Tuesday, December 27, 2011

In Which We "Niggle" J.K. Rowling on Grand Themes from J.R.R. Tolkien

On watching Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part 2 on Blu-ray (which is pretty cool by the way), the reminder came that J.K. Rowling was clearly influenced by Tolkien. I think she's admitted this, but it became fairly obvious in  Harry's great life-after-death scene in King's Cross Station  where Dumbledore uses a single word that connected me back to my favorite Tolkien story Leaf by Niggle.

In the station, Harry asks Dumbledore what is to happen to him now. Dumbledore responds, "We're in King's Cross, you say. I think if you so desire you'd be able to board a train."

"And where would it take me?"


Tolkien's odd but beautiful story, Leaf by Niggle, is intended as an illustration of his sort of philosophical treatise, On Fairy Stories, in which he explains that fairy tales have great symbolic import as much as he denies their allegorical nature as something he detests. Then he goes on in intellectual self-denial to his wonderful allegory Leaf by Niggle. It's nice to see Tolkien's contradictory human nature strongly revealed as happens in most of us.

Anyway, Leaf by Niggle, is the kind of story revealed by the simplistic irony of the title. Niggle is a failed artist who, before undertaking a great journey, struggles all his life to paint his vision on canvas of a tree. This is not just any tree but an apparent allegory of the Tree of Life, or at least his life, as he struggles to get every detail absolutely perfect and fails over and over as he concentrates on the leaves. Niggle is constantly interrupted by the necessities of life, meddlesome government bureaucrats, and particularly, an annoying neighbor named Parish who always seems to need Niggle's help. One day, a "carriage" arrives to take Niggle away to a period of convalescence. In recovery, he hears voices conversing about his life history and is able to put in a good word for his neighbor, Parish. The next day he is sent further on his journey.
The Porter spotted him at once.
"This way!" he said, and led Niggle to a bay, in which there was a very pleasant little local train standing: one coach, and a small engine, both very bright, clean, and newly painted. It looked as this was their first run. Even the track that lay in front of the engine looked new: the rails shone, the chairs were painted green, and the sleepers gave off a delicious smell of fresh tar in the warm sunshine. The coach was empty.
"Where does this train go, Porter?" asked Niggle.
The train stops In a place named "NIGGLE" where he finds the finished Tree in all its beauty. He is joined by his former neighbor Parish and they learn to work together with Parish's gardening talents to improve the location. Niggle eventually goes "on" following a "shepherd" to the heights of the mountains he had only dreamed about in distance of his original picture. Back at his old home, the town council places a picture in their museum, a small remnant of his canvas he had used to patch his neighbor's roof. The picture is, of course, "Leaf" by Niggle. The voices are heard talking about the new name given to the train station after both Niggle and his neighbor have moved "on" to the mountains. "Niggle's Parish." When they told Niggle and Parish about the new name:
'They both laughed. Laughed - the Mountains rang with it!' 
This is a wonderful story full of all kind of symbolism arising out of Tolkien's deeply spiritual Catholicism that resonates with Mormon principles of eternal progression and charity--love of neighbor--being second only to the greatest commandment.

Ms. Rowling has explained that her whole inspiration for Harry Potter came while riding British Rail. She might have had a copy of Tolkien with her. But then, Truth, at least the meaning of the True Myth, is universal, not just found at train stations on the way.

Excerpts are from J.R.R. Tolkien, Tree and Leaf (Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston 1989) at pp. 87-88, 95.

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