I have a soft spot for a little story of Tolkien’s: Leaf by Niggle. It strikes me as a piece written by someone who is engaged on creative projects which he knows some people question and others despise; creative projects which seem to be futile and fragmentary.
Niggle is a painter, continually distracted from his painting by the demands of his neighbour, Parish (who, in his name conveys the ever-present demands of social obligation – and, I think, going further back, the law itself: and is Niggle’s own name a hint at that creative itch, that desire to make which keeps coming back, however often it is suppressed?) He finds himself become obsessed with painting a great tree; he works on each individual leaf, making it as detailed as possible, but finds that even using all his skill he cannot make the tree match his vision. Eventually, with his painting unfinished, Niggle dies. He spends some time in purgatory, and then finds himself creating a garden, which has as its main feature an enormous and beautiful tree, rich with birds and animals. It is also the true embodiment of what he was attempting to convey in his paintings.
As someone firmly in middle-age, who has many more creative dreams unrealised than realised, Leaf by Niggle gives me hope: hope that my creativity is not wasted, that things attempted on this earth are not wasted.
And there, apart from noting the latent platonism in the story – which is also there in Lewis’ Last Battle, I left it. Until this evening. I was continuing my theological equivalent of swimming the Atlantic, pushing a few pages further into N. T. Wright’s Paul and the faithfulness of God, when I came across this, in a section on Paul’s re-definition and re-working of Jewish worldview and praxis:
The only time in Galatians that he specifies the content of this klēronomia, it is ‘the kingdom of God’. I suspect it is the subtly false reading of this in the whole western tradition (where ‘kingdom of God’ has been flattened out into a synonym for ‘heaven‘, and ‘heaven’ has been thought of as ‘the ultimate destination of God’s people’) that has thrown readers of the scent. For Paul, God’s kingdom is not a non-material, post-mortem destination, but is rather the sovereign rule of the creator over the entire created order, with death itself, which corrupts and defaces the good creation as the last enemy to be destroyed. In other words, the final ‘kingdom of God’ is the whole world, rescued at last from corruption and decay, and living under the sovereign rule of God, exercised by the Messiah’s people. [PFG 336-7]
While the main thrust of Wright’s argument is the inheritance of the land and Paul’s re-thinking of the Jewish land of promise to the promised inheritance of the whole world, it was not that which caught my eye, rather it was that flattening out of kingdom of God to post-mortem paradise, and the implication of a reflated kingdom for Niggle.
Niggle was in a platonic universe, perhaps not as overtly platonic as the one Jill Pole and Eustace Scrub found themselves. He lived in the Shadowlands, where the great realities were only manifest in the dark outlines cast onto the cave wall. After he died, he found himself recreated and face-to-face with those great realities: a tall tree and brightly-coloured birds. The small things he attempted in this life were lost, forgotten and destroyed (astonishing to note how different the fate of Tolkien’s own work has been, with carefully curated editions of his myths and stories, and now his translation of Beowulf); they were unimportant, because they were only the shadow.
Paul, although sharing the Eastern Mediterranean with many real-life platonists, did not live in a platonic universe. Paul could not have envisaged the death of Narnia, the blowing of the great horn and the closing of the door. If Paul had written The Last Battle Aslan would have come roaring out of the stable and put Narnia to rights; more than that, made Narnia what it was fated to be from the very start of the song before the beginning of time.
If Paul had written Leaf by Niggle those little leaf paintings of Niggle’s would not have been fragments lost in a nineteenth century civic art gallery; they would have been transformed, taken up, with their promise and their heart fulfilled in a new and astonishing way. Paul’s story gives me even more hope than Tolkien’s. Paul’s story teaches me not that my work is a faint penumbra of something great, but that it is the start of a greater thing: a thing which will – when Christ has returned to claim his inheritance and put everything under his feet – grow, like the mustard seed into the biggest of shrubs, with the birds of the air roosting on its branches. In Paul’s story, the work of creating the garden is already in hand.
(And if you’d like to read the actual story, ‘Leaf By Niggle’ is available to here)