"Leaf by Niggle": Tolkien, Dante, and Christian Purgatory
The short story “Leaf by Niggle” is a brief autobiographical allegory written at a time when Tolkien was experiencing some frustration at the progress of his sequel to The Hobbit, which was beginning to develop into the massive Lord of the Rings trilogy. The central character, Niggle, is obsessed with painting a huge picture, which he keeps adding to and never seems able to finish. He is almost certainly a figure of the author himself, writing a story that seemed to keep expanding. His neighbor, Parish, is likely another aspect of Tolkien’s personality—the domestic, practical side. Niggle is forced to take a journey that ends him in a workhouse—almost certainly an allegory of Purgatory. After the Workhouse, Niggle and Parish rest and work in a forest, often misinterpreted as heaven. But readers of Dante will recognize the forest as the Earthly Paradise that Dante had placed atop Mount Purgatory—the Earthly Paradise where human beings were intended to live and where Niggle and Parish, like Adam before the Fall, do their gardening. If it were heaven itself, there would be no reason to go on further into the mountains, and no reason for Parish to wait. If Parish were a perfected soul, he would not need to wait for his wife, or have any doubts about continuing into the mountains. As in Dante’s Comedy, Tolkien’s souls move out of Purgatory only when they have been perfected, and recognize themselves that they are ready to move on.