It is one thing to ponder the question of human beings imitating God through their creativity, but in his poignant and touching short story “Leaf By Niggle,” Tolkien manages to ponder the question of how our creations in this world and in this life influence the world to come. It goes without saying that “Leaf By Niggle,” like all of Tolkien’s work, is strongly suffused by his own Christian (and specifically Catholic) religious perspective. Indeed, the whole aspect of subcreation is itself a response to the author’s awareness of mankind being a created being who is also a creator, a middle part of creation whose creativity is derivative from a higher source and a higher power. In “Leaf By Niggle,” though, we see a level beyond this sort of understanding that points to a belief that our creations, even if they are sub-creations done in imitation of God, will in turn be imitated and reflected in the world to come, a hope that would allow for our works in this all too brief life to have an eternal resonance.
Let us see how this is the case. First, for those who are not familiar with “Leaf By Niggle” as a story, it is worthwhile to briefly summarize its plot as it relates to the theme of creating in imitation of God. Niggle is a somewhat fretful and nervous bachelor who greatly enjoys painting leaves, and finds himself frustrated by the frequent calls of a neighbor of his, Mr. Parish, which frequently interrupts his painting, aside from the resistance of his own laziness. A call to help Mr. Parish with his wife through working on their roof gives him a fatal sickness and he is faced with a tough time at the judgment seat of God, where he is only with some difficulty allowed into the kingdom of heaven. Once there, he finds the tree that he was trying to draw, and continues working on it, even getting the help of Mr. Parish (who is quite knowledgeable about trees), allowing the two to work together to create a beautiful forest out of the artistic vision that Niggle has combined with the knowledge of plants in God’s creation that Mr. Parish has. Eventually, it is time for Niggle to move on while Mr. Parish waits for his wife to arrive in the kingdom of heaven, and the area that the two of them created together, called Niggle’s Parish, soon becomes a place where many people are able to rest, recover, and even be introduced to the kingdom of heaven, even as Niggle is entirely forgotten in this world.
It makes sense that Tolkien would view creation in a complicated way. We know from reading scripture that a great many things in this world are a copy of what is in the world to come, as the author of Hebrews tells us in Hebrews 9:23-24, for example, but Tolkien wishes to leave open the possibility that redeemed human beings will become creators as well (or subcreators) within the heavenly kingdom. And so Niggle’s vision of a forest in front of a mountain is itself a hint of the mountains of the heavenly kingdom and the woods that are in front of it, and Niggle finds himself not only the recipient of a divine vision but also someone whose God-given artistic ability allowed him to beautify the kingdom of heaven itself once he arrived there. This is Tolkien’s hope, that human beings could be redeemed and become helpers with God in His creativity in the world to come. This suggests a divine purpose for creativity, that it is given as a gift from God to be used for His glory, and as it is developed and honed in this world it becomes more fit to serve for God’s eternal purposes in the world to come. To be sure, not all creative people share this hope, but those who share a belief in the judgment and in the hope of eternal life can also share a belief that the creativity we have as part of that divine spark within us is something that is only a small part of that creativity we will be able to enjoy in His kingdom for all time.
And that is a thought worth pondering over and worth reflecting on. Those of us who read the Bible and look at it for encouragement and insight can readily see that the Bible does not give us many details about the world to come. We have some visions in the prophets, like Isaiah and Ezekiel and Daniel, of the splendors of God’s throne or of the miraculous occurrences to take place at and after the return of Jesus Christ and the establishment of His kingdom on the earth. We have visions in Revelation of a new heavens and new earth where there is to be no sorrow or pain or death. But there are many details left unmentioned. There are quite a few reasons for this. For one, it is hard for us as human beings with limited understanding and experience to gain a true picture of what life is like without the sort of limitations we struggle with as human beings whose senses are very limited and whose lifetimes are very short. But there is another possibility here that “Leaf By Niggle” hints at, and that is that part of the reason for the limited nature of our knowledge of the world to come is that we will help in forming and creating it and making it flourish, and what will be is in part not yet determined because we have not helped to bring it into existence yet. What greater favor can be given to our human creativity than the possibility that it could have eternal repercussions?