“So I hated life, because the work that is done under the sun was grievous to me. All of it is meaningless, a chasing after the wind. I hated all the things I had toiled for under the sun, because I must leave them to the one who comes after me.” (Ecclesiastes 2:17-18)
J.R.R. Tolkien had a serious thing 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 metaphorical preview for what he feared for 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 he was still a long way from completing it. World War II was in full swing in Tolkien’s home 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 the First World War led to the sober realization that even as a citizen, his life and his life’s work might soon 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 massive vision for the work he would accomplish in his lifetime. One day, Niggle caught a vision for a painting of a leaf. Over time, that vision expanded to a 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 little 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 magnum opus. 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, huh?
Here’s the thing: We are all Niggle. We all envision more for our 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 what led Solomon to say 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 couldn’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 next week!