Leaf by Niggle

A short review of Tolkien's short tale of human creativity and faith.

Leaf by Niggle

I just finished J.R.R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle in the bus and the delightful little story brought tears to my eyes no less than three times. There is no great moment of pathos, no stirring tragedy; it’s simple and beautiful.

And it’s worth your time.

For the love of small things

Leaf by Niggle tells the story of one Mr. Niggle, a small man and a painter of large ambition but little success. He struggles to even “get a leaf out,” to say nothing of the great canvas landscape he desperately wants to complete. Niggle is unsuccessful by several standards, having not only not sold any paintings but also because he has never actually completed one. His neighbour, Mr. Parish, can’t even bring himself to comment, much less compliment, on his great work in progress. After all this sweat and effort, Mr. Niggle is forced to leave on a trip he isn’t prepared for and his work goes unfinished.

After his departure, town councillors in Niggle’s community debate the merits of his work and how to “make use” of it. Should it be recycled for its wood and canvas? Should it be admired, unfinished and incomplete as it is?

Like the town councillors, many people today aren’t sure what to do with art. What’s beauty good for anyway? We tend to ascribe default value to the art collected in museums, but what of the art created in basements, sheds, and on laptops? I struggle to grasp Niggle’s compulsive urge to work on his creation when the pressure to consume rather than create threatens to choke the promise out of my own ambitious projects.

There’s so much to enjoy, so why do I long to contribute?

I’ve always chaffed at the saying “art for art’s sake” for some reason, but beauty is something I can get behind, because beauty is bigger than art. Expression of one’s true self is often at the heart of most modern art and while this has its place, most of my authentic self-expressions are far from beautiful. In his stirring article ‘The Wound of Beauty’, Gregory Wolfe explores the value of Beauty as a transcendent reality. Art is not an end in itself; it isn’t transcendent. Beauty, like Truth and Goodness, is always worth pursuing.

This is why I write, and why I continue to write after having written badly. This is also why I bake bread. I believe it’s true that beauty is good and that goodness is beautiful.

My hope is Niggle’s hope, and Tolkien’s of course, whose theory of sub-creation reassures me—with or without commercial success—that my “leaf” is worthwhile. It’s true, many efforts will feel wasted, incomplete, or far from perfect. But there’s nothing that can’t ultimately be redeemed.

Leaf by Niggle is a little story about painting beautiful leaves whose use and beauty we can’t fully appreciate and won’t ever tire of enjoying.

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