Saturday, January 19, 2008

Magi – Daniel L. Gilbert

© 2007 Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA

The title of this short novel says it all. Unlike O Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” this book by Daniel Gilbert is not an allusion to the biblical story, but an author’s attempt to fill in some of the pieces that the original story hints at.

Who are the magi, and from where in the east have they come? Gilbert’s take says that they are Parthian priests, of the order of Belteshazzar (the Babylonian name given to Daniel during his captivity). What about the journey—how long did it take? How did they know what the star meant? And on and on the questions could go.

Gilbert does a fair job crafting a story that tells the side of the magi. Ramates, who is much better at hunting than at stargazing, discovers a new star in the sky while hunting the elusive white leopard. The ancient writings point to the Deliverer, the Sociosh as the Parthians call him. Glory and admiration are given to Ramates when he arrives at the palace with the fabled animal draped over his horse and the story of the new star on his lips. He leads a company of priests on the arduous journey to Jerusalem in search of the new King of the Jews whose star he discovered. Along the way they encounter thieves and incite riots with their tales of this Deliverer.

Gilbert weaves an engaging story that makes sense of the few verses afforded the wise men in the gospel of Matthew. Some of the answers he arrives at are not the usual surface conclusions assumed by the casual reader of the Gospels. For instance, he places at the backdrop of the magi’s home country a civil conflict that builds the tension—for characters and reader alike. He joins the retinue to a caravan for safety, only to have them pawned off on a smaller caravan after they have drawn too much attention to themselves. He has them sent to Bethlehem as the scripture indicates, only to find the Messiah living in Nazareth—the opposite direction of Bethlehem when one starts from Jerusalem.

Literarily, the story is well-crafted. It is fast-paced with all the tension one would look for in an adventure story. The emotional upheaval associated with most Christmas stories is missing, but the deeper message that belongs to all true Christmas tales—whether based on the original event, a modern dilemma, or a fable-like Santa Claus offering. What we find in Magi is the story of a man (Ramates) filled with arrogance and pride, one who is looking for self-advancement and glory, who finds humility and truthfulness at the feet of the infant Savior. One of the best moments in the entire book is the revelation in the words of Ramates that, “Truth belongs to God . . . What I must cultivate is the humility required to recognize it.”

The one major drawback in the reading of this novel is at the same time one of its strengths and charms—namely, the desire of the author to remain faithful to the historical time period and setting. In so doing, he uses names and terminology that cause the casual reader to pause for a moment as he figures out how to pronounce character names and places (i.e. the home town of the magi—Ctesiphon). Even with the distractions of the tough names and places, Gilbert writes a story well worth reading, and possibly well worth re-reading during future Christmas seasons.

Magi deserves a hearty 4 ¾ reading glasses out of five, and a rousing round of applause from the Christmas reading community. Thanks for the story, Mr. Gilbert.

—Benjamin Potter, January 19, 2008

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