CREATE!: Teaching Tolkien’s “Leaf By Niggle”

LeafYesterday in Created and Called for Community (CCC) we read and discussed J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story “Leaf by Niggle.” Here is a summary of the plot from Wikipedia:

In this story, an artist, named Niggle, lives in a society that does not value art. Working only to please himself, he paints a canvas of a great Tree with a forest in the distance. He invests each and every leaf of his tree with obsessive attention to detail, making every leaf uniquely beautiful. Niggle ends up discarding all his other artworks, or tacks them onto the main canvas, which becomes a single vast embodiment of his vision.

However, there are many mundane chores and duties that prevent Niggle from giving his work the attention it deserves, so it remains incomplete and is not fully realised.

At the back of his head, Niggle knows that he has a great trip looming, and he must pack and prepare his bags.

Also, Niggle’s next door neighbour, a gardener named Parish, frequently drops by asking for various forms of help. Parish is lame and has a sick wife and genuinely needs help. Niggle, having a good heart, takes time out to help—but he is also reluctant because he would rather work on his painting. Niggle has other pressing work duties as well that require his attention. Then Niggle himself catches a chill doing errands for Parish in the rain.

Eventually, Niggle is forced to take his trip, and cannot get out of it. He has not prepared, and as a result ends up in a kind of institution, in which he must perform menial labour each day. Back at the home to which he cannot return, Niggle’s painting is abandoned, used to patch a damaged roof, and all but destroyed (except for the one perfect leaf of the story’s title, which is placed in the local museum).

In time, Niggle is paroled from the institution, and he is sent to a place “for a little gentle treatment”. He discovers that this new place is the country of the Tree and Forest of his great painting. This place is the true realisation of his vision, not the flawed and incomplete version in his painting.

Niggle is reunited with his old neighbour, Parish, who now proves his worth as a gardener, and together they make the Tree and Forest even more beautiful. Finally, Niggle journeys farther and deeper into the Forest, and beyond into the great Mountains that he only faintly glimpsed in his painting.

Long after both Niggle and Parish have taken their journeys, the lovely place that they created together becomes a destination for many travelers to visit before their final voyage into the Mountains, and it earns the name “Niggle’s Parish”.

We read “Leaf by Niggle” as part of our ongoing discussion of creation and its implications for the way we live as Christians.  Tolkien’s short story is about the ongoing work of creation.  As women and men created in the image of God we are called to participate in God’s creative work. In John Paul II’s encyclical Laborem Exercens he called Christians to the work of “co-creation.” (Tolkien used the term “sub-creation” to describe something similar).  We can view Niggle’s painting as his imperfect attempt at co-creation.  As inhabitants of a broken world scarred by sin, our efforts to create will always be imperfect.  Our finest art cannot express all the beauty of God’s holiness.  Throughout our discussion of “Leaf by Niggle” I tried to get students to put the story into conversation with Bruce Birch’s essay, “In the Image of God.”

There are several ways to approach “Leaf by Niggle” in a course like CCC. This became abundantly clear when I surveyed the room.  Several students wanted to talk about the tension between competing goods.  Niggle has a gift for painting, but he is constantly distracted by his needy neighbor Parish.  Though Niggle often complains privately about assisting Parish, and sometimes he finds him to be an annoyance, he never ceases to help his neighbor.  How do we balance our call to create–through art, writing, entrepreneurial innovation, scientific discovery, the cultivation of ideas, feats of engineering, sports or dance–with the everyday demands of service to others that might get in the way of our creative efforts?  This question made for some good discussion.

Some students brought up Niggle’s lack of preparation for his “journey.” They pointed out that Niggle was a procrastinator and easily distracted. When death arrived he could have been better prepared. A few students were disappointed in him.  They wished he had finished the painting.  Others were willing to give him the benefit of the doubt for his lack of preparation for the journey because he was so busy helping Parish and his wife. Whatever the case, Niggle’s story prior to his journey seemed to elicit much anxiety among my students. This, I suggested, is the anxiety we all feel as inhabitants of a broken world.

But as anyone who has read “Leaf by Niggle” knows, the story does not end there. After his purgatory-type experience, Niggle is brought to a place of great beauty (Niggle’s Parish). Here he encounters his incomplete painting in all its fullness. Here his relationship with Parish is transformed.  The anxiety gives way to peace and happiness.  All of the brokenness is made whole (Shalom).

I cannot teach “Leaf by Niggle” apart from my understanding of Christian eschatology. Lately I have been studying the writings of the Anglican New Testament theologian N.T. Wright.  Wright’s books Surprised by Hope and History and Eschatology enabled me to teach Tolkien’s short story in a way I was unable to do when I last taught “Leaf by Niggle” eleven years ago.

A major theme of Wright’s work is what Revelation 21 calls the “new heaven and the new earth.” Wright challenges longstanding Christian beliefs about heaven. The ancient Jews and the early Christian church never understood heaven as place distinct from earth.  God will not destroy this earth and “rapture” believers to a heavenly realm.  Instead, he will transform this earth.  He will one day make the post-Genesis 3 world whole.  Shalom will be restored.  We will rise from the dead because Jesus Christ rose from the dead on Easter morning (I Cor. 15). The New Testament teaches that we will enjoy this new heavens and new earth with new resurrected bodies.  Read Romans 8: 18-25:

I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. 19 For the creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. 20 For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21 that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the freedom and glory of the children of God.

22 We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. 23 Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. 24 For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have? 25 But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.

Wright argues that this new heaven and new earth, or the Kingdom of God, was initiated when Jesus rose from the dead. We still live in a broken world, but we get occasional glimpses of the new creative order when we see acts of compassion, justice, reconciliation, mercy, and love.  Moreover, when we do creative work that is good, beautiful, or based in truth we are, in some small way, building this new kingdom.  What might look unfinished or incomplete in this world will one day be made whole.  This, it seems to me, is what Tolkien is trying to teach us in “Leaf by Niggle.”

I closed my class on Monday with a quote from Wright’s book Surprised by Hope:

But what we can and must do in the present, if we are obedient to the gospel, if we are following Jesus, and if we are indwelt, energized, and directed by the Spirit, is to build for the kingdom. This brings us back to 1 Corinthians 15:58 once more: what you do in the Lord is not in vain.  You are not oiling the wheels of a machine that’s about to roll over a cliff. You are not restoring a great painting that’s shortly going to be thrown on the fire.  You are not planting roses in a garden that’s about to be dug up for a building site.  You are–strange though is may seem, almost as hard to believe as the resurrection itself–accomplishing something that will become in due course part of God’s new world.  Every act of love, gratitude, and kindness, every work of art or music inspired by the love of God and delight in the beauty of his creation; every minute spent teaching a severely handicapped child to read or to walk; every act of care and nurture, of comfort and support, for one’s fellow human beings and for that matter one’s fellow nonhuman creatures; and of course every prayer, all Spirit-led teaching, every deed that spreads the gospel, builds up the church, embraces and embodies holiness rather than corruption, and makes the name of Jesus honored in the world–all of this will find its way, through the resurrecting power of God, into the new creation that God will one day make.

Niggle’s leaf, which ended up for a short time in a museum, became part of an entire landscape in the so-called “Niggle’s Parish.” Our creative work will one day contribute to the new creation as well. We don’t know how God will use it–1 Corinthians 13:12 says we see through a glass dimly–but it will be a part of the wholeness God will one day bring.

Here is Wright again:

What you do in the present–by painting, preaching, singing, sewing, praying, teaching, building hospitals, digging wells, campaigning for justice, writing poems, caring for the needy, loving your neighbor as yourself–will last into God’s future.  These activities are not simply ways of making the present life less beastly, a little more bearable, until the day when we will leave it behind altogether (as the hymn  so mistakenly puts it, “Until that day when all the blest to endless rest are called away”). They are part of what we may call building for God’s kingdom.”