3 Reasons Why Leaf by Niggle is my Favorite Tolkien Treasure

leaf by niggle

As a Middle-earth aficionado, I have read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion. Currently, I am navigating the land of Beleriand as I am reading The Children of Húrin. While these books are creative and profound, my personal favorite Tolkien work [so far this may be subject to change!] does not take place in a mythic land or through the medium of an epic adventure tale. Instead, a short story published in 1945 wins my personal Pulitzer. Leaf by Niggle does not follow hobbits, elves, dwarves, or contain any sinister evil such as Sauron or Morgoth. Instead, the plots details of a simple painter’s journey in the afterlife.

The short story begins by depicting Niggle, an artist, living in a society with little esteem for art.  Niggle’s neighbor Parish, who is lame and has an ill wife, continually interrupts his work. Although Niggle views such disruptions as annoying, he still helps his neighbor due to his politeness.

Niggle is forced to take a trip that he is not ready for and spends time at a hospital. Daily work as a gardener is the task that he is entrusted with during his time at the health institution. Throughout this process, the reader hears two unseen voices discuss the progress of Niggle.

It is determined that the artist made advancements and is sent to a new country—the Land of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. Niggle becomes re-united with Parish and together they work the land. Their work brings beauty to the Tree and the Forest. Finally, Niggle bids farewell to Parish as he continues his journey with the shepherd to learn more about the sheep and journey toward the high pastures in the Mountains.

God's mercy and Judgment

Clearly Catholic

 The main reason I enjoy Leaf by Niggle is due to the clear catholicity contained within the characters, plot, and symbols. Niggle represents everyman—humanity as an individual and as a collective. When I looked up the word niggle in the thesaurus, I learned that the name has synonyms which included: annoy, bother, discomfort, and anxiety. According to Lumen Gentium [Dogmatic Constitution of the Church]  7, “On earth, still as pilgrims in a strange land, tracing in trial and in oppression the paths He trod, we are made one with His sufferings like the body is one with the Head, suffering with Him, that with Him we may be glorified.” Niggle also suffered various disturbances of his artwork while he was on a pilgrim journey.

minion travel gif.gif

Another example of how Tolkien clearly infused Catholic thought into his short story is the hospital being an allegory for the cleansing process of purgatory.  Next, the Voices represent the judgment and mercy of God. The English writer conveys the balanced Catholic approach to Divine Mercy and Judgment through the dialogue between the voices on Niggle’s progress:

“Now the Niggle case,” said a Voice, a severe voice, more severe than the doctor’s.

“What was the matter with him?” said a Second Voice, a voice that you might have called gentle, though it was not soft-it was a voice of authority, and sounded at once hopeful and sad. “What was the matter with Niggle? His heart was in the right place.”

“Yes, but it did not function properly,” said the First Voice. “And his head was not screwed on tight enough: he hardly ever thought at all. Look at the time he wasted, not even amusing himself! He never got ready for his journey. He was moderately well-off, and yet he arrived here almost destitute, and had to be put in the paupers’ wing. A bad case, I am afraid. I think he should stay some time yet.”

“It would not do him any harm, perhaps,” said the Second Voice. “But, of course, he is only a little man. He was never meant to be anything very much; and he was never very strong. Let us look at the Records. Yes. There are some favourable points, you know.”

“Perhaps,” said the First Voice; “but very few that will really bear examination.”

“Well,” said the Second Voice, “there are these. He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own. He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake. But he never thought that that made him important. There is no note in the Records of his pretending, even to himself, that it excused his neglect of things ordered by the law.”

“Then he should not have neglected so many,” said the First Voice.

“All the same, he did answer a good many Calls.”

I am niggle 

niggle leaf.jpg

I am Niggle

 Probably the biggest takeaway I received from Leaf by Niggle this that the titular character mirrors traits found within myself. While Niggle engrossed himself in artwork, I often find myself absorbed in my hobbies of reading and writing. Daily disturbances—such as assisting neighbors in need—annoy Niggle, but he ultimately does the right thing, just not always out of love. In a similar fashion, I struggle to carry out my familial and employee duties without ever lamenting or finding these tasks bothersome. At the end of the day, I will complete my duty because it is right and moral. What I sometimes lack is serving my family and co-workers with love all the time!

Tolkien’s ability to depict the rawness and realness of Niggle urged me to re-read this short story almost immediately upon completing it the first time. As an idealist, I am often color-blind to the real-life situations and toils of daily living. Leaf by Niggle provides clarity into how God judges a person’s life. I am hopeful, yet realistic about God’s mercy and realize I have a purgative road ahead of me in this life [and likely the next life!].

seinfeld argue gif.gif

Purgatory is a Real Process

 According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church number 1030, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.” Niggle’s trip to the hospital and the Land of the Tree and Forest represent the Christian doctrine of purgatory—a state of existence whereby souls are purified. Purgatory is an ephemeral existence, it is not permanent. It is a stage toward Heaven. However, the process of purgation is not ethereal, it involves a REAL PROCESS of perfection.

Tolkien utilizes allegory to capture this truth. He details concrete examples to describe the purgative experience. Death is the doorway that leads mankind toward purgation [this is assuming they led an imperfect life, but ultimately choose to follow God!]. In Leaf by Niggle, Tolkien represents Death via two character’s the Inspector of Homes and the Driver—brings Niggle to the hospital [i.e. Purgatory]. Listen to the conversation between Death and Niggle:

“Next day he felt a good deal better. He climbed the ladder, and began to paint. He had just begun to get into it again, when there came a knock on the door.

“Damn!” said Niggle. But he might just as well have said “Come in!” politely, for the door opened all the same. This time a very tall man came in, a total stranger.

“This is a private studio,” said Niggle. “I am busy. Go away!”

“I am an Inspector of Houses,” said the man, holding up his appointment-card, so that Niggle on his ladder could see it. “Oh!” he said.

“Your neighbour’s house is not satisfactory at all,” said the Inspector.

“I know,” said Niggle. “I took a note to the builders a long time ago, but they have never come. Then I have been ill.”

“I see,” said the Inspector. “But you are not ill now.”

“But I’m not a builder. Parish ought to make a complaint to the Town Council, and get help from the Emergency Service.”

“They are busy with worse damage than any up here,” said the Inspector. “There has been a flood in the valley, and many families are homeless. You should have helped your neighbour to make temporary repairs and prevent the damage from getting more costly to mend than necessary. That is the law. There is plenty of material here: canvas, wood, waterproof paint.”

“Where?” asked Niggle indignantly.

“There!” said the Inspector, pointing to the picture.

“My picture!” exclaimed Niggle.

“I dare say it is,” said the Inspector. “But houses come first. That is the law.”

death.jpg

St. Paul tells us in 1 Thessalonians 5:2, “For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief at night.” We do not know the hour of our death. Just how Niggle failed to be fully prepared to meet death, we might be surprised at the end of this earthly existence. Thankfully, due to the mercy of God, a process/period of purgation exists. Any lover of Tolkien and Christian allegory will find enjoyment while reading Leaf by Niggle.

Advertisements
Thank you for sharing!

3 Childhood Experiences that Taught Me about Purgatory

Over the past several years, I find myself frequently reflecting on the implications the teaching of purgatory as on my daily life. To cite the Catechism of the Catholic Church paragraph number 1030, “All who die in God’s grace and friendship, but still imperfectly purified, are indeed assured of their eternal salvation; but after death they undergo purification, so as to achieve the holiness necessary to enter the joy of heaven.”

Wait! Hold it. Why would God need to postpone our union with Him for people who die in grace? Also, the word purgatory does not even make an appearance in the New Testament. I know that the teachings of the Catholic Church are based on both Scripture and Tradition, but how do we reconcile a major teaching with a collection of books [the Bible] that barely mentions purgatory?

Although I never really despaired about this seeming lack of evidence for purgatory, my inquisitorial nature still longed for answers in case my non-Catholic friends pushed me on this matter. Below I want to share three examples from my childhood that helped me better reconcile the apparent lack of evidence in the Bible for purgatory. I will also briefly highlight New Testament evidence I learned about that hint at and point toward the doctrine of purgatory.

washing hands.jpg

1. Please use soap and water: The dictionary defines purgatory as “having the quality of cleansing or purifying”. Going back to what the Catechism tells us about this teaching, we are to undergo a final cleansing or purification before we enter the joy of Heaven. Thinking about a hygiene example as a kid helped me better understand the need for purgatory.

My parents developed a good habit of having our family sit down for dinner on a daily basis. One of the conditions before I could join the table was that I needed to wash my hands.

I needed to be clean before I could participate in the joy of our family meal. In an analogous way, our heavenly Father desires His children to be completely cleansed before we participate in the joy of Heaven. I was never going to be denied eating my food as a kid if I had dirt under my fingernails. I simply needed to undergo a purification process at the bathroom sink to clean my hands. Likewise, at death people who are overall good and holy people will not be denied Heaven. Rather, they will undergo a purification process to eliminate all stain of sin.

2. Do you Round the Bases if a Window is Broken?:

“Take me out to the ball game, Take me out with the crowd. Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack, I don’t care if I never get back, Let me root, root, root for the home team, If they don’t win it’s a shame. For it’s one, two, three strikes, you’re out, At the old ball game.”

Summertime will forever be linked to baseball. Despite being terrible at playing the actual sport in an official setting, I loved watching, studying, and playing backyard versions of baseball. Along with my love of the analytics of the game, my younger brother played. He was a fantastic ballplayer. I will always cherish the memories we made playing a pick-up game with the neighbor kids.

rounding the bases.jpg

During a warm June afternoon my brother and neighbor friends played a game at a nearby elementary baseball field. Things were going great. We had a blast playing and kept our stomachs full with snacks. I do not remember who actually hit this particular home-run, but shortly after it soared over the fence a crash ensued. We paused. The window of the house next to the field broke. I do not remember the exact details of how the window was eventually fixed. What I do know is that the baseball game was interrupted until we resolved the broken window issue [i.e. telling the homeowner the news, offering to pay for the window, etc].

Celebration of the home-run hit could only happen once our crew mended things with the owner of the broken window. Similarly, our celebration in Heaven cannot fully occur until we are fully purified completely through the process of purgatory. Purgatory once again is not to be viewed as a roadblock to Heaven but rather a process to ensure our complete union with God.

3. Finder Keepers, Losers Weepers: In the spring of my 5th grade year, my classmates and I had a weekend long lock-in event hosted by our municipal police department to talk about the dangers of smoking and drugs. On my way to the registration booth, I noticed a twenty dollar bill. I picked it up and immediately notified the event staff that someone lost money. I am grateful that my parents raised me right to listen to my conscience as I was not tempted to obey the adage “Finders keepers, losers weepers”. Ironically, listening to my conscience paid off—literally—no one claimed the twenty dollars by the end of the weekend so the staff gave the bill to me.

20 dollars on ground.jpg

This memory taught me that purgatory is a necessary process. If I did not listen to my conscience and simply pilfered the money that the person lost that I would need to confess the sin of stealing. Even if the individual forgave me of taking his twenty dollar bill the relationship would not be fully restored until I paid him back. Now imagine if the individual passed away before I could repay him. Here is where the doctrine of purgatory comes into play. God allows for purgation of the temporal effects of sin [i.e. not paying back someone you stole from] through purgative suffering after death.

Along with my experiences as a child, I discovered a passage from St. Paul’s epistles that hint at the doctrine of purgatory. The Apostle of the Gentile writes in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15,

According to the grace of God given to me, like a wise master builder I laid a foundation, and another is building upon it. But each one must be careful how he builds upon it, 11for no one can lay a foundation other than the one that is there, namely, Jesus Christ. 12If anyone builds on this foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, or straw, 13the work of each will come to light, for the Day- will disclose it. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire [itself] will test the quality of each one’s work 14If the work stands that someone built upon the foundation, that person will receive a wage. 15But if someone’s work is burned up, that one will suffer loss; the person will be saved, but only as through fire.

The Catechism actually cites this same passage in paragraph 1031 in its reference to a cleansing fire. St. Paul’s words tell us that although the purification experience is painful it is ultimately a cleansing experience and aimed at a higher aim—complete and full union with God! Having a deeper understanding on the purgatory increased my understanding the purpose of suffering and strengthened my fervor for God’s love. I am far from an expert in matters on purgatory, but I have learned a lot in the past few years. I will continue to learn and pray for knowledge on this subject from the Holy Spirit. If your window(s) get shattered by a baseball maybe your own perspective will change!

fire cleansing.jpg

Thank you for sharing!