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Niggle’s Parish: Concerning Trees in Purgatory

By Hannah Matis

Between 1938 and 1939, in the mounting tensions before the outbreak of war, J.R.R. Tolkien wrote a cameo-like fable that he called, gloriously and sardonically, “Leaf by Niggle.” It is that most readers of The Lord of the Rings, even Christian readers, likely may never have encountered “Leaf” before: my class of seminarians almost uniformly had not. It is anthologized in Tales of the Perilous Realm alongside “Roverandom,” a Christmas story written for his children, and “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil.”

It is listed last in my edition of the Tales, as if the editors were not entirely sure it harmonized with the rest of the oeuvre. If so, they were probably right. “Leaf by Niggle” belongs neither to Middle-Earth, nor to any other fantasy world. It certainly contains Tolkien’s signature blend of allegory-not-allegory, and nature mysticism à la Gerard Manley Hopkins, blended with pointed social satire, and it anticipates by some years C.S. Lewis’s fable about purgatory, The Great Divorce, written in 1946.

I have argued elsewhere on this blog that The Great Divorce inspired aspects of Graham Greene’s The End of the Affair, and the book has been a source of comfort and inspiration to many who, not least, have never read either George MacDonald or Dante’s Purgatorio. So far as I can tell, however, “Leaf by Niggle” has met a similar fate as the painting for which the story was named: an exquisite fragment, appreciated by few.

Tolkien was always good with names, and Niggle is no exception. Niggle is, moreover, something of a wry authorial self-portrait: kind but put upon and often overworked, simultaneously absorbed in his creative work and yet continuously distracted, a meticulous perfectionist who was only discovering gradually and by instinct the shape and scale of the gargantuan landscape he was trying to create.

It would be more accurate to say that he was trying to capture, because Tolkien, like Niggle, was always convinced in the fundamental reality of Middle-Earth beyond what he could ever say about it. Like Niggle, Tolkien was always a painter, alongside his other academic and creative work; the visual clarity and elegant economy of his writing style, the thousand pages of Lord of the Rings notwithstanding, owes a great deal to his artistic eye. In comparison, the style of “Leaf by Niggle” is pared back even further, almost to the point of brusqueness; pace Peter Jackson, while Tolkien may occasionally be silly, sentiment is an invasive species.

At the heart of “Leaf by Niggle” grows a tree — the tree, a giant, ever-expanding web of life evoking Yggdrasil, the World Ash Tree of Norse mythology, but also the tree parables of the Old Testament prophets and the trees of life in both Genesis and the Apocalypse. To say that Tolkien was obsessed with trees is like saying that Games of Thrones can be a bit violent: Tolkien’s forests range from the corrupted Mirkwood, to the intense otherness of Fangorn, to the cathedral-like beauty of Lorien. Tolkien, like Lewis, particularly loved a giant beech, the mallorn of Lorien with their silver bark and golden leaves.

As the true aficionados will tell you, in Middle-Earth the light of the sun and moon are only eventually fashioned from the blended gold and silver light of the two great trees, Telperion and Laurelin, of Valinor, the land of the gods. In prelapsarian Valinor, then, light both derives from life and sustains it simultaneously; like Lewis’s Narnian stars, light is not abstract energy but a form of embodied wisdom, and even gems like the Silmarils are only precious because of the light and the beauty they contain and transmit, and in the end, tragically memorialize. Millennia in Middle-Earth later, Gondor’s white tree does the same.

Niggle’s vision of his great tree, which gradually takes over his entire creative life, is ultimately too much for both his talent and his time, and he is increasingly aware that there are only moments when his art truly reflects or conveys the beauty of the original. Niggle in this way is the exact opposite of the famous artist in The Great Divorce who has forsaken light for paint. For all his flaws, which are much discussed, Niggle’s great virtue is his genuine, self-effacing humility, even his self-forgetfulness, which makes charity and empathy possible.

Humility is far more embedded in Tolkien’s mythology than many perhaps realize; while never explicitly Christian, the virtue’s constant, implicit presence, as well as the pity of Bilbo Baggins, “rule the fate of many,” and ensure that Tolkien’s medieval fantasy world has a very different moral compass from the  violence and barbarism of much of the medieval TV created today. In Tolkien — again, pace Peter Jackson and/or Amazon — there are times when you cannot see the swords for the trees. The real hero of Lord of the Rings is arguably Sam the gardener.

Even more then the Inferno, Dante’s Purgatorio is a very distinct geographical place: a mountain on the opposite side of the earth — the round earth, thank you, no flat-earthers here — from the city of Jerusalem. It is in the world, and the souls who dwell there, at least for a time, change and progress in a way that is closest, perhaps, to life on earth. All purgatory fables derive their poignancy, perhaps, from this extension of our current life into the future, where we will continue to grapple with our all-too-familiar moral failings and perhaps, for once, finally start to win. The healing will begin. As Dante and Virgil slowly ascend, they discover one of the mountain’s iron laws: namely, sabbath rest. The hard labor, hard to backbreaking, of the souls in purgatory is nevertheless, by definition, bounded, and when not at work souls in purgatory are refreshed, not least, by the beauty of the mountain. For Dante and for all his imitators, Purgatory is green. Even the angels have green wings.

In The Great Divorce, Lewis’s image of the apple tree standing next to the waterfall, surrounded in rainbows from its spray, is lifted practically verbatim from Purgatorio. Lewis barely credits Dante at all in the book, no doubt to avoid frightening away Protestant readers, and credits instead an unnamed science-fiction writer (who has, of course, been subsequently identified by scholars) for his central conception of the diamond-hard reality of the pre-dawn garden in which his “ghost” finds himself.

The solidity of spiritual reality points to a Platonic streak in Lewis, which has outraged, not least, N.T. Wright in Surprised by Hope. If one is trying to combat an idea of faith as purely abstract or propositional, a matter solely of intellectual assent, and associates Lewis’s Neoplatonism with the same mindset that believes we will be raptured out of the world anyway, making the environment disposable, then I am in real sympathy with Wright. The central argument of Surprised by Hope is that great swathes of Protestantism have abandoned or forgotten the doctrine of the resurrection of the body; much of evangelical America is downright docetic as a result.

But in the broader catholic tradition, it is in Purgatory that we first meet nature again in all its glory. I will be the first to confess that one of the things I find most consoling these days about both Leaf by Niggle and The Great Divorce is that here, at last, nature has been taken beyond humanity’s capacity to mar and destroy.

But not, at least in Leaf by Niggle, beyond humanity’s capacity to beautify. While his painting never brought Niggle a penny — one wonders how much Tolkien’s vicious satire of bureaucratic civic government was colored by stories of war profiteering — and few even appreciated it, the real benefit of Niggle’s art was, first and foremost, for the sake of his soul, and secondarily for the souls of others. In The Great Divorce, souls only become solid through the charity and support of the saints — ahem, the Solid People — and in Leaf by Niggle, Niggle’s best art is done through the input of his neighbor, Parish, a gardener. Their mutual support and their co-creation of what would become “Niggle’s Parish,” a place for the rest and cure of souls, poignantly hints at how our regeneration might lead to that of others. Having once begun to contemplate the great tree, there is no telling how far into the distance one might begin to see.


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