Just before the sweeping vistas of the Lord of the Rings and the distant mountains of the Silmarillion lies a little watercolor painting called Leaf by Niggle, a short story of Tolkien’s that may serve as an excellent introduction to the wide world beyond.
Niggle is an artist with too many ideas and not enough time to complete them, one who sees the leaves before the great Tree he is attempting to paint. On the other hand, Niggle’s neighbor Parish is similar to the potatoes he grows—rooted in the earth, but unable to glimpse Niggle’s vision.
In T.A. Shippey’s Road to Middle-Earth, the author proposes that this story symbolizes Tolkien rejecting the potatoes of scholarly articles for the trees of fantasy. While I take a different view of the symbolism in Leaf by Niggle, the phrase “Potatoes and trees” caught my fancy and ran off in several different directions.
Potatoes are merely roots, while trees are made of root, stem and leaf. Also, potatoes are dug up and devoured after a short season, while trees grow for years before being felled for timber or tinder. A famine of potatoes led to the devastation of Ireland, yet potatoes are a New World import. Finally, Sam’s ‘taters’ in Ithilien are merely substance, but the word ‘trees’ reminds me of the Two Trees in Valinor, forebearers of the Sun and Moon.
Potatoes and trees, however, are not opposites, but compliments. One cannot rest in the shade of a potato plant, nor can one serve up trees for breakfast. They fit together in the natural world to enrich our lives. Fact and fantasy, like potatoes and trees, need each other.