The most wise and human author C. S. Lewis once said,
“Literature adds to reality, it does not simply describe it. It enriches the necessary competencies that daily life requires and provides; and in this respect, it irrigates the deserts that our lives have already become.”
Lewis, back when he was a skeptic, had actually protested the purpose of fiction. He discussed his firm conviction that stories were all lies with his colleague, a professor of Anglo-Saxon. This professor wrote not just an essay, but an almost epic poem entitles “Mythopoeia” in an effort to sway Lewis towards the good, the true, and the beautiful.
This poem objects to the modern obsession with rationality, and defends not just the reading of fiction but the “little makings” and sub-creations that are part of writing myths. And this author went to write some extraordinary examples of truthful, soul-tugging, salvific literature.
Leaf by Niggle
By J.R.R. Tolkien
(Usually printed in the volume entitled Tree and Leaf.)
This one of the strangest stories ever written. Particularly when considered that it is composed by the same man who created Middle-Earth.
Unlike Lewis, who even after being convinced of the virtue of fairy tales believed that all stories should directly reflect the One True Story of God and Man, Tolkien disliked such exact parallelism in his stories. In his essay “On Fairy Tales”, he articulates the belief that story forms need only be represented life as it is in all it’s strange fantastical complexities, and the Truth will be there. In essence, anything written by a human has something to say about humanity; even if the form and plot are less than stellar the story itself holds at its heart something of the Truth of the world, be that something as simple as the human longing for love.
Leaf By Niggle is the closest Tolkien comes to allegory. The style is an odd compound of fairy-tale diction, stark description, and almost stream of consciousness narrative. The plot sounds decidedly allegorical, but it is not clear of what it is an allegory.
One of my professors declared this to a story of purgatory. I though it was a description of how to make a leader. It seems to have arisen from Tolkien’s worries over finishing and fleshing out Lord of the Rings to his satisfaction, and his concern over the fate of the artist.
It tales the of a wanna-be artist, Niggle, in a seemingly socialist community, who puts his art before people. But he has “to go on a journey”, and so embarks on a strange adventure that could be death, or personal human growth, or a depiction of interior conversion, or training to become a better artist.
One of my professors used to say that this was a story about Purgatory. It is certainly purgative.
I always thought that it was the it is a tale of training to be a leader. It does end with Niggle, having been “rehabilitated” being sent off to shepherd a flock of sheep. (Do sheep come in flocks or herds?)
But on rereading, I have to conclude that Niggle is simply learning what it means to be a human.
He begins without care for human life. He ignores his neighbors, and would rather be left alone to paint. He is, put simply, a normal person. Selfish.
But his art has produced one thing that give hope to his “doctors”; a leaf. Although he had been attempting to paint a tree, he had only been able to paint one leaf. A beautiful, exquisite, little leaf to which Niggle had given his full attention and love.
And with this proof that Niggle is capable of seeing and loving, he is given a chance.
Niggle’s painful, strange, odd pilgrimage is not quite like Dante’s, or any other literary form, but it is still firmly in the tradition of conversion. Niggle, the figure of humanity learns to be more human, he learns to be more as humans were meant to be.
The story straddles the lines between fairy tale narrative, stream of consciousness, and allegory. It is quick and, at times, slightly painful. But it is beautiful. Because reading it stretches soul.
It is fascinating. Tolkien, in his own whimsical way, creates a character who is palpably flawed, but with whom everyone can sympathize to such an extent that it is almost as though we take the “journey’ with him. As, in fact, we do.