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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 539

The Four Wise Men marked a turning point for Tournier. It appears to be one of the simplest of his books and seems to mark a tacit acceptance of Christianity. It is certainly his most humorous work. Beneath its surface simplicity and charm, however, The Four Wise Men is a...

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The Four Wise Men marked a turning point for Tournier. It appears to be one of the simplest of his books and seems to mark a tacit acceptance of Christianity. It is certainly his most humorous work. Beneath its surface simplicity and charm, however, The Four Wise Men is a telling examination of the beliefs by which people live.

The Four Wise Men consists of seven main sections, a postscript in which Tournier summarizes his sources, and some brief notes. The first three sections consist of the stories of the three traditional Magi: Gaspar, Balthazar, and Melchior, all of whose names derive from nonbiblical sources. Gaspar is a black king of Méroé in southern Egypt who buys two blond slaves and who gradually grows ashamed of his color. His faith in himself is restored when he travels to Bethlehem and sees that the infant Christ is black. Balthazar is the king of Nippur, a region of Babylonia. His great museum has been destroyed by a priest who disapproves of graven images, but Balthazar learns in Bethlehem that art pays tribute to creation and is therefore not sacrilegious. Melchior is a prince of Palmyra, Syria, driven out of his country before he can become king. In Bethlehem he discovers that it is possible to rule without violence and political manipulation, and he decides to found a heavenly city on earth.

There follow three episodes that serve to place the stories of the Magi in perspective. “Barbedor” is an allegory of death and renewal, suggesting the replacement of Jehovah by Jesus. “Herod the Great” is a long and grimly realistic portrait of political life in Palestine. “The Ass and the Ox” accounts the birth of Jesus from humorously unusual perspectives.

Tournier’s account of the fourth Magus, Prince Taor of Mangalore in southwestern India, takes up nearly a third of the book and is obviously its most important section. Taor is so enamored of sweets that he sets off in search of a Divine Confectioner whose imminent appearance has been heralded by prophets. His way is long, his entourage huge, and his progress slow, so Taor misses the birth of Christ. He encounters the other three Magi and listens to their dissimilar stories of what they found in Bethlehem, but he is unable to reconcile their accounts with his expectations of the ultimate sweet he supposes the Confectioner will dispense.

Taor’s subsequent travels strip him of his possessions and his followers. Pursuing an obscure destiny, he ultimately trades away his own life by taking the place of a debtor sentenced to work in the salt mines of Sodom and is released after thirty-three years. This period of time, of course, leads Taor and the reader to Christ’s last days and to the reader’s realization that Taor has achieved a Christlike state without the necessity of Christ’s having died to expiate his sins.

Resuming the search he had begun years before, Taor arrives at the table of the Last Supper just after Christ and his disciples have departed. In sampling the remaining bread and wine, Taor becomes the first man after the disciples to receive the Christian sacrament of the Eucharist, and he is received into Heaven.

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