Thursday, October 20, 2016

Leaf by Niggle

Poster for the theatrical version
The work of J.R.R. Tolkien is known worldwide, both through his books (The Hobbit, The Lord of the Rings) and though the numerous audiobooks, plays, and films based upon them. Many regard the Rings trilogy as among the greatest works of "high fantasy" literature ever written, and there are more than 250 million copies of Tolkien's books in print.

But until quite recently, very few people seemed to know, or care, about the brief parable Tolkien published in 1945, Leaf by Niggle. Then, just this year, a curious thing happened: a theatrical version starring and directed by Richard Medrington became a surprise hit, and, for the first time since its original appearance in the Dublin Quarterly, it was published as a stand-alone book. The reviews of the play have been stellar, with the Guardian punningly referring to it as the "Lord of Small Things," although its reviewer, as have many of the readers of the book, puzzled over what it's really all about. And that's the thing -- as Medrington muses in a preamble to the play, almost the moment the story begins, "the possible meanings “double, treble and quadruple” before your eyes."

And it's an intensely visual story, though presented without illustrations (save the cover), a tale of a would-be artist in an imperfect world, with considerable ambition but only modest talent, "the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees." Niggle knows that, at some point, there's a journey he has to take, which he ought to pack for -- but in the meantime, he has something more important to attend to. It's a grand painting -- in part composed by sticking together several smaller canvasses -- which depicts an enormous tree, within which are nesting birds, as well as a far-off range of snow-capped mountains. His work, however, has its costs: his garden is neglected, and he finds himself cursing and muttering uncharitable things (to himself) whenever he's interrupted. Which he is, particularly by his neighbor Parrish, who seems to have little regard for Niggle's great work, and is critical of his neglected property. Things come to a head when the local building inspector arrives, demanding that Niggle's canvas be taken and used to patch Parrish's leaky roof! And just then, to top it off, he learns that his long-postponed journey must begin.

Is Leaf by Niggle a metaphor for Tolkien's own work? After all, his conception of Middle Earth was, like Niggle's painting, a lifetime's labor, in which some smaller things (The Hobbit) were patched onto other things (The Lord of the Rings), and yet so much was left unfinished (The Silmarillion). Doubtless Tolkien, like Niggle, hated interruptions, and yet was always, unfailingly, polite about them, yet really kind-hearted (though grumblingly at times). But perhaps Niggle is also all of us, with some larger thing we imagine and wish to be our life's great task, our escape from the mundane things of everyday life, our great reward -- and yet, again and again, life breaks in!

Friday, October 7, 2016

Putting away childish things

In reading over your first collective projects, one of the recurrent themes is the departure of childhood, and of "childish things." As children, we're encouraged to use our imagination; as adults, it's suddenly time to stifle our curiosity and put our collective noses to the grindstone. Indeed, modern education seems almost designed to assassinate the spirit, to replace curiosity and passion with dulness and complicity, and mere fanciful tales with what the "Common Core" curriculum describes as "informational texts." College, at least in theory, is a place for exploration, for renewal of passion, and the finding of a vocation -- but too often it, too, is reduced to a mere utilitarian list of skills, goals, and "outcomes."

So where do you see yourself in all this? Where is the line between childhood and adulthood, and should we, indeed, put away our childish loves? What does the college experience have to do with this, and what are your expectations for this institution and yourselves as you embark upon your college years? For this in-class writing, take as your prompt one of the three quotations below. You may agree, disagree, or simply be stirred to write about the claims made in these passages -- but begin, in any case, by stating your response to them as clearly as you can. Then go on to address these larger questions as given above.

Here are the three writing prompts for today:

It is, in fact, nothing short of a miracle that the modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled the holy curiosity of inquiry; for this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom. Without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail. -- Albert Einstein

Passing hence from infancy, I came to boyhood, or rather it came to me, displacing infancy. Nor did that depart,—(for whither went it?)—and yet it was no more. For I was no longer a speechless infant, but a speaking boy. This I remember; and have since observed how I learned to speak. It was not that my elders taught me words (as, soon after, other learning) in any set method; but I, longing by cries and broken accents and various motions of my limbs to express my thoughts, that so I saw and remembered that they called what they would point out, by the name they uttered. And that they meant this thing and no other, was plain from the motion of their body, the natural language, as it were, of all nations, expressed by the countenance, glances of the eye, gestures of the limbs, and tones of the voice, indicating the affections of the mind, as it pursues, possesses, rejects, or shuns. And thus by constantly hearing words, as they occurred in various sentences, I collected gradually for what they stood; and having broken in my mouth to these signs, I thereby gave utterance to my will. Thus I exchanged with those about me these current signs of our wills, and so launched deeper into the stormy intercourse of human life, still subject to parental authority and the beck of elders. -- St. Augustine, Confessions.

For our knowledge is unperfect, and our prophesying is unperfect: but when that which is perfect is come: then that which is unperfect shall be done away. When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I imagined as a child: but when I became s a man I put away childish things. Now we see through a glass darkly: but then shall we shall see face to face. Now I know unperfectly: but then shall I know even as I am known. Now abideth faith, hope, and love, even these three: but the greatest of these is love. -- St. Paul, I Corinthians 13