In the story, Niggle is a painter, although “not a very successful one”—the type “who can paint leaves better than trees,” Tolkien writes. For some time, Niggle has been working on a painting of a great tree and its surroundings, but he can never seem to finish it, as he faces one minor setback after another. Eventually, Niggle is whisked away on a mysterious journey by train. He arrives at a workhouse, where his life is scrutinized by two disembodied voices. The voices send him to the countryside, where Niggle encounters his painting again, except that now he’s living inside it: The tree and the mountains he painted are real.
“Leaf by Niggle” is one of the only short stories Tolkien ever composed. Although he once wrote, “I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations,” this tale is indeed an allegory and not always the subtlest one: Niggle’s journey takes him through the stages of death. The workhouse where Niggle is evaluated is purgatory, and the countryside where he ends up is heaven. Although some of the story’s themes may be heavy-handed, the prose in “Leaf by Niggle” has an ethereal quality that evokes the transcendent. Its core ideas are honest and soul-searching. Aside from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit, it might be Tolkien’s finest work.
The autobiographical aspects of “Leaf by Niggle” stand out in particular. The story reflects Tolkien’s love of nature; in a preface to one reprinting, the author wrote that he was inspired by a “great-limbed poplar tree” he saw in real life that “was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner.” The tree’s only crime, Tolkien speculated, was being “large and alive.” In J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, the scholar Tom Shippey argues that the story’s plot is personal, with Niggle as a stand-in for Tolkien himself. Shippey notes that Tolkien was the perpetual “niggler” by the word’s dictionary definition—a perfectionist and procrastinator who dabbled in the minutiae of Middle-earth for years, creating languages and genealogies, but who had a hard time finishing stories. Those in the story who doubt Niggle can be read as Tolkien’s critics, including some of his Oxford colleagues, who found fantasy fiction to be childish and who couldn’t understand why a successful scholar would waste his time on it. But what makes “Leaf by Niggle” so useful for understanding Tolkien is how it illustrates his ambitious vision for what fantasy literature ought to be and do.
Tolkien believed that fantasy worlds need to seem real. In his essay “On Fairy Stories,” which has been reprinted together with “Leaf by Niggle” in Tree and Leaf, Tolkien explained that compelling fantasy depends on the author’s “subcreation” of a secondary world that has “an inner consistency of reality.” In attempting to achieve this verisimilitude, the author is, according to Tolkien, both a creator and a discoverer. He noted in a revealing 1955 letter to W. H. Auden that while writing The Lord of the Rings,
I met a lot of things on the way that astonished me ... I had never been to [the town of] Bree. [Seeing the character] Strider sitting in the corner at the inn was a shock, and I had no more idea who he was than had Frodo ... I was as mystified as Frodo at Gandalf’s failure to appear on September 22.
The idea of the writer or artist as a discoverer is underscored in “Leaf by Niggle.” The painter’s masterpiece is first described as having “begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree ... Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to.” Niggle isn’t so much the maker of his painting as he is a wanderer in its realm. Tolkien felt that fantasy ought to be so immersive that even its creators feel as if they are exploring unknown lands that have always existed.