Spray-painting the Sistine Chapel: Aesthetic problems in Leaf by Niggle”

— John R. Holmes, Professor of English, Franciscan University of Steubenville

Paper given 1 August 2021 at Mythcon 51 Session 13

No work of the allegoriphobic Tolkien is more manifestly allegorical than his short story Leaf by Niggle.” Because of the story’s unmistakably allegorical nature, when the reader encounters the four-word sentence that opens the second paragraph — Niggle was a painter” — the initial response might justly be to read painter” in a more generic sense to mean artist in general.” Indeed, the best criticism of this story tends to read Niggle’s problem as an analogue of Tolkien’s problem as sub-creator of Middle-earth, primarily in writing. But because Tolkien’s rendering of Middle-earth sometimes took form in pencil sketches and watercolors as well, Niggle’s painterly dilemmas sometimes illuminate particular compositional challenges, dilemmas of form and texture that Tolkien had himself encountered and solved in his drawings and paintings. This paper will enumerate the problems specifically identified in the story. These problems include:

  1. Detail vs. Design. Niggle is described as the sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees.” Yet he wants to paint whole forests, yet with each leaf in that forest as perfect and as individual as the single leaves he paints so well. A look at some of Tolkien’s most successful landscapes will explore how he resolves the tension between the part and the whole, a quality medieval theorists of beauty (particularly Aquinas and Bonaventure) call integritas.

  2. Spray” Painting. Niggle’s most nagging problem is the treatment” of a spray” he imagines in his painting. In medieval manuscript illumination — the one artform on which Tolkien could reasonably claim authority — the primary meaning of spray” is images of foliage emanating from large capital letters.” By 1300 the spray” became the cliché perch for briddes” in lyric poetry (Barbour, Bruce 16.64; Chaucer Topas 59). Compositionally, Niggle imagines the spray as a foregrounding to create depth with the nearest design element, a distant mountain to the left. Illustrations of Tolkien using this technique will be shown.

  3. Legibility. The permeability of the boundaries between painting and storytelling is betrayed when AtkinsNiggle’s schoolmaster — said of the only scrap surviving from Niggle’s painting was damaged but still legible.” In what sense is a painting legible”? Is that the right word? Well, it is revealing.

  4. Visual Imagination and Eternity.

The essentially incompatibility of overall design with the ambition of spending Niggle-like attention to every leaf in a forest of millions (no exaggeration: a mature oak has 200,000 leaves, so it only takes five trees to make a million leaves). Impossible for a single artist even in the CGI era (sit through the credits of a CGI film if you think computers totally eliminate Niggle’s problem), in a single lifetime. But given eternity — well, that explains the ending of Tolkien’s story.

As much as possible, I hope to illustrate each of these four issues with art by Tolkien in my presentation.

Authoritative information may be found here.

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date recorded 📅2022-01-23
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