Whether Michel Tournier's book, The Four Wise Men, hopes to inspire newfound faith in non-believers, or affirm a Christian tale matters not. In discarding all that is religious about this novel, it is easy to see a deeper quest for truth and happiness for the story's title characters. However, since putting aside religion regarding a work of such religious magnitude is impossible, one must assume that Tournier attempts to explore his themes with an answer in faith and hope. The men he follows, through deserts of salt and oceans of fury, achieve an enlightened existence, not by the child they meet, or the preacher they search for, but in the journey they must make.
Gaspar, King of Meroe, cast out from his kingdom by non-reciprocated love, follows the golden trail of a comet to the outskirts of Hebron, where he meets the art-loving ruler of Nippur, Balthasar. An unlikely pair, the two kings share in thought the idea of a non-Caucasian Adam, sharing stories of love: Gaspar's Biltine; Balthasar's Knight-Banneret. Their quest, later joined by Melchior, Prince of Palmyra, his throne usurped and father killed, leads them to the city of Jerusalem, to the very house of Herod the Great. It is there that the wise men learn of a great king to be born, the same king prophesized to build a kingdom of love, and it is there that their true voyage begins.
Tournier magically weaves together the tales of the three noble men, a fourth as noble and wise, Herod the Great, and tales of kings and fanciful beards. The key to his story, however, is not in the impressive retinues each king carries, or the banquets that seem to follow along, but with the humbled existence of the ass and the ox. Utility animals, epitomized in the two hardest workers, and, quite possibly, the two most dissimilar mammals in their field, settled comfortably on both sides of the Savior, Jesus Christ. The two animals are the finest example of the inhabitants of God's Kingdom. Tournier reinforces humility with stories of devastation, one after the other, capped off with nothing but hope. Gaspar hopes to find happiness in Biltine's freedom; Nippur hopes to bask in the reunification of image and likeness, pardoning the sin of art as a form of idolatry; Melchior hopes to begin a kingdom, different from the one he left behind, and abandon all bitterness that his loss had caused.
The final chapter of Tournier's book deals with Taor, Prince of Mangalore, who is the fourth wise aristocrat to travel in the path of the streaking comet. He abandons his quest for candy when he meets with the three kings. Through obstacles ranging in gravity he comes to see that his journey leads right to Jesus. Although Taor is perpetually late in witnessing Jesus' person, he never misses the chance to learn; his three fellow kings told him tales of angels, asses and a baby, and his partner in forced labor shared stories of miracles, healing, and feeding. Because of his most unfortunate tardiness, Taor shares the company of all classes during his journey. He becomes, by the end, the realization of all that Jesus is teaching without even knowing it. Sacrifices made on the part of strangers, sincere interest in doing good, and the urge to free men obliged to him, all exemplify Christian teachings to the fullest. So what is his reward? Eternal life with Jesus Christ, as shown in the book's very last sentence: "The night sky opened, revealing a sea of light, and into it they bore the man who, after having been last, the eternal latecomer, had just been the first to receive the Eucharist" (Tournier, p. 249).
Although I wouldn't call Michel Tournier an exceptional writer, he would certainly qualify as a master storyteller, like Sangali, taking an ancient tale, and retelling it to exploit the deeper meanings. Four men led away from their homes for very concrete reasons, find an answer in very abstract terms, and their reward, just like Nabunassur's, is eternal life.