First published in the Dublin Review in January 1945 and later in his collection Tree and Leaf (which also included the essay “On Fairy Stories”), Tolkien’s account of a curmudgeonly but kind-hearted painter and his unfinished masterpiece is a perfect companion to our own unique creative journeys. It’s also a perfect story for us to read together as we think more deeply about the role of creativity within our Christian communities.
Hosted by Jennifer Trafton, the Rabbit Room Reading Group is providing a space for contemplation and conversation as we prepare our hearts and imaginations for Hutchmoot, culminating in Matthew Dickerson’s lecture and Zoom Q & A on Saturday the 10th. Join anytime—the materials and discussion forum are now available and will stay open indefinitely.
Oh, and as long as you’re here, we’ve got an extra surprise—in March 2021, a book of essays entitled J. R. R. Tolkien and the Arts: A Theology of Subcreation will release through our friends at Square Halo Press.
This collection of essays will look into the life and writings of Tolkien to learn how to apply his ideas to the arts. Featuring Ned Bustard, Matthew Clark, Matthew Dickerson, Billie Jarvis Freeman, John Hendrix, Bryan Mead, Christine Perrin, Bethany Ross, Charlie Starr, Jennifer Trafton, Donald Williams, and a foreword by Devin Brown.
Below is an excerpt from Jennifer Trafton’s essay on “Leaf by Niggle:”
Here is someone who understands me. I’m right in the muddled middle of the journey too. Jennifer Trafton
The night before his short story “Leaf by Niggle” fell upon him in a flood of inspiration, Tolkien had reached a point in the writing of The Lord of the Rings that is painfully familiar to any writer of fiction: the muddled middle. Beginnings carry the thrill of invention and possibility; endings are exhausting yet triumphant; but in between, there is a long and often harrowing journey filled with imaginative dead ends, plot threads that meander, and characters who seem to have wills of their own—not to mention the ever-present demons of procrastination, self-doubt, and despair. What began as a simple sequel to The Hobbit had quickly burgeoned into something far greater, and the prospect of finishing this ever-growing behemoth of a story was beginning to seem so far off as to be impossible (in fact, it would take him 12 years). Tolkien was feeling inadequate, overwhelmed, fearful that it would never be finished and that all the years of effort would be wasted, and—regarding the specific fate of this little band of hobbits who had just stumbled into a mysterious stranger at the inn in Bree—completely stuck.
From the perspective of a scholar or fan of Tolkien’s work, those little biographical details illuminate both the genesis and content of his story in fascinating ways. But for a fellow storyteller or any other kind of an artist, they can evoke another reaction: a sense of vindication, camaraderie, and profound encouragement. I understand how he felt. Or maybe more importantly: here is someone who understands me. I’m right in the muddled middle of the journey too.
Which is why “Leaf by Niggle” is something of a miracle—and, above all, a gift to artists.
As a writer of fiction, a visual artist, and a teacher/mentor of young writers and artists, I have collected a kind of “library of encouragement” over the years—works that inspire and challenge me as an artist, and which I circulate amongst others who are pursuing a creative calling. These include classics like Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Madeleine L’Engle’s Walking on Water, and Annie Dillard’s The Writing Life, as well as fiction that works in us at a more visceral, intuitive level—Chaim Potok’s novel My Name is Asher Lev, Stephen Sondheim’s Pulitzer-Prize winning musical Sunday in the Park with George, and the Danish movie Babette’s Feast.
Right at the top of my list of recommendations to artists of any kind, and the one I talk the most about, is “Leaf by Niggle”—but rarely do I attempt any theological introduction before simply thrusting it into their hands to experience for themselves. Because as tempting as it is to leap immediately to Niggle’s themes and symbolism and to deduce from it something about Tolkien’s View of Creativity, it is, first and foremost, a story, not a thesis. And as the story of an artist’s journey, it functions beautifully as a companion on our own.