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God’s Gift of Literature - J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

Audiobook/video from I Am Paul

"Leaf by Niggle" is a short story written by J. R. R. Tolkien in 1938–39 and first published in January 1945. It can be found in Tolkien's book titled Tree and Leaf, and in other collections The Tolkien Reader, Poems & Stories, A Tolkien Miscellany, and Tales from the Perilous Realm etc.

Cover of Tree & Leaf Book

The story starts by introducing us to an ordinary painter, Niggle, who has a long journey coming up but has not yet prepared. He’s busily trying to finish his painting, and he longs to dedicate all his time to his art to his painting of a certain Tree.

We all have a desire to make something, to leave something behind, which is a natural part of being human. In as much we are made in the image and likeness of God, who is our Creator, then our own small creations reflect Him. I have as an artist in years past yearned and lamented that I could devote all my time to painting, drawing, and writing but God had other plans. Indeed they were of course better plans. But I understand Niggles musings.

As we near the end of the story that we read what can be interpreted as Niggle’s arrival into “Heaven,” At the gates of Paradise, Niggle finds himself within his own painting. Yet not as he painted it. Instead the perfection he was always seeking as an artist was there, his Tree was “finished.

But then Niggle realizes something is missing. Where is his neighbor, Parish? In Niggle’s life, Parish was a constant source of interruption, frustration, and inconvenience. Time and again Niggle had to put down his paintbrush to his assist his neighbor, even though the tasks were not always important. Parish was the reason Niggle could not complete his painting.

Eventually they meet again in the afterlife. It doesn’t take long until Parish and Niggle’s conversation leads us to the most profound of truths. They were at that very moment surrounded by the beauty that Niggle spent his life striving to perfect. The reality was it was not by Niggle’s painting that they arrived in eternity. They owed their sanctification (becoming Christ- Like) to each other, and to the Intercessor who interceded on their behalf. They needed one another more than they ever knew, it was not through their strengths but rather their weaknesses and their sacrifices that they need each other.

As much as I love to paint, draw, and write my Art is incomplete. It offers some fulfillment but like most other things in life it falls short, it fails to satisfy. You and I are made to love, as lover and beloved, which requires someone else. Real happiness then is only to be found in family and community life, through those who get us to put away our passions and gifts, and instead pick up a crying child or cry with a brokenhearted friend. The interruptions, those interruptions that annoy us are where we will find true purpose, love, and happiness in this life. It’s in those interruptions that we find our opportunity for holiness.

Tolkien said the following almost 20 years after the stories publication: “I find it still quite moving, when I reread it. 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’ of any single vice or virtue. The name Parish proved convenient, for the Porter’s joke, but it was not given with any intention of special significance. I once knew of a gardener called Parish. (I see there are six Parishes in our telephone book.) Of course some elements are explicable in biographical terms (so obsessively interesting to modern critics that they often value a piece of ‘literature’ solely in so far as it reveals the author, and especially if that is in a discreditable light).”

As Tolkien realized and went on to say, “Niggle was not allegorical, but was autobiographical. “Leaf By Niggle” “arose from my own pre-occupation with The Lord of the Rings, the knowledge that it would be finished in great detail or not at all, and the fear (near certainty) that it would be ‘not at all’.”

The reality is no matter our wealth or status, regardless if our contributions are celebrated or forgotten, we all face interruptions. You see we are all surrounded by needy people and have opportunities every day to make sacrifices or offer service to others. We should ask Christ for the discernment of grace to say “yes” to our neighbor or whomever needs our help.

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