Fairy-stories are not just for children, as anyone who has read Tolkien will know. In his essay On Fairy-Stories Tolkien discusses the nature of fairy-tales and fantasy and rescues the genre from those who would relegate it to juvenilia.
This is aptly and elegantly illustrated in the haunting short story, Leaf by Niggle , which recounts the story of the artist, Niggle, who has 'a long journey' to make and is seen as an allegory of Tolkien 's life. Written in the same period when The Lord of the Rings was beginning to take shape, these two works show Tolkien 's mastery and understanding of the the art of sub-creation, the power to give fantasy 'the inner consistency of reality'.
Originally published by George Allen and Unwin in 1964. It was published on the same day as the Unwin Books paperback edition. Later that year reprinted, but this reprint is not recorded in later impressions. A third impression was again called second impression in 1966 and the true 2nd impression issued in 1964 had been omitted. There were in total 7 more impressions in this format, namely a 3th impression in 1968, a 4th impression in 1970, a 5th impression in 1971, a 6th impression in 1972, a 7th impression in 1972, an 8th impression in 1973 and a 9th impression in 1974. In 1975 the first edition ended with a reset 10th impression in 1975 changing the appearance of the book. This state was reprinted twice.
The Unwin Books paperback edition also saw some reprints, a 2nd impression in 1966, a 3th impression in1968 and a 4th impression in 1970. After change of cover there followed a 5th impression in 1971, a 6th impression in 1972, a 7th impression in 1972, an 8th impression in 1973, a 9th impression in 1974 and a 10th impression in 1975.
The 2nd Edition (including the poem Mythopoeia) was printed in 1988 as a hardback by Unwin Hyman and as a paperback by Unwin Paperbacks. Another similar paperback similar to this one was release by Grafton Paperbacks in 1992. Being reprinted at least one time by them. Then it took until 2001 for another paperback edition, this time by Haper Collins paperbacks. They opted to include the poem "Mythopeoia" and also for the first time "The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth".
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.
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.