Niggle’s Parish: Tolkien and St. Gregory of Nyssa meet in a Dantean Platonic Purgatorio

Apart from his letters, there’s little that Tolkien wrote that can be called explicitly Christian in the way that people think of theology or even Amish Romances. The one real exception is the wonderful Lay of Aotrou and Itroun. The next closest would seem to be Leaf by Niggle, a short story he published in 1945, and which should be read by anyone ever remotely interested in JRRT’s thought and philosophy of creation, subcreation, and eucatastrophe. Yet it is not merely an interpretive prism for understanding fantasy writing and the JRRT legendarium, for it as well speaks to Tolkien’s belief about the relationship of our life in this world to that which we shall have in that which is to come.

Tolkien’s path had already been blazed for him theologically by St. Gregory of Nyssa. St. Gregory took a dynamic view of human nature, most clearly seen in his doctrine of the desire for the Good, the True, and the Beautiful that arises in each soul, and the eternal quest of the soul in her inevitably eternal pursuit of God. He traces this out in several of his works, e.g., On virginity, The Life of Moses, On perfection, and calls his auditors and readers to think of the Christian life not as a linear march to a fixed end, a perfection of human nature in stasis and rest, but instead to find its perfection in the boundless perfection of the ineffable and limitless perfection Who is God. In this regard, movement toward God is the perfection of human nature, one which does not end, since God is inexhaustible.

All created perfections are bounded either by their opposites )St. Gregory tells us in The Life of Moses), as life is bounded by death, existence by non-existence; or by their contraries, such as the perfection of the number ten by that which is greater or lesser than ten. And thus when Christ enjoins us to be “perfect as your Father in Heaven is perfect,” He describes something quite beyond how we normally think of perfection, as a completion of what a thing is, unalloyed with any defection or decadence of nature (as pure gold has neither dross nor any other metal mixed with it). For God as absolute perfection has no contraries and nothing stands in opposition to His perfection. Thus to be perfect as God is perfect means never to be not approaching God as the perfection of virtue. Once we stop pursuing this perfection, always bending our will toward the Good, True, and Beautiful, we then enter into or pursue vice.

The mutability of our nature, therefore, becomes the great adversary in our pursuit of God. Having been made of nothing, we are thus contingent, and have desperate need of life in God as the basis of immortality. It is this propensity to change that the demons use against us, calling us to sloth and the passions. Pursuit of God takes grace and an effort on our part to employ that which we have naturally, the ability to pursue the good, as the desire for it is innate to us. Thus the horror of our mutability, that we are liable to death and sin, is also the means by which we can pursue life and holiness (see St. Gregory in On perfection).

Central to this movement for St. Gregory is faith. In his Contra Eunomius he details how Abraham in being a stranger and pilgrim, that is, in his contemplating God, seeing himself as a pilgrim in the world of sensible (visual, tactile things) and intelligible things (what can only be known by thought), that when approaching God Abraham comes to an end or frustration of his sensible and intelligible thoughts, he comes to an end of his own powers of observation, experience, and reason.

It is in this frustration that Abraham obtains the realization that he can only approach God through the virtue of faith (which to St. Gregory is bound inextricably to love and hope). Faith replaces our incomplete and inchoate knowledge of God which we have via our senses or reason. Thus faith redeems our natural aptitudes, fitting our soul for the age to come to pursue That Which is without limit and seeing That Which is beyond sight. With respect to our bodies, in his Address on Religious Instruction, St. Gregory notes how the soul receives Christ through the virtue of faith, while the body receives immortality from the presence of Christ in the Eucharist.

St. Gregory’s most penetrating insight on this is found in Moses’ vision of God on Sinai, when Moses asks to see God’s face, to which God replies “No one shall see my face and live.”

It is easy to take this a statement of Deus absconditus, the hidden God, the burning fire which consumes the unworthy. Metropolitan Anthony Bloom commented in his Meditations on a Theme that “to see” God in the Old Testament was to die, but to see him in the New, that is to see God in the face of Christ, is life. St. Gregory takes a bit of a different track here.

For St. Gregory, Moses’ desire to see God was nothing other than the culmination of his very existence as God’s creature made in his Image and Likeness. Moses’ desire for God, since created by God, could never be slaked or satisfied, since to move toward the infinite, toward that which knows no boundaries, means never to stop moving. Thus life, eternal life, the more-abundant life that our Lord mentions in the Gospels, entails movement toward God without end, an eternal pilgrimage, every closer to its goal, but never arriving. For St. Gregory, our pursuit of the desired, our drinking of the never-failing spring, is life. Thus, to have our desire fulfilled would actually be death, for we would no longer desire God. To see His Face, to come to the end of the quest, would be to come to the end of our life as His creatures, always desiring Him.

But how do we reconcile this idea of eternal progress with what we see above in Met. Anthony, or of our Lord’s words to St. Photini, that whoever drinks of the water He will give us will never thirst again? That we have seen the glory of the invisible God on the Face of Jesus Christ?

It is here that Tolkien comes to our aid. But what can this Roman Catholic have to say on this question? Was he not bound by the Thomist doctrine of the Beatific Vision, that in the world to come man shall be at rest, taking in the divine essence in what way and to what extent he as a creature is capable?

This view would seem to be wondrously described for us in the closing Cantos of Dante’s Paradiso, in which Beatrice finally leaves Dante to take up residence where she had and always shall reside, contemplating the Divine in an eternal bliss, situated in the highest ranks of the saints.

In the Commedia, Dante faces three abandonments, namely his abandonment of his old life, one dominated by lust and lack of vision; with this part of his life conquered, what occurs in the Purgatorio he has became master of himself. Once accomplished, the need for Virgil in the tale ends, and so Dante is abandoned by Virgil, who represents the glories of human effort. Now constituted in virtue, in self-mastery, he has become ready to face Beatrice, though this shall prove difficult as well. Ultimately, Beatrice leaves him that she may return to her contemplation of God, and she is replaced by Bernard of Clairvaux, whose writings on love had distinguished Bernard in Dante’s mind, and thus fitted the saint to be the one to lead Dante to his final illumination. This brings into focus the famous last line, that at last Dante’s desires and will were brought into alignment, “and here my powers of high fantasy failed/and then were turned fully my desires and will/ as if a wheel in perfect balance/ by the Love that moves the sun and other stars.”

For Dante, will and desire become moved by God just as the cosmos is moved by God. The soul does not stop being itself, but is instead in symphony with other souls and the rest of the cosmos in the contemplation of God, that is, in contemplation of the True, Good, and Beautiful in the Empyrium, from which all created good, true, and beautiful find their meaning.

Thus Dante follows Thomas as Thomas followed Plato, and in particular, Dionysus the Areopagite. (Please don’t comment that Thomas followed Aristotle and was not a Platonist; the second most quoted author, even more than St. Augustine in Aquinas, is Dionysus, some 2,300 times. And if you aren’t satisfied, well, Lloyd Gerson!!!!)

Dante sets this out most fully in the doctrine of love set out in Cantos 16 and 17 of the Purgatorio, seemingly drawn right from the Symposium, that earthly loves should lead us to the love of Divine things, that is, ascending the ladder of reality from the base to the Beautiful. Love, like fire, seeks to ascend to its source, but resides in each person innately, and can be used for good or ill (like wax, that is not evil, though may have evil pressed into it).

This is not quite the vision in Tolkien.

Certainly one can tease JRRT’s thought out of The Lord of the Rings, The Hobbit, and The Silmarillion,  on this question, but it is not from these great texts that I find his thoughts on this, but instead in his short story, Leaf by Niggle.

The story centers on Niggle, a painter who lives outside of town who constantly finds his life a series of annoying and exasperating distractions, all calling him from his great work, an enormous landscape whose foreground is dominated by a tree. A tree, one should note, that actually began as a leaf blown in the wind which then emerged into this mighty tree.

[NB: this story is short, and almost every sentence is pregnant with meaning, and I commend everyone to stop what you are doing, reading my silly essay, go read it, and then come back. I’ll wait for you. . . . . OK, let’s continue.]

This painting is on a large canvass that he keeps in his shop. He painstakingly works on every leaf, fills in the corners of the landscape beyond the tree with mountains, takes pains about all the details, but never is close to finishing it. And always in the back of his mind is the reality that he has to take a trip soon, and hasn’t nearly gotten ready.

And the distractions keep coming, though all of a specific type, namely people who keep calling on him and whose presence or demands pull him away from his painting. Now, many come because he himself had invited them for tea, all the while hoping they wouldn’t come. But come they did, whether they wanted his company, or just to envy his country house (and one of these people we will meet).

But though very much put off by all of this, Niggle still entertained without grousing (apart from him mentally doing so).

And what is more, when his neighbor, Parish, came to him with the pitiful tale of how his wife was sick and she was sleeping on the first floor. This had to be since after all, poor Parish was hobbled, and thus couldn’t ascend to his second floor. And now, to make matters worse, his roof was leaking. And so Parish pleaded with Niggle that he please ride his bike to town and ask for the builder to come fix it, and to get the doctor to come round.


But off Niggle went, in the rain, to fetch the doctor and contact the builder, and also to catch a cold: we could say a death of a cold, for as he was recovering, and was just getting back to his painting, two men showed up at his studio. One used the power of the all-benevolent state to confiscate his great canvass to use to plug Parish’s leaking roof, and the other was the man come to take him on his journey. Niggle was not prepared.

Thus ensues the dark part of JRRT’s tale, as poor Niggle arrives a dismal hospital where he is put to drudge work for which he receives little thanks. He is given treatment for his ailments, but feels no better for it, and his nurses or wardens (he can’t really tell which) are silent and sullen. His severe doctor is no comfort at all.

One night, after what seemingly had been centuries (he couldn’t really tell how long he had been there), Niggle awakens to a conversation in the next room between two Voices: one more severe than the doctor, the other what “you might have called gentle, though it was not soft-it was a voice of authority, and sounded at once hopeful and sad.”

The conversation turned to Niggle, and how despite his grousing, he nonetheless had always put aside his own concerns to attend to those who called on him, both unwelcome guests, and of course, especially Parish. The first voice is accusatory, but the second voice, which obviously always has the last say and is always putting the best face on situations, believes Niggle ready to ‘move on’.

And move on he does. After given new clothes and some elixir for when he feels fatigued, he takes a short train ride, accompanied by a porter, and at last comes to some stairs that surmount a bank, at the top of which he finds his old bike. His bike then carries him across some fields till at last he finds himself in the presence of a great shadow cast by an enormous tree. Yet it is not just a tree, but his tree, now brought to reality. He spends a great deal of time now working to ‘finish’ it, though that’s hardly what it needs, but more like some cultivation. He spends a good bit of time on all parts of the landscape as well.

He also realizes he needs other things, like a garden and a place to live, but he’s not quite the person to do it, and wishes that Parish were there with him to help. And of course, soon enough, Parish appears. Unlike their earlier days, though haltingly at first, they nonetheless get along and work grandly together, eventually finishing house and garden, and indeed, all the rest of Niggle’s picture.

Eventually, a shepherd appears to take them both to the mountains that Niggle had painted in a far corner of his great canvass, but Parish wants to wait there for his wife, who should be coming soon; and after goodbyes the separate, though we learn only for a time, and that Parish eventually also travels to the mountains.

There then comes a marvelous interlude, a conversation between two people back at the village, Tompkins the Councilor, and Atkins, the school teacher. Tompkins found Niggle useless, certainly practically and economically so. To him, people like Atkins had produced unproductive artists, whereas he would have him do something useful, or just be off with him:

“Put him away? You mean you’d have made him start on the journey before his time?”
“Yes, if you must use that meaningless old expression. Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean.”

Of course Tompkins is the one who had taken possession of Niggle’s house, whereas Atkins preserved his memory, by having found a piece of his canvass, one that depicted the mountains through a spray of leaves. At last only the canvas deteriorated until but one leaf remained, and Atkins had it framed and placed in the town museum: “Leaf, by Niggle.” There it stayed till lost in a fire, and so Niggle’s earthly heritage passed.

JRRT then returns, in his final scene, to the two voices, talking about the train stop, which was first just a stop for Niggle, and then of course for Parish. But now
“It is proving very useful indeed,” said the Second Voice. “As a holiday, and a refreshment. It is splendid for convalescence; and not only for that, for many it is the best introduction to the Mountains. It works wonders in some cases. I am sending more and more there. They seldom have to come back.”

“No, that is so,” said the First Voice. “I think we shall have to give the region a name. What do you propose?”
“The Porter settled that some time ago,” said the Second Voice. “Train for Niggle’s Parish in the bay: he has shouted that for a long while now. Niggle’s Parish. I sent a message to both of them to tell them.”
“What did they say?”
“They both laughed. Laughed-the Mountains rang with it!”

Tom Shippey, in his excellent J. R. R. Tolkien, Author of the Century, gives an excellent account of this tale, showing how wonderfully autobiographical the story is, of Tolkien the niggler who couldn’t ever really perfect his works, who was constantly distracted, and who kept putting off the important while consumed by his work, from which he would then be distracted (see chapter VI: “Shorter Works: Doubts, Fears, Autobiographies,” and especially pages 266-277). Shippey touches largely on the seeming psychology of the story, that JRRT feared he’d never finish LOTR, and that having some practical things to his credit (his two notable academic publications, “The Monster and the Critics” and Sir Gawain and the Green Knight), he had frittered away too much time on incidentals, and not finished the tree.

I think the story’s real force and weight, as it was written for a Catholic periodical whose editor wanted something on “Catholic humanity,” lay in the vision of beauty and human virtues’ relation to it, that are lived first in this life, and ‘perfected’ (in the Nyssian sense) in the age to come. In short, the story is about our religious and liturgical duties as subcreators.

For JRRT, the world to comes begins as a hospital, where one comes to forgetfulness (which in The Divine Comedy comes at the end of Mount Purgatory), and where one is prepared for the next leg of the journey. Niggle becomes more practical, Parish less so.

But while it begins in a hospital/workhouse, it is also a place where one comes to those things that matter most, not the useful things like soup and clothes, but those things that speak of beauty, truth, and goodness, which, after all, are the same thing. And thus Niggle comes to his aspiration for reproducing the beautiful, ‘the pretty’ as he had stated his desire to a sneering Tompkins, that is, to his tree and its surrounding landscape.

There he not only was able to bring his tree to completion, but also in a real sense bring himself to completion. It was also the place where he helped Parish complete himself, and Parish in turn completed Niggle, where their wills at last knit together became directed toward the same good ends:

At such times Niggle would think of wonderful new flowers and plants, and Parish always knew exactly how to set them and where they would do best. Long before the tonics were finished they had ceased to need them. Parish lost his limp. As their work drew to an end they allowed themselves more and more time for walking about, looking at the trees, and the flowers, and the lights and shapes, and the lie of the land. Sometimes they sang together.

What Niggle had begun with his aspirations while in this world propelled him into the next. Certainly, love of beauty should never distract us from love of neighbor, but as JRRT points out, both Niggle and Parish loved beauty, just in different idioms. In the age to come we shall see that love of painting and love of gardening will work to the same end, and will be part of the path, a train stop to a further life in the Divine reality..

St. Gregory of Nyssa saw that human nature will never stop progressing toward God, lest it stop being human nature (and that human nature could so stop, that is, die, raises questions for those who wish to summon St. Gregory to their standard as some unequivocal testimony of universal redemption). This movement toward God entails seeing the Glory of God in all things, and that this vision goes ‘from glory to glory.’ This is the very image that JRRT gives us in Leaf by Niggle, for there comes a time that Niggle started yearning for the mountains, and thus the appearance of the Shepherd. But his desire alone (desire foremost for God, as in St. Gregory) is not what marks the perfection of his nature in the concrete, but is his friendship with Parish.

In Dante, Beatrice and the other saints are fixed with their eyes on God. In Tolkien, Niggle is ‘fixed’ on the beautiful (his tree), the good (his friendship), and the true (that he shall always be happy, and always desiring more that the mountains endlessly offer).

The laughter that rang through the mountains at the story’s end speaks of joy. I can only imagine it as akin to the joy I feel on Pascha night and those days that follow, a joy I’ve felt at some other moments in my life, but which is only a taste of that “everlasting rest, where the voice of those who keep festival is unceasing, and the delight of those who behold the ineffable beautify of thy countenance is boundless: for thou art the true desire and unutterable joy of those who love thee, O Christ our God.”

It is in Christ our God, the Word behind all words, the Flower behind all flowers, the Beauty behind all beauties, that allows us to ‘see’ the Face of God, that allows us at last to approach God in all things. What Niggle strove for was not merely a passing beauty, one that perishes in flames or the corruption of time, but one of eternal significance. God’s presence is an inexhaustible well from which all delights flow. And thus while it sates our thirst and fulfills our desires, it does so in a way that continually delights, and to drink is not to be drunk, and to eat is not to be a glutton, where singing and laughter are one, and where such joy echoes throughout the mountains, when we see the good, true, and beautiful that partially we see now, in the world to come, ‘then face-to-face’.

About Gary Cyril Jenkins

Professor of History
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