There Really Is a Tree
Introduction to Every Good Endeavor: Connecting Your Work to God's Work
by Tim Keller
When J.R.R. Tolkien had been working on writing The Lord of the Rings for some time, he came to an impasse. He had a vision of a tale of a sort that the world had never seen.
As a leading scholar in Old English and other ancient Northern European languages, he knew that most ancient British myths about the inhabitants of “Faerie”—elves, dwarves, giants, and sorcerers—had been lost (unlike the myths of the Greeks and Romans or even of the Scandinavians). He had always dreamed of re-creating and re-imagining what an ancient English mythology would look like. The Lord of the Rings was rooted in this lost world. The project required creating at least the rudiments of several imaginary languages and cultures as well as thousands of years of various national histories—all in order to give the narrative the necessary and realism that Tolkien believed was crucial for the tale to be compelling.
As he worked on the manuscript, he came to the place where the narrative had divided into a number of subplots. Major characters were traveling to various parts of his imaginary world, facing different perils, and experiencing several complicated chains of events. It was an enormous challenge to unfold all these subnarratives clearly and then give each a satisfactory resolution. Not only that, but World War II had begun, and though the fifty-year-old Tolkien was not called into the military, the shadow of war fell heavily on him. He had experienced firsthand the horror of World War I and had never forgotten it. Britain was now in a precarious position, with invasion imminent. Who knew if he’d survive the war even as a civilian?
He began to despair of ever completing the work of his life. It was not just a labor of a few years at that point. When he began The Lord of the Rings, he 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 ineffective 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.
I’ve recounted this story many times to people of various professions—particularly artists and other creatives—and regardless of their beliefs about God and the afterlife, they are often deeply moved. Tolkien had a very Christian understanding of art and, indeed, of all work. He believed that God gives us talents and gifts so we can do for one another what he wants to do for us and through us. As a writer, for example, he could fill people’s lives with meaning through the telling of stories that convey the nature of reality. Niggle was assured that the tree he had “felt and guessed” was “a true part of creation” and that even the small bit of it he had unveiled to people on earth had been a vision of the True. Tolkien was very comforted by his own story. It helped “exorcise some of Tolkien’s fear, and to get him to work again,” though it was also the friendship and loving prodding of C.S. Lewis that helped get him back to the writing.
Artists and entrepreneurs can identify very readily with Niggle. They work from visions, often very big ones, of a world they can uniquely imagine. Few realize even a significant percentage of their vision, and even fewer claim to have come close. Those of us who tend to be overly perfectionistic and methodical, like Tolkien himself, can also identify strongly with the character of Niggle.
But really—everyone is Niggle. 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. Tolkien had readied himself, through Christian truth, for very modest accomplishment in the eyes of this world. (The irony is that he produced something so many people consider a work of genius that it is one of the bestselling books in the history of the world.)
What about you? Let’s say that you go into city planning as a young person. Why? You are excited about cities, and you have a vision about how a real city ought to be. You are likely to be discouraged because throughout your life you probably will not get more than a leaf or a branch done. But there really is a New Jerusalem, a heavenly city, which will come down to earth like a bride dressed for her husband (Revelation 21–22).
Or let’s say you are a lawyer, and you go into law because you have a vision for justice and a vision for a flourishing society ruled by equity and peace. In ten years you will be deeply disillusioned because you will find that as much as you are trying to work on important things, so much of what you do is minutiae. Once or twice in your life you may feel like you have finally “gotten a leaf out."
Whatever your work, you need to know this: There really is a tree. Whatever you are seeking in your work—the city of justice and peace, the world of brilliance and beauty, the story, the order, the healing—it is there. There is a God, there is a future healed world that he will bring about, and your work is showing it (in part) to others. Your work will be only partially successful, on your best days, in bringing that world about. But inevitably the whole tree that you seek—the beauty, harmony, justice, comfort, joy, and community—will come to fruition. If you know all this, you won’t be despondent because you can get only a leaf or two out in this life. You will work with satisfaction and joy. You will not be puffed up by success or devastated by setbacks.
I just said, “ If you know all this.” In order to work in this way—to get the consolation and freedom that Tolkien received from his Christian faith for his work—you need to know the Bible’s answers to three questions: Why do you want to work? (That is, why do we need to work in order to lead a fulfilled life?) Why is it so hard to work? (That is, why is it so often fruitless, pointless, and difficult?) How can we overcome the difficulties and find satisfaction in our work through the gospel?