The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Tuesday, December 31, 2002
TREE AND LEAF: I haven't seen The Two Towers yet, and it'll probably be a while before I do. The first film in the trilogy didn't exactly blow me away, and I expect to have a similarly mixed reaction to this one, but I'll still watch it sooner or later, if only out of respect to my Younger Self:
The Lord of the Rings was my favorite book from around age 8 to age 12, at which point I discovered Vonnegut and pretty much abandoned the high-fantasy literature that had been a staple of my preteen years. For all his flaws, I still have a warm spot in my heart for Tolkien, though not for the sometimes awful imitations he inspired. It's a warmer spot, actually, than that occupied by Vonnegut, who by the '80s was turning out his own awful imitations of himself.

By college, my favorite Tolkien tale was not The Lord of the Rings but "Leaf by Niggle," a short story he published first in 1947 and then, paired with the essay "On Fairy-Stories," as the slim volume Tree and Leaf in 1964. Both the story and the essay are defenses of fantasy, and it is the essay that includes Tolkien's famous response to those who deride fairy tales as escapist: "Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in a prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls?"

As a self-contained argument, the essay is engaging but not really complete. As a companion-piece to the short story, it serves quite well. Faerie, it declares, "holds the seas, the sun, the moon, the sky; and the Earth, and all the things that are in it: tree and bird, water and stone, wine and bread, and ourselves, when we are enchanted." It is this realm that the title character creates in "Leaf by Niggle," devoting his spare hours to a vast picture he's painting in a tall shed in his garden. Like Faerie -- or, more broadly, Fantasy -- Niggle's art serves as an escape, a fantastic diversion from a bland and bureaucratized life. While the world around him seems obsessed with trite legalities and matters of state, Niggle passes his time in the act of creation, inventing a new reality that not only is preferable to the world of a "serviceable cog" (Tolkien's phrase), but at story's end is truer than that world as well.

"On Fairy-Stories" declares the chief purposes of fantasy to be recovery, escape, and consolation, and Niggle's painting serves as each. It is a recovery of a clear view, the work of an artist "who can paint leaves better than trees" in a country where the individual leaf is sacrificed to the higher collective order. It is an escape from the "nuisance" of one's "duties" to that order. And it is a consolation, not only for Niggle but, later, for all those who use the world he has created "for convalescence." A theme of the essay reverberates in the story: that the fantasist, at his best, creates something more real than can ever be fashioned by the world's jailers, and that long after all the jails have decayed, Faerie will remain.

For a monarchist, Tolkien was quite the anti-authoritarian. His hobbits lived in a Chestertonian sort of anarchy; and Niggle is, in his ground-down way, an individualist hero -- smaller, realer, and altogether more interesting than the boring supermen favored by another sort of libertarian.


posted by Jesse 6:10 PM
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