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!

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