Literary Encounters

In a period when meeting our students face-to-face was not always possible and was replaced by on-line sessions, some other type of virtual encounter was available for those that were interested in more than the elusive reality of social media, namely the encounter offered by the world of literature. These literary encounters which, unfortunately, take place less and less frequently nowadays, can really be rewarding for the students who are curious and patient enough to embark on such a virtual journey.

As “travellers” to imaginary realms, the students can experience not only the creation of different worlds, but also their re-creation by means of intertextuality, a dimension that is particularly present in literature as no text is completely free from other texts. Thus, two encounters can take place simultaneously: on the one hand, the students come into contact with a certain literary text and, on the other hand, they witness the original transformation of a previous text by means of allusions, parodies, using different narrative perspectives or changing the genre of the initial text. This double literary encounter can be occasioned, for example, by the contrastive analysis of the way in which a certain myth or legend has been dealt with in different literary works.

Such a literary exercise can be represented by the study of the manner in which the legend of the Magi (from the Bible passage entitled The Magi Visit the Messiah) was approached in T. S. Eliot’s poem The Journey of the Magi. As the title of the two texts indicate, there are common elements that establish the hypertextual and intertextual connections between them (the legend of the Magi and, implicitly, the myth of creation serving as a primary source for the poem), but a careful reading of the two texts will reveal that there are also differences residing in the transformations that Eliot operates within his artistic re-creation of a religious source.

To start with, the title of Eliot’s poem points towards the fact that the theme dealt with is more complex than that of the Bible passage. The journey of the Magi includes not only the visit to Bethlehem, but also the process of travelling from the east to Judea, therefore the title of the poem raises different expectations from the title of the biblical passage. In this passage we only have a short reference to the Magi’s journey (“[…] Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked […]”), whereas in the poem its description and the reflections on it constitute the main focus. Although the represented or story time (the supposed time that it took the Magi to travel from the east to Judea) may (but need not) be the same in the two texts, the representational or discourse time (the time that it takes us to read about the event) is considerably longer in the poem.

The situation is reversed as regards the presentation of the moment when the Magi find the “child” due to the manner in which the myth of creation is dealt with. In the biblical passage we have references to several sequences of actions performed by the Magi: “On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.” By comparison, the brief presentation of this important religious event in the poem draws our attention to the fact that it is not only the focus that is shifted (from the Magi’s visit to the entire journey) but that there is a completely new perspective on the significance of the Birth. The moment of arrival is minimized not only graphically or prosodically, being  dealt with in only two lines, but also conceptually or emotionally by the narrating character, who does not really grasp its importance: “And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon/Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.”

In the biblical passage it is the journey itself that is minimized and treated briefly because it is the end of it that matters: the Magi’s finding the place and worshipping the “child”, knowing that this is a singular event and a unique emotional experience (they are “overjoyed”). In the poem it is the end of the journey that is referred to in passing as the description of the endured hardships is the focus of attention. Consequently, the narrating character presents the final experience as merely “satisfactory”. Furthermore, the subsequent reflections on the event bring to light states of mind that only intensify the contrast between the manner in which the Birth is experienced by the Magi in the Bible and the way in which Eliot’s characters feel about it. The extreme joy felt by the former is replaced by doubt, uncertainty and intense suffering in the case of the latter: “[…] were we led all that way for/Birth or Death?”, “[…] this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

Another contrast to be noted is the one between the act of gift-offering (in the Bible passage) and the playing of dice (in the poem). We do not know for certain if the synecdochic references in “Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,/And feet kicking the empty wine-skins” can be connected to the three Magi but, in all likelihood, they can, as shocking as that may be for us, the readers. The “pieces of silver” replace the biblical “gold, frankincense and myrrh”, just as the playing of dice substitutes the act of gift-offering. In fact, as it seems, we have a complete reversal of values and attitudes reflected in Eliot’s re-working of the biblical legend. The narrating character turns into an unreliable narrator by performing the following: complaining about the hardships of the journey, thus denying its sacrificial value; mentioning or alluding to dishonest or immoral practices which cannot be connected with the traditional Magi, thus denying their spiritual essence and casting doubt on the purpose of the journey; dismissing the experience  of the Birth as something “satisfactory” or, even worse, agonizing and unsettling, which implies a total denial of the significance and sacredness of the Birth: “[…] this Birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

The creative transformations that the biblical legend suffers also affect the manner in which archetypes function in the poem and the relationships that are established between them.  In the Bible passage the Magi represent the archetypes of the wise old men who know what the star symbolizes (the occurrence of a unique event) and are ready to follow its guidance. This only facilitates their quest for the divine “child” and gives meaning to the journey. Their travelling from the east to Jerusalem and, then, to Bethlehem is more than a physical journey; it is also a spiritual one because it is accompanied by an inner transformation symbolizing the re-birth of humankind. The Magi’s behaviour towards Jesus (bowing, worshipping, offering gifts) represents an archetypal ritual, setting a pattern for subsequent acts of religious adoration. The “child” is the archetypal image of innocence, of moral and spiritual force, of new beginnings. In contrast, King Herod, who is “disturbed” when hearing about Jesus and, later on, orders the killing of babies, becomes the archetype of evil. Thus, the relationship between him and the “child” and, also, between him and the Magi is an antagonistic one, reflecting and predicting a future battle between darkness and light, death and life, old beliefs and values and new ones.

In Eliot’s poem the Magi are not associated with wisdom any longer, as we have already noted, therefore they have no “star” to guide them on their way or they do not see it. The fact that number six is referred to in “Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” is meant to reinforce this separation from the biblical legend in that “six” is usually associated with evil. In addition, “silver” here connotes wealth, material gain, whereas the biblical “gold” is associated with uniqueness and kingship, metaphorically sending to “the king of the Jews”. In this manner, Eliot’s Magi turn from wise men into common tricksters or sinners by living in “summer palaces” among “silken girls bringing sherbet”, “bribing” the camel men (but, apparently, not well enough), “dicing” their way to the “place” and questioning the significance of the Birth. They find it difficult to accept the new order of things, the promised spiritual “wealth” instead of the existing material one. The Birth of Jesus means, in fact, the death of the old selves, of the old world, which now seems an “alien” one, just like the “people clutching their gods”. Their journey is the journey of common sinful people who, in their quest for redemption have to face numerous tests in order to be truly “re-born”. In the Bible passage there is only one test mentioned: King Herod summoning the Magi to inform him of the place where the “child” is. Of course, the test is successfully passed by the Magi who are, miraculously, prevented from “reporting” to Herod by a warning received in a dream.

This dream, together with the guiding star and the prophecy, is associated with a supernatural world and is the result of a divine presence making sure that a higher order of things is implemented on Earth. As opposed to the biblical passage, the poem contains the description of a natural world (“the very dead of winter”, “the weather sharp”, “a temperate valley”, “a running stream”, “three trees on the low sky”) and a purely human presence, that of the sinful Magi, of the camel men “cursing and grumbling”, of “the villages dirty and charging high prices”. We witness a biblical legend turning into a “story” about the human nature, a story in which the cosmic time reflected by the movement of the star across the sky and the eternal time of divinity and creation are replaced by a natural time associated with the changes of the seasons and climate, but, also, a biological one, associated with growth (“Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley/Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation”).

Yet, the world of the poem is not completely separated from the biblical world of the divine. Certainly, there are enough (natural) elements connecting the Magi to the Earth and highlighting their purely human behaviour: “the ways deep” (symbolizing the subconscious and man’s animal nature), the “temperate valley” (an archetypal setting connoting the unknown, depression or death), “the very dead of winter”, “the darkness”, “the summer palaces on slopes” (the descent sends again to an image of man’s primitive drives), the “tavern” (a symbol of human degradation). But there are also archetypes associated with the promise of new beginnings, of renewed life (“vegetation”, “the running stream”) and archetypes connected with uniqueness (“the white horse”) or knowledge and life (“the trees”). The archetypal image of the “trees” also reflects the union of the physical dimension with the sacred one, of the Earth with the Sky. In addition, the fact that there are “three trees”, matching the number of Magi, counterbalances the reference to number six in “Six hands at an open door […]”, opposing the image of the Holy Trinity or of the union of Mind, Body and Spirit symbolized by the former to the negative connotations of the latter (“evil”, “devil”).

The archetype of the journey deserves special attention as all the other archetypes mentioned so far are introduced in connection to it. As we have already remarked, the journey of the biblical Magi is only briefly dealt with, whereas it forms the main body of the poem. Therefore, we can analyze the archetypal value of the journey particularly in relation to the poem and, to a lesser extent, in relation to the Bible passage. Usually, the journey as an archetype includes three stages: departure from one’s familiar world, initiation through overcoming obstacles and return to one’s homeland in an altered state of consciousness. We can find the three stages presented in the poem gradually and elaborately: the departure, which takes place during winter time (“Just the worst time of the year/For a journey […]”), the initiation through obstacles (“Then the camel men cursing and grumbling/and running away […]/And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,/And the cities hostile […]”) and the return home  (“We returned to our places, these Kingdoms”). Yet, the transformation supposed to accompany the experience of the journey is not a matter of certainty. Yes, something changed inside them; there is a feeling of estrangement separating the Magi from the others, a sense of difficulty in adjusting to the untransformed world (“But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/With an alien people clutching their gods.”) Nevertheless, the ambiguity of the last line (“I should be glad of another death.”) prevents us from clearly identifying the type of transformation that occurred. Do the Magi wish to return to the previous state of existence, with “the silken girls bringing sherbet”, a state which they regret so much that they wish they were dead? Whose or what kind of death do they wish for: of the old way of life, with its gods, or of the new one, with its God?

There is no question that, in the Bible passage, the Magi return home spiritually re-born. Their “worshipping” of the “child” reflects the joy of embracing the new religion and the spiritual transformation that it entails. The act of going back to their country “by another route” indicates caution on their part (they want to avoid meeting King Herod) but it also symbolizes change, spiritual re-birth, following a new path in life.

In fact, it is life itself that can be understood in terms of a journey and this is easier to detect in Eliot’s poem, which seems to be built around this conceptual metaphor. The common elements that unite these two concepts (life and journey) include: the obstacles that have to be faced while travelling, birth seen as a point of departure, death envisaged as a return home. Transformation is, of course, expected throughout such a long journey, otherwise there is no initiation and no development, which means that the experience has been in vain. But it is not only life as a whole that can be associated with the archetype of the journey. Eliot’s poem can be interpreted as describing the journey of the human consciousness from ignorance and instinctual drives deriving from the unconscious (“[…] and such a long journey:/The ways deep and the weather sharp,/The very dead of winter.”), through doubt (“[…] were we led all that way for/Birth or Death? […]”) to some kind of unspecified change (“But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/With an alien people clutching their gods.”) The natural setting becomes a “space of the mind” as the physical journey is replaced by a metaphorical one reflecting the “paths” taken by the common man and his consciousness on the way to a new type of awareness.

In contrast, the journey of the Magi in the biblical passage and the reference to the guiding star “travelling” across the sky with them point towards life on a larger scale, metaphorically reflecting the history of mankind in its transition to Christianity. There is no “space of the mind” here, but references to more or less specified geographical locations (the east, Judea, Jerusalem, Bethlehem) which are transformed into a “space of change” due to the unique event of the Birth. In addition, the psychological time associated with the “space of the mind” and personal growth in the poem is replaced here by a historical and religious time announcing a new type of cultural development (a new civilization with a different set of values and beliefs).

Taking into account all the aspects discussed so far (the significance of the two titles, the reversal of values and attitudes, the function of archetypes, the spatial and temporal references), the students can gradually observe the manner in which the biblical legend of the (wise) Magi celebrating the Birth of Jesus is artistically transformed into a story of common (sinful) men lamenting the death of an old way of life and having difficulty adjusting to the new one.  The contrastive analysis helps students understand that religion and literature do not exist independently and that, in fact, all the texts making up culture and society are interrelated, forming a universal Text to which they can contribute their own interpretative discourse.


1. Barnet, Sylvan; Morton Berman; William Burto (editors) (1985): An Introduction to Literature. Fiction/Poetry/Drama. Eighth Edition, Little, Brown and Company.
2. Beard, Adrian (2001): Texts and Contexts. Introducing literature and language study, Routledge, Taylor&Francis e-Library.
3. Chatman, Seymour (1978): Story and Discourse. Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film, Cornell University Press, Ithaca and London.
4. Hăulică, Cristina (1981): Textul ca intertextualitate. Pornind de la Borges, Editura ,,Eminescu”, Bucureşti.
5. Lambrou, Marina; Peter Stockwell (editors) (2010): Contemporary Stylistics, Continuum, London.

1. The Bible, Matthew 2:1-12
2. Eliot, T.S., The Journey of the Magi


prof. Lenuța Puiu

Liceul Tehnologic Anghel Saligny, Bacău (Bacău) , România
Profil iTeach:

Articole asemănătoare