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Being overcome with feelings of anger, sadness, happiness, joy, worry, disgust-whatever it may be, with fingers dry from flipping pages like they have got a mind of their own, and eyes frantically scanning for sentences and words-for whatever happens next. Sometimes being so transfixed with something-it needs to be read over again and again. Then eventually, your nose is dug so deep into a book that all you can smell is its pages. That is when you know you are no longer in this world.
J. R. R. Tolkien’s A Leaf by Niggle, at its simplest, is a fascinating tale about an artist living in a society that holds art with little to no regard. Paired with his essay, “On Fairy Stories”, where attempts to define a fairy story; the two works help gain insight into Tolkien’s concept of “Subcreation”. They also present his own ideas about himself, about art and the role of the artist, as well as the importance of relationships with the community and God. With both works Tolkien argues that humanity has an important relationship with its creator. This relationship includes God the creator, creating the primary world and the emulation of God by humanity, the artists, the sub-creator, in lesser acts of creation in his image-the new Secondary Worlds that are as real and true as the primary.
In Niggle’s world, very few appreciated art. When Parish “looked at Niggle’s pictures (which was seldom) he saw only green and grey patches and black lines, which seemed to him nonsensical”. Tompkins argues that Niggle was an incompetent and useless artist because “he could not have designed a telling poster to save his life”. He says that “art for art’s sake” is “old fashioned”. This also brings about Tolkien’s the argument of the usefulness and purpose of art. Niggle’s art is valuable because it is beautiful, just as Faerie is “indescribable, though not imperceptible”. It is valuable because it captivates the mind in a powerful life altering way. Tolkien says in his essay: But it is one of the lessons of fairy-stories (if we can speak of the lessons of things that do not lecture) that on callow, lumpish, and selfish youth peril, sorrow, and the shadow of death can bestow dignity, and even sometimes wisdom.
Many may recall a time they were so captivated by art in any that they came out of it changed; Atkins, Parish even Niggle himself are examples of this. Atkins is so intrigued by Niggle’s painting that he goes as far as to have a remnant of it displayed in a museum. And while he was in the painting, Parish “often wandered about looking at trees, and especially at the Tree”. He learned to appreciate art and beauty which is undoubtly unlike him in the beginning of the story. Niggle learned to accept the practical things. The story of Niggle on his journey from home to the purgatorial stage in the workhouse, then into his own completed painting, not only reflects Tolkien’s concerns with himself as an artist, but dwells upon the nature of the artist and their role in humanity as a sub-creator.
Niggle creates a Secondary World, his version of Faerie that was noticed by a few but enchanted many. It enchanted them to the point that it aided them in preparing for their journey beyond the mountains. Faerie contains not only elves, fays, troll, birds, water stones, but it also contains “mortal men, when [they] are enchanted”. Great art transports whom becomes enchanted with it to Faerie, or a Secondary World, just as what Niggle’s Parish and Tolkien’s own works and ever-expanding mythology does. Leaf by Niggle also explores the role and relationship the artist has with God. Niggle’s experience in his purgatory-although it was never called that-was necessary for him. Purgatory implies a ‘purging’ of impurities, and a perfecting of a person. Niggle’s Parish-his painting as it is later called-only manifests into reality as a result of Niggle’s stay in the workhouse. The disembodied voices serve to set up Niggle’s confinement for a purpose and for his own benefit. This purpose being the creation of Niggle’s Parish “the best introduction to the mountains”.
In his essay, Tolkien wrote: Then these natural objects can only be arrayed with a personal significance and glory by a gift, the gift of a person, of a man. Personality can only be derived from a person. The gods may derive their colour and beauty from the high splendours of nature, but it was Man who obtained these for them, abstracted them from sun and moon and cloud; their personality they get direct from him; the shadow or flicker of divinity that is upon them they receive through him from the invisible world, the Supernatural. Tolkien explains that man’s creations are unique and something unlike anything God could have made. If God gave everything, then nothing is uniquely ours. God created the gift of the Primary World, and it is the role of the artist, to sub-create; to use his gift to make Secondary Worlds. Niggle says in the end, “it is a gift” as he refers to his art and to the result of it: Niggle’s Parish-his sub-creation. He had been given the gift of creativity and the primary world, and he turned that gift into something that adds to creation. Perhaps Niggle is purged in the workhouse to become a more successful sub-creator, and maybe what lies beyond the mountains is not eternal bliss, but a sub-creative eternity.
Leaf by Niggle can have allegorical meaning that extends far more than just from the words printed on its pages. It presents Tolkien’s ideas of the role of the artist. It is as much of a story about an odd little man named Niggle as it is a story that examines the relationship between God, the creator, and the artist, and his sub-creations.
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