There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it. He knew he would have to start sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.
J.R.R. Tolkien: Leaf by Niggle
Of the short fiction J.R.R. Tolkien wrote and published, Leaf by Niggle is probably the most fitting for the upcoming time of Lent, if you are inclined towards such things. Of all times of the year, this is when we consider this life and that which is to come. Leaf by Niggle is undoubtedly autobiographical as well as an allegory, as can be seen right from the start. In good Tolkien-ian manner, Leaf by Niggle begins by relating this, that is, his own story to the larger historical ‘cauldron of stories’.
Allegorical meaning is signaled at once by the first sentence: ‘There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.’ The reason for his journey is never explained, nor how he knows that he has to make one. But there should be no doubt as to what this means. The Old English poem ‘Bede’s Death-Song’ begins, in its original Northumbrian dialect, ‘Fore thaem neidfaerae’, ‘(Be)fore the need-fare’. A ‘need-fare’, or ‘need-faring’, is a compulsory journey, a journey you have to take, and that journey, Bede declares, begins on one’s ‘deothdaege’ or ‘death-day’. So the long journey the ‘little man’ Niggle has to make – which all men have to make – is death. The image is at once ‘as old as the hills’, completely temporary, and totally familiar. This is the easiest of the equations in the extended allegory.
~ Tom Shippey: J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century
Illustrations by Alan Lee