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J.R.R. Tolkien’s fascinating description of purgatory

Illustration for the story "Leaf by Niggle" by Tolkien

Nikolai Zaburdaev | rolandtopor | Shutterstock | Altered by Aleteia

Philip Kosloski - published on 11/02/17 - updated on 09/20/23

In "Leaf by Niggle," Tolkien narrates one man's journey into the afterlife, which Tolkien modeled after purgatory.

Author J.R.R. Tolkien is well known for describing his Lord of the Rings as, “a fundamentally religious and Catholic work; unconsciously so at first, but consciously in the revision.” While this might be true, there exists one short story he wrote that surpasses even The Lord of the Rings in Catholic symbolism, describing what he thought purgatory might look like.

The story

Its called “Leaf by Niggle,” and follows “a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.” At the beginning of the story he is presented as an amateur artist who keeps being interrupted by his neighbor, Mr. Parish.

Despite his annoyance with Mr. Parish, Niggle helps him in his every need. One day Niggle becomes ill. Soon after he is visited by the “Inspector of Houses,” a mysterious man who alerts Niggle that his “journey” must begin.

Niggle is driven to a railway station, and later wakes up in a Workhouse Infirmary. There the doctors give him bitter medicine, ordering him to work “at digging, carpentry, and painting bare boards all one plain color.” At first Niggle resists the monotonous work, but then embraces it, eager to help at whatever task he was given.

This leads to a Court of Inquiry, where Niggle hears two “voices” talking about him and his fate. One voice is “severe,” while the other “gentle.” After a long discourse a judgment is issued. Niggle is led to a wide-open country and in the distance sees a set of mountains. There he encounters Mr. Parish again and the two are reconciled.

Soon enough the men “saw a man, he looked like a shepherd; he was walking towards them, down the grass-slopes that led up into the Mountains. ‘Do you want a guide?‘ he asked. ‘Do you-want to go on?’” Needless to say, Niggle follows the shepherd into the new country beyond the mountains.

Unique description of purgatory

While there are many different levels to “Leaf by Niggle,” it is clear that Tolkien was relating a unique vision of purgatory. He briefly mentioned this aspect of his story in a letter, saying, “I tried to show allegorically how [subcreation] might come to be taken up into Creation in some plane in my ‘purgatorial‘ story Leaf by Niggle.”

Essentially, Niggle was not perfect on earth, but because of his charity towards Mr. Parish was led to a type of purgatory in the afterlife. There in the Infirmary Niggle is purified of his imperfections by doing work that he dreaded on earth.

Then he is visited by two voices, who are often compared to “Justice” and “Mercy.” In the eyes of God we are all viewed in this double lens, and as Pope Francis noted during a general audience, “it is the very mercy of God that brings true justice to fulfillment.”

Last of all, Niggle progresses from the pains of purgatory to a land on the borders of heaven. There he meets the “shepherd,” who invites him to a country that is (in the words of C.S. Lewis) “further up [and] further in.” His soul is finally at rest and Niggle encounters the fulfillment of all his hopes and dreams.

It is a beautiful short story, one that offers a refreshing take on purgatory that is delightful to read and inspiring to meditate on. The story presents a consoling vision of the afterlife, encouraging us that God has something wonderful planned for us, even if we must first be purified to reach it.


Read more:
Read a rare, unedited translation of Jonah by J.R.R. Tolkien

Read more:
Listen to rare recordings of J.R.R. Tolkien reading ‘The Lord of the Rings’

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