J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Work That Lasts Forever

Day 1 of 4 • This day’s reading


J.R.R. Tolkien had a strong liking for trees. So when a neighbor cut down one of his favorite trees in 1943, Tolkien was furious. But his anger was about much more than the loss of the towering evergreen. Tolkien saw the “lopped and mutilated” tree as a metaphor of his fears about his “internal Tree”—his life’s work, The Lord of the Rings.

By this time, Tolkien had spent more than a decade toiling away at his magnum opus, but was still a long way from completing it. World War II was in full swing in Tolkien’s home country of Great Britain, and while the fifty-one-year-old was at no risk of being drafted into service, his experience as an officer in World War I led to the sober realization that his life and his life’s work might soon still suffer the same fate as his neighbor’s tree. As his biographer explains, Tolkien was “fearful that in the end he would achieve nothing,” which was, of course, “a dreadful and numbing thought.”

After sharing these fears with Christian friends, such as C.S. Lewis, Tolkien was inspired to sit down and write a short story, an autobiographical parable titled Leaf by Niggle

Niggle was a painter, an artist like Tolkien himself, who had a great vision for the work he would accomplish in his lifetime. One day, Niggle caught a vision of the painting of a leaf. Over time, that vision expanded to the painting of an entire tree, and then beyond that tree, a beautiful countryside with forests and snow-capped mountains. For years, Niggle worked diligently on his painting, but he never felt like he was accomplishing much. 

One night, Niggle came down with a fever. Knowing that the end of his life was near, he worked frantically to finish his masterpiece, but it was too late. As death closed in, Niggle burst into tears, realizing his life’s work would go unfinished.

After Niggle’s death, his neighbors were searching through his home when they discovered the enormous canvas Niggle had erected for his dream painting. But after years of work, Niggle had only finished “one beautiful leaf.” The neighbors had the small painting framed and placed in a local museum, “and for a long while ‘Leaf: by Niggle’ hung there in a recess, and was noticed by a few eyes. But eventually the Museum was burnt down, and the leaf, and Niggle, were entirely forgotten in his old country.”

Depressing story, right?

Here’s the thing: We are all Niggle. We all envision more work than we'll ever be able to accomplish in a lifetime, and we fear that the little we do accomplish will burn up in the end, just like Niggle’s painting. This is why Solomon said that all of his work was “meaningless, a chasing after the wind.”

If this life is all there is, then Solomon was right. Our work is in vain. But you and I know something Solomon didn’t; that through Christ, death would be defeated, ensuring that this life is not all there is. Death is not the end of our stories or the stories of our work. 

J.R.R. Tolkien knew that, which is why his story of Niggle doesn’t end where we left off today. How does Niggle’s story end? I’ll share tomorrow!