Our Own Dear John Ronald: Niggle’s Parish

The Tree, the Mountains, and beyond.

Niggle and Parish, who shows up in this beautiful landscape just after Niggle realizes that he needs him, set about developing the country around Niggle’s Tree together.

One day Niggle was busy planting a quickset hedge, and Parish was lying on the grass near by, looking attentively at a beautiful and shapely little yellow flower growing in the green turf.  Niggle had put a lot of them among the roots of his Tree long ago.  Suddenly Parish looked up: his face was glistening in the sun, and he was smiling.
‘This is grand!’ he said.  ‘I oughtn’t to be here, really.  Thank you for putting in a word for me,’
‘Nonsense,’ said Niggle.  ‘I don’t remember what I said, but anyway it was not nearly enough.’
‘Oh yes, it was,’ said Parish.  ‘It got me out a lot sooner.  That Second Voice, you know: he had me sent here; he said you had asked to see me.  I owe it to you.’
‘No.  You owe it to the Second Voice,’ said Niggle.  We both do.’

(…)

The time came when the house in the hollow, the garden, the grass, the forest, the lake, and all the country was nearly complete, in its own proper fashion.  The Great Tree was in full blossom.
‘We shall finish this evening,’ said Parish one day.  ‘After that we will go for a really long walk.’
They set out the next day, and they walked until they came right through the distances to the Edge.  (…)  They saw a man, he looked like a shepherd; he was walking towards them, down the grass slopes that led up the Mountains.
(…)  ‘Are you a guide,’ Parish asked.  ‘Could you tell me the name of this country?’
‘Don’t you know?’ said the man.  ‘It is Niggle Country.  It is Niggle’s picture, or most of it: a little of it is now Parish’s Garden.’
‘Niggle’s Picture!’ said Parish in astonishment.  Did YOU think of all this, Niggle?  I never knew you were so clever.’

(…)

‘It is proving very useful indeed,’ said the Second Voice.  ‘As a holiday, and a refreshment.  It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the Mountains.  It works wonders in some cases.  I am sending more and more there.  They seldom have to come back.’
‘No, that is so,’ said the First Voice.  ‘I think we shall have to give the region a name.  What do you propose?’
‘The Porter settled that some time ago,’ said the Second Voice.  ‘TRAIN FOR NIGGLE’S PARISH IN THE BAY: He has shouted that for a long while now.  Niggle’s Parish.  I sent a message to both of them to tell them.’
‘What did they say?’
‘They both laughed.  Laughed – the Mountains rang with it!’

Happy Easter, one and all.  All’s well that ends well.

leaf tree

 

Illustrations by Alan Lee

 

Our Own Dear John Ronald: It’s a Gift

On to the next stage…

Niggle pushed open the gate, jumped on the bicycle, and went bowling downhill in the spring sunshine.  Before long he found that the path on which he had started had disappeared, and the bicycle was rolling along over a marvellous turf.  It was green and close; and yet he could see every blade distinctly.  He seemed to remember having seen or dreamed of that sweep of grass somewhere or other.  The curves of the land were familiar somehow.  Yes: the ground was becoming level. as it should, and now, of course, it was beginning to rise again.  A great green shadow came between him and the sun.  Niggle looked up, and fell off his bicycle.
Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished.  If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch.  He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.
‘It’s a gift!’ he said.  He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally. (…)
Niggle walked about, but he was not merely pottering.  He was looking round carefully.  The Tree was finished, though not finished with – ‘Just the other way about to what it used to be,’ he thought.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

leaf tree

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Voices

How will you measure up?

‘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 no 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.  He was moderately well off, and yet he arrived here almost destitute, and had to be put in the paupers’ wing.  A bad case, I’m 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 favorable points, you know.’
‘Perhaps,’ said the First Voice; ‘but very few that will really bear examination. (…)  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 that he had never heard anything so generous as that Voice.  It made Gentle Treatment sound like a load of rich gifts, and a 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. (…)  Niggle hid his blushes in the rough blanket.
There was a silence.  (…)
‘Well, I agree,’ Niggle heard the First Voice say in the distance.  ‘Let him go on to the next stage.  Tomorrow, if you like.’

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

 

leaf tree

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: The New Normal

Bread rather than jam.

At any rate, 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.

~J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

leaf tree

The above quote finds Niggle in Purgatory.  He has been there for some time already, and now, after getting over all his ‘I wish I had’-s and ‘I should have’-s and ‘I should not have’-s, after worrying enough about things he could not change anymore, he begins to concern himself with the tasks he has been given in this new place where he now resides, the Workhouse.

It is a passage that deserves a bit of pondering, besides the obvious connection with Tolkien’s own much-discussed issue of keeping deadlines and getting distracted by too many things.  If you will, just take the first three sentences and think about them, particularly in connection with what’s going on in the world right now and how life has changed, quite possibly for good.  In every situation, there is also an opportunity.  One can learn much from Niggle.

At any rate, 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.

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Undone

‘There is plenty of material here: canvas, wood, waterproof paint.’ – ‘My picture!’ exclaimed Niggle.

‘There now!’ said the Inspector.  ‘You’ll have to go; but it’s a bad way to start on your journey, leaving your jobs undone.  Still, we can at least make some use of this canvas now.’

‘Oh dear!’ said poor Niggle, beginning to weep.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien

When you go, how will the jobs be taken care of that you did not finish?  For Niggle, his beloved tree ends up in bits and pieces as shingles for his neighbor’s leaky roof.

Although for Tolkien unfinished jobs were also quite a literal problem, learning from Niggle’s experience is useful for spiritual jobs, if you will, as well.  Focus helps.  There are things to tackle.  It’s a bad way to start on your journey, leaving your jobs undone.

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Our Own Dear John Ronald: Finished With

Are you all packed and ready?

‘But I can’t…’ Niggle said no more, for at that moment another man came in.  Very much like the Inspector he was, almost his double: tall, dressed all in black.
‘Come along!’ he said.  ‘I am the Driver.’
Niggle stumbled down from the ladder.  His fever seemed to have come on again, and his head was swimming; he felt cold all over.
‘Driver?  Driver?’ he chattered.  ‘Driver of what?’
‘You, and your carriage,’ said the man.  ‘The carriage was ordered long ago.  It has come at last.  It’s waiting.  You start today on your journey, you know.’
(…)
‘Oh dear!’ said poor Niggle, beginning to weep.  ‘And [my tree is] not even finished!’
‘Not finished!’ said the Driver.  ‘Well, it’s finished with, as far as you’re concerned, at any rate.  Come along!’
Niggle went, quite quietly.  The Driver gave him no time to pack, saying that he ought to have done that before, and they would miss the train; so all Niggle could do was grab a little bag in the hall.  He found that it contained only a paint box and a small book of his own sketches; neither food nor clothes.  They caught the train all right.  Niggle was feeling very tired and sleepy; he was hardly aware of what was going on when they bundled him into his compartment.  He did not care much: he had forgotten where he was supposed to be going, or what he was going for.  The train ran almost at once into a dark tunnel.

~ J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle.

leaf tree

Death might be a scary thought, or at least uncomfortable, or maybe distasteful for you, like it is for Niggle, but think or feel what you may, there it is:  We all will go one day, sooner or later, and preparation is required.  It is hard to die well if you die unprepared.

In Tolkien’s Silmarillion, he describes death as having been a gift to man, but with time it became ever harder for man to appreciate it.  An everlasting What-We-Know-Already appears preferable to the New-We-Know-Nothing-About.  Maybe a change of attitude towards life and death is in order.  It seems such a pity to reject a gift that offers a way out of the ever-spinning Wheel of Fortune.  But it is not to be had without effort, without preparation.

 

Illustrations by Alan Lee

 

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Too Kindhearted

‘He climbed the ladder, and began to paint. He had just begun to get into it again, when there came a knock on the door.’

[Niggle] was kindhearted, in a way.  You know the sort of kind heart: it made him uncomfortable more often than it made him do anything; and even when he did anything, it did not prevent him from grumbling, losing his temper and swearing (mostly to himself).  All the same, it did land him in a good many odd jobs for his neighbor, Mr Parish, a man with a lame leg.  Occasionally he even helped other people from further off, if they came and asked him to. (…)

He could not get rid of his kind heart.  ‘I wish I was more strong-minded’ he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people’s troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable.  (…) He tried to harden his heart; but it was not a success.  There were many things that he had not the face to say NO to, whether he thought them duties or not; and there were some things he was compelled to do, whatever he thought.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

leaf tree

Too kindhearted.  I am sure it is a situation and sentiment we all know; doing something for others even though we had other things planned; being interrupted in what we were doing to go and help others; the feeling we are never going to get around to doing what we wanted to do or finishing what we wanted to finish and still not being able to say no when someone asks for help.

Maybe it’s time to listen to the kind heart rather than complaining about it.  Instead of begrudging others the time we are giving them, let’s help with a joyful heart.  Instead of grumbling while helping, let’s enjoy what we are doing while we’re doing it.  Instead of being disturbed about being interrupted, let’s concentrate on the task at hand and do our best.  We will get done what we were meant to get done.  Incidentally, it will make helping all the more enjoyable.  Remember Mary Poppins?  ‘Just a spoonful of sugar…’

I guess in the modern vernacular one would say: ‘Own it’.

Own your kind heart.  It’s yours.  Use it well.

 

Illustrations by Alan Lee

 

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Lent with Niggle

If you are looking for something to read in a meditative way during the next 40 days, try Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’.

There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.  He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.  He knew he would have to start sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

Of the short fiction J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and published, Leaf by Niggle is probably the most fitting for the upcoming time of Lent, if you are inclined towards such things.  Of all times of the year, this is when we consider this life and that which is to come.  Leaf by Niggle is undoubtedly autobiographical as well as an allegory, as can be seen right from the start.  In good Tolkien-ian manner, Leaf by Niggle begins by relating this, that is, his own story to the larger historical ‘cauldron of stories’.

Allegorical meaning is signaled at once by the first sentence: ‘There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.’  The reason for his journey is never explained, nor how he knows that he has to make one.  But there should be no doubt as to what this means.  The Old English poem ‘Bede’s Death-Song’ begins, in its original Northumbrian dialect, ‘Fore thaem neidfaerae’, ‘(Be)fore the need-fare’.  A ‘need-fare’, or ‘need-faring’, is a compulsory journey, a journey you have to take, and that journey, Bede declares, begins on one’s ‘deothdaege’ or ‘death-day’.  So the long journey the ‘little man’ Niggle has to make – which all men have to make – is death.  The image is at once ‘as old as the hills’, completely temporary, and totally familiar.  This is the easiest of the equations in the extended allegory.

~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century

leaf tree

Illustrations by Alan Lee

Our Own Dear John Ronald: Father and Son

John Ronald Reuel Tolkien (1892 – 1973) and Christopher John Reuel Tolkien (1924 – 2020)

 

christopher

Christopher Tolkien passed on last week, almost 47 years after his father J.R.R Tolkien.  The two appear to have had much in common.

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left to right: Priscilla Anne, Michael Hilary, John Francis, John Ronald, and Christopher John Tolkien

By the late nineteen-thirties all this work on THE SILMARILLION had resulted in a large body of manuscript, much of it in an exquisite hand.  (…)  Within the family the most frequent listener to the stories was Tolkien’s third son, Christopher.  The boy, wrote Tolkien in his diary, had grown into ‘a nervy, irritable, cross-grained, self-tormenting, cheeky person.  Yet there is something intensely lovable about him, to me at any rate, from the very similarity between us.’  On many evenings in the early nineteen-thirties Christopher, huddled for warmth by the study stove, would listen motionless while his father told him (in impromptu fashion, rather than reading aloud) about the elvish wars against the black power, and of how Beren and Lúthien made their perilous journey to the very heart of Morgoth’s iron stronghold.  These were not mere stories: they were legends that came alive as his father spoke, vivid accounts of a grim world where foul orcs and a sinister Necromancer guarded the way, and a dreadful red-eyed wolf tore the elvish companions of Beren to pieces one by one; but a world also where the three great elvish jewels, the Silmarilli, shone with a strange and powerful light, a world where against all odds the quest could be victorious.

Humphrey Carpenter: J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography

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left to right: Christopher, Priscilla, Michael, Edith, and John Ronald Tolkien

I believe that we need good tale-tellers now, as much as we did when the oral tradition was the only way that they were passed on; that the active transmission of stories plays a vital role in the development of the brain. (…)  The most beautiful aspect of this shared story-telling (…) is that the collaboration and engagement between teller and audience means that they are embarking on a journey together, which can lead to the most unexpected and wondrous of places.

Alan Lee: Afterword in Tales From the Perilous Realm

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left to right: Edith, Christopher, Priscilla, John and John Ronald Tolkien

I will say no more now.  But I should like ere long to have a long talk with YOU.  For if as seem probable I shall never write any ordered biography – it is against my nature, which expresses itself about things deepest felt in tales and myths – someone close in heart to me should know something of things that records do not record.”

J.R.R. Tolkien to Christopher Tolkien in a letter dated 11 July 1972

Apparently Christopher Tolkien went about editing and publishing his father’s autobiography all these years, and what a special autobiography it is.  But now what?

He sat down under a very beautiful distant tree – a variation of the Great Tree, but quite individual, or it would be with a little more attention – and he considered where to begin work, and where to end it, and how much time was required.

J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle

I have a good idea where father and son are now sitting, together again after almost half a century.  Surely they have much to talk about.

Leaf-by-Niggle-graphic

 

 

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