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Michel Tournier: Gaspard, Melchior et Balthazar (The Four Wise Men)

Tournier once again jumps into myth, this time rewriting the tale of the Three Wise Men and adds a fourth wise man. The legend of the fourth wise man is not new. Henry van Dyke wrote about him, as did Edzard Schaper, whose novel Der vierte König (The Fourth King) apparently was the basis for Tournier’s fourth wise man.

Tournier’s approach is to take each of the four stories individually. Each of the four has an issue that he wishes to resolve and attempts to do so in his travels. Gaspard is black and, as he says, king, but obsessed with the blonde slave girl, Biltine. When he sees the Star of Bethlehem, he does not, as his astrologer, see a threat to his kingdom, but sees a blonde-haired star that reminds him of Biltine. His obsession with blondness is only resolved when he gets to Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Balthazar, King of Nippur, is an art collector and has always felt that his love of the beautiful would help him to be a better king. He collects works of art from around the world but when his personal museum is destroyed by rioters, his life seems destroyed. He changes his quest in life from beautiful works of art to the search for a religious ideal. The third king is Melchior, the Prince of Palmyra, but usurped from his throne. He has traveled the world, searching for help and sustenance. He, of course, abandons his search for an earthly kingdom and replaces it with a search for a heavenly one.

The final king is the most interesting, partially because he is not mentioned in the Bible, but also because his journey is both the longest and the most interesting. Taor, Prince of Mangalore, is initially in search of something relatively prosaic – Turkish delight. He is too late for the birth of Christ and then is thrown into jail. He spends thirty-three years in jail and is just too late for the crucifixion and eats the remains of the Last Supper. However, he changes from being a shallow man to being an ascetic one, receiving his redemption at the end. Tournier’s skill is to tell an overtly Christian tale which will work for those who are not Christian. Even if you have doubts about the Christ legend, you cannot but be impressed with Tournier’s handling of the story.

Publishing history

First published in French 1980 by Gallimard
First published in English 1982 by Collins