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Leaf by Niggle

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Leaf by Niggle is a short story about a painter who is working on a picture leaf by leaf. Niggle, the painter, is a kind hearted soul and goes out of his way to help his friends and neighbours but eventually finds that this prevents him from completing his masterpiece. He has a hard decision to make; when engrossed in his work, his neighbour asks him to fix his roof using his art supplies.

22 pages, ebook

First published January 1, 1945

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About the author

J.R.R. Tolkien

667 books67.5k followers
John Ronald Reuel Tolkien: writer, artist, scholar, linguist. Known to millions around the world as the author of The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien spent most of his life teaching at the University of Oxford where he was a distinguished academic in the fields of Old and Middle English and Old Norse. His creativity, confined to his spare time, found its outlet in fantasy works, stories for children, poetry, illustration and invented languages and alphabets.

Tolkien’s most popular works, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings are set in Middle-earth, an imagined world with strangely familiar settings inhabited by ancient and extraordinary peoples. Through this secondary world Tolkien writes perceptively of universal human concerns – love and loss, courage and betrayal, humility and pride – giving his books a wide and enduring appeal.

Tolkien was an accomplished amateur artist who painted for pleasure and relaxation. He excelled at landscapes and often drew inspiration from his own stories. He illustrated many scenes from The Silmarillion, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, sometimes drawing or painting as he was writing in order to visualize the imagined scene more clearly.

Tolkien was a professor at the Universities of Leeds and Oxford for almost forty years, teaching Old and Middle English, as well as Old Norse and Gothic. His illuminating lectures on works such as the Old English epic poem, Beowulf, illustrate his deep knowledge of ancient languages and at the same time provide new insights into peoples and legends from a remote past.

Tolkien was born in Bloemfontein, South Africa, in 1892 to English parents. He came to England aged three and was brought up in and around Birmingham. He graduated from the University of Oxford in 1915 and saw active service in France during the First World War before being invalided home. After the war he pursued an academic career teaching Old and Middle English. Alongside his professional work, he invented his own languages and began to create what he called a mythology for England; it was this ‘legendarium’ that he would work on throughout his life. But his literary work did not start and end with Middle-earth, he also wrote poetry, children’s stories and fairy tales for adults. He died in 1973 and is buried in Oxford where he spent most of his adult life.

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5 stars
2,771 (47%)
4 stars
1,995 (34%)
3 stars
881 (15%)
2 stars
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36 (<1%)
Displaying 1 - 30 of 553 reviews
Profile Image for Liz.
600 reviews505 followers
December 10, 2014

Another enchanting, captivating and instructive story by Tolkien.
Short, very simple and yet filled with wonders and a hidden complexity. It was like a very beautiful fairy-tale written for children who haven't lost the ability to see the world with all its miracles yet. The story of Niggle was like a painting itself.
I loved it from the first word and until the last one.

Niggle is an artist who paints just for himself. He spends a lot of time on his huge canvas of a tree with a forest and mountains in the distance, but the ordinary life often distracts him from his painting. Niggle gives each leaf of the tree its own unique pattern and color, he pays attention to every detail, but he knows he hasn't much time left until his big journey. He has to pack his bags, he has to help his neighbour Parish, but his thoughts are always busy with his canvas.
When it is finally time for his journey, Niggle is faced with the unexpected...

This story was as simple as it was complex. I understood the whole meaning of the story just when I finished it and let every sentence sink in.

Once, when I did a research on Tolkien I read an article of a journalist who wrote that The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit are monumental stories, but stories about death. It confused me, though I couldn't entirely disagree.
Now, after Leaf by Niggle I completely agree with the article. Tolkien's books and stories really seem to be about death, or more life and death.
This author hid the Death somewhere between the lines. He drew a paintings with incredible and bright and lively words but after them I always had a bittersweet after taste. This after taste was the Death in his books and stories.
He made Death something natural and something some are even waiting for. He showed the other side of it.

All of Tolkien's works are deep beyond belief. In every sentence hides something more, every sentence has a shadow you can and even have to explore and understand. Every story mirrors his philosophy and probably even his life.

I highly recommend this book/story to everyone. Just everyone , no matter what book genre you prefer.
Profile Image for Cindy Rollins.
Author 20 books1,961 followers
December 11, 2019
While purchasing Tolkien's Letters from Father Christmas, I thought I would add Leaf by Niggle to the cart. I know I have read the physical book before but it might have been 30 years ago. This little allegory is more powerful than any of the current crop of self-help/business books. It examines the meaning of life in the midst of the toils, struggles and disappointments of everyday life and it examines the life we think we are making with the life we really are making AND it even examines the role of grace in helping us make something of our feeble efforts. Powerful story. The audio is superb.
Profile Image for Dannii Elle.
2,014 reviews1,405 followers
December 9, 2019
Leaf by Niggle is both a charming short tale and a cunning little parable. Protagonist Niggle is an artist struggling to create. The problem isn't his short-sighted vision of his grand and overwhelming project or the impending journey he must make and has yet to prepare for, it is the incessant interruptions from his only neighbour and the menial tasks he must enact for him.

This story has a twist I won't divulge here, but just know that little Niggle had me feeling so called out by the end of it and I applaud Tolkien, yet again, for his ingenuity.
Profile Image for Amy Edwards.
276 reviews16 followers
January 1, 2016
"Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well, when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often..."

Tolkien's story, which was something of an allegory of his own life as he labored to write The Lord of the Rings, turns out to be an allegory for all of us, particularly those who follow Christ and desire to live a life for His Kingdom.

Central to Niggle's identity was his work on his magnum opus, a sprawling mural of a tree. And yet, as Tolkien tells us from the outset, so many other things pressed in on Niggle, he was left with little time to work on his tree. Still, a deadline loomed over Niggle. He didn't want to think about it, but one day he would be forced to leave his tree behind and take a journey.

Indeed, a Driver came for Niggle. After he was taken to his afterlife, his mural was taken apart and put to practical use by those he left behind. Nothing was left but one small leaf. Niggle was completely forgotten.

And what was the worth of his life's work? A work that no one appreciated and was ultimately destroyed? Niggle discovered in Eternity that his Tree was just a shadow of something greater and more perfect.

To read "Leaf by Niggle" is to read one's own story.

It leaves me thinking through so many questions: What is my Tree? Am I creating something beautiful, which reflects God's glory, however imperfectly? Do I resent the distractions that keep me from my project, or see them as sent by God for my own good? How many of those distractions are actually the fruit of my own disobedience? (Tolkien tells us, "There were other hindrances, too. For one thing, he was sometimes just idle and did nothing at all.") How can my ordinary and soon-to-be-forgotten life be a thing of beauty to God? What is the best use of my time? To what degree is the creation of something beautiful the act of storing up treasure in Heaven? What will it be like to see God redeem all things and to be glorified by Him?

One more thing. In reading about "Leaf by Niggle" I discovered the idea of creation and sub-creation. That is worth learning about and helpful to understanding "Leaf." I discovered this story through Tim Keller, who writes about it in Every Good Endeavor.
Profile Image for Jesica Canto.
Author 29 books238 followers
July 1, 2020
Un relato corto muy interesante. Para mi es una metáfora de como Tolkien piensa su obra, el que siempre hay algo para agregar y crece desmesuradamente, pero le es imposible terminarla.
Como escritora es un texto que me permite pensar el arte y el trabajo del artista, sumamente enriquesedor.
Profile Image for Cori.
801 reviews134 followers
August 7, 2018
My heart.

So I'm a competitive person by nature, and I've had it in my head to get ALL the Audible badges if it kills me. ALL THE BADGES. And then maybe the levels...but we'll see. It's ambitious, Cotton. We'll see if it pays off. So in an effort to get the "7 Day Stretch" Badge, I was calculating. I was cunning. I finished To Kill a Kingdom (review to come) and thought, hmmmm... it's a Monday. I can finish another one this week! I looked through my Wishlist for something moderately short, and I came across this little gem. I finished it in one sitting. I'm so sad. And so happy. And so moved. And I love this little book.

Of course I do! It was written by John Ronald Reuel for CRYING OUT LOUD. That man has never let me down.

This little book is about Niggle: a sweet, little man who loves to paint and has a soul to create beautiful things. The problem is he can't seem to manage his time and get over his perfectionism long enough to actually finish his project. I won't spoil the ending, but the ending overcame me with the reminder that...creating art is not a waste of time. It means something. No matter how small and no matter who notices. Yet another kick in the butt to keep writing.

I related to Niggle, guys. I can't get my butt in gear. I have so much going on all the time. My job is consuming. I love my job. But I don't have a lot left at the end of the day. So I struggle to manage my time enough to sleep, eat, work, and write. And even the pieces I finish sit on a flash drive, because "who would read this? It isn't interesting. Am I wasting my time?" Awww, Niggle. I love you. You are my spirit animal. I needed this. If you are an artist, a creative soul struggling against a life that feels like it's beating the creative beauty out of you, please read this. We need you!
I'd rate this book a G.
Profile Image for Joellen.
102 reviews20 followers
February 14, 2021
This was both hopeful and humbling.

I sought this out because I’m struggling with my creative life...or lack thereof.

I understand, at the deepest level, needing to create but being pulled away from that endeavor by many more important interruptions and feeling the isolation that comes with feeling alone in that struggle. Or feeling rather ashamed of that struggle when there are more real struggles in the world.

I constantly forget, or maybe stubbornly ignore, that the interruptions of life actually make art. The lessons, the fight hard fought, the stopping to truly observe a moment, our relationships- those are the pieces that give meaning to work. And yet I find myself struggling against it constantly.

There are other deeper things to this story that I found beautiful and some that I’m sure I have yet to truly understand. This is quite possibly a story that deserves more rereads in the future.
Profile Image for Johanna C. .
74 reviews4 followers
July 6, 2012
A wonderful little tale by Tolkien that everyone should read. Although those who really do need to read it will not read it. A great way to learn about selflessness, responsibility, art, friendship, meaning, power, and so much more. And so skillfully done. The world has a lot to learn from Tolkien if they'd read between the lines.
Profile Image for Silver.
1 review14 followers
December 7, 2013
A strange but beautiful short-story. To me it seems to convey the importance of art, and especially of artists. No matter how small their skill, it should be allowed to grow, develop and not be repressed or dismissed. An artist's work cannot flourish on it own, it also needs support and appreciation and sometimes it becomes a collective venture.

My favourite passage is the first description of what would eventually become the Leaf painting:

It had begun with a leaf caught in the wind, and it became a tree; and the tree grew, sending out innumerable branches, and thrusting out the most fantastic roots. Strange birds came and settled on the twigs and had to be attended to. Then all round the Tree, and behind it, through the gaps in the leaves and boughs, a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.

This story also reminded me of Oscar Wilde's The Happy Prince. Niggle is a bit like the kindhearted swallow who, in helping others (like Parish/Prince), is unable to accomplish his own desires, but is then rewarded in Heaven. Both stories are sad, yet inspiring hope.
Profile Image for Haven Alexander.
70 reviews1 follower
October 10, 2022

Niggle - basically "to spend too much effort on minor details" (as the character Niggle does in this story...literal name, eh?). Yep, its official. I am a niggler.

So Niggle has this painting. Or at least he wants to have it, but he keeps getting interrupted in his detailed, slow work, by his neighbor Parish ('nother literal name) and other interruptions till he is finally for the last time interrupted by the thing he has been dreading since the start (literally mentions this in the very first sentence): his Long Journey (aka death). The Driver (Grim Reaper?) has come to take him on his journey, which ends in the "Mountains" (heaven...). So he is brought to work in a place for...centuries? But oh joy, he sees his tree in physical, complete form in the land between the working place (Purgatory - Tolkien was Catholic) and the Mountains/heaven! There it is, beside the woods he wanted to paint and the Mountains in the background he wanted to paint and all of his painting, in fact, spread before him, real. Happy, he stays there with his friend/neighbor Parish, who he now appreciates for his practical work. Niggle goes on soon enough to the Mountains, but Parish stays in the in between (later referred to as 'Niggles Parish'...ahhh) for a bit, waiting for his wife to join him.

What a wonderful allegory of Tolkien! And yep, you heard that right, Tolkien, the man who, well, disliked allegory in stories and did not use it (defiantly NOT in LotR, looking at you scholars who say that), has written an allegorical story! And it's not that subtle, because he didn't write it to be that way, he made it obvious! Niggle is Tolkien, trying his hardest to finish his great art piece, his magnificent creation, before his "Great Journey" takes him. So THAT is what this is: an allegory for Tolkien's own struggle, above all. Tolkien was the niggler of nigglers, he was the most detailed, time-consuming creator, and he was afraid he wouldn't be able to finish his masterpiece (Lord of the Rings) before his death - or at least not make it as great as it could be, as great as he was imagining it in his head, as Niggle imagined his painting. Thankfully, we know he did, but when he wrote this (in the midst of writing LotR), he had no idea if he would be able to do it. He was interrupted, like Niggle, by life, and himself, his own passions to write something else, like his favorite baby - his continued side tracks and extensive delvings into elvish history (Silmarillion). But he did end up seeing his art in final, beloved form before going on his Journey...just as Niggle did.

Anyway...this has been Havens Rants, tune in next [review] to read more!

5 out a 5 stars.

Profile Image for Afreen Khalid.
21 reviews34 followers
March 17, 2018
This short story is an allegory for Tolkien's own battles with perfectionism, procrastination and the distractions that kept him from publishing any of the Middle-Earth novels for years.

"At any rate, poor Niggle got no pleasure out of life, not what he had been used to call pleasure. He was certainly not amused. But it could not be denied that he began to have a feeling of-well, satisfaction: bread rather than jam. He could take up a task the moment one bell rang, and lay it aside promptly the moment the next one went, all tidy and ready to be continued at the right time. He got through quite a lot in a day, now; he finished small things off neatly. He had no "time of his own" (except alone in his bed-cell), and yet he was becoming master of his time; he began to know just what he could do with it. There was no sense of rush. He was quieter inside now, and at resting-time he could really rest."

A very important read for anyone who has struggled in the creative process.
Profile Image for Tara .
429 reviews46 followers
August 21, 2018
Part autobiographical, part allegory, Leaf by Niggle has a lot to unravel for a short story. Whether or not you consider yourself a resident of Middle-earth, it's worth checking out some of Tolkien's lesser known works as well.
December 15, 2021
3.5 stars.

"Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance; but he did them fairly well, when he could not get out of them: which (in his opinion) was far too often…"

Suddenly I feel like this guy and I are kindred spirits. Boy, can I relate to him!

I'm just going to say first that I hate the Parishes. I liked Niggle's character, though. That being said, this story was a pleasant, short read. I didn't understand what was going on at first, but I slowly started to after a bit. I also read about the story more and it gave me more context. The whole story had a certain ethereal or dreamy type of feel to it.
Profile Image for epg.
39 reviews48 followers
December 11, 2009
This is the most wonderful, thought provoking tale. It is beautiful, human, inspirational, warm, melancholic, sad, soul-searching, philosophical, dreamy, truth seeking..., but told in such successful simplicity. Though all ages would enjoy this, I think it has an enormous amount to say to adults. So far this is the best of Tolkien's 'other' stories (ie not LOR) that I have read.

I thoroughly recommend the superb Harper Collins recording, read by Derek Jacobi (on the CD with “Smith of Wooton Major” – another charming story)

Profile Image for Roxana Truţa.
Author 4 books71 followers
October 21, 2017
This is my first encounter with Tolkien. Somehow, I haven't yet plucked up the courage to start reading his mammoth series - this is partly George R.R. Martin's fault, for being just TOO juicy by comparison.
Anyway, this short story isn't fantasy, but a beautiful metaphor or allegory, if you will. It's about the condition of the artist and it will appeal to anyone who's ever tried doing something creative at least once in their lives. Loved all the hidden meanings, the half-spoken truths, the overwhelming feeling of creative anxiety it breathes from its pages, even the fact that it was so short and straight to the point - mind you, generally I'm not a big fan of that.
But above all I loved this short story's message: any creative endeavour not only deserves support, but should ask for it. Treasure any crumb of talent within yourself, however small and insignificant, and let people around you help you grow it into something polished and real.
Profile Image for Melissa.
113 reviews25 followers
January 23, 2018
I think because I had prefaced reading this book with Tolkien's essays on Beowulf as well as C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce, this short story hit me with peculiar force. I came close to sobbing. A sparkling (perhaps autobiographical) metaphor for the Christian Artist, it is perhaps my new very favorite short story ever. I found myself wanting to adapt it into a play, but I'm not sure it would be possible... I imbibed the audiobook edition with Derek Jacobi who seems born to read Tolkien aloud. Perhaps his charming voice and inflection added to the text, but it is a GEM. I can't wait to share it with other artists. If you are creatively driven at all, I think this story is a beautiful ode to the innermost heart that those who are not at all creatively driven fail to understand. I don't want to say more than that because it needs to open itself up to each reader on its own.
36 reviews
February 22, 2017
A great Catholic allegory that describes the challenges of the restless artist having to fulfill his earthy roles. The stories we want to tell may not be fulfilled in purgatory, but there are ways for Protestants to still enjoy and apply this story. An insightful story into the mind of the man who created the entire world of Middle-Earth.
Profile Image for Manny.
105 reviews54 followers
January 4, 2020
I wasn't as big a lover of this story as everyone else. The story seemed overly didactic. The characters, which were two dimensional, kind of reminded me of those in a Samuel Beckett play where each had some sort of allegorical significance but where you couldn't exactly pin down what the significance was. It seemed as if the story drifted from one event to another, and I couldn't tell if Niggle dreamed his journey or it really happened.

Certainly the themes are important: attempts at artistry, individuality, and resistance to conform. But I couldn't engage with it, nor really have felt invested in the characters, even Niggle. It said something of importance, so I gave it three stars.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 553 reviews

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