Publié dans Franck Weinreich et Margaret Hiley (eds) Tolkien’s shorter works, Zurich, Walking Tree Publishers, collection Cormarë, 2008.
The title of my paper, The “meaning” of Leaf, by Niggle, may seem a bit pretentious. Nobody really knows the “meaning” of Leaf, by Niggle; there can only ever be interpretations of the text. If Tolkien were among us today he would probably tell us: “you should not talk so much about my stories but you should rather enjoy them for their own sake”. In fact, it is because he wrote his stories to stimulate literary pleasure that most of them have to be appreciated for what they are: fascinating tales.
Nonetheless, if Tolkien told us this we might respond as follows: “Sorry, Professor, but Leaf, by Niggle is not a mere story and we can speak about it as much as we want since in writing it you wanted to do more than entertain us; your story is an allegory worthy of special attention”. Indeed, it won’t hurt for once, Tolkien used an allegorical method to write Leaf by Niggle, which is, considering his usual creative
process, very uncommon. For once with Tolkien, the tale is not self-sufficient; we do not have to content ourselves with appreciating a “mere story” (L 144), but we can try to go beyond the words to understand a “meaning”. In fact, Leaf, by Niggle gives us the opportunity to study what Tolkien “meant” whereas usually we have to be content with what his stories may mean through or even despite himself.
We will see that, throughout this little story, Tolkien presents something that worried him during his entire life: the incompatibility between the necessities of life (or the satisfaction of daily needs – in a sense almost biological needs) and artistic creation. This observation particularly affected him because he was deeply involved in the latter but, at the same time, for reasons that we will try to clarify, also quite convinced that priority must be given to the first necessity. Leaf by Niggle shows a character just as Tolkien was: tormented by this incompatibility and, no matter what, even clumsily, trying to put up with it. Despite his weakness and failures, thanks to his hopes and deep desires, he will try to find a path in a life for him made more complicated by his determination not to neglect two things driven by contradictory forces.
The “laws” and the world split down the middle
First of all, Leaf, by Niggle shows the concerns the author had about what he calls the “laws”. We learn at the beginning of the story that Niggle “might get a visit from an inspector” (TL 77) and that the latter might notice that his garden is “rather neglected” (TL 77). As we all know, an inspector is tasked with enforcing the law and we can already deduce that in Niggle’s “world” not taking care of your garden is forbidden; it is against the law. Later, when, as expected, an inspector has arrived, we learn more about these laws. The inspector reproaches Niggle during the storm, while the Emergency Services are trying to deal with crises in the rest of the neighbourhood, for not having helped his neighbour to “make temporary repairs and prevent the damage from getting more costly to mend than necessary” (TL 81). The inspector even tells Niggle that he should have used the only materials available: canvas, wood and waterproof paint from his picture! Niggle seems terrified by the idea of using his picture to repair a roof but the inspector is very clear about the fact that “houses come first.” As he puts it, “that is the law” (TL 82).
Niggle’s interaction with the inspector shows us what these laws are: very basic rules to be respected under any circumstances, things that come first in order of priority. Why? Simply because not respecting them could jeopardise life itself. You first have to have a house and food; only then can you think about taking up a hobby like painting or playing football. Denis Diderot used to say, “first survive, then philosophise”. This, in fact, could be the motto of Niggle’s world. The laws which the inspectors have to enforce on Niggle and his fellow citizens are an allegory of what in life we cannot escape from, what was imposed on us from the very beginning of human life on earth and what we have to accept so as not to compromise our own existence in the world. In real life these laws don’t need to be written down anywhere or be enforced by anyone. Still, it would be appropriate to respect them.
Two types of men make their appearance in this story, each with a very different attitude towards the laws. The first type is personified by Niggle, the second by Parish. Niggle seems to find it very difficult to comply with the laws: he is obsessed by his painting, that is to say by a creative activity, and this seems to distance him from reality and from the necessity of observing his legal duties. Parish, on the other hand, has no difficulties in adhering to the laws and we could even argue that the laws are the only things that he is aware of. Parish does not understand the first thing about Niggle’s picture but notices immediately that Niggle’s garden is overrun with weeds, as is evident in the following passage:
When Parish looked at Niggle’s garden (which was often) he saw mostly weeds ; and when he looked at Niggle’s pictures (which was seldom) he saw only green and grey patches and black lines, which seemed to him nonsensical. He did not mind mentioning the weeds (a neighbourly duty), but he refrained from giving any opinion of the pictures. (TL 79)
Readers of Leaf by Niggle are given the impression that although Niggle and Parish are neighbours, they do not live on the same planet. One lives in a world where pointing out the presence of weeds is a “neighbourly duty”, while the other is obsessed by his paintings. They are strangers to each other and don’t see the world in the same way. Although they treat each other with respect, we still feel that they don’t like each other very much.
However, to be fair, we have to mention that Niggle sometimes goes to visit Parish’s planet. In fact, the story often shows Niggle trying as best he can to adhere to the laws. For instance, he abandons his picture and rides in the rain to fetch the doctor and the builder for Parish. However, importantly, he doesn’t do so spontaneously but rather because he cannot escape from doing it. In a sense, the necessity of having to respect the laws catches up with him. As one of the voices says when the time comes for Niggle to be judged, “He did answer a good many Calls” (TL 85), mainly because he feels “things ordered by the laws” cannot be neglected. On the other hand, though, although he tries to respect the laws, he cannot help but consider them as “interruptions”. This is the reason why he tries to comply with them as quickly as possible (to go back to what he likes doing most). In his haste, Niggle doesn’t really fulfil his tasks to the best of his abilities. Rather, we could say that most of the time he contents himself with a “skeleton service” and this is why his case has to be considered carefully by the voices in charge of judging him. Niggle eventually does “pass the exam” but only meets minimum requirements.
It is a pity that Tolkien does not depict how Parish is judged, but we can easily imagine that he would have passed his “test” more easily than Niggle did. Considering the respect that Parish has for the laws, we can assume that he would not consider the laws as “interruptions” to the things that he would rather do, but simply as things that have to be done. In complying with the laws, he is at peace with himself. In fact, Parish seems to have quite a relaxed attitude towards life, taking things in his stride.
The particular importance Tolkien attributes to the laws in Leaf by Niggle certainly reflects a phenomenon that he seems to have been grappling with for a significant part of his life. This phenomenon can be summarised as the assumption that in everyday life the world is split in two as far as people’s attitude towards the laws is concerned. In his writings, we very often find representatives of both worlds. In The Lord of the Rings, for instance, the Hobbits are no doubt, like Parish, very aware of the laws. They are very sensible and have both feet firmly planted on the ground. On the other hand, the Elves are “out of the world”; they are engrossed by poetry and beauty, just as Niggle is engrossed by his picture. The Elves have to force themselves when it is time for them to participate in saving Middle-earth; similarly, it takes quite some time for Niggle to finally respond to Parish’s demands. But even in the small Hobbit society there are varying levels of awareness of the laws. We can imagine that what Tolkien calls a “genuine Hobbit” (L 105) is the type of Hobbit who has an immediate respect for the laws. Other Hobbits, like Bilbo, are more “sophisticated” in that they are haunted by the temptation to withdraw from the world and to leave their immediate surroundings for an imaginary “elsewhere”. There would certainly be many other examples showing that Middle-earth’s characters tend to be naturally divided into these two different camps.
It would appear that Tolkien, in terms of how he perceives the laws, falls in the Elves or Niggle rather than Hobbit or Parish camp (in Leaf by Niggle, Niggle is Tolkien himself). Still, although he is perfectly aware of “belonging” to the side that attributes less importance to the laws, he nonetheless highlights the qualities of individuals “from the other side”. Amongst all the races inhabiting Middle-earth, he has( a clear preference for the Hobbits and amongst the Hobbits for the most law-abiding of creatures, namely Samwise Gamgee. In his letters, Tolkien also shows great respect for what he calls the “dull stodges”: “young men and women of sub-public school class and home backgrounds book-less and cultureless” (L 303-304) and of course for
the commonpeople he met in the trenches of World War I. By contrast, he distrusts those of “higher intelligence”. He thinks that simple people, like Parish, are somehow superior or better than himself or others like him. Also, it is evident that during his life Tolkien tried to let himself be inspired by these simple people, forcing himself to pay more careful attention to the laws. In his letters, he often mentions the effort he is making in trying to respect them and that his work is neither essential nor really important, that he and his correspondents should not speak too much or too seriously about it. Tolkien knew that he tended to stay shut up indoors with his only company being his “tree”. To compensate for his lack of consideration for the real world he made it his duty to respond to the “calls” and to focus on the laws as much he possibly could.
Why, according to Tolkien, was making so great an effort so important? Because, otherwise, we might be swept aside by life’s dynamics or by the wind of history. To live, we need to eat first. Of course, we do not forget to eat because our bodies remind us to feed ourselves, but there are many other basic needs which we are not reminded of. Life within the world provides a new challenge every day, which is why we have to face reality. To remain, like Niggle, in a “tall shed” is dangerous or is a sign of obliviousness that could be fatal.
Niggle’s carefree life is fragile and is only possible because others are now in charge of what Niggle previously discarded with thoughtlessness. Tolkien says Niggle “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 once he had grown potatoes)” (TL 76). The mention of the potatoes being replaced by the tall shed is of crucial importance, because it means that there is an incompatibility between being engaged in a creative activity and responding appropriately to life’s daily needs. The more time we spend painting or singing or even studying, for example, the less time we have to grow potatoes. However, what is certain is that we cannot escape from the fact that we need potatoes to survive and this is why growing potatoes should take priority. Niggle, after his course of treatment in the Workhouse, realises that Parish has been a good neighbour because he “let [him] have excellent potatoes very cheap, which saved [him] a lot of time” (TL 87). Niggle can devote himself to his canvas thanks to Parish’s kindness, thanks to the man who does not understand anything about painting, but who is level-headed enough to deal with supplying food. In a letter to Sir Stanley Unwin, Tolkien again refers to the apparent incompatibility between art and what we could call “necessity” by saying that creative desire “seems to have no biological function, and to be apart from the satisfactions of plain ordinary biological life, with which, in our world, it is indeed usually at strife” (L 145).
The light and consistent worlds
This conflict or antagonism appears everywhere in Tolkien’s work. It often materialises in the form of a recurring superimposition: that of the “light” world on the “consistent” world. The light world is a world where nothing really matters, where there are no consequences to one’s actions, where Niggle and his canvas move for example. The consistent world, on the other hand, is where things matter. This is the world of Parish and his potatoes. In The Lord of the Rings, Tom Bombadil lives in the light world, while the others live in the consistent world. The moon from “The Man in the Moon” also represents the light world, whereas the earth is the consistent world. Finally, then, what is very important for Tolkien is that adventures take place in a “light world” and differ considerably from “real life” or history that are set in the “consistent world”.
In The Hobbit, Gandalf sends Bilbo on an “adventure”; this means that the hero will not suffer any negative consequences as a result of his actions. The Lord of the Rings begins in the same setting and the reader might think that Bilbo is about to experience another adventure. However, Frodo, the new Bilbo, is soon drawn onto a new path, that of real life. This means that his adventure has the potential to become serious and to potentially turn tragic. Here then we have the difference between adventures and history or real life. On the stairs of Cirith Ungol Sam tells Frodo the following:
I used to think that [adventures] were things the wonderful folk of the stories went out and looked for, because they wanted them, because they were exciting and life was a bit dull, a kind of a sport, as you might say. But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. (TT 321)
Here, we find a kind of disillusionment: the character realises that life is not a game, that it is made of “tales that really mattered”, therefore of things that are not tales. As Sam is experiencing Middle-earth he progressively feels the consistency of it, and the laws (and his growing awareness of the fragility of life) are weighing more and more on his shoulders.
In The Lord of the Rings, Bombadil is the only character who lives in a world where nothing really matters. Firstly, he is brought into the narrative because Tolkien wanted “an adventure on the way” (L 192): at this stage of the story, Tolkien still thought that his new book would be intended for children, in other words, he wanted his characters to meet a new challenge that they could overcome before the next one, of course every time succeeding in being safe and sound, reaching the end victorious. Bombadil is a remnant of the country of adventures, which is why the Ring fails to affect him. This is also the reason why so many people find the character to be out of touch with the rest of the story. Secondly, Bombadil is, according to Tolkien, a “particular embodying of pure natural science” (L 179) which means that he “studies” natural things for no other purpose than studying itself. Like Niggle with his canvas, Bombadil is engrossed in something that is of no practical use and is therefore, by implication, locked in a type of “tall shed” of his own.
Tolkien, however, does make it clear that Bombadil lives in a more consistent world: “ultimately only the victory of the West will allow Bombadil to continue, or even to survive. Nothing would be left for him in the world of Sauron” (L 179; italics added). Bombadil lives within the light world that lies within the consistent world. Tolkien’s words on Bombadil highlight the fact that it would be impossible to live in a light world with an existence of its own, that would be self-sufficient with its own rules. The only rules that count are those of the consistent world that also includes the light world. There, one cannot allow oneself to be careless, the laws have to be respected and the calls have to be answered. Tolkien was most likely also tempted to stay peacefully in the shed and, like Niggle, probably also secretly dreamt of having a “public pension” that would allow him to spend more time in it. However Tolkien knew his dream to be dangerous because it would make the occasions on which he was called into the real world rarer and would result in a progressive loss of his sense of the consistent world.
Therefore, Tolkien’s characters are irresistibly drawn towards the side of the consistent world: the Man in the Moon falls down to the earth, the light environment in which first Bombadil and Bilbo move (in The Hobbit and at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings) becomes progressively more consistent and “serious”, adventures become history and real life, and so on. To use an image, the reader is placed with the Hobbits in a hot-air balloon that is irresistibly going down to the ground. Leaving the basket and treading land underfoot, the passengers feel themselves suddenly vulnerable because the environment has changed. This movement with which the characters are carried away, from the light to the heavy, from the air to the earth, reflects the fact that the author cannot forget the seriousness of life, this seriousness that always ends up catching up with him. He can no more free himself from the heaviness of the laws than he can escape gravity. In The Lord of the Rings, a poem heralds the change of tone and style and warns the reader that terra firma has been reached. The poem is first said by Bilbo and later by Frodo. It is almost exactly the same poem: only one word changes, a word that changes everything:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
(LotR 48; my emphasis)
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began,
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with weary feet
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
(LotR 86; my emphasis)
Once "on the ground", the atmosphere is tense because it is now filled with rules and laws that weigh on every individual, putting his or her life within impassable limits. It is precisely the presence of these limits framing life that imposes a particular discipline, that decides that not everything is possible, and that finally force the protagonist to walk hesitantly with weary feet. The feet are no longer eager because from now on, each additional step will leave on the ground a footprint, each act shall have a consequence.
By stating that the obligations and duties of every day life are in conflict with one’s creative desire, Tolkien probably realised what each of us should easily be able to notice: the less one busies oneself with practical things, the less one is aware of what is important or crucial. By contrast, the more one occupies oneself with the nitty-gritty of “real” life, the more one is “in water”, to borrow a Tolkienian expression; in other words, the more one is able to face reality and to survive.
Tolkien’s experience of the war probably convinced him of this and of the fact that simple people, those who naturally respond to the calls and respect the laws, are better equipped to take up the challenges we face in everyday life. Before the war, Tolkien was part of the TCBS (Tea Club and Barrovian Society): a club of four cultured and ambitious young men. According to one of them, G.B. Smith, the TCBSians wanted the members of the club “to leave the world a better place than when they found it, ‘to re-establish sanity, cleanliness, and the love of real and true beauty’” (Garth 253). Tolkien himself in his early years thought the TCBSians were destined to kindle a “new light in the world at large” (L 10).
And how did the TCBSians think they would do that? With words: they wanted to change the world by means of poetry and art. But after his experiences in the trenches we can imagine how pretentious this appeared to Tolkien. In the trenches, those that really make a difference were not the individuals who had the pretension to change the world by writing verses but the tommy, “the plain soldier from the agricultural counties” (L 54). Tolkien wanted to change the world and he realised that, according to his own words, he was in the battle “inefficient and unmilitary” (L 54). He wanted to change the world but he couldn’t efficiently participate in saving it. Therefore, he probably progressively realised the lightness of the TCBS’s words and project, a project easy to formulate in the mind but reduced to nothing in the acid water of reality.
In a sense, he admired the tommies because they do not think too much, and instead face their challenges head on. Someone more “sophisticated”, such as Niggle, Tolkien, or you and me, is too much “out of water” and out of reality. This means that if someone sophisticated sees danger coming, he/she will be thinking so much about the nature of this danger that he/she will not be able to respond to it effectively. A very intelligent individual will attentively study the situation and will soon be completely paralysed by the complexity of the problem. Intelligence or sophistication are not in keeping with courage: Rousseau already noticed that during antiquity, the less sophisticated people, those who had not been “corrupted” by arts and sciences, were far more courageous than the Greeks or the Romans.
Reducing the contradiction
Now that we know why Tolkien thought being out of real life was rather perilous and why he trusted those who were simpler than himself or Niggle it is time to try and understand how he dealt with this apparent contradiction. We have already revealed a part of the answer. Tolkien, like Niggle, tried as much he could to respond to the calls and to respect the laws without considering them as interruptions. He also never took his creative work seriously. The voices echo that: “there are no notes in the Records of his pretending, even to himself, that [his painting activity] excused his neglect of things ordered by the laws” (TL 85). Tolkien thought that one should be able to make sacrifices, to give priority to the tangible rather than the abstract.
The voices show leniency towards Niggle notably because he has been capable of a “genuine sacrifice”; in order to help Parish he does a “wet bicycle ride” and in so doing he “was throwing away his last chance with his picture” (TL 86). And what at last saves Niggle is his sudden and almost unexpected acknowledgement: Parish “was a very good neighbour, and let me have excellent potatoes very cheap, which saved me a lot of time,” Niggle says. In response, the First Voice answers, “Did he? … I am glad to hear it” (TL 87). This is exactly the kind of acknowledgement that shows the reader that the Voice is no longer sceptical about letting Niggle off. Tolkien was deeply convinced of the absolute necessity of swearing allegiance to what I, in a previous paper, have called the “simple”.
Tolkien, despite his admiration for all things simple, did not try to become a simple man. He did not discard his creative activity because he knew that this would be impossible; the fact that he was attracted to the aesthetic was something he had to accept. “He was a painter by nature” says the Second Voice (TL 85), which is very true of Niggle, because in painting he simply responds to nature, thereby respecting a kind of law. To paint is not a “glamorous pose” for Niggle, but should rather be seen as a natural act. Even the voices are compelled to consider that in his favour. Another important point to consider here is that Niggle “took a great deal of pains with leaves, just for their own sake” (TL 85). This means that Niggle is not engrossed in a big, grandiose, complicated project and this is probably the reason why he stays humble when it comes to his work and why he is capable of fulfilling his other duties. He is not pretentious, he does not reason too much and he respects what his heart commands him to do.
He focuses neither on the tree nor on the entire landscape but only on the leaves. In painting them he is only catching something that is already in the air: “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” (TL 76). Everything passes through him and finally creates a painting of a greater scope that is the result of a surge, of a movement that has never stopped since the beginning of the world and that has been breathed into life by the creator himself. Tolkien’s entire subcreative process is represented here. Tolkien once had an ambitious project: he planned to build a body of legend “high and purged of gross […] ranging from the large and cosmogonic to the level of romantic fairy” (L 144) but he told Milton Waldman it was “absurd” and added:
The mere stories were the thing. They arose in my mind as ‘given’ things, and as they came, separately, so too the links grew. An absorbing, though continually interrupted labour (…): yet always I had the sense of recording what was already ‘there’, somewhere: not of ‘inventing’” (L 145)
Tolkien discarded his initial complicated project to focus on the mere stories that are the equivalent of Niggle’s leaves. This attitude reveals the subcreator’s humility. The subcreator contents himself with being carried away by something that has surpassed him, something he does not need to invent but that is already there. In order to be revealed, this “something” needs to pass through somebody. Then, the subcreator has to pay attention and trust his own deep feelings: if he is attracted to fascinating stories, then he has to “follow” them and will see where they take him. The result is of course often unexpected and wonderful: The Lord of the Rings is the tree that emerged thanks to the confidence that Tolkien put in leaves.
One can easily see that this humble attitude towards creation could prevent the widening of the gap that usually separates the creator from the world he or she is living in. The subcreator is not asked to withdraw himself from reality in inventing something that does not really exist. He or she is not engaged in a sophisticated process that could finally result in his or her isolation from real life. This attitude that characterises the creative process remains compatible with the necessary attitude that everybody has to remain plainly aware of the laws. There seems to be something like a link between having the good sense to be aware of life’s challenges, while at the same time being attracted by fascinating stories. Both attitudes are a product of the same “habit of thinking”.
The ‘back country’
Finally, it becomes necessary to examine what it is that occupies Niggle’s mind while he is working in his tall shed. Of course, he absolutely wants to finish his painting and he needs to spend time on doing that, but we also feel that this is the kind of work that cannot be finished, that is always in progress. Niggle always seems dissatisfied and spends a lot of time trying to improve his leaves. Unfortunately, he is only able to imagine the perfect leaf that he would like to paint, for example when he is riding in the rain: “now he was out of the shed, he saw exactly the way in which to treat that shining spray which framed the distant vision of the mountain” (TL 80). Niggle is seeking something that cannot be captured.
To better understand what Niggle’s dilemma is all about, I would like to take a quick detour to look at the work of the French poet Yves Bonnefoy. In one of his loveliest prose texts, Bonnefoy tells us that his entire life he has been drawn to what he calls l’Arrière-Pays. L’Arrière Pays, also the title of this text, can be translated as hinterland or back country. During his boyhood, he mostly felt this longing when he returned to visit his parents’ home in the country each summer. Experiencing the call of the back country can be compared to looking at a precise location in the distance and having the sensation that the latter is the “vrai lieu” (real place) to be as the poet would put it. The “real place” is a place where we would be able to live in contentment and fulfilment, whereas our situation as after-the-fall creatures makes us dissatisfied by nature. The back country can be interpreted as the place of the absolute, a place, in a non-modern context, that would be filled with some essence of God and with which one could fill oneself. We could compare it to a dwelling place, a brief survey of paradise. Bonnefoy gives the reader an idea of what the back country looks like by likening it to a place that is bathed in light - a tree on the other side of a valley, for example. Twilight and dawn seem to be particularly good times to recognise or see such a place.
Being drawn to the back country is something that many modern human beings have experienced; it is certainly the revelation of what Bonnefoy has often called being (“l’être”) in a world that has been deserted by being. It is quite delicate to understand what being is but in order to clarify its meaning, we would like to refer to a conference that Bonnefoy gave at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France where he speaks about being. We think that would allow us to better understand l’Arrière-pays and ultimately, Leaf by Niggle.
For the medieval thought, Bonnefoy states during the conference, a God offered some of his “being” to all living creatures and even to all inert things. Being could be what God, as the pefect being, spread around himself: it was a kind of warmth thatone could feel if one would approach him. Therefore, for the human of that time, all things and creatures were filled with such a warmth, with being that came directly from God. God was everywhere in the natural world, signs of his presence showed through numerous symbols and signs. The cosmos was a book full of these signs testifying His presence. The individual knew the “pourquoi du monde” (the why of the world). He/she felt being in him/her and around him/her and if he/she lived in a miserable conditions he/she, at least, had a compensation: “ontologic security” (the certainty to be accompanied by being, to be part of something bigger). In addition, Bonnefoy explains, everyone’s lives were meaningful because their function in society had been determined by the supreme being. Therefore, for people of that time, everything made sense and formed part of an order, an order that the artist tried to duplicate on his canvas: the paintings show a “God organised” cosmos. But, Bonnefoy continues,from the 17th century, the scientific reading of the univers had come to progressively disqualify the inherited vision of the elder. For the modern humans and the enlightenments the world is not a display of being: God withdrew from the world. No signs or symbols remained in the cosmos that was, by the way, no longer an order. Therefore, for humanity, from the advent of modern science onwards being progressively left the world and the latter became meaningless: only remained the matter. Modern humans, because they get rid of God, ended up living in a barren environment, and found themselves lost and desperate in a silent and dry world. They discovered the world and life’s absurdity: they lost the “ontologic security” and its loosing is probably what caraterises modern condition.
Sometimes, though, in the middle of this lunar landscape, this meaningless world, modern humans, thanks to a type of miraculous intervention, seem to be able to see or to slowly approach something like the former being. Bonnefoy, in his conference but also, for instance, in a preface of a book of Gaëtan Picon, and Gaëtan Picon himself, try to explain that the modern artist, almost subconsciously, is finally in the search of the lost being. The modern artist experiences something mysterious: sometimes, somewhere in the distance, being seems to appear again (in the form, for example, of an apparent “real place”), although it is only sporadically visible. The modern artist, instead of depicting an order as ancient artists did, will simply try to take advantage of such a moment and will try to capture this thing that resembles being, or the location of the fullness, when he comes face to face with it. Painting a landscape, with which, Gaëtan Picon states, the modern painting begins, is the fruit of such an attempt: a landscape is not a depiction of an order but rather a depiction of the ‘visible’ as it is at a precise moment, as it is “here and now”. In the same way, the Impressionists tried to capture an “impression”, an impression the artist was given and thanks to which he had the feeling of telling or depicting something of a truth .
My interpretation is that Bonnefoy lived the same fundamental and characteristic experience when referring to the back country. He also realised, however, that the back country (the country of being) always remains in the distance and that one is only able to see it for a short period of time: for instance, a change in the light could make it disappear. Also, the more he was approaching what he thought to be the back country, the more the latter was disappearing. Thus, he was taken in by an everlasting movement that was dragging him towards the horizon. The explicit lesson of l’Arrière-pays ultimately is that the back country is an illusion, that it is a point that does not exist and that cannot be reached. In other words, we are condemned to see it only from a distance, we cannot enter the setting without at the same time losing what we are looking for. We will remain disunited, for ever removed from the ‘full dwelling place’. Therefore, we can deduce from our interpretation of Bonnefoy and Picon, that the modern artisttries capture this elusive Truth before it has vanished entirely and also tries to hold on to it.
I believe that Niggle, in trying constantly to improve his leaves, as well as Tolkien, who – in his own eyes – tried without fail to improve his stories, are in a way in search of this Truth. They remain dissatisfied because it is quite impossible to reach it, even for the best subcreator. The artist’s work will forever stay imperfect because the perfection of the Truth cannot be matched. Truth or being are in the distance and the leaves or the stories might be headed in its direction but are unable to reach it. They are drawn, along with the author, to the back country and the horizon. Tolkien sums all that up in these few words written to his son in 1945:
“A story must be told or there’ll be no story, yet it is the untold stories that are most moving. I think you are moved by Celebrimbor because it conveys a sudden sense of endless untold stories: mountains seen far away, never to be climbed, distant trees (like Niggle’s) never to be approached – or if so only to become ‘near trees’ (unless in Paradise or Niggle’s Parish)” (L 111).
Tolkien and Niggle are in search of this place and try to reach it through their art. They are drawn to that which is shying away. Now, we can better understand what differentiates the people in the two different camps. People such as Niggle and Tolkien from the first camp are those who are much more sensitive to the call of the back country, who are more capable of catching a glimpse of it in the distance and above all who have the time to try and meet it at. On the contrary, others such as Parish are not at all haunted by the back country, they are not attracted by something moving away, but, rather, by something that is approaching them or that is already there and not likely to disappear.
But what makes an individual more sensitive than others to the call of the back country? First, as we have seen, it depends on up to which point one is kept “busy” with satisfying the demands of one’s plain ordinary biological life. The more time you spend satisfying your metabolism the less you are sensitive to the other dimensions of life. It is precisely why Niggle/Tolkien dreamed of getting a “public pension”. A public pension allows the person who receives it to get rid of the necessity of “earning a living”, in other words of working to get the money that he or she needs to live and therefore to satisfy his or her body. With a public pension one has a tendency to become carefree because one no longer worries about the necessities of life. Then, with such assistance, Niggle or Tolkien could, without any obstacle, devote themselves entirely to their art, they could freely search for this unobtainable Truth after which they are running and that makes them dream. But, as we know now, they would also progressively lose their sense of reality, they would live in a world that does not exist and they would, as mortals, waste the little time they have been given for something lost already.
Secondly, this distancing depends on up to which point one has been educated. Education allows an individual to distance himself or herselffrom the world he or she is living in. It allows anybody to remove the hold of reality and to perceive new things amongst which are the beauty of nature and the call of the back country. The distance also allows humans to better understand the world and to explain phenomena (but only thanks to mental representation, therefore, they still remain distant from the world) ; in a manner of speaking, they become more “intelligent”. Unfortunately the distance makes humans less adapted to life on earth because they tend to get lost in conjecture and details rather than taking things as simply as they are and as they feel them; they become more sophisticated. This is why, when Tolkien mentioned in 1969 the “dull stodges” and “those of higher intelligence”, he said the second were “corrupted and disintegrated by school, and the climate of our present days” (L 403-404).
Tolkien, with the ability of one who was educated and partly freed from necessities, realised that the particular location where being lies cannot be approached, and if so “distant trees become only ‘near trees’”. Bonnefoy and he both noticed the same thing. This search will always turn out to be fruitless and this is why it is all the more important not to stay in the tall shed but to respond to the calls and to respect the laws that are “already here”. Trying to reach the back country is vanity and should be resisted. From the moment the Númenóreans decided to sail west towards the “Blessed Realm” they turned from “beneficence (…) to pride, desire of power and wealth” (L 205). In 1964 Tolkien says “One loyal to the Valar, content with the bliss and prosperity within the limits prescribed” (L 347).
The impossibility of reaching the “Undying Land” (L 194) is also the theme of the poem “The Last Ship” published in The Adventures of Tom Bombadil. A girl named Firiel sees an elf-boat going by and the elves invite her to join them ; they are going to “Elvenhome, where the white tree is growing”. “Do you hear the call, Earth-maiden?”, the elves say; this call Niggle, Tolkien and Bonnefoy also received. But when Firiel dares to take one step to come on board, “deep in clay her feet sank” and “slowly the elven-ship went by”. “I cannot come […] I was born Earth’s daughter!”, cries Firiel. Inhabitants of the earth can see the boat going to the Blessed Realm but they cannot reach the ship. It is only possible to see it moving away from the river-bank, as only in the distance is it possible to see the back country. Here arises one of the biggest frustrations that can possibly be felt by modern man: being able to see heaven but being unable to be in it.
The lesson of Leaf, by Niggle is that the back country is not to be found here and while we are on earth we have to stay “within the limits prescribed”. If we are meant to find it, it can only be after death: in paradise or Niggle’s Parish. It is after his journey and his judgement and not before that Niggle is able to enter the landscape and move among his leaves “as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them” (TL 88-89).
As he walked away, he discovered an odd thing: the forest, of course, was a distant Forest, yet he could approach it, even enter it, without its losing that particular charm. He had never before been able to walk into the distance without turning it into mere surroundings. (TL 89) Niggle has finally reached his place, but he has left for good the consistent world. Now he will be able to finish his painting that is also a garden, with the help of Parish of course. Then he will go to where it had always been forbidden or impossible for him to go when he was still on earth: beyond the mountains.
“Beyond that I cannot guess what became of him. Even little Niggle in his old home could glimpse the Mountains far away, and they got into the borders of his picture ; but what they are really like, and what lies beyond them only those can say who have climbed them” (TL 93)
says the tale at the end. However, we know that Tolkien was also hoping to find a resting place, the celestial dwelling place, a place, he told his son, “called ‘heaven’ where the good here unfinished is completed, and where the stories unwritten, and the hopes unfulfilled are continued” (L 55). This Tolkien’s deep desire is the same as Bilbo’s at the beginning of The Lord of the Rings and gives an extraordinary strength to this heartfelt cry: “I want to see mountains again, (…) – mountains; and then find somewhere where I can rest.”
The message conveyed by Tolkien through Leaf, by Niggle is no doubt very relevant to the present situation. In fact, on a large scale, humans tend to be more and more sophisticated. Firstly, today, humans “know” probably more than they have ever known. Thanks to science and schooling, knowledge has spread. But, for all that, it doesn’t mean that we are better equipped for facing reality. In the Fifties in the Netherlands, it was perfectly well known that the country would be the victim of terrible flooding because of the fragility of the sea walls and of the fact that many people lived under the sea level. The Dutch “knew” it thanks to their thinking abilities and intelligence. Unfortunately, “to know” something is often useless, only to “live” something is really useful: the heralded catastrophe happened, thousands of peoples died and finally the authorities decided to improve their protections against the sea. There would be many other examples showing that the sphere of intelligence and reason does not intersect with the sphere of real life. Sometimes, one can have the impression that both are side by side unable to act on each other. Secondly, humans have been able to make their lifes more comfortable . Rather than growing potatoes, we go to the supermarket to get food: it’s much faster and really less tiring. With the saved time and efforts, we study, have some spare-time activities, play sport, go to cinema, write books or papers… ultimately, we live far from the earth, shut up indoors in a secondary reality. But, the problem is we might find ourselves in the situation of the inhabitants of Antioch in the year 256. That year, Chantal Delsol tells, on one occasion everyone was at the theatre and no one saw the archers from the Persian army deploying under the terraces. No longer reminded of reality and concrete things by the necessity to satisfy their biological needs and also without the earth’s teaching, inhabitants of the city forgot the essential: that their city could be attacked and must be defended. This is the biggest danger which carefree man is confronted with and which, I think, Tolkien had always in mind: to forget tangible realities.
At last, we can also evoke how this story is marked by Christian morals. At first glance, Christian faith might not seem to value the earthly life because it never stopped saying that the “genuine life” would be after death in the celestial dwelling place. The terrestrial sojourn is imperfect and is nothing compared to what humanity has been promised later. But something essential came and changed the deal: God himself became a human through His son. Jesus came down on earth, he came to Firiel’s river bank and he too trod the clay. While he could have stayed in the perfect, he decided to descend to the imperfect. The message of the incarnation was made for the humans tending to gaze too much beyond the mountains, to remind them that the time had not come. More important and urgent things are waiting for them during their terrestrial sojourn, things not to be neglected.
Bertrand Alliot works as a teaching and research assistant at the Hannah Arendt Institute of the University Paris-Est. He is also a doctoral candidate specialising in Political Science whose thesis focuses on nature and environment. He has already published an article on Tolkien in Tolkien and Modernity, published in 2006 by Walking Tree Publishers.
Bonnefoy, Yves. L’Arrière Pays, (first edition 1972). Paris: Poésie/Gallimard, 1992.
Delsol, Chantal. Le souci contemporain. Paris: La Table Ronde, la peteite vermillon, 2004
---. Icarus Fallen, The Search for Meaning in an Uncertain World. Wilmington: ISI Books, 2003
Garth, John. Tolkien and the Great War: the Treshhold of Middle Earth. Boston New-York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003.
Picon, Gaëtan. 1863, naissance de la peinture moderne, publisher and year of publication not mentionned.
Shippey, Tom. J.R.R. Tolkien Author of the Century. Boston New-York: Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Tolkien, John Ronald Reuel. The Fellowship of the Ring. London: Allen & Unwin, 1954.
---. The Two Towers. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1993.
---. Tree and Leaf. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1975
---. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien (edited by Humphrey Carpenter, with the assistance of Christopher Tolkien). London: George Allen & Unwin, 1981.
---. The Hobbit. London: George Allen & Unwin, 1987.
---. The Adventures of Tom Bombadil, (first edition 1962). London: Harper-Collins, 1995.