Alexander and… Leaf by Niggle

A man spends his life dedicated to a single work. When he dies suddenly, the work remains unfinished. After his death, it is broken up and eventually lost.
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This could be a summary of the life of Alexander the Great but is actually the plot of Leaf by Niggle by J. R. R. Tolkien.
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Well, I say ‘the plot’; in fact, the story goes much further as we find out what happens to Niggle after his ‘death’. It is, at least on one level, a meditation on purgatory.
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The reason I focus on Niggle’s painting, though, is that its fate invites comparison with the fate of Alexander’s empire after 323 BC. It, too, was fragmented; and in time, it too was lost forever.
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Admittedly, there are some ways in which Niggle and Alexander are decidedly unalike. After his death, Niggle and his work are forgotten about. No one has forgotten – or ever will – Alexander or his empire.

This leaf comes from the Oxford Inklings blog (link belw)

This leaf comes from the Oxford Inklings blog (link below)

Their differences notwithstanding, it is interesting how two totally different subjects can be connected at all. Indeed, the connection goes further than their life’s work; there is also something to be said about their similarities of character.
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One reason why Niggle never finishes his painting is because of the intrusions of daily life. These often come in the form of neighbours-in-need. Niggle doesn’t want to help the annoyingly needy Parish but he does so anyway. When we think of Alexander’s character, his kindness won’t necessarily be the first thing that comes to mind – and no wonder, for he could be very haughty sometimes. But this over proud Alexander was also the man who, unfashionably for his age, had a deep respect for women, loved as much as he was loved by his men, and was always prepared to be clement and reward brave enemies.
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I would like, however, to come back to their legacies. The painting and empire. That neither Alexander in reality, nor Niggle in fiction, was able to finish their work makes me wonder if any man can ever achieve his aims in life. If neither the greatest or the most lowly can what hope is there for the rest of us in between? Well, when the last human being dies we’ll know if it really was impossible. Ah.
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So, we’ll never know the answer to that question. It doesn’t matter, though, because it is irrelevant. What does matter is that although Alexander’s empire may be lost he lives on in the memory of those who admire and study him. Niggle’s painting was lost, but he (sub) created a new work even after his time in the purgatorial hospital. Death need not be the end. It may, just may, be a new beginning. ‘And that,’ said somebody else of Tolkien’s acquaintance, ‘is an encouraging thought’.

  • To read the Oxford Inklings blog, click here
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