Niggle was an ordinary man with a passion for painting.
One of his greatest paintings begins with a simple leaf. That leaf grows into a tree. And that tree then becomes one point in a sprawling landscape. The painting becomes his magnum opus. He devotes as much of his time as possible to it: the ordinary business of life, visitors, and the needs of his neighbor are mere ‘interruptions’ to what matters most to him.
Such is the character portrayed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s insightful short story, Leaf by Niggle.
There is a sense of urgency to the account: readers are told upfront that he is facing a great journey and that therefore the time available to complete the painting is limited. Niggle does little to prepare for this journey. All his effort goes towards the painting, while other things are neglected as much as possible, such as weeding his overgrown garden.
One day his neighbor—a man named Parish—comes over to his house in a panic. His wife has fallen ill with a severe fever and a harsh storm has blown off the tiles on his roof, causing it to leak. Parish pleads with Niggle to go fetch a doctor and a carpenter—tasks he cannot do himself given his lame leg. Niggle agrees to help, but does so begrudgingly:
It was wet and windy, and daylight was waning. ‘No more work for me today!’ thought Niggle, and all the time that he was riding, he was either swearing to himself, or imagining the strokes of his brush on the mountain, and on the spray of leaves beside it, that had first imagined in the spring. His fingers twitched on the handlebars. Now he was out of the shed, he saw exactly the way in which to treat that shining spray which framed the distant vision of the mountain.
Upon his return, Niggle himself falls ill. He seems to make a recovery and resumes his painting. Then an unexpected visitor shows up: the Inspector of Houses, who scolds him for failing to do his best to repair his neighbor’s house. The canvas and waterproof paint, the inspector suggests, could have been used to patch up the hole in the roof.
In short order, a second guest appears, a man identified as the Driver, who is ‘dressed all in black.’ Niggle is informed that that long journey which he had been postponing must commence at once. He hardly has time to pack a few things. And his great painting is left unfinished.
Niggle boards a train and is let off at a hospital, where he is charged with doing handyman work—exactly what he had shunned back at his house. Niggle toils away for what feels like a century. Eventually, he becomes adept at the work.
At last, he is allowed to leave the hospital. He gets back on the train.
He disembarks to find his old bicycle waiting for him. He hops on and starts riding. All around is a verdant green pasture. The landscape feels oddly familiar to him:
Yes: the ground was becoming level, as it should, and now, of course, it was beginning to rise again. A great green shadow came between him and the run. Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished.
And yet the landscape needs more work. But this is no painting. It is a living world filled with real animals and plants. Niggle realizes he needs the neighbor who had always scolded him for his poor gardening and never appreciated his painting. Seemingly out of nowhere Parish materializes. And the neighbor whom he had regarded as a nuisance becomes a best friend.
The two work hard on gardening. Over time, Parish comes to appreciate the beauty of the tree. And Niggle develops a green thumb. Notably, Parish also loses his limp.
One day, the entire landscape is complete. The pair then goes on a long walk to the Edge:
It was not visible, of course: there was no line, or fence, or wall; but they knew that they had come of the margin of that country. They saw a man, he looked like a shepherd; he was walking towards them, down the grass-slopes that led up into the Mountains.
‘Do you want a guide?’ he asked. ‘Do you want to go on?’
Niggle does; Parish, however, decides to wait for his wife.
And so ends the main plot of Leaf by Niggle.
For obvious reasons, this short story has been interpreted as a masterful modern retelling of purgatory. Tolkien’s account bears some clear parallels with Dante’s Purgatorio. There is the same motif of a mountain. And the main action consists in a reversal of one’s failings in life: areas of vice become virtue. In Dante’s version, for example, those who had been slothful in life become speed runners. Likewise, Niggle becomes a good gardener while Parish matures into a connoisseur of beauty.
It also has other Christian motifs, such as the appearance of a ‘shepherd,’ the emphasis on being a good neighbor, and the notion of a judgment at the end of life, conveyed through the anecdote of the Inspector of Houses.
One particularly compelling theme is the social nature of salvation. In temporal life, Niggle’s neighbor had been an annoying presence. But in purgatory, he becomes an invaluable partner. And the gardening skills which Niggle had once looked so down upon becomes to him the noblest art. It’s a gentle reminder to view the ‘nuisances’ in our lives as precious opportunities for virtue.
Overall, Tolkien envisions purgatory as that ‘place’ where we complete the unfinished business of our lives. And that means not only just overcoming our vices, but perfecting our good works. Purgatory, in this view, becomes eminently a place of mercy rather than the ‘hell for Christians,’ as it is sometimes misunderstood.
For those of us who struggle with the limits of time—and given the reality of mortality, that’s all of us in one way or another—this message is an immensely comforting one.