Thursday, April 3, 2014


While Tom Shippey’s J.R.R. Tolkien: Author of the Century connects “Leaf by Niggle” to Tolkien’s life, I was surprised how much “Leaf by Niggle” and the other readings for this week connected to my own life. I could have believed that “Leaf by Niggle” was given to me by one of my teachers in mindful meditation and relaxation techniques.  I started studying/practicing (my understanding of meditation has evolved greatly the more I practice and the more I meet others who practice) meditation about a year and a half ago as a way to live life to the fullest. The goal is to create an inner peace even in the midst of all the craziness in life. It is all too easy to become wrapped up in the endless minor tasks in life and not take time to appreciate simply living.

 A passage in “Leaf by Niggle” describes the ideal that one strives towards through mindful meditation practice:

But it could not be denied that he began to have a feeling of—well, satisfaction: bread rather than jam. He could take up a task the moment one bell rang, and lay it aside promptly the moment the next one went, all tidy and ready to be continued at the right time. He got through a lot in a day now; he finished mall things off neatly. He had no ‘time of his own’… and yet he was becoming master of his time; he began to know just what he could do with it. There was no sense of rush. He was quieter inside now, and at resting-time he could really rest” (The Tolkien Reader 109).

Instead of worrying about the past or the future, Niggle lives simply for the moment and task at hand. He is not distracted by convoluted thoughts that slow down work and take away appreciation for the current moment. No longer does he experience the stress from questioning whether one will have enough time to complete a goal or feel impatience towards unexpected time obstructions he views as “distractions”, which are in themselves moments of life equally worth rejoicing in. The goal with meditation is not to block out everything and not think of anything; it is to acknowledge and accept thoughts and events as they come by without judgment. After his time in the hospital, Niggle now represents the ideal that practitioners of mindfulness strive toward; to live so much in the moment, so  that one does not even impose judgments upon it, and thus can be flexible and willing enough to do any task, without stressing about the future or the past. The idea of this goal is that once people reached this mindset, (and very few, if any, ever reach it permanently; there are always stray thoughts and distractions coming through that one must learn to accept as a part of being human) people can complete easily and without stress anything they chose to, because they are not distracted by the pressuring desire to complete it.  

 Where one is now becomes more enjoyable while living in the moment. After his time in the hospital, Niggle discovers that “the Forest of course, was a distant Forest, yet he could approach it, even enter it, without its losing that particular charm. He never had been able to walk into the distance without turning it into mere surroundings” (The Tolkien Reader 114). This quote reflects how part of the reason it is difficult to live in the moment is that future ideas and possible moments always seem much more appealing than the current moment. Learning to accept the current moment leads the current moment to take on that specialness that before seemed always out of reach.

 Even though mindfulness is a powerful meditation tool, in practice often the meditator needs other relaxation techniques in order to train their mind to be capable of the full magic of mindfulness. One very important technique is that of imagery and visualization. For this, a meditator will imagine some sort of scenario, perhaps that they are on a tropical island that belongs to them or that there is a glowing warm orb slowly moving through the body relaxing each muscle. Often the meditator has a person or an audio tape walking them through this journey.  The escape Tom Bombadil’s stories offer the hobbits is very similar to this. His storytelling is so powerful that “whether the morning evening of one day or of many days had passed Frodo could not tell. He did not feel either hungry or tired, only filled with wonder” (The Lord of the Rings 129).  Through storytelling the hobbits forget all their current needs or issues. This is important for their first major rest stop since leaving the Shire because if they thought constantly about everything a trip to Mordor entails, they probably would be too paralyzed in fear to accomplish their goals.

 After helping them forget temporarily about their woes, Tom Bombadil can then help them reduce the horror of the ring that hangs over their lives. After he surprises Frodo into handing him the ring, “suddenly he put it into his eye and laughed, for a second the hobbits had a vision, both comical and alarming, of his bright blue eye gleaming through a circle of gold… Then Tom put the Ring round the end of his little finger… There was no sign of Tom disappearing!” (The Lord of the Rings 130). In using the ring for a moment of entertainment, Tom Bombadil can lighten its burden. Through showing the ring has no power over him, Tom Bombadil proves that the ring which looms over the hobbits’ head is not the only thing of power in the world, even if it represents a seemingly impossible task hanging over their heads. Often, the future fears of what something can cause are much worse than that actual something, and Bombadil helps the hobbits to see the ring as it is in that moment—which is not causing them any harm in that exact time-- instead of how their fears display it—of doom to everything they hold dear.

 If learning how to view things in a different light enables one to better live in the moment and enjoy life, then fantasy enables people to be more satisfied and happy in life. Tolkien describes fantasy as “combining nouns and redistributing adjectives” (The Tolkien Reader 74). By attaching new concepts to old words, new possibilities and perspectives can be created. Because through a sub-creator’s eyes words and concepts do not need to be seen through a certain light, (aka with the adjectives seemingly ascribed to them as rule by the primary world), the sub-creator can be more open to mindfulness and mediation practice because they now do not need to pass judgment on moments for being as they are expected to be. This enables the sub-creator to then live a more satisfying and present life.

 -Emily Berez


  1. Thanks for the post, Emily! It's a perspective I'd never have thought of.

    The immediate question it raises to me—and that can probably be only answered by someone like yourself, since it's fundamentally subjective and experiential—is whether we're talking about the same phenomenon approached two different ways, or whether the heightened experience of the mundane through meditative mindfulness and fairy-story wonder are rather analogues.

    Do you think Tolkien is just describing a different path to the same end? Or is, to use Tolkienian capitals here, Mindfulness meaningfully different from Recovery of Wonder?

    Bill Walsh

  2. Another thing to ponder if you want to pursue this kind of thought might be the spiritualization (or, they'd say, sanctification) of work as practiced by monks, nuns, etc., in the Christian, Buddhist, Taoist, &c., traditions. If I'm recalling correctly, members of the twentieth-century Catholic order, Opus Dei (note, The Da Vinci Code is not an authoritative guide to their doctrines…) attempts to infuse their daily jobs and lives with a similar, though prayer- rather than meditation-infused heightened awareness. How this all might tie in with Recovery I leave to more advanced souls than my humble self…

    Bill Walsh

  3. You've inspired me to read Leaf and Niggle. I've been a Tolkien fan all my life (I was raised in a house named Rivendell) but have never really ventured outside of LOTR.

    You might be interested in this passage from The Fellowship of the Ring (p. 359 in my edition), which occurs just as the company is about to depart Rivendell and embark on their epic journey to Mt. Doom:

    "For a while the hobbits continued to talk and think of the past journey and perils that lay ahead; but such was the virtue of the land of Rivendell that soon all fear and anxiety was lifted from their minds. The future, good or ill, was not forgotten, but ceased to have any power over the present. Health and hope grew strong in them, and they were content with each good day as it came, taking pleasure in every meal, and in every word and song."