In the previous post I argued that Tolkien was not fundamentally a niggler - against which Troels produced some robust arguments.
Now he has been joined in his pro-niggling onslaught by Tom Shippey, no less, who wrote me in an e-mail:
So, why don't I just throw in the towel and admit defeat?
The reason is that we importantly need to recognize that Tolkien was not a niggler pure and simple, in order properly to understand his character and achievement.
Most nigglers - by which I mean those with an over-scrupulous attention to 'minor' details which other people regard as trivial - are highly conscientious characters, dutiful, able to grind away at any job until it is done.
If we have known nigglers in our own lives, the chances are that they were of this highly conscientious type.
Yet Tolkien was not of this type. His over-scrupulous attention to microscopic detail was (from his youth, and throughout adult and professional life) combined with an inability to stick to what he was 'supposed to do' but did not actually want to do.
This was what led to his failure to get a Scholarship to Oxford (and having to settle for a lower Exhibition award at the second attempt) and to his nearly disastrous performance in the first part of his Classics degree (only just avoiding a third class rank - which would probably have finished any realistic chance of an academic job).
Lack of conscientiousness also accounts for other aspects of his later professional performance - as one example that he apparently 'always' failed to complete the subject matter of his lecture courses, because of spending too much time on the early parts, until he ran out of time.
What we see with Tolkien is in fact is a much stranger mixture of extreme attention to detail and perfectionism with an ability to work hard and with close attention for long hours - yet combined with an almost endless ability to put off working on things he was not fundamentally interested by; leading to an apparent selfishness and willfulness of behaviour whereby he could not make himself complete, but would not abandon, projects.
Like most creative geniuses (according to H.J Eysenck), Tolkien was relatively high in the personality trait called Psychoticism.
(Word search this term in this blog for further information, and see http://notionclubpapers.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/a-companion-to-jrr-tolkiens-notion-club.html).
Psychoticism is associated with high creativity - especially 'schizotypal' creativity of the dream-like type: widely-associative and insightful (in novel ways).
But Psychoticism is also associated with low conscientiousness, and a certain independence from the opinion/ approval of others that borders on selfishness (in other words low Agreeableness, in one of the modern terminologies of personality traits).
So the typical creative genius, who is high in Psychoticism, is someone whose hard work is channelled into their avocation - their self chosen hobby - rather than their vocation (appointed job): to use the words of Robert Frost from Two Tramps in Mud Time:
But yield who will to their separation,
My object in living is to unite
My avocation and my vocation
As my two eyes make one in sight.
Only where love and need are one,
And the work is play for mortal stakes,
Is the deed ever really done
For Heaven and the future's sakes.
Tolkien certainly succeeded in uniting his avocation and his vocation - but ruthlessly, at the expense of his vocation.
With respect to his vocation Tolkien was a prevaricator, a putter-offer and a delayer - yet would not cancel because, in a sense, he needed the 'cover' of having these projects which he was 'working on'. The way he put-off working-on or completing these tasks was the most natural to him - that is niggling; but niggling without urgency or purpose.
Therefore I would regard Tolkien's 1961 comment to Rayner Unwin, that he was a 'natural niggler' to be essentially an excuse; a self-justifying but not complete and accurate explanation of frequent endless delays.
Meanwhile, no effort was too great for his avocation - yet the niggling was disciplined, kept in bounds by the need to complete and publish his beloved hobbies - as soon as he saw the way ahead, by which he could fulfil his distinctive purposes through writing, the work flowed swift and sure to completion.
So Tolkien was either at most a partial-niggler; or else the word 'niggler' needs to be redefined to exclude merely conscientious, dutiful attention to detail.