I had the distinct privilege last week to visit the Morgan Museum and Library in New York City to catch the Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth exhibit, a display of his original papers and artworks.
I knew Tolkien had a gift for prose, language creation, and world building—but I never knew how talented he was as an artist. The vivid color and striking compositions of his illustrations were eye-catching.
I was expecting the last item in the exhibit to be some grand finale about Lord of the Rings, but instead it was an illustration of an abstract tree with swirling branches, each tipped with a different kind of leaf or flower, each bearing a different kind of fruit.
It was called The Tree of Amalion, and though never featured in his work, many scholars consider it to be a pictorial representation of his own imagination. Here’s what John R. Holmes writes about it in the J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: “Perhaps the image abided with Tolkien so tenaciously because, like Niggle’s tree in his short story, it expressed his entire artistic life. . . . ‘The tree,’ Tolkien told Unwin, ‘bears besides various shapes of leaves many flowers small and large signifying poems and major legends.’ Amalion, then, might be a fit emblem for all of Tolkien’s work, literary and visual, and of the interrelation between the two” (32).
Indeed, as Holmes notes, Tolkien’s beloved trees are often associated with his creativity. His short story “Leaf by Niggle,” written during his frustration at his lack of progress on Lord of the Rings, is about an artist (Niggle) trying to draw a whole tree. The tree and its surrounding countryside make up the masterpiece in his head, but he is never able to finish in his lifetime.
Finally, and most importantly for my purposes, Tolkien associated trees with his creative life when he wrote of The Hobbit, “One writes such a story out of the leaf-mould of the mind” (Carpenter 182).
SILMARILLION = MULCH
Leaf-mould. A tree-ish image. It means that The Hobbit (and thus the beginning of Tolkien’s career as fantasy author) grew not out of a flash of inspiration, or even out of a distinct plot or theme he wanted to communicate, but out of all his life had naturally been up until that point. What’s more, it grew out of the “leaf-mould”: not the tree of his life itself, but the detritus at the base of the tree. The tree’s waste. All the life experiences and nascent ideas that never saw fruition and got discarded as the seasons of his life changed.
At least part of that leaf-mould was his unfinished life’s work, The Silmarillion. Tolkien had been working on it a very long time by the time The Hobbit came to be. Indeed, Silmarillion took almost all of Tolkien’s life. It was his hobby, his passion. He worked on it year after year, perfecting it, squaring details of it, creating languages and characters (and their linguistically consistent names, all derived from his created languages’ etymology!) for it—yet he never finished it. As far as he could tell, it was all so much leaf-mould: forest waste, campfire fodder.
Seeing as it never saw publication until his son Christopher completed it after his death, one might be tempted to say that all that work on The Silmarillion was wasted. But it was precisely that “waste,” that leaf-mould, that nourished The Hobbit, which in turn gave birth to Lord of the Rings.
The fact that The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings grew out of the leaf-mould of this immense, but never finished, passion project gives me hope: hope that no good work is wasted. For there are many good works I myself have not completed. All the disciplines I’ve tried and “failed” at, all the aborted crafts or attempts at gardening, all the years of outlining and writing a story that will never see the light of day—none of it is wasted.
As Rachel Jankovic notes in Loving the Little Years,
I think that in some ways we have let our cultural admiration for efficiency get into places that it doesn’t belong. Speaking for myself, sometimes I am working away on something and just cannot shake the question ‘Why am I doing this? Is this a ridiculous use of my time? Should I be doing something that matters, rather than (say) knitting a costumed mouse?’ . . . . Some of [my fruit] will fall to the ground and rot. But God uses rotten apples—to fertilize the ground, to start more apple trees after little animals plant them, and just to make the air smell sticky sweet. You cannot know the depth of His plan for your fruit. . . . Be bountiful with your fruit and free with it. The only thing that you can know for certain is that God will use it. (33-34)
On a tree, pine needles, fallen bark, all the uneaten fruits and seeds and ‘unused’ pollen—all drop and contribute to the richness of the soil, and therefore to the well-being of the tree.
We admire this “nothing wasted” feature of the environment and rightly so. Perhaps part of our admiration stems from our own longing that our own painfully limited time not be wasted. Moses’ prayer to “Establish the work of our hands!” is the cry of every heart (Ps. 90:17). We want our work to matter. But so much of what we do just seems to drop to the ground: the laundry pile never ends, the bills need paying month after month, and after years of toil on a project or relationship, we can still end up with empty hands. What to do with these failed attempts, these aborted endeavors? Is leaf-mould really that hope-giving when our heart is hurting for our lost time and effort?
TYING IT ALL TOGETHER
Yes, leaf-mould is hope-giving, and I’ll tell you why: the Christian belief in the Resurrection. Rachel Jankovic states it beautifully in You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal With It. What we do often “dies,” she says, and we chafe at the seeming futility of our good works. But, she reminds us…
This hunger for only important obedience or important faithfulness [i.e., effectiveness; “published works,” according to the leaf-mould analogy] reveals that we are not actively believing the resurrection. . . . It will not continue on, just you and your tiny obedience, forever. In the hands of God, it will go through the grave. It will change from you and your little offerings to you and your wild fruit. . . . Our small things, given to Him, will be great. (99)
The thing is, we don’t know what the work of our hands is establishing. Surely Tolkien didn’t think that his hobby of language invention as a teenager would eventually result in a genre-defining epic that blesses souls and touches hearts. But he continued to work—not always diligently, not perfectly. But he worked.
His example gives me hope: my imperfect work too, my “failed” attempts too, can have eternal significance. Maybe it won’t be what I was aiming for, but I can be sure it will be used. I can’t foresee the results, but I can trust that they are never a waste of time. What beauty. What graciousness. What goodness.
Tolkien reminds me that my efforts, as long as they are faithful, are “preparing the soil for unexpected good to sprout in” (to borrow a phrase from one of his letters on a completely different subject). I am free from making myself effective. I just need to be faithful. And fittingly, no one pictures this better than Tolkien himself in “Leaf by Niggle,” as Niggle discovers the fruits of his unfinished painting in eternity:
Niggle looked up. . . . Before him stood the Tree, his Tree, finished. If you could say that of a Tree that was alive, its branches growing and bending in the wind that Niggle had so often felt or guessed, and 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.
Carpenter, Humphrey. J. R. R. Tolkien: A Biography, Houghton Mifflin, 2000.
Holmes, John R. “Art and Illustrations by Tolkien.” J. R. R. Tolkien Encyclopedia: Scholarship and Critical Assessment, edited by Michael C. Drout, 2007, pp. 27-32.
Jankovic, Rachel. “Heavy Branches.” Loving the Little Years: Motherhood in the Trenches, Canon Press, 2010, pp. 31-34.
–. “A New Glory.” You Who? Why You Matter and How to Deal With It, Canon Press, 2019, pp. 95-104.
Tolkien, J. R. R. “Leaf by Niggle.” Tree and Leaf, The Tolkien Reader, Ballantine, 1986, p. 113.
–. “Letter 64.” The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien, edited by Humphrey Carpenter, Houghton Mifflin, 1981, pp. 75-77.