Wednesday, January 21, 2009


The Story of the Other Wise Man (sometimes just The Other Wise Man) is a 1896 novella by Henry Van Dyke, a professor, preacher and diplomat (He also wrote the words to “Joyful, Joyful, We Adore Thee”). This novella has become (and remains) something of a Christmas classic, up there with O. Henry’s “The Gift of the Magi” and such. Here, Artaban, a Parthian magus, intends to travel with his three magi friends to find the infant Jesus. But he is repeatedly delayed by a number of factors, many of which involve him stopping out of compassion to help the needy. In doing so, he wonders if he will ever find Jesus.

The end of the story isn’t entirely expected. But Van Dyke’s message is transparent throughout – it is by serving others that we best serve God himself (Matthew 25:31-46). Artaban is, to some degree, aware of this, even as he despairs of giving away the treasures he had stored up for Jesus, but on the whole he loses sight of the significance of the good that he does. This inner conflict is not played up to the degree it might have been, but nevertheless this story’s impact is powerful.

The Story of the Other Wise Man is mind-bogglingly descriptive. Perhaps half the book is taken up by descriptions like

“The doorway between the pillars, which opened upon the terrace of the roof, was covered with a heavy curtain of the color of a ripe pomegranate, embroidered with innumerable golden rays shooting upward from the floor. In effect the room was like a quiet, starry night, all azure and silver, flushed in the east with the rosy promise of the dawn. It was, as the house of a man should be, an expression of the character and spirit of the master.”

This level of detail is a double-edged sword. It’s terribly immersive, but it also slows down the story, at times to the degree that the reader may skip ahead. Also, kids and adults will want to keep a dictionary handy.

All things considered, The Story of the Other Wise Man has held up very well, and is rightly a Christmas classic still.