THE SRCP LEAF
AN EXCERPT FROM EVERY GOOD ENDEAVOR BY TIM KELLER
When he began The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien had already been working on the languages, histories, and stories behind the story for decades. The thought of not finishing it was "a dreadful and numbing thought." There was in those days a tree in the road near Tolkien's house, and one day he arose to find that it had been lopped and mutilated by a neighbor. He began to think of his mythology as his "internal Tree" that might suffer the same fate. He had run out of "mental energy and invention." One morning he woke up with a short story in his mind and wrote it down. When The Dublin Review called for a piece, he sent it in with the title "Leaf by Niggle." It was about a painter.
In the first lines of the story we are told two things about this painter. First, his name was Niggle. The Oxford English Dictionary, to which Tolkien was a contributor, defines "niggle" as "to work ... in a fiddling or in effective way ... to spend time unnecessarily on petty details.' Niggle was of course Tolkien himself, who knew very well this was one of his own flaws. He 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. Niggle was the same.
We are also told 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." Niggle continually put the journey off, but he knew it was inevitable. Tom Shippey, who also taught Old English literature at Oxford, explains that in Anglo-Saxon literature the "necessary long journey" was death.
Niggle had one picture in particular that he was trying to paint. He had gotten in his mind the picture of a leaf, and then that of a whole tree. And then in his imagination, 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." Niggle lost interest in all his other pictures, and in order to accommodate his vision, he laid out a canvas so large he needed a ladder. Niggle knew he had to die, but 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.”
So he worked on his canvas, "putting in a touch here, and rubbing out a patch there," but he never got much done. There were two reasons for this. First, it was because he was the "sort of painter who can paint leaves better than trees. He used to spend a long time on a single leaf, ..." trying to get the shading and the sheen and the dewdrops on it just right. So no matter how hard he worked, very little actually showed up on the canvas itself. The second reason was his "kind heart." Niggle was constantly distracted by doing things his neighbors asked him to do for them. In particular, his neighbor Parish, who did not appreciate Niggle's painting at all, asked him to do many things for him.
One night when Niggle senses, rightly, that his time is almost up, Parish insists that he go out into the wet and cold to fetch a doctor for his sick wife. As a result he comes down with a chill and fever, and while working desperately on his unfinished picture, the Driver comes to take Niggle on the journey he has put off. When he realizes he must go, he bursts into tears. " 'Oh, dear!' said poor Niggle, beginning to weep, 'And it's not even finished!' " Sometime after his death the people who acquired his house noticed that on his crumbling canvas his only "one beautiful leaf" had remained intact. It was put in the Town Museum, "and for a long while 'Leaf: by Niggle' hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes."
But the story does not end there. After death Niggle is put on a train toward the mountains of the heavenly afterlife. At one point on his trip he hears two Voices. One seems to be Justice, the severe voice, which says that Niggle wasted so much time and accomplished so little in life. But the other, gentler voice ("though it was not soft"), which seems to be Mercy, counters that Niggle has chosen to sacrifice for others, knowing what he was doing. As a reward, when Niggle gets to the outskirts of the heavenly country, something catches his 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."
The world before death—his old country—had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a very few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the True Reality that would live and be enjoyed forever."
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.
Unless there is God. 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. That is what the Christian faith promises. "In the Lord, your labor is not in vain," writes Paul in the first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15, verse 58. He was speaking of Christian ministry, but Tolkien's story shows how this can ultimately be true of all work.