🍃 Leaf by Niggle, Allegory by Tolkien
Exploring One of Tolkien's Lesser-Known Stories
‘There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start some time, but he did not hurry with his preparations’.
J.R.R. Tolkien, Leaf by Niggle
What in our lives and our world is truly of value? How can we best spend our time in this life? What is the real impact of a single act of kindness or of creativity? And does heaven exist? What might it be like?
These are some of the questions that J.R.R. Tolkien addresses in his short story Leaf by Niggle. Using story and allegory, he illustrates the true value and effects of the creative process, the somewhat surprising connections that we share with our neighbors, and his beliefs about the journey of life, death, and what follows afterwards.
Tolkien and Allegory
Unlike his good friend and fellow Inkling C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was not a fan of allegory generally. Tolkien’s opinion on allegory was that it bordered on being an insult to the reader for an author to force them to read their work in such a way that only a single interpretation was possible. Instead, he preferred a story so full of authenticity and correspondences to real life (or the primary world) that the reader would find it easy to bring their own applications from their own experiences.
In the foreword of the second edition of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien commented
I cordially dislike allegory in all its manifestations, and always have done so since I grew old and wary enough to detect its presence. I much prefer history, true or feigned, with its varied applicability to the thought and experience of readers. I think that many confuse 'applicability' with 'allegory'; but the one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of the author.
But his general dislike for heavy-handed allegory did not stop him from writing his own allegory more to his own liking.
He writes in Letter 131 on this nuance to allegories, explaining again his distaste for allegory but then explaining what a ‘good’ allegory would look like:
I dislike Allegory - the conscious and intentional allegory - yet any attempt to explain the purport of myth or fairytale must use allegorical language. (And of course, the more ‘life’ a story has the more readily will it be susceptible of allegorical interpretations: while the better a deliberate allegory is made the more nearly will it be acceptable just as a story.)
If an allegory must be made, better to have it be one that works well on the surface level of the story itself and that does not depend on the deeper allegorical level of meaning to work. Interestingly, Tolkien also suggests that the better a story is the more correspondences it will have with real life that enable it to be interpreted allegorically.
He fleshes this idea out in an earlier letter to his publisher where he draws out the relation between story and allegory:
Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth. So that the only perfectly consistent allegory is a real life; and the only fully intelligible story is an allegory. And one finds, even in imperfect human ‘literature’, that the better and more consistent an allegory is the more easily can it be read ‘just as a story’; and the better and more closely woven a story is the more easily can those so minded find allegory in it. But the two start out from opposite ends. You can make the Ring into an allegory of our own time, if you like: an allegory of the inevitable fate that waits for all attempts to defeat evil power by power. But that is only because all power magical or mechanical does always so work. You cannot write a story about an apparently simple magic ring without that bursting in, if you really take the rings seriously, and make things happen that would happen, if such a thing existed.1
Leaf by Niggle, Allegory by Tolkien
In Leaf by Niggle we find Tolkien channeling his experience writing The Lord of the Rings, illustrating his concepts about the creative process, and sharing his beliefs about heaven—portrayed as only a creative and artist like himself could imagine it—in an allegorical tale.
Allegory and Story converge, meeting somewhere in Truth.
Does Tolkien’s allegory succeed by his own measures for a good allegory? Or does it fall victim to the very factors Tolkien himself disliked?
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