Have you ever heard of J. R. R. Tolkien’s short story Leaf by Niggle? Written in a burst of inspiration in 1939, when Tolkien was suffering from a period of writers’ block with regards his masterpiece The Lord of the Rings, Leaf by Niggle does not contain any of the archetypal tropes of elves, wizards and hobbits one might expect. Essentially it is a simple story, but with some big (and recognisably Tolkien-esque) themes – Niggle, the protagonist, has for a long time been struggling to complete a painting, a masterpiece, of a tree – but things keep getting in the way, like a never-ending stream of visitors and an annoying next door neighbour named Parish. When he is taken away on an unexpected journey (sound familiar, Hobbit fans?) it seems as if the painting is doomed to be abandoned, but to his surprise, Niggle returns to find something completely unanticipated and wonderful:
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide…
He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful – and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style – were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr Parish: there was no other way of putting it.
The Tree’s centrality to the story and Niggle’s personal and artistic fulfilment through the blossoming of the Tree is really significant, and can certainly be viewed as a Tree of Life. It also contains some very valuable lessons on the creative process and role of the artist, as well as nods towards themes of spirituality and the afterlife.
If you would like to delve into the story some more, Richard Medrington of the fantastic Puppet State Theatre is currently attracting rave reviews with an adapted stage version of the story at the Scottish Storytelling Centre for this year’s Edinburgh Festival Fringe, until the 28th of August. This has also resulted in the publishing for the first time of a standalone edition of the story by HarperCollins, incorporating the imagery used in the stage version. Copies are being sold after each performance.