Tolkien’s Niggle: “In the Lord, you know that your labor is not in vain”

February 7, 2013


I just read “A Leaf by Niggle,” a short story by J.R.R. Tolkien.[1] I think it must have been anthologized in a high school literature text, because I’m sure I’ve read it before. Regardless, a teenage boy can’t comprehend its significance. A grown man of 43 (next week), however, is in tears.

The story is a parable about a rather average painter named Niggle. Niggle feels unappreciated. His neighbors and acquaintances believe he should stop wasting time on canvases that few will ever see, and fewer still will appreciate, and get on with something useful—they believe his overgrown garden, for example, needs his more urgent attention. Even Niggle himself doubts his calling. He’s been working with passion for a long time on one wall-sized landscape of a tree with birds nesting in it, with a forest and mountains in the background. One problem is that he’s a better painter of leaves than the tree that he imagines, not to mention the other things with which he dreams of populating his picture.

Another problem is that his time is running out. He’ll have to leave on a long journey soon (Tolkien’s metaphor for death), which he’s dreading and for which he’s unprepared, and after which he’ll be unable to work on his painting. Worse, he can’t make much progress on the painting because people are constantly making demands on his time, especially an infirm neighbor, Mr. Parish, who frequently needs him to run errands for him and his wife. (The word “niggle” means to annoy in a slight but persistent way, which other people do to him.)

Niggle resents these interruptions and his own kind heart. “‘I wish I was more strong-minded!’ he sometimes said to himself, meaning that he wished other people’s troubles did not make him feel uncomfortable”[2]—in which case he might be able to finish his painting. As it is, he finally has to leave on his journey. His painting remains unfinished, just as he feared it would be.

On the other side of the journey, however, after spending time in a hospital (against his will), Niggle is released to take a short journey by train to a new place. When he arrives at his stop, he finds his bicycle waiting for him. It’s a sunny spring day, and he rides his bike down a path through a meadow.

Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its leaves opening, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and had so often failed to catch. He gazed at the Tree, and slowly he lifted his arms and opened them wide.

“It’s a gift!” he said. He was referring to his art, and also to the result; but he was using the word quite literally.

He went on looking at the Tree. All the leaves he had ever laboured at were there, as he had imagined them rather than as he had made them; and there were others that had only budded in his mind, and many that might have budded, if only he had had time. Nothing was written on them, they were just exquisite leaves, yet they were dated as clear as a calendar. Some of the most beautiful—and the most characteristic, the most perfect examples of the Niggle-style—were seen to have been produced in collaboration with Mr. Parish: there was no other way of putting it.[3]

You get the idea: This is heaven. Is it possible that, in ways we can’t imagine, the good work that we do now will somehow be preserved for eternity? I hope so—and I believe so.

The work that we do on this side of resurrection—which can often seem fruitless, insignificant, and unappreciated now—will come to fruition on the other side. Like Niggle, we will behold the Tree that we dreamed about and started but could never finish. And even those niggling interruptions will be redeemed.

Paul offers a tantalizing clue to this reality at the end of 1 Corinthians 15. At the conclusion of his lengthiest discussion of resurrection—both Christ’s and our own—he writes: “Therefore, my beloved, be steadfast, immovable, always excelling in the work of the Lord, because you know that in the Lord your labor is not in vain.”

I’ve said before that I have a sinful need to be someone important. I want my work to matter. want to matter. Like Niggle, I want people to notice, appreciate, and praise me. I’m often frustrated because they can never do so to my satisfaction.

If I could take Paul’s words to heart, however, I would be set free from this desire for significance: only let me be faithful in my work and let God take care of the rest. He will make sure that what I do matters—whether it matters to anyone now or not.

1. J.R.R. Tolkien, “A Leaf by Niggle” in The Tolkien Reader (New York: Del Rey, 1966), 100-120.

2. Ibid., 101.

3. Ibid., 113-4.

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