There was once a little man called Niggle, who had a long journey to make.

“Leaf by Niggle,” J.R.R. Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien is a master storyteller, especially when writing tales that feature a lengthy and difficult journey. In The Hobbit, we meet Bilbo and a party of thirteen dwarves who set off to defeat Smaug the dragon and reclaim the treasure of the dwarves. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings tells us of the continuing journey of Bilbo, his nephew Frodo, and his companions who embark on an even longer and more perilous expedition.

But few readers have met Niggle, the endearing and very relatable character in Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle.” The opening line sets the tone. “Niggle was a painter. Not a very successful one, partly because he had many other things to do.”[1] Dear put-upon Niggle dreams of creating a beautiful work of art and starts by painting a “leaf caught in the wind,” which is a bit of a metaphor describing his efforts.[2] The simple leaf becomes a tree, which becomes a landscape, and the painting takes on a life of its own. Soon he sets aside all else to focus on its completion. But time and again, work on his canvas is interrupted by distractions, great and small. Neighbors call on him to help solve their problems, and Niggle begrudgingly complies, all the while thinking about his canvas in the shed that still needed attention but was set aside in lieu of more pressing matters; after all, “he could not get rid of his kind heart.”[3]

Niggle’s painting was an enigma. He loved parts of it, but other details were completely unsatisfactory. The time was coming when he knew he needed to finish and how he wished he had a trusted someone to confirm that his work was good or at least understand what he was getting at. However, the only thing he could count on was more interruptions — just at the point of a new artistic revelation. If only he could just finish his task!

This poignant tale is a reflection of modern life and perhaps more specifically our modern Christian life. Our purpose, plan, or to-do list meets with interruptions. The heart of the servant is soon functioning as a heart of guilt or obligation, and we are torn between choices – what we want versus what we know we should do. We complain, “But I just want to finish this (insert personal desire) without interruption,” and the words sound a bit selfish. We feel a pang of shame. The beauty of Tolkien’s little story is that it acts as a mirror for the reader. We “niggle” when our plans are altered, but in the end He reminds us that “many are the plans in the mind of a man, but it is the purpose of the Lord that will stand.”[4] And that purpose is glorious, indeed.

The Finished Work

Sonnet based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s short story, “Leaf by Niggle.”

Responding to the call, outline the dream.

Give color to the vision, dim then bright.

Creating quietly, demands that seem

To win the battle for my time and plight.

Returning to the canvas, daub details,

The jolt of interruption comes again.

Lay down the brush, wipe tears, and ease travails,

Back to it, but perhaps ‘tis all in vain.

So, torn between the joy, demands, and tasks,

The vision blurs, the dream is held, I cry

It is not finished! Then a whisper asks

Is it not time to let Another try?

Creator Artist crowns what was begun.

He tells me, “It is finished, and well done.”

Citation Information

Annie Nardone, “Finishing Well,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 105-108.

Annie Nardone, “The Finished Work,” An Unexpected Journal 3, no. 1. (Spring 2020), 109.

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[1] J.R.R. Tolkien, “Leaf by Niggle,” in Tree and Leaf (London: HarperCollins, 2001), 93.

[2] Ibid., 94.

[3] Ibid., 95.

[4] Proverbs 19:21, ESV.