The Fourth King by Ted Sieger

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The Fourth King by Ted Sieger

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Category: For Sharing
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: This carefully told and lovingly illustrated fable tells the story of the fourth king who never made it to the stable on time. Strong moral message told in child-accessible adventure story format and attractive, humorous illustrations make it a good choice for a Christmas book for a Christian family. The appearance of the literal voice of God himself might put off the agnostic. Militant atheists should keep well away.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 40 Date: October 2006
Publisher: Walker Books Ltd
ISBN: 0744570093link title

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Ted Sieger's picture book tells the story of the fourth king in the Gospel's Nativity: king Mazzel, who set off with his small camel, a star-map and a crystal to travel together with his better-known stargazing friends Casper, Melchior and Baltazaar to pay his homage to the new born king. He didn't make it on time though and we learn why in this wise fable providing an apocryphal, but ultimately very Christian gloss to the original story.

Mazzel and his camel Chamberlin travel through the desert and the mountains, and on their way they meet those that need help: a little girl lost in the sand storm, a caravan of merchants in need of guidance, a magical flower needing sustenance, and a group of small children enslaved by a rich man to build an endless wall.

Each of these encounters brings the same dilemma: what are they to do? Should they stop and help, or should they follow the star, hurry up to join the other three kings and pay tribute to the one born in the stable? They stop and help each time, of course, and in the process they lose the gift they bear but gain some other ones, seemingly less worthy (a wooden toy lamb, a tinkling seed). All this charity, though, takes time and when Mazzel and Chamberlin arrive in Bethlehem, the family is gone. And then, with Mazzel in the depths of disappointed despair, God himself (not named, but obvious) speaks to him with a paraphrase of well-known words of the Gospel (I was thirsty, you gave me a drink, I was lonely and you made me welcome ... whatever you did for the humblest of my brothers you did for me).

The Fourth King is a lovingly executed fable, an apocryphal but ultimately very orthodox gloss to the Nativity story and the Gospels. The story is told by Mazzel in the first person, using slightly formal, just a little bit old-fashioned language with a few big words, but told simply and with feeling. The story pulls at the heartstrings: each dilemma and each resolution is a bit of a cliff-hanger.

I didn't like the illustrations in The Fourth King much at first: they were too cartoonish for me. But when I saw how interested my daughter was in them, and looked closer, I started to appreciate them more. They provide a slightly humorous backdrop to the story, with Chamberlin the camel often taking stage; while the darkest scenes are rather scary: the slave children building the wall brought images of Mordor and even Auschwitz to my mind, though a young child will obviously not share these associations. Another association I had when reading The Fourth King was with De Saint-Exupery's The Little Prince (maybe because of the desert and children?).

The book is produced with care and the text and the pictures work well together: some pages are double-width, so they have to be unfolded open to reveal a picture and a text, sometimes funny, sometimes dark.

The main message is exploring what is one of the main points of Christianity: the true nature of charity and the powerful message in which the all-mighty deity (or its representative) equates itself with the lowest of the low on Earth. That's how important the 'love thy neighbour' commandment is. Each of the situations in which Mazzel and Chamberlin ask themselves a 'what are we to do?' question provides the occasion to discuss moral choices with your child. The adventure is exciting enough to maintain interest, while the involvement of child characters is not only another allusion to Jesus' teaching, but also helps the young readers empathise with the unfortunates Mazzel encounters. My daughter was very adamant that the king and the camel should help all the children, but was less sure about a caravan of merchants and the plant!

So, up to the point I really, really liked The Fourth King: I would have given it 4 or even 4.5 stars if it wasn't for that Voice of God speaking from heavens. I know the story needed a resolution: we could have not left Mazzel sad and despondent in front of the empty stable. I don't know how else the resolution could have been provided, but I feel that such literal deux ex machina (or ex ciel, really) was a crude solution, hammering the point in quite unnecessarily, and losing the story a personal point from this reader: an agnostic with atheistic leanings, but appreciative of Christianity's moral message.

But for a Christian reader (apart from extremely fundamentalist ones who might not like the apocryphal character of the Sieger's story) these objections would have no validity at all, so I have decided to give The Fourth King three personal stars, but four Bookbag stars: after all one cannot seriously blame a Christian fable for being religious.

For a Christian or religiously wobbly parent or friend, this book would be a good one to buy in the build-up to Christmas or as a Christmas present, in connection with the Epiphany. It will be probably understood by an average 5 year old, especially if the reading adult can provide some commentary and help with the harder words, while the optimal age for The Fourth King is probably 6-8; and older children could read it themselves. Older children will probably not appreciate receiving a picture book, but it could as well provide some discussion material for the whole family.

Recommended, depending on your religious leanings.

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