Everyone knows Tolkien. The influence of The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings trilogy on the modern fantasy genre cannot be overstated, and Tolkien himself is a household name. Ask a lot of fantasy writers for someone who was a big influence on them, and many of them will tell stories of reading Tolkien in their youth.
So you don’t need to tell me those books had an impact. But I will point you to a far less well-known Tolkien work, which had a greater impact on me personally. Tree and Leaf is a deceptively slim volume, originally containing Tolkien’s essay “On Fairy-Stories” and the short story “Leaf by Niggle.” The later edition I read also included his poem “Mythopoeia.” The book was recommended to me by a friend in college, and I was so glad when I finally tracked it down in my grad school library; at the time, the book was not easy to find.
The essay and the poem are both defenses of the value of myth and fantasy in our lives and in our stories. While fantasy has broken out much more into the mainstream today, for much of my young life, it was derided as useless at best and actively dangerous at worst. In academia, professors and even fellow students often didn’t know how to approach it, and assumed that fantasy was intended for younger readers, lacking depth and unable to reach the lofty heights of True Literature. So reading these defenses were important to me. They reassured me that the space I chose to play in, the stories I wanted to tell, had value.
And “Leaf by Niggle” is its own gorgeous story whose images continue to haunt me to this day. It’s a story about a man working tirelessly to achieve his grand artistic vision, and the unexpected way in which that vision is finally realized—in many senses of the word.
So, you could say that Tree and Leaf is Tolkien explaining, exploring, and justifying the act of imaginative creation (or sub-creation, as he would term it). In prose and poem and essay, he reflects on the value and importance of a topic that meant so much to him—and that means so much to me.