Leaf By Niggle is one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s short works, and one of his obscure ones. I find this obscurity unfortunate, because Leaf By Niggle is the most magnificent allegory I have ever read. Allegory has in some quarters a reputation for being heavy-handed, but the more subtle allegories give readers leeway to make their own interpretations.
I experienced a striking instance of this in Leaf By Niggle. The broader allegory of the story is obvious; the long journey that Niggle does not want to take is death, the Mountains are heaven, and Niggle’s painting is what Tolkien would have called “subcreation.” One pivotal scene, however, offers itself to many different understandings.
In this scene, Niggle—having taken his long journey—listens to two mysterious Voices discuss his fate (who, or even where, they are is unstated).
“Now the Niggle case,” said a Voice, a severe Voice, more severe than the doctor’s.
“What was the matter with him?” said a Second Voice, a voice that you might have called gentle, though it was not soft—it was a voice of authority, and sounded at once hopeful and sad. “What was the matter with Niggle? His heart was in the right place.”
“Yes, but it did not function properly,” said the First Voice. “And his head was not screwed on tight enough: he hardly ever thought at all. Look at the time he wasted, not even amusing himself! He never got ready for his journey. … A bad case, I am afraid. I think he should stay some time yet.”
“It would not do him any harm, perhaps,” said the Second Voice. “But, of course, he is only a little man. He was never meant to be anything very much; and he was never very strong. Let us look at the Records. Yes. There are some favourable points, you know.”
“Perhaps,” said the First Voice; “but very few that will really bear examination.”
The Voices then make the examination, one searching for the good in the Records and the other pointing out the bad —and both, it is plain, equally correct. At the end, the First Voice says,
“It is your task, of course, to put the best interpretation on the facts. Sometimes they will bear it. What do you propose?”
“I think it is a case for a little gentle treatment now,” said the Second Voice.
Niggle thought he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice. It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and the summons to a King’s feast. Then suddenly Niggle felt ashamed. To hear that he was considered a case for Gentle Treatment overwhelmed him, and made him blush in the dark. It was like being publicly praised, when you and all the audience knew that the praise was not deserved.
This debate between the unseen Voices, in which both are right but one secures treatment for Niggle quite beyond his merits, has always reminded me … I won’t say of the Trinity. That would put it too strongly. But it reminds me of an aspect of the Trinity—Father and Son, intercessor and judge, a voice for justice and a voice for mercy, “the talk of the Three in One.”
I wouldn’t guess that this is what Tolkien himself had in mind, and I don’t expect other readers to make the same associations that I did. My interpretation is not the interpretation, but it is an interpretation. All fiction is seen through the prism of each individual’s beliefs and knowledge and experiences. Consequently, all fiction—and especially speculative fiction, with its departure from strict facts—may easily mean different things to different people.
The diverse interpretations of stories is part of the fun of stories. As long as readers remain within the bounds of the text, and remember that what is in their heads is not necessarily what was in the author’s head, no one has any cause for complaint.