Tree And Leaf, Including The Poem Mythopoeia, by J.R.R. Tolkien
This book is one whose genre is difficult to tell. To be sure, the writings in this book are all connected by a theme, namely fantasy as a genre and the writing of fantasy, but the works themselves are three entirely different genres that approach the topic of choice in very different ways. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as the generic diversity does allow the reader of this short work (around 100 pages or so in length) to appreciate on a small scale the diversity of the author in terms of his writing. For those who think of Tolkien only for his writings on Middle Earth, this book is a reminder that he had other irons in the fire and that he was a more diverse writer than he is often given credit for. Indeed, the excellence of his writings on Middle Earth spring from his diverse interests and his ability to write in multiple genres, as it is impossible to think of Middle Earth without his interest in textual criticism as well as poetry and prose fiction, all of which have their role to play in the diversity of the universes he created.
This particular book, though, consists of three different but somewhat tangentially related parts. Most of the book is taken up with Tolkien’s long essay “On Fairy Stories,” which seeks to legitimize the writings of fantasy for adults, a work which introduces the reader to some of Tolkien’s more pointed textual criticism and his wide awareness of fairy tales as they are offered to children and his understanding that the themes of redemption and escape that are often found in fairy tales are more appropriate to the frustrated longings of adulthood than the innocence of childhood. This understanding, of course, was critical to his own ambitious fantasy writing which was clearly meant for adults. Second in length and place within this book is an example of Tolkien’s fantasy writing, a short but touching story called “Leaf By Niggle,” which is a poignant reminder of the way in which our frustrated and often incomplete achievements in this life can be redeemed in the world to come through our generosity to others and our ability to enter into that heavenly kingdom when that which we see partially as humans we see in full. Finally, the book closes with a poem on the making of myths called “Mythopoeia,” which provides a somewhat meta poem about writing that demonstrates Tolkien’s poetic interests.
As a whole, this book exceeds on a variety of levels, even if it is a somewhat modest work. This work as a whole can be seen as a work of legitimizing Tolkien’s writing as a whole both within the framework of textual criticism as well as by connecting Tolkien’s subcreations with his honestly and openly held Christian perspective, which makes “Leaf By Niggle” more than a story about a touchy artist who feels as if his life is a failure because of the modest scope of his earthy achievements. Some readers have even viewed “Leaf By Niggle” as an account of the author’s own feeling that his perfectionistic ways limited his own achievements, especially when compared to those friends of his like C.S. Lewis who were more prolific and fluent writers than himself. Even so, these particular elements, even if disparate in genre, are evidence of the seriousness in which Tolkien took his craft, in that he did not merely write at length about a vast and amazing world but that he took the time to justify to himself and to his God the value of the work he created and the genres in which he spent so much of his time exploring.