An image by Robert T. Barrett illustrating The Other Wise Man, written in 1895 by Henry van Dyke, published by Harper and Brothers. Van Dyke tells the story of Artaban, a wise man from Persia who, 2,000 years ago, planned to set out with the other three wise men — Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar (link and link) — to find the Christ Child, but was delayed along the way…
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem…” —Gospel of Matthew (Matthew 2:1)
“Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.”
—Henry van Dyke, the opening verses in his book “The Other Wise Man” (published in 1895, 126 years ago now)
Letter #1, 2022, Monday, January 3: Artaban, Part #5
As the new year begins, I am continuing to publish daily readings in 10 parts of a little-known fictional story about… a fourth “wise man”(!) from the East named Artaban — for reasons I gave in my Letter #197, sent out at the end of last year…
Artaban, like the other wise men, his friends, planned in about 2 B.C. to set out from Persia to seek and honor the Child Jesus.
But Artaban is delayed on his way, and does not arrive in Bethlehem in time to see the new-born Jesus.
Here below is the Preface to the entire book, and the text of Part #5 of this story, so you may listen to the reading and read along with the text…
“The Other Wise Man”
We have now posted the 5th in a 10-part series of a reading of the classic Christmas story “The Other Wise Man.” It is available here on YouTube (or by clicking the video below) or on Rumble.
The story was written by Henry Van Dyke in 1895 (link). We offer this to you as a kind of Christmas present during the 12 days of Christmas. We hope that it might be a type of pilot for the creation of a kind of “book club” in which we would prepare readings of great stories and documents to try to help families, especially during this time of lockdown, to have time for reading together with children and grandchildren, during the holidays, and throughout the year. If you have a comment or suggestion, please feel free to respond to this email, or send an email to [email protected]
Here is the Preface to the story of “The Other Wise Man,” by Henry van Dyke:
The Story of the Other Wise Man
by Henry van Dyke
New York and London
Harper & Brothers
Who seeks for heaven alone to save his soul,
May keep the path, but will not reach the goal;
While he who walks in love may wander far,
Yet God will bring him where the blessed are.
It is now some years since this little story was set afloat on the sea of books. It is not a man-of-war, nor even a high-sided merchantman; only a small, peaceful sailing-vessel. Yet it has had rather an adventurous voyage. Twice it has fallen into the hands of pirates. The tides have carried it to far countries. It has been passed through the translator’s port of entry into German, French, Armenian, Turkish, and perhaps some other foreign regions. Once I caught sight of it flying the outlandish flag of a brand-new phonetic language along the coasts of France; and once it was claimed by a dealer in antiquities as a long-lost legend of the Orient. Best of all, it has slipped quietly into many a far-away harbor that I have never seen, and found a kindly welcome, and brought back messages of good cheer from unknown friends.
Now it has turned home to be new-rigged and fitted for further voyaging. Before it is sent out again I have been asked to tell where the story came from and what it means.
I do not know where it came from—out of the air, perhaps. One thing is certain, it is not written in any other book, nor is it to be found among the ancient lore of the East. And yet I have never felt as if it were my own. It was a gift. It was sent to me; and it seemed as if I knew the Giver, though His name was not spoken.
The year had been full of sickness and sorrow. Every day brought trouble. Every night was tormented with pain. They are very long—those nights when one lies awake, and hears the laboring heart pumping wearily at its task, and watches for the morning, not knowing whether it will ever dawn. They are not nights of fear; for the thought of death grows strangely familiar when you have lived with it for a year. Besides, after a time you come to feel like a soldier who has been long standing still under fire; any change would be a relief. But they are lonely nights; they are very heavy nights. And their heaviest burden is this:
You must face the thought that your work in the world may be almost ended, but you know that it is not nearly finished.
You have not solved the problems that perplexed you. You have not reached the goal that you aimed at. You have not accomplished the great task that you set for yourself. You are still on the way; and perhaps your journey must end now,—nowhere,—in the dark.
Well, it was in one of these long, lonely nights that this story came to me. I had studied and loved the curious tales of the Three Wise Men of the East as they are told in the “Golden Legend” of Jacobus de Voragine and other mediaeval books. But of the Fourth Wise Man I had never heard until that night. Then I saw him distinctly, moving through the shadows in a little circle of light. His countenance was as clear as the memory of my father’s face as I saw it for the last time a few months before. The narrative of his journeyings and trials and disappointments ran without a break. Even certain sentences came to me complete and unforgettable, clear-cut like a cameo. All that I had to do was to follow Artaban, step by step, as the tale went on, from the beginning to the end of his pilgrimage.
Perhaps this may explain some things in the story. I have been asked many times why I made the Fourth Wise Man tell a lie, in the cottage at Bethlehem, to save the little child’s life.
I did not make him tell a lie.
What Artaban said to the soldiers he said for himself, because he could not help it.
Is a lie ever justifiable? Perhaps not. But may it not sometimes seem inevitable?
And if it were a sin, might not a man confess it, and be pardoned for it more easily than for the greater sin of spiritual selfishness, or indifference, or the betrayal of innocent blood? That is what I saw Artaban do. That is what I heard him say. All through his life he was trying to do the best that he could. It was not perfect. But there are some kinds of failure that are better than success.
Though the story of the Fourth Wise Man came to me suddenly and without labor, there was a great deal of study and toil to be done before it could be written down. An idea arrives without effort; a form can only be wrought out by patient labor. If your story is worth telling, you ought to love it enough to be willing to work over it until it is true,—true not only to the ideal, but true also to the real. The light is a gift; but the local color can only be seen by one who looks for it long and steadily. Artaban went with me while I toiled through a score of volumes of ancient history and travel. I saw his figure while I journeyed on the motionless sea of the desert and in the strange cities of the East.
And now that his story is told, what does it mean?
How can I tell? What does life mean? If the meaning could be put into a sentence there would be no need of telling the story.
—HENRY VAN DYKE, 1895
Part #5: The Other Wise Man
By Henry van Dyke
Vasda was almost spent, and he would gladly have turned into the city to find rest and refreshment for himself and for her. But he knew that it was three hours’ journey yet to the Temple of the Seven Spheres, and he must reach the place by midnight if he would find his comrades waiting. So he did not halt, but rode steadily across the stubble-fields.
A grove of date-palms made an island of gloom in the pale yellow sea. As she passed into the shadow Vasda slackened her pace, and began to pick her way more carefully.
Near the farther end of the darkness an access of caution seemed to fall upon her. She scented some danger or difficulty; it was not in her heart to fly from it—only to be prepared for it, and to meet it wisely, as a good horse should do. The grove was close and silent as the tomb; not a leaf rustled, not a bird sang.
She felt her steps before her delicately, carrying her head low, and sighing now and then with apprehension. At last she gave a quick breath of anxiety and dismay, and stood stock-still, quivering in every muscle, before a dark object in the shadow of the last palm-tree.
Artaban dismounted. The dim starlight revealed the form of a man lying across the road. His humble dress and the outline of his haggard face showed that he was probably one of the poor Hebrew exiles who still dwelt in great numbers in the vicinity. His pallid skin, dry and yellow as parchment, bore the mark of the deadly fever which ravaged the marsh-lands in autumn. The chill of death was in his lean hand, and, as Artaban released it, the arm fell back inertly upon the motionless breast.
He turned away with a thought of pity, consigning the body to that strange burial which the Magians deemed most fitting—the funeral of the desert, from which the kites and vultures rise on dark wings, and the beasts of prey slink furtively away, leaving only a heap of white bones in the sand.
But, as he turned, a long, faint, ghostly sigh came from the man’s lips. The brown, bony fingers closed convulsively on the hem of the Magian’s robe and held him fast.
Artaban’s heart leaped to his throat, not with fear, but with a dumb resentment at the importunity of this blind delay.
How could he stay here in the darkness to minister to a dying stranger? What claim had this unknown fragment of human life upon his compassion or his service? If he lingered but for an hour he could hardly reach Borsippa at the appointed time. His companions would think he had given up the journey. They would go without him. He would lose his quest.
But if he went on now, the man would surely die. If he stayed, life might be restored. His spirit throbbed and fluttered with the urgency of the crisis. Should he risk the great reward of his divine faith for the sake of a single deed of human love? Should he turn aside, if only for a moment, from the following of the star, to give a cup of cold water to a poor, perishing Hebrew?
“God of truth and purity,” he prayed, “direct me in the holy path, the way of wisdom which Thou only knowest.”
Then he turned back to the sick man. Loosening the grasp of his hand, he carried him to a little mound at the foot of the palm-tree.
He unbound the thick folds of the turban and opened the garment above the sunken breast. He brought water from one of the small canals near by, and moistened the sufferer’s brow and mouth. He mingled a draught of one of those simple but potent remedies which he carried always in his girdle—for the Magians were physicians as well as astrologers—and poured it slowly between the colorless lips. Hour after hour he labored as only a skilful healer of disease can do; and, at last, the man’s strength returned; he sat up and looked about him.
“Who art thou?” he said, in the rude dialect of the country, “and why hast thou sought me here to bring back my life?”
“I am Artaban the Magian, of the city of Ecbatana, and I am going to Jerusalem in search of one who is to be born King of the Jews, a great Prince and Deliverer of all men. I dare not delay any longer upon my journey, for the caravan that has waited for me may depart without me. But see, here is all that I have left of bread and wine, and here is a potion of healing herbs. When thy strength is restored thou canst find the dwellings of the Hebrews among the houses of Babylon.”
The Jew raised his trembling hand solemnly to heaven.
“Now may the God of Abraham and Isaac and Jacob bless and prosper the journey of the merciful, and bring him in peace to his desired haven. But stay; I have nothing to give thee in return—only this: that I can tell thee where the Messiah must be sought. For our prophets have said that he should be born not in Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem of Judah. May the Lord bring thee in safety to that place, because thou hast had pity upon the sick.”
(To be continued)