Leaf by Niggle - a symbolic story about a small painter (11.02.05 by Pieter Collier) - Comments

Today i was reading in Letters by Humphrey Carpenter, while i was looking on a totally different subject i accidently bumped into letter 98 (18 March 1945), to Stanley Unwin. In this letter Tolkien talks about 'Leaf by Niggle':
"...that story was the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all. Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting. I woke up one day (more the 2 years ago) with that odd thing virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy out."

These few hours Tolkien found the time to write down a little story which is an absolute pearl and one of my favourite Tolkien stories. Leaf by Niggle is very much an allegory of tolkien's own creative process, and, to an extent, of his own life. Although Tolkien activily defended against being allegorical. He admitted having been just that in Leaf by Niggle in a letter to Caroline Everett (24 June 1957):
"I should say that, in addition to my tree-love (it was originally called The Tree), it arose from my own pre-occupation with the Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be 'not at all'. The war had arisen to darken all horizons. But no such analyses are a complete explanation even of a short story..."

The story, Leaf by Niggle, was originally written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1938-39 and first published in the Dublin Review in January 1945. It can be found, most notably, in tolkien's book titled "Tree and Leaf". This is notable because the book, consisting of a seminal essay by Tolkien called "On fairy-stories"and "Leaf by Niggle" as example, offers the underlying philosophy (Creation and Sub-Creation) of much of tolkien's fantastical writings. It can also be found in many other books where it is combined with other (short) stories and/or essays & poems by Tolkien.

This article will describe most of these books on the market, especially collectable or nice editions. We will first look at the plot of the story. Then discuss the content and finally tell all about collecting "Leaf by Niggle".

Inside the book: the plot of Leaf by Niggle

Niggle is an artists who paints to please himself, living in a society that holds art in little regard. His main occupation is a huge painting of great tree. He started with one single leaf and the painting grows around it. Niggle hopes to draw every leaf in detail. Soon Niggle finds birds in the trees, hills that are visible true the branches. And so the painting grows and takes up all time from the painter. Niggle takes time off from his work, because of politeness, to aid his neighbor, a gardener named Parish who is lame and has a sick wife. In the process of helping Niggle catches a sickness.

Then he is forced to take a trip, but was ill prepared for it (partly due to his illness) and ends up in an institution of sorts where he must labour each day. He is paroled and sent to work as a gardener in the country. He realizes that he is in fact working in the forest of his painting, but the Tree is the true realization of his vision, not the flawed version in his art.

Niggle is reunited with Parish, his neighbour, and together they make the forest even more beautiful. Finally Niggle travels to the far reaches of the forest, to places on the fringe of his canvas.


Although J.R.R.Tolkien was against allegory, he probably wrote "Leaf By Niggle" as an allegorical tale. An allegory, remember, is a "symbolic story," a kind of disguised representation for meanings other than those indicated on the surface. As he mentions it it arose from his own pre-occupation with the Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all. To think further on that sentence, the hidden meaning could be that Tolkien himself is Niggle.

JRRT was compulsive in his writing, his revision, his desire for ultimate perfection in form and in the "reality" of his invented world, its languages, its chronologies, its existence and history. Like the painter Niggle, Tolkien came to being absorbed by his personal "Tree", Middle-earth. And like Niggle, Tolkien had many duties that kept him from the work he loved to complete.

Even if for the sake of Tolkien we do not try to find any hidden meaning inside Leaf by Niggle, it still remains a little brilliant short story, which captures the readers completely once start reading.

Collecting "Leaf by Niggle "

Leaf by Niggle was published for the first time in The Dublin Review, half yearly volume 216, No. 432 in January 1945. The Dublin Review was printed by Burns, Oates & Washbourne Ltd. This volume is very scarce and difficult to find. When it comes on the market collectors pay a lot for it and then stays in a Tolkien collection for the rest of days. Making it worth quit a lot.
The second time Leaf by Niggle was published by Tolkien it was in Tree and Leaf in 1964, a book consisting of two items, the short story 'Leaf by Niggle' and an essay 'On fairy-stories'; both have since become readily available in other editions.
The second edition was also published as an Unwin Books paperback edition on exact the same day as the Allen & Unwin hardback edition mentioned above.
Tree and leaf has also been published in combination with other stories, like in 1966 in The Tolkien Reader with Farmer Giles of Ham and The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.
1975 saw the appereance of an unwin book called Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Makor, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth, featuring exactly the stories the title mentions.
The 1977 and 1979 reprints of the unwin book called Tolkien, Tree and Leaf, Smith of Wootton Makor, The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth was a bit smaller and much more appealing.
First, in 1988, tolkien's poetic dialogue 'Mythopoeia' was added to Tree and Leaf, published by Unwin Hyman.
In the Tales of the Perilous Realm from 1997 Tree and Leaf was publsihed together with Farmer Giles of Ham, The Adventures of Tom Bombadil and Smith of Wootton Major.
And in 2001 also 'The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth' - the only sequel to another author's work by JRRT that I know of. The four works now form a strong whole: the essay lays out the groundwork for virtually all of tolkien's fiction and sheds much light on the value system underlining his creative choices.
In 1971 there was a Dutch translation of Leaf by Niggle, called 'blad van Klein'. It was printed by Prisma, Het Spectrum and was called 'Sprookjes van Tolkien'
In 1979 there were already 7 dutch reprints. This 7th reprint looks great in combination with the Dutch Prisma De Hobbit,In de Ban van de Rings, de Aanhangsles, etc. wich all have the same 'green-blue' Dutch look, which has been used for years for tolkien's books.

I know i missed some other collectable editions of Tree and Leaf, like Leaf by Niggle and Smith of Wootton Major, yet i covered a nice selection. Whenever you feel to add something or want to write a review, please send it to me, by clicking here!


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