggle] was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.”

J.R.R. Tolkien. Leaf by Niggle.

Yet, in his mind, Niggle pictured more than a leaf; he imagined a whole tree and the country beyond it. Yet he couldn’t paint it. Furthermore, his duties and requests for help by neighbors kept him from his work. Ahead of him, approaching inexorably, was a journey he had to take.

Finally, the day of his journey arrived. He could not put it off, and his grand painting was unfinished. He was taken to a train and the train took him to a hospital where they tried to make him fit to go on with his journey.

After a time in the hospital, he was released and placed on a train again and dropped off, not at another station, but at a flight of steps going up a green embankment. At the top he found his bicycle and rode off in the sunshine.

Back home, in his village, the-powers-that-be were discussing Niggle’s painting.

“Of course, painting has uses,” said Tompkins. “but you couldn’t make use of his [Niggle’s}painting. There is plenty of scope for bold young men not afraid of new ideas and new methods. None of this old-fashioned stuff. Private day-dreaming. He could not have designed a telling poster to save his life.”

J.R.R. Tolkien. Leaf by Niggle.

A Few Words about the Tompkins in Your Life and My life

I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been) that Tolkien saw the Tompkins in his time. Tompkins was an ideologue that valued art only so far as it could be harnessed to propagandize for his own ideology. Another Tompkins’ quote showing his attitude to all painting like Niggle’s:

“If I ran this country I should put him [Niggle] and his like to some job that they’re fit for, washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something, and I should see that they did it properly. Or I should put them away. I should have put him away long ago.”

“Put him away? You mean you’d have him start on the journey before his time?”

“Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”

J.R.R. Tolkien. Leaf by Niggle.

What a loss it would have been for me (and presumably for many others) if the Tompkins in Tolkien’s life had so inundated his day with dish-washing that he could never again work on his Leaf.

Curiously, Niggle did not think himself above menial tasks, such as fixing a leaky roof. Indeed, he spent much of his time responding to pleas for help requiring those duties. However, even when Parish with his game leg and hypochondrical wife asked Niggle for help repairing his roof or asked him to go for the doctor, Niggle did it, although regretting the time he was missing for finishing his painting.

What Does this Mean for Me as a Writer?

I don’t for a moment put myself in the same class as a great writer like Tolkien or Lewis. Still, I find it surprising and heartening that even a great, like Tolkien had his regrets about his writing. I find it surprising since I would have said that in writing The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien had crafted much more than a leaf. But I also find this thought heartening. If The Lord of the Rings is only a Leaf, what will it be like some day to see the whole tree and the mountains beyond? It will, perhaps, be as C. S. Lewis said in the Narnia series:

“All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.”

C.S. Lewis. The Last battle.

I find Niggle very encouraging. I often waste time when I should be writing, I often find important mundane tasks annoying because they keep me from writing, and I often feel my work is not good enough and does not match up to the picture in my imagination. I can keep writing, hoping that my small, imperfect efforts will be met by a gift, after the train ride, that captures all the things I could not. As a Christian writer, this should encourage you too.


A Few Links

An excellent message (Hope for your Work) by Tim Keller led me to read Leaf by Niggle. Here is the link:

For my previous blog post on a Tim Keller message:

About Peter Kazmaier

Lover of Fantasy and Science Fiction. Author of the SF series THE HALCYON CYCLE. I frequently re-read my favourite books.

Posted on March 16, 2023, in Apologetics, Essay, Fantasy, For Authors, Freedom of Association, Freedom of Religion, Freedom of Speech, Freedoms, Independent (Indie) Authors, Inspiration, Marxism, Materialism, Personal Reflection, Review, Writing and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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