I decided to read Leaf by Niggle with no knowledge of it other than it being a short story by Tolkien that Stephen Colbert mentioned while giving audiences a rundown of just how big of a Tolkien fan he is. When Tea with Tolkien set the 30 Days in the Shire challenge, I decided to finally purchase Tales From the Perilous Realm to fulfill “read one of Tolkien’s shorter works.” I actually began with Farmer Ham of Giles, having already read Roverandom, and then moved on to Leaf by Niggle. Corona, you know? I have plenty of time to read.
So, perched on my back porch with pillows and blankets, I sat down to it.
I guess, first off, I have to say that I’m Protestant, not Catholic, so there are very likely some subtle references that I didn’t notice. I did pick up on the underlying notes of Catholicism immediately, despite very little knowledge. When reading the work of someone who argued so vehemently against his work as allegory, it was a bit surprising at first. However, when I read that it was written after a request for work that was definitively Catholic, it made perfect sense.
I can’t speak to a lot of the specifically Catholic elements, but there are a few ideas that definitely stood out. These ideas were even more evident reading the story alongside the letters because I can see them playing out in his life.
- We tend to put off the inevitable (death and judgement).
“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.”
So begins the story. We quickly learn that, although his journey comes frequently to his mind, Niggle is constantly putting off his preparations. When it comes time for Niggle to go on this journey, we find that his lack of preparation is frowned upon.
“You’ll have to go; but it’s a bad way to start on your journey, leaving your job undone.”
“What! No luggage? you will have to go to the Workhouse.”
I’ll admit, I’m still chewing on the intricacies of what exactly Niggle’s preparations should have looked like – at different times, Tolkien seems to refer both to Niggle’s unfinished artwork and neglect of his packing for the journey. And when Voice 1 and Voice 2 discuss Niggle’s life later in the story, you seem to feel that both his painting and his reaction to life’s “interruptions” were of equal importance. And perhaps, really, that’s the point?
2. It’s important how we proactively order our time. It’s also important how we react to the unexpected.
Niggle seems to be in a constant back and forth of trying to complete what he feels to be his important work (his painting) and dealing with the little things that crop up – mostly, his neighbor, Parish. Niggle is described as “a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do.” It’s also stated that “he was sometimes just idle, and did nothing at all.” When the time comes for Niggle to depart, he has both neglected to prepare for his journey, neglected to complete his painting, and responded to “a small percentage [of Calls], mostly of the easier sort, and he called those Interruptions.” The importance of ordering time is reflected in the life Niggle undertook once he reached the Workhouse and the lessons he learned there. What they led to, ultimately, was satisfaction. Contentment.
“He could take up a task the moment one bell rang, and lay it aside promptly the moment the next one went, all tidy and ready to be continued at the right time. He got through quite a lot in a day, now; he finished small things off neatly. He had no ‘time of his own’ (except alone in his bed-cell), and yet he was becoming master of his time; he began to know just what he could do with it. There was no sense of rush. He was quieter inside now, and at resting-time he could really rest.”
This reminds me of the verse in Ecclesiastes which warns against chasing after the wind. Running and running with no real goal or plan only leads to us feeling exhausted and unsatisfied.
3. Our work is the space between our feet.
When the Voices discuss Niggle’s life, they discuss the Calls that he did and did not respond to. They also discuss his work as an artist. In Romans 12 this morning, Paul writes of gifts that differ ‘according to the grace given us’ and doing our work ‘in proportion’ to what is given to us. I also finished reading Mere Christianity this morning. In the last two chapters, CSL discusses how Christianity might look different on different people and thus we can’t judge. The person who swears might be loads better off than the person who does not because the person who swears could very well be a Christian working to draw nearer to Christ within the confines of the life he leads (personality, upbringing, cultural norms, etc…) while the person who does not swear could be as far from Christ as possible, but doesn’t swear because they just weren’t brought up that way [that’s my loose paraphrasing]. What matters is this: is a person responding to the call of Christ on their life and acting accordingly?
Niggle is in a similar situation. Most of his interactions revolved around Parish. Some were bigger than others. Some he didn’t answer. Some he forgot about. Some made him angry. Over time, however, Niggle gradually moved towards self-sacrifice for his neighbor. He slowly worked in the space between his feet. And in the end, that’s what he’s judged on.
4. Everyone’s gifts and desires work together.
The aforementioned verses in Romans 12 also tell us that men are given different gifts. Paul speaks often of Christians being a part of one body, each endowed with different strengths and tasks. When Niggle moves on past the Workhouse and finds himself, in a sense, inside his painting, one of the first things he realizes is that he needs Parish. Parish appears and, together, they make the land of Niggle’s painting more beautiful than he could have imagined. When Niggle gets ready to move on, Parish elects to stay, waiting on his wife who “[will] be able to make it better, I expect: more homely.” With each one of them working within their own strengths and giftings, Niggle’s painting becomes reality. So it is with us. We need one another. “No man is an island” it was once said. Maybe it’s said too often, but I think we forget how true it is! None of us can live without feeling the interconnectedness of humanity (and, indeed, the world and nature at large). When we’re all working within our giftings, we will be able to work with others to accomplish more and better.
5. Earth is but a reflection of what is Real
CSL explores this heavily both in Mere Christianity and in The Chronicles of Narnia. In Mere Christianity, he reflects on how it is only once we are in Christ that we can become our real selves as we were intended to be. In Narnia, after its destruction, we see Narnia reborn, but better. The “real” Narnia that the Pevensie’s Narnia was only a reflection of. We see something similar in Niggle.
When Niggle is getting ready to leave his painting and travel on with the shepherd, Parish realizes that they have been living in and working on the painting that Niggle had been trying to finish before.
“But it did not look like this then, not real,” said Parish. “No, it was only a glimpse then,” said the man; “but you might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worthwhile to try.”
There are two thoughts here. First, that because it is only with Christ that we will experience what is Real, there is some lessening of the worry we might feel over our actions here on earth. Our work won’t be completed until we reach Heaven/New Earth. But also, I think it’s important to remember that what we do here is not unimportant because it’s only a reflection. In fact, I think it makes what we do here quite important! We are reflecting what is Real each and every day that we live on earth, throwing light on those around us and seeking to show them what is to come. We are the glimpses that others might see.