Beauty, Eucatastrophe, and the Doctrine of Grace in J.R.R. Tolkien’s Leaf By Niggle
In September 1944, J. R. R. Tolkien received a request from The Dublin Review for a story that would be “an effective expression of Catholic humanity.” In response, he sent Leaf By Niggle, a short story he had written a year or two earlier. “[Th]at story,” Tolkien said, “was the only thing I have ever done which cost me absolutely no pains at all. Usually I compose only with great difficulty and endless rewriting. I woke up one morning with that odd thing virtually complete in my head. It took only a few hours to get down, and then copy it out. I am not aware of ever ‘thinking’ of the story or composing it in the ordinary sense.” (Letter to Stanley Unwin, circa 18 March 1945).
Its publication, in January of the following year, went almost unnoticed. Today, relatively few are aware of its existence, and fewer still have actually read it. This is extremely unfortunate, for in this story Tolkien brings together his sense of art and theology with a beauty and economy found nowhere else in his writing. Less than 7500 words from beginning to end, Leaf By Niggle exemplifies Tolkien’s ideas of subcreation and eucatastrophe as explained in his essay “On Fairy-Stories.” (Tolkien arranged with his publisher Allen & Unwin to have the story and the essay printed together in one volume in 1964 and suggested the title Tree and Leaf.) In brief, subcreation refers to the art of creating another world with such a degree of “inner consistency of reality” that it creates in the reader the kind of belief we give to the real world. This creative impulse, Tolkien believed, was the mark of the image of God in humanity. “I tried to show allegorically how that might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial’ story Leaf By Niggle . . . to make visible and physical the effects of Sin or misused Free Will by men.”
Eucatastrophe is a moment of deep and abiding grace, or “gift” as the character Niggle calls it. It is the “good catastrophe,” and in its fairy-tale setting, says Tolkien, it is “a sudden and miraculous grace” that in the midst of much sorrow and failure denies “universal final defeat.” As such, it provides an example of evangelium, that is, “a fleeting glimpse of Joy, Joy beyond the walls of the world, poignant as grief.” By referring to this “fleeting glimpse of Joy” as evangelium (the Latin word for gospel), Tolkien would have us understand that the true significance of eucatastrophe is ultimately not to be found in its fairy-tale setting but in our world. In the epilogue of “On Fairy-Stories,” Tolkien shared his belief that this idea was at the heart of the Christian gospel:
I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling . . . that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures, men, in a way fitting to this aspect . . . The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces all the essence of fairy-stories. They contain many marvels—peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: “mythical” in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe. But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation. The birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of Man’s history. The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation. This story begins and ends in joy.
Niggle is a painter—not a very successful one, the story tells us—who has a long journey to make. Niggle makes no preparations for it, and when the time comes for him to go, he is bustled off in a carriage to a train without a thing for the journey and without ever having finished his painting. What happens next I leave you to discover. But I will say that the journey leads from sorrow and failure to joy and to a redemption that involves far more than Niggle alone—and it is all “gift.” Oh, and I ought to add that Tolkien presents us with two endings: one from the world Niggle leaves behind and the other from the world to which he is taken. And the difference between the two endings also has much to do with theology and the arts.
*You can find “Leaf by Niggle” in the new collection of Tolkien’s stories, Tales From The Perilous Realm, published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt in 2008.