1: J.R.R. Tolkien was at an impasse.
He was laboring over the writing of The Lord of the Rings. “The project required creating at least the rudiments of several imaginary languages and cultures as well as thousands of years of various national histories—all in order to give the narrative the necessary depth and realism that Tolkien believed was crucial for the tale to be compelling,” Timothy Keller writes in Every Good Endeavor.
The story had split into several subplots. “Major characters were traveling to various parts of his imaginary world, facing different perils, and experiencing several complicated chains of events,” Tim notes.
It was a massive challenge to bring the different sub-narratives to life and then give each of them a satisfying conclusion.
“Not only that, but World War II had begun, and though the fifty-year-old Tolkien was not called into the military, the shadow of war fell heavily on him,” Tim writes. “He had experienced firsthand the horror of World War I and had never forgotten it. Britain was now in a precarious position, with invasion imminent. Who knew if he’d survive the war even as a civilian?”
Despair set in. “When he began The Lord of the Rings, he had already been working on the languages, histories, and stories behind the story for decades,” Tim notes. J.R.R., known as Ronald to his friends, worried he would never finish. Which he experienced as “a dreadful and numbing thought.”
One morning Ronald awoke to find a tree on the road near his home had been mutilated by a neighbor. “He began to think of his mythology as his ‘internal Tree’ that might suffer the same fate,” Tim writes.
2: Then, one day, a short story about a painter came into Ronald’s mind. “Leaf by Niggle” was the title. “In the first lines of the story, we are told two things about this painter. First, his name was Niggle,” Tim notes. “The Oxford English Dictionary, to which Tolkien was a contributor, defines ‘niggle’ as ‘to work . . . in a fiddling or ineffective way . . . to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.'”
The story’s character resembled its author. Ronald was “a perfectionist, always unhappy with what he had produced, often distracted from more important issues by fussing over less important details, prone to worry and procrastination,” Tim writes.
Second, we learn that Niggle “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.”
Oxford professor Tom Shippey explains that in Anglo-Saxon literature, the “necessary long journey” was death.
The painter Niggle was working on a painting of a leaf and then that of a whole tree. In his imagination, he saw behind the tree, “a country began to open out; and there were glimpses of a forest marching over the land, and of mountains tipped with snow.”
He became so enamored with this painting that he could think of nothing else. “He laid out a canvas so large he needed a ladder,” Tim writes. Still, Ronald knew he must embark on the long journey. He told himself, “At any rate, I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.”
While he worked on the canvas, “putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there,” somehow, he never got a lot done. Then, Niggle suddenly came down with a chill and a fever. He tried to keep painting, but “the Driver comes to take Niggle on the journey he has put off. When Niggle realizes he must go, he bursts into tears. ‘And it’s not even finished!'” Niggle mourns.
After he dies, Niggle’s house is sold, and the buyers come across his crumbling canvas. Only “one beautiful leaf” remained intact.
But the story isn’t over. On his journey, something catches Niggle’s eye. “He runs to it—and there it is: Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished; its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and yet had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide. ‘It is a gift!’ he said.”
Tim shares that he has recounted this story many times to people of different professions—”particularly artists and other creatives—and regardless of their beliefs about God and the afterlife, they are often deeply moved,” he writes.
“Artists and entrepreneurs can identify very readily with Niggle. They work from visions, often very big ones, of a world they can uniquely imagine,” he observes. “Few realize even a significant percentage of their vision, and even fewer claim to have come close.
*But really—everyone is Niggle. Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him- or herself largely incapable of producing them. Everyone wants to be successful rather than forgotten, and everyone wants to make a difference in life.
“But that is beyond the control of any of us. If this life is all there is, then everything will eventually burn up in the death of the sun, and no one will even be around to remember anything that has ever happened.
“Everyone will be forgotten, nothing we do will make any difference, and all good endeavors, even the best, will come to naught,” Tim writes.
3: Which is where Ronald’s Christian faith comes in. “He believed that God gives us talents and gifts so we can do for one another what he wants to do for us and through us,” Tim notes. “If the God of the Bible exists, and there is a True Reality beneath and behind this one, and this life is not the only life, then every good endeavor, even the simplest ones, pursued in response to God’s calling, can matter forever.”
Writing the short story was a comfort to Ronald. It helped “exorcise some of Tolkien’s fear, and to get him to work again,” Tim writes.
Ronald would finish The Lord of the Rings. Perhaps ironically, he didn’t have to wait for the afterlife to experience its impact. The book has sold 150 million copies and still counting.
Reflection: What meaning do I make of Niggle’s story?
Action: Discuss with a colleague, a friend, or my spouse.