Sunday, February 24, 2013

Do Your Own Leaf

More gleanings from Every Great Endeavor: one day, Tolkien passed a tree near his house, only to find it had been chopped down by his neighbor.  He saw it as a visual image of the potential fate of his mythological stories.  And then, Leaf by Niggle came to his creative rescue. 

“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…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…before I have to go…’

“So he worked on his canvas…but he never got much done…”

And then Niggle’s time came to die, and he was taken by 'the Driver.'

“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. 

“After death Niggle is put on a train toward the mountains of the heavenly afterlife...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’s 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 talk about Niggle a lot, to artists and writers, encouraging them to ‘do their own leaf.’  Like Tolkien, I have a Christian view of art and vocation, believing that we each have something—our ‘leaf’—to offer and with which to ‘complete the Tree.’  Tolkien gave us stories that reveal the nature of reality; they are having an immeasurable impact on the whole world in our time.  My father’s boatbuilding exercise continues to exert an impact on me, and through me to others.  I have no idea who is reading this blog, but my little Cluster Map tells me it’s a global readership!  All from ‘niggling’ away at some thoughts and ideas—working my own leaf.  I have no idea where this is all heading, but I believe there is a Tree involved at the end…let's each of us continue to 'do our own leaf.'   

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Every Great Endeavor

Everyone imagines accomplishing things, and everyone finds him-or herself largely incapable of producing them.”—Tim Keller 

True or false?  

This line gave me pause recently as I read it, and found myself responding, “True and false.” 

True: I find myself in exactly that position, wondering if I will be able to squirt out a thing—my ‘leaf’—and am surrounded by unfinished projects and notebooks filled with ideas that have yet to be fulfilled.   

False: I’m not sure my father was capable of thinking he was incapable of producing the ideas in his head!  He certainly had to be overwhelmed at times by the demands on his life; on the other hand, he as a successful designer in Manhattan, at the height of the seminal design movement going on in the city, now called Mid-Century Modern (thanks to Pete for that one, and more to follow!).  He spent his career bringing ideas to life. 

A week or so ago, my sibs re-discovered some of his accomplishments, thanks to the internet and social media.  (Who knew Dad was on You Tube???)  We had fun, blasting around comments, likes and shares, as one or another dug up links and video clips.  Once again, my father became a little larger than life for us, more than the man who made us sit in weird chairs, or brought lamps home that looked like flying saucers.  To us children growing up, he was no more than a simple hobbit, who went from there and back again to Manhattan or the boatyard.  And yet this week, we saw him in the context of his time, inventing history:

They changed opinions… 

They abandoned rules…

They designed history…

As others of his generation, my father emerged from the Great Depression and World War II stamped more indelibly with pragmatism than idealism.  Survival was the name of the game.  Our boomer talk of “finding ourselves” and “doing what we love” was self-indulgent idiocy to them.  And yet…they built a world.  Our house filled with furniture designs, and our backyard filled up with a boat.         

Tolkien had a vision for a story the world had never seen.  He had a vision of a whole tree, and all he had to produce was one leaf (as he understood by “Leaf by Niggle”). 

My father and his colleagues had vision for designs the world had never seen.  I’m not sure what they hoped to accomplish, or if they ever got a glimpse of the tree Tolkien saw, but I’m pretty sure they thought they could change the world.  And with professional success came fuel for my dad’s passion to build a boat, raise six kids and renovate an old house.  Talk about energy… 

Friday, February 1, 2013

Leaf by Niggle

Tolkien has much to teach us about the pursuit of the impossibly grand endeavor.  He had begun work on The Lord of the Rings but was now at an impasse.  As Tim Keller writes in his introduction to Every Good Endeavor:

“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 depth and realism that Tolkien believed was crucial for the tale to be compelling.”   

Can you imagine the challenge?!

“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.’”

And then Tolkien awoke with another story in mind.  He wrote Leaf by Niggle effortlessly, sent it to a publisher, and it was accepted.  "It broke through his writer's block, and he went back and wrote The Lord of the Rings very quickly after that." (Keller, "Why We Need Artists" essay in It Was Good.)

Impasse over, Tolkien completed not only a masterpiece of literature, but a defining movement in film-making and culture for our time--and we are talking about a global phenomenon.  Many can recite its lines, and know its characters' names.  Who knows the effect of this series on our cultural psyche?  Images of heroism, friendship, and honor are juxtaposed with the vilest evil, war with demonic or dead creatures, and mind-warping lust for power.  Imagine if Tolkien had caved in on his attempt to write the impossible?

How did Tolkien finish?  Ahhh…but that begs another post…I’ll see you next week!

In the meantime, you can download a free version of Leaf by Niggle here.  Enjoy!