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A Matter Of Interpretation

All fiction—and especially speculative fiction—may easily mean different things to different people.
| Aug 17, 2016 | 5 comments |

Leaf By Niggle is one of J. R. R. Tolkien’s short works, and one of his obscure ones. I find this obscurity leaf_by_niggle_by_89ravenclaw-d5z4zm9unfortunate, 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 prismfiction 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.

Shannon McDermott is the author of the fantasy novel The Valley of Decision, as well as the futuristic The Last Heir and the Sons of Tryas series. To learn more about her and her work, visit her website, ShannonMcDermott.com.

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Kat Vinson

It’s been sooo long since I read Leaf By Niggle, I’d pretty much forgotten it’s existence and don’t remember the story at all. I’m going to have to dig it out and read it again.

Rebecca LuElla Miller

I’ve never read Leaf by Niggle, but your post makes me want to. The part you posted reminded me of Lewis’s The Great Divorce or Til We Have Faces–the end.


Shannon McDermott

It is somewhat like The Great Divorce, but more symbolic and more of a story. Warmer, perhaps. The Great Divorce has some passages that are outright didactic, as Lewis explains in the dialogue what is wrong with the ghosts. I enjoyed it … but I enjoyed Leaf By Niggle more.

Paul Lee

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.

I share your hesitancy to label interpretations of Tolkien imagery, but I do see that association quite strongly. One could go much further and make a case for the whole thing as Purgatory based on Tolkien’s Catholicism, but that’s unnecessary. I don’t think that’s the real point of the story or the allegorical imagery.

I don’t think I’ve ever related more strongly to any single fictional character than I do to Niggle. I wept the first time I read the story — I was so burned in college and felt so completely useless. And even today, I resonate with not having my head screwed on right, not even able to get enough of a grip to amuse myself as my small amount of free time slips away in a blur.

Shannon McDermott

I can see the Purgatory interpretation, but I don’t like to interpret the story so strictly. Tolkien almost certainly believed in Purgatory, but his story is obviously concerned with more than that.

I know what you mean about letting time slip away! I have calculated, while at work, all the things I have to do before I can write. Then, when I can write, I seem to always begin by wasting time. One of the things I love about Leaf By Niggle is the reminder that our work isn’t just earthly and we need to be about it … and also the hope that in heaven, we will finally be and do everything we were meant to. That there’s an ultimate fulfillment, and we don’t even have to deserve it.