I came to know Wendell Berry at the wrong time in my life. My husband and I, with three children in tow, had just barely ... Read More
Once upon a time, many long years ago and in a land far, far away, a group of astrologers observed a stellar anomaly.
“Look,” said one. “That star. It doesn’t usually appear there, right?”
The others nodded and murmured general agreement.
What happened next is a matter for speculation only. Maybe the astrologers had a group epiphany about the significance of the star’s odd location in the night sky. Maybe they held a council to debate its significance. Maybe they ran a series of tests, or deferred to the judgment of the eldest or wisest man of their cadre. Whatever their procedure, we do have from St. Matthew a surviving scrap of testimony about their conclusion: A boy had been born King of the Jews. The astrologers gathered some suitable gifts and set out westward toward the land of Judea; and, after consulting with King Herod and the priests and legal scholars in Jerusalem, found the Man Born to be King in a house in Bethlehem.
That was over two thousand years ago. And to this day, much of the Western Church keeps an annual feast—Epiphany—where we re-tell the story of the first revelation of Jesus the Messiah to the Gentiles, a story foretold by Isaiah the prophet: “And the Gentiles shall come to thy light, and kings to the brightness of thy rising.” Among other things, the story is notable for the vocation of its Gentiles: astrology, a vocation mocked for its futility by everyone from that same Isaiah the prophet to the Onion. Indeed those Gentiles would never have got going, but for their vocation.
Hold that thought for a moment.
A century ago, in an Oxford library, a young man (who should have been studying for exams) found C.N.E. Eliot’s A Finnish Grammar. He likened the discovery to “discovering a complete wine-cellar filled with bottles of an amazing wine of a kind and flavour never tasted before.” Only a rather odd bird would have regarded A Finnish Grammar with the lust of a drunkard or wine snob, but this young man was just that kind of odd bird. He was a budding philologist who’d started developing his “‘own language’—or series of invented languages.” After his “wine-cellar” discovery those languages would forever bear the Finnish bouquet. And then, when he discovered the Finnish Kalevala, that “set the rocket off in story”—the story that would give a background for the languages.
The germ of my attempt to write legends of my own to fit my private languages was the tragic tale of the hapless Kullervo in the Finnish Kalevala.
The young man may have been shirking his exam preparation that day, but he was very much “on the job” as a philologist. As a result, we have Middle-earth, and the Rabbit Room, and a chorus of toasts “To the Professor!” every January 3.
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It may well be that you regard your day job as a “sideline,” a bit of drudgery you perform only to support your family or art habit. If so, then reflect on this: the seed for the creation of Middle-earth was A Finnish Grammar. Are the arcane or mundane details of your day job so arcane or mundane as that? Is there nothing among the details of your job which, if given real attention, might be seed for a world? Or perhaps you regard your day job as disreputable—as much so as, say, astrology or philology. You found this website because a philologist saw a “complete wine-cellar” in a Finnish grammar. Jesus Christ’s first revelation to the Gentiles happened as it did because of astrologers, being astrologers.
The creator of the heavens and the earth scatters his seeds wisely, and quite prodigally. Work accordingly, friends.
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 Isaiah 60:3 (AV).
 Isaiah 47:10-15.
 J. R. R. Tolkien, The Letters of J. R. R. Tolkien 214 (Humphrey Carpenter et al. eds., Houghton Mifflin 2000)(1981).
 Tolkien, Letters at 345.
 C. S. Lewis, for example, was warned at his “first coming into the English Faculty (explicitly) never to trust a philologist.” C. S. Lewis, Surprised by Joy 216 (1955).
David Mitchel is a small-town lawyer who has represented clients in a broad spectrum of causes, ranging from business transactions to property disputes to the defense of criminal charges to federal habeas corpus and Civil Rights actions. His passion for literature and story, which he caught first from Tolkien, informs all of this work—which requires patient, careful adjudication of competing stories and creativity to help clients and courts write the rest of the story justly and wisely. David was born and raised near Baltimore, Maryland, went to law school at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia, and now lives in central Virginia. When he’s not practicing his profession, David is usually on stage, or playing a stringed instrument, or reading, or writing.