Leaf by Niggle
He had a number of pictures on hand; most of them were too large and ambitious for his skill. He was the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, trying to catch its shape, and its sheen, and the glistening of dewdrops on its edges. Yet he wanted to paint a whole tree, with all of its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.
–J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle”
Not everyone realizes that Tolkien wrote a lot more than just The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings. Well, not a lot, but a decent amount. One of those other works he wrote is “Leaf by Niggle,” an allegory for heaven, an account of the writer’s progress, and an apology for not writing more. I sometimes think that this is Tolkien’s most honest piece of writing. He ceases being an epic storyteller and becomes simply himself, with all his virtues and vices. It is also the piece in which he most explicitly acknowledges his minor status. He is an artist, and a good one–but not the best. And he admits it.
In a sense, of course, Tolkien is more Tolkien when he writes The Silmarillion than when he writes “Leaf by Niggle.” We might say: no one can care about “Leaf by Niggle” without first caring about Tolkien, and no one can come to care about Tolkien without first coming to care about The Lord of the Rings. For this reason I don’t want to call “Leaf by Niggle” a great work. But if it has come to seem important for you (as it has for me) that you understand why Tolkien did what he did, there is perhaps nothing more important. And the story is, in the end, somewhat beautiful.