What’s Wrong with the World

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What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Time and the Neighbor.

Ironies.jpg We are pleased to present an excerpt from Professor Anthony Esolen’s recent book Ironies of Faith: the Laughter at the Heart of Christian Literature, © 2007 ISI Books.

In this fine volume, Prof. Esolen, a professor of English at Providence College, and editor and translator of the Modern Library edition of Dante's Divine Comedy, gives the reader a survey of Christian literature with an eye toward the marvelous myriad ironies, both gentle and shattering, depicted by literary men in the Christian tradition. Esolen’s scholarly range is enormous, his intellect sensitive and humane, his pen elegant: the book is a tour de force. We are honored to excerpt it.

We pick up the narrative near the end of Esolen's rich section on the ironies of time in Christian literature. The Incarnation of Christ, that God dwelt in the flesh here on earth, has forever transformed time itself. Time is for us a particular blessing, and one of its profound ironies is that mortal men are oriented toward the eternal by means of the often oppressive (from our view) rigidities of temporal time. Earlier chapters dealt at length with St. Augustine, Dante and Shakespeare's The Tempest. But Esolen intriguing concludes the section with a searching analysis of a lesser-known work: J. R. R. Tolkien’s story “Leaf, by Niggle.”

[Warning: this is one long blog post. It is, however, emphatically worth your time. So grab another cup of coffee, steady your eyes for some serious screen-reading, and settle in for the long haul.]

If man is but an animal living on a bit of cosmic grit, we can say he “sees” spiritual truths only by draining the word “spiritual” of all meaning. The offense to the materialist, and to sensible people of all times, is that man is really meant to see certain truths about God and about eternity. As Tasso’s Satan sneers:

Man, man the vile, born of vile mud, He invites
to rise instead to those celestial heights.
(Jerusalem Delivered, 4.10.7–8)

That offense is doubled by Christianity’s divorce of such vision from the unaided intellect. There is no reason, says the materialist, why anyone should see the meaning of this life (there is no meaning), but if anyone could do it, it must be the genius. Yet Jesus says the opposite. A child will see where the genius will stumble.

How can there be truths which only children, or those who become like unto them, can perceive? Consider the mind that accompanies the childlike heart. What world does the child dwell in? What is his experience of time? It is not the relentless ticking of a dying clock. No child would understand the speaker of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 60, anxiously aware of coming death and of a life unfinished:

Like as the waves move toward the pebbled shore,
So do our minutes hasten to their end. (1–2)

Nor is time a dreary sameness, petering out to nothing:
Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time. (Macbeth, 5.5.19–21)

Shakespeare’s King Polixenes can show us what it is, as he recalls the days when he and his old friend King Leontes were playfellows. They believed that there would be “such a day tomorrow as today” (The Winter’s Tale, 1.1.64), trusting in their simplicity that goodness should never fade:
We were as twinned lambs, that did frisk i’ th’ sun,
And bleat the one at th’ other; what we changed
Was innocence for innocence; we knew not
The doctrine of ill-doing, nor dreamed
That any did; had we pursued that life,
And our weak spirits ne’er been higher reared
With stronger blood, we should have answered heaven
Boldly, “Not guilty.” (1.1.67–74)

Is that ignorance? Children, we think, are unaware of change and time and death; only as their minds develop do their notions of these things grow clear. But I suspect rather that as we grow to adulthood our sense of time ossifies; the possibilities narrow. Children are aware of the rhythms of day and night and of the seasons, while we listen to the whirr of the inexorable timepiece that tells us how little we have left to do the great things we have neglected. For a child, time is as alive and surprising, and as peaceful, as a branching tree. To see the world with an innocent heart is to dwell in time, to move with its ebbs and surges and whorls, as an easy swimmer plays happily and carelessly in the sea that bears him up.

Elven Time

Such truths are at the heart of the work of many a Christian artist: consider the peasants in medieval Books of Hours, doing their seasonal work in the foreground while the spiritual time is shown in the heavens or in the great church feasts preparing on earth. Sin disrupts this harmony: so Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales begins with a riotous awakening of nature as the year moves from March into April — yet the meaning of that awakening, the progress from Lent (and sin, and death) to Easter is lost on most of the pilgrims. So the aging Wife of Bath absurdly dolls herself up to snag a sixth husband, though she has been barren for her first five (three of whom she chose because they were “old bacon”); and old January of “The Merchant’s Tale” foolishly marries a young woman who cuckolds him in a pear tree with his page boy; and the unnaturally young-old Pardoner, whose thin hair and bleating voice betray his being “a gelding or a mare,” impotent and sterile (Gen. Prologue, 691), pretends that he is looking for a wife.

J. R. R. Tolkien too is a great chronicler of spiritual time. He provides his legends with their own histories, even with languages changing from century to century, that he may fulfill his calling as a “subcreator,” an artist whose fictional world honors the orderly universe created by God. Tolkien’s characters dwell in a time both natural and supernatural, a time whose artistic and moral end is alive at the beginning. Wise and patient, Frodo spares the life of the vile Gollum, hardly knowing why; yet Gollum is destined to “save” Middle-earth by biting the Ring of Power from Frodo’s finger as they stand wrestling over the crater of Mordor. In that moment of ironic crisis they reenact the initial evil of the fall of Sauron, for Frodo suddenly wants to keep the ring, come what may.

Tolkien’s short fairy tales are much the same. We may suppose that fairy tales spin themselves out in some timeless and placeless realm of the imagination. Tolkien gives us instead, in “Leaf, by Niggle,” a tale that tells us who dwell in time and place what time and place are about. More, he tells us what time means in our lives from day to day, here in our humble villages, as we fall prey to our humble follies and strive to accomplish our grand and often silly dreams.

Elves are not really small — but hobbits are, and so is the little man who is the protagonist of this wonderful story. Niggle is, as his name suggests, a niggler, “a very ordinary and rather silly little man” (The Tolkien Reader, 102). Yet the first thing we hear about him places him in time — the faraway time of fairy tales, and the all-too-fleeting time that we adults know well. Here is the opening sentence: “There once was a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.” “Once upon a time,” the story begins, lulling us into the comfort of the timeless, only to remind us that the journey is our own. It is as if Tolkien had said, “Once upon a time there was a man who was going where you, reader, will also go.”

The Wonder of the Ordinary

In his littleness, Niggle is not unusual. Each of us is invited, in the fairy world of the story, to put himself in Niggle’s place, to consider himself a niggler, too. Our Niggle has all the marks of a wondrous ordinariness about him. It is not faceless, this being ordinary, for in Niggle we recognize the feelings, trivial and profound, that move us from day to day. So we have Niggle’s mostly forgivable ambition, his castle-building for his future, all the more forgivable because it is mingled with excuse-making, a bit of ineptitude, a warm love, and — we will discuss this shortly — a transforming touch of true vision. That vision, happily, is not strictly dependent upon Niggle’s intelligence: “Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do” (100). Ironically, Niggle does most of these other things fairly well, illustrating our sad and laughable inability to recognize what we are really made for. But other things got in Niggle’s way. For one, he had too much time: “Sometimes he was just idle” (100). For another, the time he had would never suffice: “He had a number of pictures on hand; most of them were too large and ambitious for his skill” (100).

Niggle’s painting reflects his personality. He is like most of us: his “goodness” is rather the absence of a remarkable vice than the vigor of a remarkable virtue. He is not strong enough to refuse his neighbors when they ask him to do what he really is good at (mending things, for example). He does not respond to their needs with genuine concern: “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” (101). In particular, Niggle must put up with the troubles of his only real neighbor, Mr. Parish. Parish has no concern for paintings, but he does remark on the weeds in Niggle’s garden. These men are like two half-lame wayfarers on the road from Jerusalem to Jericho, neighbors to one another whether they like it or not. They are typical specimens of man, about whom Jesus delivered his ironical judgment: “How wilt thou say to thy brother, Let me pull out the mote out of thine eye; and, behold, a beam is in thine own eye?” (Matt. 7:3).

Yet there is something that distinguishes Niggle. There is not anything to suggest that, deep inside, Niggle is extraordinary, nor any nonsense from Tolkien about genius being equally distributed. The wondrous is alive all around us, and most of us do not see it — a far more poignant irony than that of the professor and the banana peel. But Niggle does see it. He does not see much, mind you; after all, his garden is a horror. But there’s one picture that Niggle cannot get out of his mind, the one great work he must perform before he goes on his “troublesome journey.” This picture, or such flashes of it as come to Niggle, is a gift, a grace, a thing with its own life, apart from the painter: “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” (101).

As Tolkien shows us in his sad tale Smith of Wootton Major, some people are chosen to visit the dangerous Land of Faery, and they return to our oblivious and ungrateful world a touch of the magic they find there. For all his smallness, or perhaps in all his smallness, Niggle enters that land with his vision of this picture. Or rather the picture enters and envelops Niggle. It has a secret life of its own, this picture. It bears its own time. It is always growing, not in length and breadth but in infinitely receding depth, revealing vistas behind vistas of mysterious reality. The picture as a whole is a fine analogue of the ramifying tree, with its labyrinth of branches and roots. Tolkien is thinking of the Yggdrasil, the World Tree of Norse mythology; but to say so is to engage in the sort of trivializing archaeology which Tolkien rejects in his companion essay to this tale. We want to know where this tree came from before it was made manifest in that Norse imagination. We want to know what it is.

Recall Christ’s beautiful and ironic parable of the kingdom: “It is like a grain of mustard seed, which, when it is sown in the earth, is less than all the seeds that be in the earth: But when it is sown, it groweth up, and becometh greater than all herbs, and shooteth out great branches; so that the fowls of the air may lodge under the shadow of it” (Mark 4:31–32). The kingdom of God is as ordinary as a bush — yet nothing is more surprising. Its origins are too tiny to see, and its fulfillment too great to be fathomed. Rome had its wolfsuckling twins Romulus and Remus, and her citizens enjoyed contemplating her humble beginnings and comparing them with her glorious conquests. Not that Romulus remained humble: by the time he had sent his rival brother packing to the shades below, and had ravished a village of its young ladies, he was recognizably a Roman commander and had little of the underdog about him. But a carpenter’s son, nailed to a cross like a common thief? That was too minuscule a mustard seed for the ordinary-sighted pagan of Rome; nor are the pagans of our day, Christian and otherwise, possessed of keener vision. As for the fulfillment of that kingdom, not the most patriotic adorer of the state will confuse the swarming streets of Augustan Rome, with its grandeur of marble and convenience of sewers, with the golden streets of the New Jerusalem. What Niggle sees in his picture is the cosmos: for to the Christian the cosmos is none other than the unfolding of the kingdom of God in time and place.

To Be a Leaf

The picture begins as a “leaf caught in the wind,” a small thing, tossed apparently at random by an unseen force. Why a leaf? Why not a root, or a seed? Recall another of Christ’s parables: “I am the vine, ye are the branches” (John 15:5). Christ is not speaking ironically here, but there is a special irony in how his words apply to Niggle. That is because the whole of Niggle’s vision of branch and trunk and root and forest and mountain arises from his care and reverence for one small leaf. The pagan myth of Romulus leaves its smallness behind; the Christian vision is to cultivate smallness — even, when smallness is born a child in Bethlehem, to adore it. Niggle wanted “to paint a whole tree, with all its leaves in the same style, and all of them different.” That task is beyond any artist’s power, for what it describes is no less artful than the portrayal of the human race, not as an abstraction, but as a fully recognized type, with all of its individual instances precisely and uniquely realized. We too have all been made in the same style, and all of us different.

Niggle’s attention to the tiny leaf, then, is laudable, even saintly. So too would be his attention to his hobbling neighbor Parish, with all of Parish’s small-lobed problems, if Niggle could come around to paying that attention. Poor Niggle, tugged this way by his desire to paint the grand vision of his heart (which painting, apart from the single leaf here or there, he executes rather poorly), and tugged that way by his duty to help his neighbor, one small leaf beside another (duties which, to his chagrin, he executes rather well). He was made to be a small man. Let not the pagans sneer. In his smallness consists a perfection which no prodigy of human talent, will, and fortune can achieve. Tolkien once said that he wanted to farm exactly three square feet of earth, and tend to everything perfectly. Others may be impressed by arid size; the Christian, granted a glimpse into the womb of Mary as she says, “Be it done unto me according to thy word,” should know better.

Alas, Niggle doesn’t understand that he is meant to paint leaves, not the vine with all its branches — the universe. So he gets caught up in bigness, and forgets the small charities of every day: “Soon the canvas became so large that he had to get up a ladder, and he ran up and down it, putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” and “when people came to call, he seemed polite enough, though he fiddled a little with the pencils on his desk. He listened to what they said, but underneath he was thinking all the time about his big canvas, in the tall shed that had been built for it out in his garden (on a plot where he had once grown potatoes)” (101).

We see that as Niggle becomes more preoccupied with the vastness of his undertaking, he loses all proper sense of time. He is always running late. Had he more time, no doubt, he would not take a friend’s visit for an intrusion. How ironic, but how true, that the quickest way to shorten one’s life — in one’s telescoping perception, if not in years — is to make oneself out to be greater than one was meant to be. The dimensions do not fit. Time ill-used is tragically short; the wicked man dying in his bed feels just what the man in the cart used to feel, as he rounded the last corner to the scaffold and noose. Time well-used partakes of eternity; thus we read that the saints were not only prepared to die, but felt that they were dying just when they were meant to, no matter how early.

Fighting Against Time

So, absorbed in his busyness, Niggle suffers time rather than uses it: “He rolled up his sleeves and began to concentrate. He tried for several days not to bother about other things. But there came a tremendous crop of interruptions” (102). These interruptions are all leaves, as it were, “interrupting” the portrait of the tree. Niggle thus ignores the substance of his vision for the accident. He wants to paint a tree, but turns away from that same tree. The interruptions are revelations, but he cannot see them so. For one cannot enjoy a vision of the kingdom of God by ignoring its citizens, “the least of these my brethren” (Matt. 25:40). And all along, that journey looms: “At length Niggle’s time became really precious. His acquaintances in the distant town began to remember that the little man had got to make a troublesome journey, and some began to calculate how long at the latest he could put off starting” (102–3).

This journey — an allegory for death — is “troublesome” for the same reason why it is difficult for Niggle to paint those leaves, and why he feels compelled to help his neighbors despite his desire to ignore them. Time is at the heart of the matter. Christians believe that this world is to be loved dearly. So Augustine learned, meditating upon what it meant that God declared the world he created to be good. Yet at the same time, that world is to be scorned as dust by comparison with God, who alone is lovely. The careful cultivation of proper love for the world — implying, ironically, a proper contempt for the world — is among our duties in the world. If this world were trash, then Niggle’s journey would be a joy or a relief. If it were the fulfillment of beauty, then Niggle’s journey would be a catastrophe. In neither case could the journey be described as troublesome; just as, if there were only individual leaves and no tree, or only a tree and no leaves, there would be no cosmic vision to disturb Niggle’s days. But the journey is troublesome because the world really is to be loved, correctly, and because we will be judged according to whether we believed in the Creator and embraced his world with a shadow of the love by which he brought it into being.

Neither Niggle nor Parish possesses faith and its consequent love so abundantly. Absorbed in his own concerns, each man seems always put out, harried, behind time. Autumn has come, and the urgency of Niggle’s situation has been pressing upon his mind, even as he tries to deny it or to bargain with his vision: “He knew that he would have to be leaving soon: perhaps early next year. He could only just get the picture finished, and only so so, at that: there were some corners where he would not have time to do more than hint at what he wanted” (103). The “perhaps early next year” reads as a self-delusion: Niggle wishes to appear levelheaded, not giving himself an absurd length of time remaining; yet all along he has been leaving his garden, and his friends and neighbors, in neglect.

Thus, whenever Parish and Niggle meet, a silent third commentator walks beside them, Time, preventing them from behaving “naturally,” that is to say, with our habit of ignoring the truth: “There was a knock on the door. ‘Come in!’ he said sharply, and climbed down the ladder. He stood on the floor, twiddling his brush. It was his neighbor, Parish” (103). The confrontation between the painter who doesn’t want to understand gardening and the gardener who doesn’t want to understand painting is a study in nervously concealed rudeness:

“Well, Parish, what is it?” said Niggle.

“I oughtn’t to interrupt you, I know,” said Parish (without a glance at the picture). “You are very busy, I’m sure.”

Niggle had meant to say something like that himself, but he had missed his chance. All he said was, “Yes” (103).

When Parish describes his problem—the wind has blown not leaves off a tree, but tiles off his roof, and the rain is pouring in, and Mrs. Parish is ill — it is with mock consideration for Niggle, and with reckless haste. First, he is worried for no reason: his wife, it turns out, has only a cold. But the fretful Parish will help ruin his neighbor’s health over it. Second, he needs canvas to cover the hole in his roof, but his obliviousness to Niggle’s painting makes it awkward for him to ask for that, of all things. So Parish does what we all do. We ask for it anyway, gracelessly, and with a pretense that it is only borrowing: “‘I think I ought to get to the doctor. And to the builders, too, only they take so long to come. I was wondering if you had any wood and canvas you could spare, just to patch me up and see me through for a day or two.’ Now he did look at the picture” (104).

Thy Will Be Done

Here we sense the ironic “cruelty” of the Lord — that kindness we neither expect nor want, but need desperately. Surely Parish would not be so hardhearted to ask that Niggle’s precious canvas be torn so that he could patch a hole in his roof! Well, Parish would like to ask — but in his pride he keeps up the pretense that he isn’t asking for much, and that he is thus vaguely ill-used: “‘But I see you are busy,’” he says curtly, when Niggle offers to move Mrs. Parish downstairs and pointedly does not offer to go to the builders or to the doctor. “‘I had rather hoped you might have been able to spare the time to go for the doctor, seeing how I’m placed: and the builder, too, if you really have no canvas you can spare’” (104; emphasis added).

The irony of being Christian! They who place their hope in spiritualism see their delusive visions as the only reality, and to the devil with missing tiles and leaky roofs. They who assert that only matter exists may see the neighbor’s missing tiles and the leaky roof, but to the devil with the vision — and with the command that they ought to do something about the tiles. Christians must understand both spirit and matter, and in their proper relation. True spiritual vision is incomparably great: yet it also shows the greatness inhering in small and unprepossessing things. The universe is greater than one man, but it is that one man, not the universe, that is made in the image and likeness of God. Parish should never ask for Niggle’s canvas, because Niggle’s heart is in that painting; and Niggle should offer that piece of canvas, because such an affirmation of the small and homely is of the very essence of his painting. He will learn later that something of Parish is in those leaves. If he knew what his painting was about, he would give it away. Can the Lord require such a sacrifice? The Lord who was crucified can and may.

Nevertheless, Niggle does, in a sense, offer the painting, because he offers time. He does not offer it out of sentimentality, or out of the fire of charity. At the moment he decides to make the bicycle trip to the doctor’s and the builder’s, his heart “was merely soft without feeling at all kind.” Yet offer he does, suspecting that he is throwing away the last little time he has for his picture: “Of course, Niggle had a picture and barely time to finish it. But it seemed that this was a thing that Parish had to reckon with and not Niggle. Parish, however, did not reckon with pictures; and Niggle could not alter that. ‘Curse it!’ he said to himself, as he got out his bicycle” (104–5). Niggle rides furiously, racing against his allotted time, unaware that he is, ironically, even now completing one of the works for which he was made: not a picture, but a bicycle trip, or the picture as made manifest in the bicycle trip. As we will see, Niggle’s time becomes his own only when it is at the disposal of a higher authority.

The Solely Punctual

Unfortunately, Niggle finds neither the doctor nor the builder at home, but he does manage to soak himself to the skin and fall ill. The tardy doctor “arrived next day, which was quite convenient for him, as by that time there were two patients to deal with, in neighboring houses” (105). Indeed, everyone in Niggle’s land seems out of joint with time. The storm continues, but “the builder did not come” (105). Nor did the Parishes. Mrs. Parish now spends her time mopping the floor and accusing “that Mr. Niggle” of having forgotten to call at the builder’s. A Councillor will even suggest that Niggle should have been sent on his journey ahead of time, because Niggle was of no use to society — meaning, of no economic utility. Niggle and his picture will soon fade from everyone’s memory. These disjointed people are much like us: our time eroded by overorganization, leaving us neither the wisdom to perceive nor the love to preserve what is worth our while.

But there is one being who always comes at the appointed time. That is because he derives his orientation from beyond time. He is the Driver of the carriage sent to take Niggle on his troublesome journey.

Just when Niggle feels a little better and is about to resume painting, he is interrupted again — it will be the last interruption — by an Inspector of Houses, who blandly notes that Niggle’s neighbor’s house should have been patched up by Niggle’s picture:

“There is plenty of material here: canvas, wood, waterproof paint.”

“Where?” asked Niggle indignantly.

“There!” said the Inspector, pointing to the picture.

“My picture!” exclaimed Niggle.

“I daresay it is,” said the Inspector. “But homes come first. That is the law.” (106–7)

As the Inspector is politely firm about the relative importance of houses and pictures, so his double the Driver will allow no bargaining, no niggling over the time to leave:
“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.”

“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 the canvas now.”

“Oh, dear!” said poor Niggle, beginning to weep. “And it’s not even finished!”

“Not finished?” said the Driver. “Well, it’s finished with, as far as you’re concerned, at any rate. Come along!” (107)

The Driver drops him off at a train without a timetable: the terminus is unique to each person. “Niggle!” shouts the Porter, and Niggle stumbles out of the train unprepared, without luggage, and is sent to a Workhouse Infirmary. Time is objective in this sense: it is independent of anyone’s perception of it. But it is subjective, even personal, in this sense: it is the medium through which the appointed experiences come to the appointed people. It is the fiber in the fabric of the story.

Here two sorts of readers may balk. One will find all talk about time, after Niggle has “died,” beside the point. “First, I do not believe in an afterlife,” I hear him say. “But even if I did, by the testimony of your own philosophers I am told that Niggle should enter eternity, a timeless realm. I understand that to continue the allegory we need to continue the story line, in which events have a beginning, a middle, and an end. But that necessity is literary and fictional. Discuss salvation or justification if you like, but not time, which for Niggle has ceased to exist.”

But so sharp a severance between time and eternity forms no part of Christian dogma; else how could we understand the “new earth” we are to inhabit (Rev. 21:1)? And as the finger of God may be seen in the veining of every leaf of time, so in us temporal creatures, the eternal is present too. “The kingdom of God is within you,” says Jesus, not claiming that it is a subjective experience, but recalling us to a personal contact with the Lord, meeting him now, to bring about in ourselves now, and in all the world, his kingdom. Time is pregnant with eternity. No one knows what Paul saw when he was carried into the heaven of heavens — but Christians may suppose that if we have been made for eternity, then somehow eternity will be fit for us, for our mode of being. Things may happen to us—as they do to the blessed in Dante’s Paradise. In one sense that will mean no change, no instability, for “neither height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom. 8:39). Yet in another sense there will be change: development, deepening, grace upon grace, a never-ending adventure into the heart of love.

The second sort objects, “But Niggle must either be saved or damned, and at once.” Now we are told by Paul that we will be transformed “in the twinkling of an eye” (1 Cor. 15:52), but we also know that “one day is with the Lord as a thousand years” (2 Pet. 3:8). It may be that our purgation will consist of one clear look from our just judge, before whom we will join in Job’s cry, repenting “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6), suffering in that instant a world of mortification. But once it is conceded that real purifying must take place, then it hardly matters whether we experience this purifying as of infinitesimally short or of very long duration. In either case, it is one of those things that will happen to us: we are saved by Christ’s merits, then scoured clean by the medical action of the Trinity. That this scouring should take time, and should involve some response from us, imparts no limit to the majesty of God, but merely indicates the sort of creatures we are.

Cleansed As by Fire

In any case, Niggle undergoes a medical treatment, which is not to his liking. How could it be, since Niggle is not yet to the liking of the “very severe doctor” who treats him? “It was more like being in a prison than in a hospital,” says Tolkien. Niggle is made to work hard, in two ways. First, in the body, and at tasks which employ real but humble abilities, while mortifying the one ability upon which he founded his pride. So he does “digging, carpentry, and painting bare boards all one plain color.” Then his mind must work hard: “They kept him in the dark for hours at a stretch, ‘to do some thinking,’ they said” (108). Under such circumstances — he is not allowed outside — Niggle loses track of time.

This loss is appropriate and merciful. For Niggle, time is now marked by the improvement, glacially slow, in his spiritual health. He is spared worrying about the present and the future. Since he doesn’t know the time, he cannot, even if he wished, violate Christ’s command that we take no care for the morrow. But he can still engage in one of man’s more futile follies. He can fret about the past. Ironically, as this new “eternal” time continues and his health improves, Niggle loses those frets too. It is as if he were shifting from a lower mode of time to a higher:

At first, during the first century or so (I am merely giving his impressions), he used to worry aimlessly about the past. One thing he kept on repeating to himself, as he lay in the dark: “I wish I had called on Parish the first morning after the high winds began. I meant to. The first loose tiles would have been easy to fix. Then Mrs. Parish might never have caught cold. Then I should not have caught cold either. Then I should have had a week longer.” But in time he forgot what it was that he had wanted a week longer for. If he worried at all after that, it was about his jobs in the hospital. He planned them out, thinking how quickly he could stop that board creaking, or rehang that door. (108)

In this new mode of being, Niggle experiences time, though he has none of it to himself, as his servant; “he began to know just what he could do with it” (109).

Compelled to Give in Evidence

After a change in discipline — digging, day after day, which was the one thing Niggle liked least to do — and after being left in the dark “for hours or for years, as far as he could tell” (109), Niggle hears two voices, as of “a Medical Board, or perhaps a Court of Inquiry,” discussing his medical — or is it legal? — case. The First Voice, one of command and justice, is severe, more severe than the Doctor’s. The Second Voice, one of mercy and hope, was gentle, “though it was not soft.”

Their judgment upon Niggle is searching and just, wholly unlike Niggle’s judgment of himself, probably and embarrassingly more acute than the reader’s judgment of Niggle, and, as we shall see, a devastatingly ironic commentary upon the world and its criteria for judgment.

The first thing to notice is that Niggle’s smallness, not his greatness, is cause for mercy. When the First Voice puts the case against him — his heart didn’t function properly, he hardly ever thought, he wasted time, he failed even to amuse himself, his journey found him unprepared, he made poor use of the “talents” given him — we can only hope that our record will be no worse! The Second Voice, however, appeals to Niggle’s unimportance: “‘But, of course, he is only a little man. He was never meant to be anything very much; and he was never very strong’” (110). Sad state of human merit, when among the best or most exculpatory things that can be said of us is that we were never meant to be much. But in that smallness dwells a grace. Reviewing the records of Niggle’s life, the Second Voice begins by noticing Niggle’s affection for the small, and tallies it in the man’s favor: “‘He was a painter by nature. In a minor way, of course; still, a Leaf by Niggle has a charm of its own. He took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake. But he never thought that that made him important’” (110).

Fortunate Niggle. We are rather taught nowadays to view every pittance of a talent as making us quite important indeed. In many ways the reader, at first encouraged to smile and look down upon Niggle, now sees the little painter rise above him, in the very words with which the voices are discussing his worthlessness. For Niggle could never have become important by lavishing attention upon leaves. In doing so, he stepped, now and then, into the child’s world of play, into love of beauty for its own sake. Whenever he squandered his hours gazing upon the beads of dew strung upon a leaf, losing all sense of making his way in life, he truly lived and used his time well.

In another sense, too, Niggle used time well, according to the Second Voice. He answered many “Calls.” The Voices discuss what calls he answered and why, with the First asserting that Niggle called them “‘Interruptions,’” and the Second excusing the “‘poor little man’s’” lack of perception. What we have here, as the voices examine the chronicles of Niggle, is a time parallel to the time we perceive. In our own chronicles we mark time by great deeds, wars, and masterpieces. But in heaven’s time — in real time — who knows where the critical moments fall?

C. S. Lewis makes the same point in The Great Divorce. The narrator sees a woman so grand that angels, men, and beasts follow reverently in her train. He supposes she was some queen on earth. But she was only an ordinary country woman — ordinary in the world’s terms, extraordinary in her love. So warm was her charity that she changed many of the lives that touched hers; like Monica, she was a mother to many. Who knows how many ages of providential design had been preparing to bring this saint upon earth? Who knows the history of the gifts of the Holy Spirit? We do not know the import of the time we inhabit. That may well be a good definition of what the Middle Ages called “the World”: that state in which no one really knows what is going on.

Did Niggle know what was going on? The Second Voice suggests that in his last call, the one that resulted in the wet bicycle ride, Niggle did guess that his end was near, “that he was throwing away his last chance with his picture” (111). It is this final adjustment of priorities that settles the discussion: “‘I think you put it too strongly,’” says the First Voice, “‘but it is your task, of course, to put the best interpretation on the facts’” (111).

A New Timetable for the Train

What gentle treatment does Niggle now receive? A more natural time; Niggle’s time, as it should have been, had Niggle not been a fallen man. The sun rises, filling Niggle’s cell with light. The Doctor — the ministering Spirit — gives him gifts to fortify him for the journey: salve for his sore hands, good advice, a bottle of tonic. Best of all, he gives him a last eucharistic meal — a biscuit and a glass of wine. Niggle leaves for the train station, whose only timetable is set to Niggle himself. Thus, the cars appear newly painted. “Even the track that lay in front of the engine looked new,” for this is the first time this train has run, and its destination has not existed until now, or has always existed in its Maker’s design, but in the fullness of time is only now being made manifest. This train is going to Niggle.

It is the land of Niggle’s dreams, as he disembarks and bicycles along toward it; it is the reality whereof Niggle’s fitful glimpses of beauty were but the shadow: “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 had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch” (113). This tree “redeems the time.” If Niggle did not always work, now at least this task is lovingly completed for him: “All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were many others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if he had only had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar” (113). It is the living record of Niggle’s insight, the truest and finest statement of the artist Niggle ought to have been, inextricably intertwined with what Niggle in his charity sometimes was, in spite of himself.

Something else about this tree suggests the wedding of time and eternity: one can walk into the scene it frames without losing a sense of the whole. The distant draws near, but remains “distant,” as if distance measured not length but depth of perception, or of wonder. In life we finish nothing, because our vision is weak and our wills rebel; then death finishes us. Here in eternity everything is finished, everything is as it should be; but nothing is “finished with,” meaning that we delve more and more deeply into what is already there. Better still: there are regions about the tree, in the forest, that by grace have been left “inconclusive,” for Niggle to continue, as it is Niggle’s love and his work:

He sat down under a very beautiful distant tree . . . and he considered where to begin work, and where to end it, and how much time was required. He could not quite work out his scheme. “Of course!” he said. “What I need is Parish.” (115)

No Joy without the Neighbor

Is that a vision to enjoy alone? Is eternity given to man for solitude, each soul packed away in its own ice? If not, if we have not been made for loneliness, then what can we mean when we say we have no time for other people? What is time for, if not love? How can the day be holy, without celebration?

So Niggle can never be fully healed without a companion for his time. That companion must be Parish. Their years of “interrupting” each other become lives of shared time and of exchanged gifts: “As they worked together, it became plain that Niggle was now the better of the two at ordering his time and getting things done. Oddly enough, it was Niggle who became most absorbed in building and gardening, while Parish often wandered about looking at trees, and especially at the Tree” (115). Niggle’s more efficient use of time indicates his further progress towards spiritual health. But we are not to suppose that Parish uses his time foolishly. Instead, he is now doing what he neglected to do in life. He wastes time. I don’t mean that the time is really wasted; one could hardly be better employed, unless there is some pressing matter to attend to, than in “messing around in boats,” to use Kenneth Grahame’s fine phrase, or wandering about, looking at trees. We are not made for work, merely: we are made for praise, whereof beholding wonder is the first and necessary verse. “‘This is grand!’” (115) Parish exclaims. That would have been a good way for him to dally in that wondrously odd corner of the old world called England.

Eventually, after the two have ceased to disagree — for they did occasionally disagree — and have ceased to feel weary — for the Doctor’s tonic, mixed with
water from a spring, has seen to that, and has even healed Parish’s bad leg — “Niggle found that he was now beginning to turn his eyes, more and more often, towards the Mountains” (116). “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help,” says the Psalmist (121:1), and Tolkien, the lover of Norse myth, has the good sense to take him at his word. There is a land within this picture, yet beyond it, as one realm may lead to the threshold of a wider, more comprehensive realm. When Niggle and Parish walk towards that threshold, Niggle knows what time it is. Just as the train stop read “Niggle,” so now the dial reads, “The time for Niggle to climb the mountains.” A man “like a shepherd” appears, volunteering himself for a guide (117).

But the time for Niggle is not the time for Parish. “‘I must wait for my wife’” (117), the gardener says. He hopes to show her the house and the gardens which he and Niggle have made as beautiful as they could, so that she (daughter of Eve!) could make it better, “more homely.” The place is given to them, and they give themselves and each other to the place, that it may become, in both the active and the passive sense, their gift. So when Parish asks the shepherd what the name of that land is, the reply shows both men what they failed to see in their time on earth:

“Don’t you know?” said the man. “It is Niggle’s 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. Why didn’t you tell me?” (117)

Well, on earth Niggle and Parish were too busy missing the wonder in one another: “Old Earthgrubber” is what Niggle called his neighbor then. But now they shake hands, hoping to meet and work together again; and Niggle ascends the mountains.

What Time Is It Now?

There the tale might end. But Tolkien brings us back, startlingly, to the world of Inspectors and laws. We become aware of the irony of parallel times, of very different things going on at once, or, better, of people in a shadow world unaware of what is going on in the real world, yet all the while taking themselves for the only reality.

Three men discuss the passing of Niggle, and whether he amounted to anything. Their names are all diminutives: Tompkins (son of little Tom), Atkins (son of little Andrew), and Perkins (son of little Peter). Councillor Tompkins — important, he — asserts that Niggle was “‘a silly little man’” (118), which we already know. But what Tompkins means by “silly” we (and the lowly schoolmaster Atkins) would call wise. For Tompkins, the only worthy use of Niggle’s time would have been his “‘washing dishes in a communal kitchen or something’” (118). As for those who spend their time looking at trees, his judgment is merciless. Says the Councillor: “‘I should have put him away long ago.’” “‘Put him away?’” asks the Schoolmaster. “‘You mean you’d have made him start on his journey before his time?’” (118). But the Councillor laughs at the notion that time is not some dead thing we employ at will. Painting, too, is dead for him; propagandistically useful, perhaps, but never to be an expression of wonder for mere beauty.

Atkins, however, has saved a scrap of Niggle’s picture — “a mountain peak and a spray of leaves,” and has it framed and placed in the town museum, where it stands with the placard “Leaf: by Niggle,” a dim, poor, tiny glimpse of Niggle’s vision granted a temporary and distant memorial. The picture is hardly noticed; the museum burns down, and the earth knows the name of Niggle no more.

But that name endures elsewhere. For time on earth cannot escape the clasp of eternity. With a few strokes Tolkien brings into harmony all the joyful ironies of this tale. Tolkien gives the last words not to Niggle, nor even to the sympathetic Atkins, but to the voices of the Lord of Time. Niggle’s picture may not be hanging in the museum; there may not even be a museum; but the life of his vision is now a place more real than any place he ever loved. As once he was healed by that vision of the tree and mountains, so now the “doctors” send other souls there, to that particular place, for a certain length of time — to strengthen them for the time that is eternity:

“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 that 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 time 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!” (120)

© 2007 ISI Books

Comments (3)

It's important to bear in mind with "Leaf by Niggle" that of course the tree represents a large-scale work of art. For Tolkien, this was his whole Silmarillion-cum-Lord of the Rings. Though Tolkien hated both biography and allegory, "Leaf by Niggle" is transparently allegorical--the journey being death, the hospital Purgatory, etc., and also by his own admission autobiographical. He stated in a letter that he wrote it while thinking of his own "tree"--his great Middle Earth work--and wondering if he would be able to finish it. Tolkien's own "niggling" habits were proverbial among his friends (Lewis mentions them in a letter) and must have driven his editors almost to madness. Having become very angry when he was an unknown author of fiction and Allen and Unwin refused to publish the entirety of the Silmarillian-with- LOTR, Tolkien later, when they wanted the Silmarillion and he was under contract for it, continued revising it until his death and never gave it to them! Its publication in any form at all was left to Christopher.

Now, all of this has a number of implications for interpreting the story, but one thing I find it helps with is the relative harshness of the Purgatory section. To me it seems quite hard on Niggle to receive so little sympathy for all he has gone through, and even harder to be put to do "plain, hard, digging" just when the disciplines of the hospital were working and he was becoming better at managing his time and his work. It seems almost as if he is being punished for something rather than merely reformed.

But to the extent that this is Tolkien's judgement on the laziness, fiddliness, lack of self-discipline, etc., of the artist as he found it in himself, this all makes more sense.

That may well be a good definition of what the Middle Ages called “the World”: that state in which no one really knows what is going on.

Ah, so unlike the blogosphere.

In the middle Ages everyone knew that no one really knew what is going on. Now, after many centuries of progress, no one knows that no one really knows what is going on.

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