For nerds like myself who casually insert J.R.R. Tolkien into everyday conversation, his name can often be met with disinterest as listeners write him off as a leader of nerds and the creator of Middle Earth. A fact that often goes undiscussed, however, is Tolkien’s work that exists (as best we can tell) outside of Middle Earth, such as his children’s book Roverandom or (my favorite) his collection entitled Tree and Leaf. In this collection is both a beautiful essay that literature students should really be required to read—“On Fairy-Stories”—and a short story that is increasingly applicable to our modern lives: “Leaf by Niggle.”
Humans, as a species, are desperate to achieve. This desperation is Edenic in its origin, as we were created in the beginning to procreate for God’s glory—not procreation in simply the pregnancy way, but also in that our building of God-glorifying things reflects our creator and points people to him. Tolkien eloquently calls this aspect “subcreation.” This desperation that we have is creational in nature but quickly becomes distorted when taken out of a Christ-glorifying context. It is difficult to keep achievement from becoming the only purpose in life. Many of us often struggle with holding up achievement in sports, in hobbies, in love, in family, in education, and in so much more, to be the highest aim of life. Tolkein’s short story “Leaf by Niggle” addresses the danger of this mindset in which personal achievement creates fulfillment.
This quaint story focuses on a little man named Niggle who is preparing for a long journey but is constantly distracted by other things. The main distraction is his masterpiece that he wishes to finish before his journey: a painting of a tree in which every leaf is distinct and beautiful. This painting takes up enormous space in his house and requires many materials. In completing his painting, Niggle leaves many things untended, including his garden and packing for his journey. He does, against his own wishes, remain a good neighbor to the gardener next door, and he remains a good host to his friends who stop for tea.
As his journey draws closer, Niggle becomes desperate to finish his painting. In the midst of this desperation, Niggle’s neighbor, Mr. Parish, knocks on his door. His wife has a bad fever and his roof is leaking and needs repair. Mr. Parish, being lame in one leg, cannot climb to the roof to fix it or make the journey to town to contact the doctor or the builder. Niggle reluctantly agrees to leave his painting and make the journey to town, where he contacts both the doctor and the builder. On his way home, he becomes soaked by a thunderstorm and comes down with a fever of his own. Niggle finds his last days before his journey wasted and recovers his strength just in time for the driver to pick him up for his journey.
He sets out from home with no luggage, leaving behind an unfinished masterpiece, an untended garden, and his own roof in need of repair. His painting is taken down and the materials used to patch his and Mr. Parish’s roofs; one lone leaf from the painting was saved and taken to a museum where it was entitled “Leaf by Niggle.” But Niggle’s story isn’t over. He works for a time before being rewarded for his sacrifice. He becomes a gardener in a meadow with a giant tree, all images from his painting. In this depiction of the afterlife, Mr. Parish comes alongside him to help create and tend to this beautiful scene. This meadow becomes a stopping point for all travelers on their own journeys to admire and enjoy.
The allegory in this tale speaks for itself: Tolkien wishes to show his readers the joy of “subcreation.” He also shows his readers the importance of being a good neighbor, especially if being a good neighbor includes sacrificing one’s own ambitions. Niggle had his ambition: to create a masterpiece for all to enjoy. A choice presented itself to him: help a neighbor or have the time needed to finish this masterpiece. Niggle’s choice to help his neighbor caused him to never reach his earthly goal, but he was rewarded in the depiction of the afterlife by creating a real and tangible masterpiece with his neighbor meant for others to enjoy.
Christ calls us to sacrifice. He asks his followers to leave home and take up their cross without even saying goodbye to family. Christ doesn’t merely ask but models this sacrifice continually throughout the Scriptures. His declaration of the first and second greatest commandments is anything but self-seeking:
Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” (Matthew 22:37-40 NIV)
It can become tempting to lose ourselves in the achievement of our goals, but Christ has called us to a higher calling than checking off a list. He has called us to serve our neighbors. Loving and serving Christ is the priority for Christians, and is shown through extending that love and service to our neighbors. Our goals and achievements can be God-glorifying when they follow service and love. Christians can leave for their own journeys, never having achieved a single secular goal in their lives, and still have the assurance that they have lived a fulfilled life through serving others. Stopping to help a neighbor glorifies God, and there is no other goal or achievement we can aspire to that is greater than loving God and loving our neighbors as Christ loves them.