Tolkien’s short but poignant work Leaf by Niggle is a rich resource for speculation ranging from Platonic metaphysical themes to biographical insights into the intersection of his personal and professional lives. Although the story was composed earlier, it was sent off in 1944 in response to a request from the editor of The Dublin Review as a short story that might express “Catholic Humanity.” Tolkien responded quickly. He later claimed to have awoken one morning with the whole thing “already in mind.” 1

As Tom Shippey has argued, the protagonist, Niggle, is Tolkien himself. 2 Although it is tempting to think of Niggle as a kind of “Everyman,” the character is written with such precision, tenderness, self-recrimination, and insight that it can only be Tolkien who finds himself “niggling”—the word means to trifle away one’s time and or to be “ineffective” according to the Oxford English Dictionary. 3 In fact, this is a clear sign – in Catholic moral theology – of acedia, or sloth, which is one of the evils that hope must confront. Niggle seems to battle against his own inertia in attempts to complete tasks, focusing on his work, and fighting distraction. Shippey further notes that the development of Niggle’s character is written out of a kind of creative and personal angst while Tolkien is working on The Lord of the Rings and (1) fears he will not finish it and (2) realizes he spends too much time on minor narrative details as well as the trifling academic matters that his university duties require of him.

If there is a virtue that informs and shapes this narrative it is hope, one of the most important yet overlooked virtues. According to Aquinas, hope is the patient expectation of a difficult but possible future good. 4 It is “objectum spei est bonum futurum arduum possibile haberi.” Hope, on Aquinas’ account, sustains the moral agent by offering help against despair (and presumption) as well as strength to resist the related temptation of acedia. 5

In what follows, I summarize Leaf by Niggle in three acts. I then look at the key elements in Aquinas’ moral theology as found (primarily) in the Summa Theologiae. And finally, I argue that Niggle shows how one can overcome despair in order to achieve the “difficult but possible good.” Although Tolkien makes no references to Aquinas, the medieval saint’s influence had so permeated Catholic moral theology in the early twentieth century that it would have been difficult for him to avoid Thomistic accounts of the virtues and vices. Alison Milbank notes that “Tolkien was not only brought up as a Catholic and thus sat through sermons by those trained in Aquinas, but owned a copy of the Summa which has some marginal notes.” 6 I offer here an account of Leaf by Niggle that interprets the text primarily as a narrative of hope and in so doing cast new light on an essentially Christian theme that gives shape to this text as a kind of exercise in moral theology.

 The Story in Three Acts

Although Tolkien’s story is only 23 pages in length, the writing is concise, rich, and evocative. There are three discernable phases or acts to the story: Niggle’s home, the Workhouse, and the Beautiful Country. These three allegorical locales roughly represent our temporal life on earth, purgatory, and the beatific vision respectively. 7

Act 1: Niggle’s Home

The story begins simply, “There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make. He did not want to go, indeed the whole idea was distasteful to him; but he could not get out of it.” 8 The “journey” is inevitable and it is, of course, death. 9 Throughout the first portion of the story, the journey looms in the background as an ever-present character waiting to make its appearance. And since it is unpleasant, Niggle repeatedly pushes the thought of it to the back of his mind.

We also discover that Niggle is a painter. But Tolkien quickly lets his reader know that he is “Not a very successful one partly because he had many other things to do. Most of these things he thought were a nuisance” (87). Niggle faces two basic problems: the internal struggle to overcome his own inertia and the seemingly endless external distractions to his work. 10 The inner struggles include the fact that he is often “just idle” (87). But he also cannot seem to focus, and sometimes simply fails to do anything at all. We are told little about the reasons for this other than the impression that he simply wished to avoid the demands of his work.

The external distractions included many things such as interruptions by people he himself had invited to his house, a call to jury duty, and most significantly his neighbor, Parish. Parish, who is physically impaired by a leg injury and cannot move well, often needs Niggle to do things that he cannot do for himself. Parish’s wife is also frequently sick and this adds to Niggle’s list of interruptions. Niggle and the Parishes live a long distance from others and as a result Parish often importunes Niggle with requests for assistance. Niggle always obliges even when he thinks nothing is wrong.

Parish does not think much of Niggle either. Parish does not understand what the artist does or appreciate his work. In many respects Parish thinks Niggle wastes his time and that his painting has little value—especially the painting of the Great Tree, which is Niggle’s aesthetic obsession.

The painting in question is one that suddenly grips Niggle’s imagination; he begins his work on the “Great Tree”—on a massive canvas, and tries to devote as much time as he can to it. It occupies all his waking thoughts. In a very important sense, his painting of The Great Tree is his vocation. 11 It is a vision of something that “calls” him beyond himself. He says to himself, “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on the wretched journey”12 (89). He is torn between his desire to finish the painting before the journey and his many distractions.

Then, one day the “Inspector” arrives and notes that Niggle has been negligent with sharing his canvases with those who truly need them (for repairs in the town which has been flooded). As Niggle is giving his apologetic, the “Driver” appears to take him on his journey. He knew the day would come but he is caught unprepared. The driver whisks him off to the train station where he boards with no luggage and no sense of readiness. The train departs for who knows where.

Act 2: The Workhouse – Purgatory

Once the train arrives in the station, Niggle faints and he is taken to the infirmary. They give him medicine which is bitter and his care-givers, such as they are, seem to be unfriendly, silent, strict, and severe. He is immediately put to work. It is difficult and he dislikes it. Time becomes irrelevant to him and the days are repetitive, dreary, and onerous. Tolkien says “At any rate, poor Niggle got no pleasure out of life” (98). But Niggle does, whether he realizes it or not, acquire self-discipline and the ability to become “master of his time,” something he never managed to do prior to the workhouse. But then once again his schedule is changed but for the worse. The work becomes excruciating until the doctor finally says “Enough.”

As he is resting in the dark he hears two voices: the one seems to represent a fairly strict version of Justice while the other represents Mercy. The voices argue about whether Niggle has done his time. The Voice of Justice accuses Niggle of not having his “head screwed on tight enough” while the Voice of Mercy counters with the rejoinder that while he was at home his “heart was in the right place” (99). He was tormented with sloth and failed to fulfill the demands of love (and justice). The Voice of Justice argues for more time served but Mercy’s Voice counters that Niggle never saw himself as anything other than what he was, a humble painter of leaves. And even though he did complain repeatedly about Parish, he did practice compassion for his neighbor and he never expected reciprocation or gratitude.

When the voices cease talking between themselves, they address Niggle. His first thought is of Parish, his neighbor, not of himself. He even speaks favorably of Parish. The voices are glad to hear of Parish’s good qualities and then, after some deliberation, determine that Niggle can proceed to the “next stage.”

Act 3: The Beautiful Country

Niggle is released. He walks down to the train station in the sunlight where all is fresh and clean. He boards the train and rides until it stops. When he alights, he realizes that the area is strangely familiar. He finds a bike with his name on it (apparently, in this country he is known by name) and the letters are all uncials. He begins to ride with great joy. There is an ineffable beauty to this country—he can even see every blade of grass. And then he sees The Tree, His Tree, and his epiphany is so complete that he falls off his bike. He stands and opens his arms wide and proclaims, “It’s a gift!” He inspects the Tree:

All the leaves he had labored at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful—and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle style—were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it (104).

There is still some work to do to complete The Tree, so he begins. But he quickly realizes he needs another perspective to complete the Tree. He wishes for his “friend” – or rather, the annoying neighbor who has been transformed into his friend – Parish.13 And no sooner than he wished for him, Parish arrives. Together they begin the work and after time passes they complete the Tree. They regret their failure to perceive the goodness and gifts the other person possessed in the world before the Workhouse and they begin to realize that they could not have accomplished the work on the Tree as individuals working alone. After a period of working together and consulting with one another profitably, Parish’s leg heals and Niggle feels a longing to see the mountains.

They go for a walk in the beautiful country towards the mountains and find a man who looks like a Shepherd who asks if they want a guide. Niggle wants to go on but Parish turns back to wait for his wife. Before he parts with Niggle, Parish has his own epiphany while talking with the Shepherd who explains that this is Niggle’s country, from Niggle’s painting—and then reprimands Parish by saying, “You might have caught the glimpse, if you had ever thought it worth while to try” (109). With this new understanding, Parish and Niggle bid each other goodbye. Niggle heads off to the Mountains with the Shepherd.


Niggle’s departure for the mountains would appear to be the end of the story, but Tolkien takes his readers back to the town. The members of the town council discuss Niggle’s value as a person, a member of the community, and an artist. Tompkins, the resident cold-hearted utilitarian, despised Niggle and even callously suggests that Niggle should have been sent on the journey much earlier. He proclaims that he would, “Push him through the tunnel into the great Rubbish Heap: that’s what I mean” (110). Councilman Atkins is much more compassionate and defends Niggle as well as his art. The conversation ends. Tolkien notes that Niggle is largely forgotten by the townspeople. Then the mysterious voices from the Workhouse reappear.

Niggle’s beautiful country has become a splendid place for tired and sick souls. The name of the station has now been established as “Niggle’s Parish.” The Voice of Mercy sends a message to tell Niggle and Parish the name of the station. The Voice of Justice asks, “What did they say?” Mercy answers, “They both laughed. Laughed—the Mountains rang with it!” (112).

Niggle has become a person who has sufficient character (that is, virtue) and vocation that it does not matter what others – at least those who refuse to see the “glimpses” of hope offered to them – think of him and his work. 14 This observation is corroborated by the adjectives Tolkien uses to describe Niggle at significant points in the journey. Tolkien refers to Niggle as “little,” “poor,” and “silly” no fewer than 12 times in this 23-page story.15 Yet, once he leaves the Workhouse, these words are never used again, signifying Niggle’s progress in virtue. Hope has been made complete in his joy. But to see how hope connects to joy – as well as to prudence and other virtues – a discussion of Aquinas’ work on these topics is in order.

Aquinas’ Account of Hope

Aquinas sees hope as one of the passiones animae (“emotions of the soul”) as well as a theological virtue, although the emotion and the virtue differ in significant ways. 16 But the description of the emotion differentiates and illuminates his later discussion of the theological virtue in important ways. And so a brief look at the emotion of hope is helpful.

In the prima secundae of the Summa he discusses the passiones animae which, translated literally, are the “passions of the soul.” There is a great deal of secondary literature on this topic 17 but for the sake of brevity, I will follow the lead of Nicholas Lombardo in The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion 18 and call natural hope an “emotion.” These emotions are part of a person who is an integral whole. And since there are eleven of these emotions found in the sensitive powers of the soul, a person may feel multiple passiones at the same time.

Consider for example Niggle’s desire to complete his painting and the competing desire to help his neighbor. He desperately wants to finish the painting but finds the demands of compassion and care in conflict with his desire to follow his vocation as a painter. In addition to these two desires, there is a third desire: the fear that he will not complete the painting. But in order to unravel this problem, we need a more complete account of how the emotion of hope operates and the difficulties it presents.

In general, “Passion is a movement of the sense appetite caused by imagining good or evil” (IaIIae.22.3). Hope, then, is generally speaking a movement of the soul for a good of some kind. More specifically, Aquinas defines hope as the patient expectation of a difficult but possible good, or in other terms, “the object of hope is a future, difficult, but possible good”—objectum spei est bonum futurum arduum possibile haberi. (IIaIIae.17.1) There are four elements here:

  1. Hope always desires a perceived good—bonum. We always pursue an object sub ratio boni, under the “formality of the good.”
  2. Hope concerns the future—futurum. We do not hope for what we already possess. Hope is an activity we engage in in the present whose object lies in the future.
  3. Hope’s aim is always a difficult good—arduum. Unless there is some difficulty one must overcome, hope is not needed.
  4. Hope is always about a good that is possible—possibile. But I can only hope for those objects that are attainable or at least “potentially attainable.” 19

Hope, as one of the passiones animae, is simply the response to a sensible good that the agent perceives. The end intended here is not sought as the good qua good but simply as an object to be hoped for immediately; that is, as a particular good. Aaron Cobb helpfully observes that

Insofar as human flourishing is realized most fully in one’s union with God, all natural hopes are for goods that are proximate rather than ultimate. Natural hopes are related to one’s ultimate end insofar as they are aligned properly with and subordinated to one’s hope for union with God. 20

Unlike the virtuous hope, emotional hope can only strengthen our desire for – and encourage us towards – a difficult sensible good.

This movement to a perceived sensible good is a function of the concupiscible appetite. But these appetites are oriented to a variety of sensible goods that the agent pursues under various conditions. Michael Lamb notes that for Aquinas, a “passion is a discrete, potentially unstable movement of the sensitive appetite.” 21 Hope, as a passion or emotion, is prompted by the apprehension of a particular good that the agent desires at that moment, which explains its instability. In contrast to the emotions, virtues have a constancy that arises out of conformity to their proper rule and measure. 22 In order that this particular emotion might become a stable disposition the agent requires the perfecting work of the moral virtue magnanimity (not the theological virtue of hope) since magnanimity is an acquired virtue that strengthens and stabilizes our desire for the difficult good. 23

Like the other acquired virtues, magnanimity conforms to right reason; more specifically, it enables us to pursue great things according to right reason. As such it directs and shapes the emotion of hope in ways that reflect an agent’s careful deliberation and assessment of the difficult good and his relationship to that good. As Lamb points out, magnanimity has two important features; first, it concerns an internal passion of the sensitive appetite and its object is entirely within our power to achieve. 24 As an acquired virtue, magnanimity employs right reason to judge whether the object of our hope (in this case, honor) is within our grasp and strengthens the desire for this good. Hope is thereby strengthened by magnanimity to achieve the honor that is the reward of virtue. Yet, the virtue of magnanimity – as an acquired virtue – is about the honor we can achieve primarily by our own efforts. Aquinas says we see a “strength of hope arising from some observation which gives one a strong opinion that one will obtain a certain good” (IIaIIae.129.6). We can attain this good through the strengthening of hope; and this is the work of magnanimity.

But hope, for Aquinas, has two different referents; and these referents are not always clearly distinguished. It is an emotion (that is, a response of a passio that is ordered to a proximate good) that can be shaped by magnanimity—but is also a theological virtue that has as its proper object the beatific vision. In this latter case, both reason and the emotions are taken up into the power of grace that transforms their functions in light of the infused theological virtues. 25

Hope in the Context of the Theological Virtues

Hope is not simply a virtue; it is a theological virtue. But in order to understand its significance as a theological virtue, we should first comment on the general definition Aquinas offers concerning virtue and the nature of the acquired virtues.

In general, a virtue is a “good quality of the soul,” in that it is an ability to act from a stable disposition and always for the good. 26 But there are two ways in which we can acquire a stable disposition: by means of our own efforts (and these are acquired moral virtues)—and by means of divine grace (and these are theological or infused virtues). The acquired moral virtues direct us to our natural, or imperfect, ends while the theological virtues direct us to the beatific vision of God—our supernatural, or perfect, end (IaIIae.5.3, IaIIae.62).

Of the acquired moral virtues, prudence takes the preeminent role and consists in “recta ratio agibilium”—right reasoning about things to be done (IIaIIae.47,1). In any morally good act, prudence is implicitly involved. In magnanimity, for example, right reason helps us understand what kinds of things truly are attainable to us given an accurate understanding of our own abilities and the difficult good that we desire. Prudence, as an acquired virtue, deliberates, judges, and acts on the basis of temporal goods. Yet, prudence can also be an infused virtue and this is because “All the moral virtues are infused together with charity” (IaIIae.65.4). An infused virtue is one bestowed on us by God as their efficient cause (extra nos). Three theological virtues – faith, hope, and charity – are infused virtues because they order us directly to God and cannot be acquired by our own efforts. Charity is the preeminent theological virtue since by it we are united with God (IIaIIae.23). This love from – and for – God shapes and orders all our intentions to God including the acts of those virtues that at one time may have been acquired but are now infused. 27

Now charity and hope are both infused virtues that direct the will to the Good. The will, as rational appetite, desires the good qua good and not merely any particular good. Whereas the emotion of hope is rooted in a sensitive appetite, the virtue of hope is the perfection of the will in obtaining a difficult good. Hope – considered as a virtue – is a stable disposition that enables its possessor to endure difficulties on the way to realizing the Good. But it is reason and the gift of counsel that enable us to see that we need help from others in order to achieve this Good.

Throughout the entire secunda secundae, we see that reason is never “replaced” by grace but is “healed” or “perfected” by it. 28 Prudence helps us deliberate but is also informed by the orientation of charity and thereby assists us in thinking about what we can and should hope for in light of seeing God as our True Good. 29 Some things we can hope for lie within our own power (as in the case of magnanimity), but there are also those ends that necessarily require assistance from others—and it is here that hope is clearly a theological virtue since it concerns an “arduous” good; that is, union with God.

Any good that is “difficult” is one that we are not certain of acquiring. There are obstacles to overcome, and very likely we will need assistance. As Charles Pinches notes, it is hope that strengthens us to face the obstacles in our way. 30 In this theological virtue it is not only God Himself who encourages and assists us but also God Who is our ultimate end. 31 As William Mattison says, “Hope thus has a twofold ‘object,’ or target: in God who is our complete fulfillment and happiness, and in God who is our help in attaining that destiny.” 32 Divine grace is required for both. We must, therefore, adopt an attitude of humility in accepting that we cannot achieve this divinely appointed end by means of our own efforts. The virtues are united here in that hope and humility mean that we should desire the good, we realize we cannot attain it on our own, and that we must accept help for the journey to it. 33 If the difficulties of the journey overwhelm us, or if we fail to see that we cannot attain the good that hope desires we run the risk of falling into sin. 34

The Enemies of Hope

Hope contends with two opposite vices: presumption and despair. 35 Aquinas tells us that hope does not consist in being a mean between extremes of too much or too little. After all, one cannot hope in God too much. Yet, he says that “it does have a mean as well as extremes concerning those things a person hopes to obtain in so far as one either presumes to obtain what is beyond one’s capacity or despairs of those things one is capable of” (IIaIIae.17,5, ad2). Josef Pieper claims that both are enemies of the person who is “on the way,” the status viatoris. 36

Presumption tempts us to think that we “have arrived” and that we require no assistance from anyone. 37 Presumption is closely akin to pride in that it fails to acknowledge God’s ever present help both as the end (that is, the telos) of our hope and as the constant companion along the way. In fact, Aquinas says that presumption is born out of both vainglory and pride (IIaIIae. 21,4). But presumption is only one (and here not the most important) danger we can fall into.

The other more relevant enemy, at least in our discussion, is despair. People who despair acknowledge that the object hoped for is, in truth, a good to be pursued. Yet, we are committed to the belief to which we cannot attain because it seems too difficult. We either think that we cannot achieve it on our own or that even with help from others it will still lie beyond our reach. Rebecca Konyndyk-DeYoung articulates it this way: Hope’s distinction from its opposing vices is defined in terms of possibility. In the case of the theological virtue, the future good to be attained with difficulty is union with God (human beings’ supernatural end), which can only be reached with God’s assistance. Both despair and presumption close off the possibility of attaining this arduous, as-yet-unattained good. They do so by treating this good as something other than a possible good. 38

The reason for this is that we have become weary with doing what we must and that which once seemed possible no longer is. Acedia (that is, sloth) drains the life out of us and serves as a cause of despair (it is, in Aquinas’ words, a “daughter of sloth”). The more we refuse the demands of love the more desperate we become. Aquinas says,

The fact that someone thinks an arduous good is impossible to obtain, either by one’s own effort or by another’s, is due to being overly downcast, because when this state of mind dominates one’s affections, it seems that we will never be able to rise to any good. And since sloth is a sadness that casts down our spirit, it is in this way that despair is caused by sloth. (IIaIIae.20.4)

But this is a result of not “seeing the world rightly.” That is, our affections have been so conditioned that they can respond neither to right reason nor to the gift of counsel. But hope strengthens us in a proper understanding of our relationship with God so that we can resist the temptation to despair. The task of hope is to desire the good and to remain strong because of the one in Whom we hope. That is, hope draws its strength from the assurance that it is God Who assists us in our pursuit of the good—that is God Himself. There are indeed obstacles, but they are not insurmountable if one places one’s hope in God

The Hopeful Tale of Niggle

The narrative allegorizes at least three central elements in Aquinas’ understanding of hope: the journey motif, his vision of a difficult but possible good, and his struggle against despair. There are, of course, other important elements here including magnanimity, humility, perseverance, the nature of the beatific vision, and the necessary purging of Niggle’s soul.

When we find Niggle at the beginning of the story, he is in media res. Niggle is in the midst of his life with its various demands, obligations, and distractions but simultaneously knowing that he must make the journey. The journey will be difficult – he anticipates this – and he knows not how he will get where he is going or how he will get to parts unknown. As we have seen, an important element of being a viator is that one requires assistance for the journey. Niggle receives assistance from the doctor, the Voices, and even from Parish, whom he thought at one time was merely a nuisance. In fact, we discover that in retrospect Parish is critical to Niggle’s completion of The Great Tree. One’s perspective while on the journey is considerably limited, and different from one’s perspective at the end of the journey.

The viator feels himself drawn to a vision of something beyond himself. That is, there is a telos that evokes an ecstatic response. A vision of The Good calls to us and starts us on the journey. If there is no perception of The Good (or The Beautiful as these are “convertible” terms—that is, the same object considered under different auspices), there is no movement; there is no journey (IaIIae.94.2). Niggle has glimpses of The Great Tree in his terrestrial life and it ultimately calls forth from him his best work. That is, his vision of the Great Tree is a foretaste of the Great Tree that he comes to experience after the Work House. The Great Tree is his “vocation.” He must work because he cannot not work.

With regard to pursuit of the difficult, future, possible good, we see that the Niggle narrative fits nicely here with Aquinas’ account of virtuous hope. As we have seen, the good functions as a telos that calls to Niggle. The vision of The Great Tree animates and directs Niggle’s work. It is a good that can only be anticipated as a future good. It is the good that gives meaning and shape to all his work.

Yet, serious difficulties lie between us and the object of our hope. Niggle faces the constant interruptions from Parish and Parish’s wife, the invited and uninvited guests, the tasks of daily life, and so on. Distracting as these things are, he struggles against the inertia of his own sloth and lack of self-discipline. He trifles away his time doing nothing, or focusing on minutiae until he is gripped by the vision. But by this time, it is too late either to finish his work or to develop the necessary virtues required to complete the task. In the end, we see that the completion of the Great Tree is so difficult that he cannot complete it on his own. At the beginning of the story, he lacks both time and self-discipline, and, as a result, is tempted to despair. Despair takes hold of us when we see the good that calls to us but we believe it is no longer a possible good. That is, we see the difficulties as insurmountable and conclude, “This cannot be mine.” In Niggle’s case, sloth gives birth to despair that his work will never be actualized. In other words, he is afraid of never experiencing the joy of seeing The Great Tree completed. In fact, Niggle’s despair is only heightened because just as he figures out one of the more complicated elements of how he should proceed, the Driver comes to take him away. And yet, if it were not perceived as a possible good he would not, and could not, have devoted his efforts to it. We see here the tension between the good that calls to us as possible and the despair we face when we are tempted to think that it cannot be achieved.

His time in the Work House initiates and develops in him the capacity to complete a task, to focus his energy, and to prioritize his tasks. And even though the conditions are bleak, he survives. What happens is a transformation whereby he is assisted in the development of self-discipline by the doctor and the others, but it is the Voice of Mercy that speaks comfort and encouragement to him.

The story ends with Niggle achieving the beautiful country, his joy at seeing The Great Tree, the satisfaction he has in seeing its completion, his realization that he did not do it without assistance, and his continuing adventure into the mountains. That is, his hope – his patient expectation of the difficult good – is no longer a future possibility but a present and joyful reality. However, two questions remain: Is the story really about the acquired virtue of magnanimity or the theological virtue of hope? And, if the narrative is about hope, how can Niggle place his hope in a God who seems absent from the narrative?

If magnanimity is the virtue that perfects the passion of hope, then one could read Niggle’s desire to finish the Great Tree in the context of strengthening his resolve to complete the task. However, if his work is primarily about a stable disposition that is infused in him by God and can only be achieved through God’s help, then the narrative is primarily about the theological virtue of hope. Although there are elements of magnanimity that contribute to Niggle’s development, hope seems to shape more of the story. 39

First, it is clear from the story that Niggle is incapable of finishing the task on his own. Even if he could avoid the vice of acedia and develop prudence to order his time well, we see retrospectively that he could not have completed the Great Tree without the assistance of Parish and the help of the voices. Moreover, prudence would have shown him the limits of his abilities and his need to put his hope in others. But lacking prudence and the theological virtues, he was unable to understand this.

A second point here is that magnanimity concerns only the desires of the sensitive appetites and not the resolve of the will. The Great Tree (as well as the country itself) functions allegorically as the beatific vision with which Niggle yearns to be united. It is not the object of some sensible appetite but represents Goodness itself. Hope is a virtue that perfects the will, and the will’s ultimate object is the Good, not any particular good. And since magnanimity can only perfect the passion of hope, it cannot attain to the good qua good. Only the virtue of hope can do this.

But this leads to the second possible objection: it appears that God is not part of the story and hope, as a theological virtue, fundamentally requires God as the object as well as the helper. That is, hope has a two-fold object: “the good which it intends to obtain and the help by which it is obtained” (IIaIIae.17.1).

Quite clearly, Niggle does not reference God as the object of his desire. God does not appear – unless one considers the mysterious shepherd to be Christ – nor is God the explicit object of his will. The object of his desire is the completion of the Great Tree and the exploration of the country. Moreover, Niggle does not seem to require the assistance of God in order to achieve his goal. Rather, God’s assistance seems to be as absent as is His existence. But if we recognize the mythical nature of the narrative we might find that God is, in fact, at work in the story in at least three ways.

First, the Voices of Justice and Mercy seem to represent aspects of God’s nature as requiring adherence to the law on the part of creatures but also as extending forgiveness and grace. The voices are never named but they still play the part of divine judgment and grace. And Niggle receives from them both judgment and forgiveness.

Second, the Great Tree represents Niggle’s final goal. It is the completion of his artistic vision (but one must also add that the journey does not end with the Tree itself but with the exploration of the country with the Shepherd). The last good, the ultimate good, is that for which all other things are desired. God is, therefore, at least implicitly present in the story, not as a character among other characters but as the complete Good.

Thirdly, one must also hope in the help of God. But sometimes God’s help is offered through other agents. In this case, Niggle – once he arrives in the Green Country – recognizes his need for Parish and his assistance. The Great Tree cannot be completed without the help of Parish and, in fact, it was Parish himself who actually facilitated the completion of specific leaves on the Tree to which the Tree itself bears witness. For Aquinas, one can see that our hope can be in the help of others. He says that when we hope in another person, this other serves as a person “through whom one is helped to obtain any goods that are ordained to happiness” (IIaIIae.17.4). Clearly, Parish helped Niggle to obtain a future, difficult, possible good in a way that Niggle could not have done on his own.

Tolkien’s mythological Leaf by Niggle explores the difficulties and obstacles anyone might face in life’s journey to the Good. It examines the vices that prevent us from getting there as well as the virtues necessary for its completion. Unfortunately, in most people virtue is often mixed with vice, as Tolkien readily admits. As a result, the way forward can only be accomplished through virtues of character combined with the necessary assistance of others. Hope, it seems, acknowledges that these two factors work together in achieving the difficult but possible future Good at which our actions should be directed. And in the end, with Niggle, one can exclaim that “It is a gift.” 40


Tolkien’s fictional characters often demonstrate the struggles most real people face in their various activities and projects. His short story about a frustrated artist, Niggle, does this as clearly as any of his works. Because of various interruptions and his own lack of discipline, Niggle struggles against despair and sloth in his attempts to complete his magnum opus, the painting of a Great Tree. It is only through the virtue of hope and the assistance of his neighbor that he is able to accomplish this task. The account of the virtues and vices as offered by Thomas Aquinas provides a helpful lens for understanding Niggle’s moral struggles and it also shows how this work of Tolkien’s is decidedly Christian in its orientation.

Cite this article
Craig A. Boyd, “The Thomistic Virtue of Hope in Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 48:2 , 131-145


  1. J. R. R. Tolkien, “Introductory Note,” in Tree and Leaf (London: Allen and Unwin, 1964), 9-10. He says, “The story was not published until 1947 (Dublin Review). It has not been changed since it reached manuscript form, very swiftly one day when I awoke with it already in mind. One of its sources was a great-limbed poplar tree that I could see even lying in bed. It was suddenly lopped and mutilated by its owner, I do not know why. It is cut down now, a less barbarous punishment for any crimes it may have been accused of, such as being large and alive. I do not think it had any friends, or any mourners, except myself and a pair of owls.”
  2. Tom Shippey, J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century (New York: Harper Collins, 2000), 267. Humphrey Carpenter agrees, in his important work, J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1977)with Shippey’s assessment but this view has recently been challenged by Marie Nelson. She argues that the structure represents an almost direct parallel to the Everyman narrative. See her “J. R. R. Tolkien’s ‘Leaf by Niggle’: An Allegory in Transformation,” Mythlore 28.3/4 (Spring/Summer 2010): 5-19. I think it is possible, however, to maintain both views. That is, Tolkien uses the Everyman structure to tell his own allegorical narrative. In one of his letters he confesses to his publisher, “I am sorry to inflict such nigglings on you (I am a natural niggler, alas!) which will not seem to anyone else as important as they do to me; and nothing can be done about them now anyway,” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, ed. Humphrey Carpenter (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1981), Letter #236, 313.
  3. Oxford English Dictionary 1st ed. Volume VII (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1933), 138. Tolkien was also a contributor to this edition of the OED. See Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner, The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
  4. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, IIaIIae.17.1 (Rome: Leonine Edition, 1973-Present). All translations are the author’s and subsequent citations will be cited parenthetically in the text according to part, question, and article. Recent works on hope include Dominic Doyle, The Promise of Christian Humanism: Thomas Aquinas on Hope (Crossroad, 2012); Michael Lamb, “Aquinas and the Virtues of Hope: Theological and Democratic,” Journal of Religious Ethics 44 (2016): 300-332; Michael Lamb, “A Passion and Its Virtue: Aquinas on Hope and Magnanimity,” in Hope, eds. Ingolf U. Dalferth and Marlene A. Block (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2016): 67-88; and Pope Benedict XVI, Spe Salvi (Pauline Press, 2007).
  5. Aquinas argues that acedia is a cause of despair and says that despair is one of the “daughters of acedia,” ST, IIaIIae. 35.4, ad2.
  6. Alison Milbank, Chesterton and Tolkien as Theologians (London: T&T Clark: 2008), 37.
  7. Tolkien was famously resistant to allegory but admits that Niggle is the most allegorical of all his works (Letter #153, 195).
  8. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle” in A Tolkien Reader (New York: Ballantine, 1966), 87. (All references to “Niggle” are hereafter cited parenthetically in the text, according to The Tolkien Reader edition).
  9. Matthew Dickerson sees the “Journey as death and afterlife, the workhouse as purgatory, and the Mountains as heaven.” See his “Tree and Leaf,” in J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, ed. Michael D.C. Drout (New York: Routledge, 2007), 676; Shippey agrees and says that “The long journey the ‘little man’ Niggle has to make—which all men have to make—is death,” J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century, 267.
  10. Concerning Niggle’s woes, Brian Rosebury writes that “the insufficiency of time for the creative artist is a principal theme” that dominates the early portion of the narrative. See his Tolkien: A Cultural Phenomenon (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 128.
  11. Jane Chance suggests that the Tree possibly represents both the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as well as the cross since, “The cross, too, on which Christ, the second Adam, was crucified was frequently regarded in the Middle Ages as a ‘tree’ constructed from the same wood as the Tree of Life, the other tree appearing in paradise, in order to anticipate the power of His love in overcoming the sin of Adam and redeeming all humankind,” Tolkien’s Art: A Mythology for England (Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky, 2001), 87. Angélica Varandas says that “in fact, trees are in Tolkien’s world the very symbols of earthly perfections, as well as of freedom and peace,” in “The Tree and the Myth of Creation in J. R. R. Tolkien,” The Power of Form: Recycling Myths, eds. Ana Raquel Fernandes, José Pedro Serra, and Rui Carlos Fonseca (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 203.
  12. Emphasis added.
  13. Carson Holloway observes that, “as Niggle considers how he might complete his tree, he realizes that he requires ‘help and advice,’ that his subcreative work must be collaborative if it is to be successful.” See Paul E. Kerry, ed., The Ring and the Cross: Christianity and the Lord of the Rings (Lanham, MD: Farleigh Dickinson University Press, 2011), 182.
  14. Paul H. Kocher, Master of Middle-earth: The Fiction of J. R. R. Tolkien (New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1972), 166. “This key word glimpse … is used several times in the essay in the same context to characterize the brief clouded insight into the permanence which is all that a writer of tales can hope to catch.”
  15. There is an interesting kind of parallel to this at the end of The Hobbit, where Gandalf and Bilbo have the following exchange: Gandalf says, “‘You are a very fine person, Mr. Baggins, and I am very fond of you; but you are only quite a little fellow in a wide world after all!’ ‘Thank goodness!’ said Bilbo laughing, and handed him the tobacco jar.”
  16. As one of the passiones animae, hope is considered in the Summa TheologiaeIaIIa.40,1—as a theological virtue it can be found at IIaIIae.17. For a brief consideration of hope as both emotion and theological virtue, see Charles Pinches, “Hope,” in Virtues and Their Vices, eds. Kevin Timpe and Craig A. Boyd (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 349-368; Doyle, The Promise of Christian Humanism, 72-80.
  17. Nicholas Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion (Washington, DC: Catholic University of America Press, 2011); Diana Fritz-Cates, Aquinas on the Emotions: A Religious-Ethical Inquiry (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2009); Robert Miner, Thomas Aquinas on the Passions: A Study of the Summa Theologiae 1ae2ae 22-48 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011); Shawn Floyd, “Aquinas on Emotion: A Response to Some Recent Interpretations,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 15 (1998): 161-175; Mark D. Jordan, “Aquinas’s Construction of a Moral Account of the Passions,” Freiburger Zeitschrift für Philosophie und Theologie 33 (1986): 71-97; Servais Pinckaers, “Les Passions et la Morale,” Revue des Sciences Philosophiques et Théologiques 74 (1990): 379-391; Robert C. Roberts, “Thomas Aquinas on the Morality of the Emotions,” History of Philosophy Quarterly 9 (1992): 287-305; Kevin White, “The Passions of the Soul (IaIIae, qq22-48),” The Ethics of Aquinas, ed. Stephen J. Pope (Washington, DC: Georgetown University Press, 2002).
  18. Lombardo, The Logic of Desire: Aquinas on Emotion, 19.
  19. More on this below as I discuss the relationships among hope, humility, prudence, and magnanimity.
  20. Aaron D. Cobb, “The Silence of God and the Theological Virtue of Hope,” Res Philosophica94.1 (2017): 28.
  21. Michael Lamb, “Aquinas and the Virtues of Hope: Theological and Democratic,” Journal of Religious Ethics 44 (2016): 305.
  22. In the case of the acquired virtues this rule and measure is the right reason of prudence. In the case of the theological virtues the rule and measure is the law of God. In De Malo, Aquinas notes the relationship of reason and divine law as “rules and measures.” He says, “It belongs to reason to direct the appetites, and especially insofar as the law of God informs reason. Therefore, an appetite will be morally right and virtuous if the appetite is borne to a naturally desired good by the rule of reason, and there will be sin whether the appetite exceeds the rule of reason or falls short of it.” And since the Eternal Law is the reason of God, it follows that human reason, when it conforms to eternal reason, is moral. Human reason is thus the proximate rule that directs us to our appointed end while eternal law is the ultimate rule. But this does not mean that the law of God and human reason are two entirely different standards.
  23. Lamb, in “A Passion and Its Virtue,” notes that “the stability of hope requires a virtue to guide it since we may have reasons for a good but our reasons may not be good reasons.” Lamb notes that “the guidance of reason does not necessarily entail the guidance of right reason. A passion can be morally, politically, or emotionally inappropriate even when it is rational in a minimal sense; we can have intelligible reasons for hope even if these are not morally good reasons,” 77.
  24. Michael Lamb, “A Passion and Its Virtue,” 79.
  25. As a theological virtue, hope perfects the rational appetite, the will, in relation to God. 26IIaIIae.55.4. Aquinas approvingly quotes Augustine who says that “Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live rightly, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us without us.”
  26. IIaIIae.55.4. Aquinas approvingly quotes Augustine who says that “Virtue is a good quality of the mind, by which we live rightly, of which no one can make bad use, which God works in us without us.”
  27. Josef Pieper offers a helpful explanation of this material from Aquinas when he says, “prudence is the mold of the moral virtues; but charity molds even prudence itself … for charity, being participation by grace in the life of the Trinitarian God is, in essence, a gift ultimately beyond the power of man’s will or reason to bestow.” The Four Cardinal Virtues (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1966), 37.
  28. The phrase “Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit” (“Grace does not destroy nature but perfects it”) is an important and central aspect of Aquinas’ thought.
  29. The means by which prudence is perfected is through the gift of counsel. Aquinas says, “It is proper for the rational creature to be moved to some action through the inquiry of reason and this inquiry is called counsel. Thus, the Holy Spirit is said to move the rational creature through counsel which is considered one of the gifts of the Spirit” (IIaIIae.52.1).
  30. Pinches, “Hope,” 351.
  31. IIaIIae.17.5. “We say t at hope has the nature of a virtue because it attains the supreme rule of human actions. Moreover, it attains this rule both as the first efficient cause in as much as it needs this assistance. And also as the ultimate final cause in as much as it expects to enjoy beatitude in it. Hence, it is clear that God is the principal object of hope considered as a virtue.”
  32. William C. Mattison III, “Hope,” in Being Good: Christian Virtues for Everyday Life, eds. Michael W. Austin and R. Douglas Geivett (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2012), 112.
  33. For a consideration of humility and its connection to love and prudence see Craig A. Boyd, “Pride and Humility: Tempering the Desire for Excellence,” in Virtues and Their Vices, 245-266.
  34. Hope, therefore, has an epistemic function in that it enables us to see that we can realize the Good because it is God Who is our Helper. We see that, by ourselves, we cannot attain this participation in beatitude without divine mercy and grace. Hope provides an epistemic defense against both presumption and despair that skew our perception. Presumption inclines us to think we can obtain this on our own; and despair persuades us that the Good is beyond our reach. By trusting in God, both the will and intellect are oriented appropriately to God. My thanks to Aaron Cobb for this observation.
  35. As vices, despair and presumption involve the will “turning away” from the good, Who is God. They are culpable in the sense that they are the result of choices we make.
  36. Josef Pieper, Faith, Hope, Love (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 1986), 47.
  37. In this sense, presumption fails to acknowledge our dependence on others. For an excellent treatment of virtue, and our dependence on others, see Alasdair MacIntyre, Dependent Rational Animals: Why Human Beings Need the Virtues (Chicago: Open Court Press, 1999).
  38. Rebecca Konyndyk-DeYoung, “The Roots of Despair,” Res Philosophica92.4 (2015): 831.
  39. Tolkien actually says of Niggle that “It is not really or properly an ‘allegory’ so much as ‘mythical.’ For Niggle is meant to be a real mixed-quality person and not an ‘allegory’ for any single vice or virtue,” (Letter #241, 320-321). And like all real persons, there is a mixture of various virtues and vices that constitute his character. The presence of both magnanimity and hope in a particular agent should not, in principle, be an objection to my argument.
  40. I would like to thank Martha Allen, Aaron D. Cobb, Joanna Boyd-Wilhite, and two anonymous reviewers from Christian Scholar’s Review for their helpful assistance on this project.

Craig A. Boyd

Saint Louis University
Craig A. Boyd is Professor of Philosophy at Saint Louis University in St. Louis, Missouri.