The little known fairy stories of J R R Tolkien

Just as he embarked on writing The Lord Of The Rings, J R R Tolkien worked on something smaller, but quite special...

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This week? We’re looking at the work of J R R Tolkien. With a bit of help from Derek Jacobi’s voice…

In 1938/39 JRR Tolkien was just beginning the task of writing The Lord Of The Rings. He was a meticulous writer and rewriter, building his world one detail at a time; it would take him twelve years to finish it, and it was still only a part of his vision of Middle Earth.

But he didn’t always write about Middle Earth. At the same time as immersing himself in the first sections of The Lord Of The Rings, he sat down and wrote a fairy story set in a different kind of world altogether. He called it Leaf By Niggle. The story and the writing process came to him easily, which was a unique experience for him. He later said he woke up with the idea already in his head, put there by the poplar tree that he could see from his bedroom window.

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It concerns Niggle, a small man who is determined to finish a very large picture that he’s been painting for a long time. It’s a picture of a tree, and each leaf he paints is beautifully detailed, but time-consuming. There’s so much more he wants to add to the picture; he has imagined birds, and woodlands, and snow-capped mountains beyond. But the world in which he lives is one that is run by administrators who insist that he mows his lawn to the correct length, and completes all sorts of boring tasks. They have no interest in art, and what’s worse, Niggle knows he has to go on a long journey, starting soon. He can’t get out of it, so every bit of time he spends on the things that must be done is a moment when he can’t paint. It soon begins to dawn on him that he will never finish creating his tree.

With the beginnings of the plot laid out in these terms, it’s really easy to think that it’s a story about Tolkien’s own struggle to write Middle Earth into existence in the kind of detail and beauty that he wants. There are other readings you could make of it, viewing it through a religious or sociological lens. It’s such an involving story, full of Tolkien’s gift for creating the juxtaposition of ordinary people attempting to complete enormous tasks, that you could just as easily take it at face value and read it as a fairy tale, and be content with that.

I think Tolkien himself (who wasn’t a fan of having his work described as allegorical) would have called Leaf By Niggle a fairy tale, not simply for children, but for all ages. He wrote in his essay On Fairy Stories:

“Is there any essential connexion between children and fairy tales? Is there any call for comment, if an adult reads them for himself? Reads them as tales, that is, not studies them as curios. Adults are allowed to collect and study anything, even old theatre programmes or paper bags.”

So the idea is not to step back from his stories or to study them, but to sink into them, and go along for the journey.

The journey is a concept that it works so well when it comes to fairy tales like Leaf By Niggle: it allows us to travel along with the characters in worlds with so many possibilities, and not just in the form of fairies. For a fairy story is, using Tolkien’s description once more, set in the Land of Faerie – that is, a land that we recognise as containing magical creatures and possibilities of both light and dark: looming mountains, deep lakes, forests containing trolls, elves, dwarves… In Niggle’s case, it also includes administrators, roof inspectors, and sinister hospitals (making me think there’s actually a touch of social realism to this fiction) but it’s still absolutely recognisable as a fairy story.

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Fairy story journeys always contain this darkness, and I often find that the scariest examples don’t even belong to the category of literature that gets described as ‘adult fairy tales’. Those may include more outright violence or sexuality, but the sense of threat remains unchanged. No matter what age you are, setting out on a dark path alone, through that ancient forest, up that misty mountain, is a very frightening business. I find I fear for Niggle as he is bundled away on his journey, painting unfinished, in the control of people who offer him no explanation, and some of these elements remain unexplained by the time we reach the end of the story.

But then, what could be more boring than having everything explained, particularly in a way that would encourage one simplistic view of the story? Labelling it as allegorical seems, to me, to rob it of its charm. Perhaps it is a reflection of Tolkien’s realisation that writing The Lord Of The Rings would be a mammoth task, but it doesn’t only reflect on the difficulties of writing a novel. It’s about a journey, and whatever that might mean to you. A journey, whenever you make it, whether you are armed with foreknowledge or not, is never the same twice.

Leaf By Niggle is available as an audio story from BookBeat, and is read brilliantly by Derek Jacobi. You can also listen to Jacobi’s reading of other Tolkien stories combined into one volume – Tales From The Perilous Realm – which also includes Farmer Giles Of Ham and Roverandum.

Other fantasy adventures available to listen to on BookBeat include:

The Hobbit – JRR TolkienCoraline – Neil GaimanA number of Robin Hobb titles including The Farseer Trilogy and The Liveship Traders Howl’s Moving Castle, Charmed Life and other titles by Diana Wynne JonesGeorge RR Martin’s Game Of Thrones seriesRaymond E Feist’s Riftwar Saga