Life Echoes in Eternity: On J.R.R. Tolkien’s “Leaf by Niggle”

Urging his troops to manly fortitude in the face of Germanic barbarians, General Maximus of the 2000 film, Gladiator does not downplay the certainty that some of his Romans are about die. “What we do in life echoes in eternity,” he cries, and indeed, Maximus argues that the fact of death is all the more reason to fight without cowardice; for as we are in this life, so are we in the next. It is wise rather than morbid for us to meditate on this reality each morning as we prepare for the day ahead. The acts we perform today really will echo in eternity, for no one can turn back the clock to undo those things he has done, or to do the things he has left undone. And no one is promised a tomorrow to finish those things that ought to be done today. A thread of this color runs through J.R.R. Tolkien’s autobiographical “Leaf by Niggle.”

Tolkien opens this short story by introducing us to Niggle by means of his mortality:

There once was a little man called Niggle, who 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. He knew he would have to start sometime, but he did not hurry with his preparations.

From the story’s first sentence, that Niggle’s impending journey is an allegory for death is unmistakable. It takes no great mind to observe the inevitability of death, and that despite its inevitability many of us will face the journey unprepared. Tolkien, though, was a great mind, so his story is more than an ambiguous injunction that we live each day as if it were our last. Like the tree that Niggle spends so many hours, then days, then years painting, this little sapling that can be read out-loud in a half-hour’s time sprouts into dozens of different branches of meditation.

For example, the reader must consider that Niggle disregards the practical for the sake of the beautiful, but that his neighbor, Parish, disregards the beautiful for the sake of the practical. Neither habit is a virtue, but how is one to judge which is worse? Another branch of meditation is whether one’s vocational duties must sometimes be set aside for the sake of charity. Granting that this might sometimes be necessary, to what lengths should a person go for charity? Overshadowing all these, though, is the theme of the preparation that one must make for death.

There is a trunk uniting each of these branches and boughs. Even so important a limb as meditation on the Four Last Things is dependent on its trunk for life. In “Leaf by Niggle,” that trunk is the everlasting nature of our acts.

That any temporal act could last forever is an odd thing to consider, and it seems to contradict our experience. Whether a word is kind or venomous, it is often forgotten in a matter of hours. We pay our bills, go to work, eat dinner with our families. Each of these acts seems to be gone forever once done. In a way it is. But in another way the act has being that is eternal; for the act is known by God, and He cannot forget.

It was thoughts of this kind that inspired Tolkien’s doctrine of sub-creation; the artist creates because he is an imago Dei, and that of which he is an image (God) also creates. The artist’s creation has some sort of being in eternity, because God knows the artist’s work. In eternity, though, it is perfected, for God knows what it was intended to be, and what it ought to have been.

But the eternal nature of our acts is not limited to our artistic creations. Father Zossima of Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov tells a parable of a woman whose only good act had been to give an onion to a beggar. Once dead she was thrown into the sulfuric lake of fire in Hell, but her angel pleaded with God on behalf of her one good deed. God granted that the very onion she had selflessly given might literally be the tool of her salvation. Her angel was to lower the vegetable to her in the abyss. Once she had a firm hold on it, the angel could draw her up into Paradise. The one act of charity she had committed had an eternal character such that the onion, itself long deceased upon earth, had being of the weightiest consequence in the hereafter.

Similarly, though Niggle had done no great thing in his life, and none of his charitable acts were untainted by inner grumbling, he found on his journey that the acts that had required greater sacrifice were used by an Advocate as arguments for his salvation. All of these acts of charity involved his neighbor, Parish. And this reveals another part of our lives that has eternal consequence.

In addition to his acts of charity and his creative work, Niggle found that his relationships, even so common a relationship as that of neighbor, would last forever. There was an interdependence between Niggle and Parish that had hardly been noticeable in life; but each was essential for the other’s beatitude. And this thing, relationship with another, turns out to be not only a tool for Niggle’s attainment of happiness, but also to be part of happiness itself. On earth, Parish and Niggle were necessary annoyances for one another. At the conclusion of his journey, Niggle finds that even the bliss of finding his creative work perfected and elevated is insufficient without Parish’s company. Where Father Zossima’s woman had screeched at the souls clinging to her legs, desperately trying to rise with her to Paradise, Niggle instead advocates for Parish, and expedites his time in the Hospital. Had he been inclined to do otherwise, perhaps he would have fallen again into the abyss, even as the woman saw the onion crumble in her hands, her angel helpless to preserve her from this final act of selfishness.

What we do in life echoes in eternity. Maximus’ counsel, though pagan (whether ancient or modern), is quite true. Each morning as we prepare for the day ahead, let us consider that every act has real meaning and consequence. To meditate on this helps us to focus on the things that really matter, and to disregard the things that do not. “Leaf by Niggle,” though a very small portion of the landscape that is Tolkien’s corpus, provides a breathtaking vista of the truth about what it means to be human.


*Originally published in Crisis Magazine

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