This allegorical book is made up of equal parts poetry and prose. On the surface it tells a simple tale of a man who starts on a journey with like minded souls in search of a mystical woman named Fatima. Part way through the journey he loses faith in his fellow travelers and their cause. The rest of the book is about the protagonist's attempt to write about his experience, and to discover the true nature of the league in which he had lost faith.
Almost from the beginning the reader is forced to conclude that neither the league itself, nor the attempt to write about it, can be taken literally. Clearly Hesse wants the league of travelers to the east to be seen in a symbolic light. But what is it meant to represent? Given that this is the author of Siddhartha, one might suppose that the league represents a group of individuals in search of eastern mysticism. Yet the book says little or nothing about Buddhism, Hinduism or Islam. The league could also be taken as an allegory for the community of artists, and though there are numerous references in the book to support this point of view, it seems too shallow an interpretation to explain the entire text. For instance, there are clear and repeated references to religion, usually in a Christian context. These references belie a simple interpretation of the book as being about the life of an artist.
The book also spends considerable time wrestling with the idea of whether or not it is appropriate to attempt to use a novel as means of exorcising one's personal demons, or whether such an undertaking is fundamentally selfish. On the surface, it appears that the author of the book denies the value of using writing as a means of working through a personal problem, and yet on one level the text clearly appears to be an attempt by the author to do exactly that. In this case, I am referring to the struggles for freedom by the fictional author of the text HH, and not to Hesse himself. But once again, it is not clear whether we are meant to take HH as Hermann Hesse or as simply an allegorical figure.
Over and over again, the text leads us up to the door of a seemingly clear allegory or metaphor, only to send us back search of a more satisfying interpretation. In writing this review, I have no intention of trying to resolve any of these paradoxes. Rather, I simply want to draw attention to them. The great joy of this book is that it tells an enjoyable tale that can be interpreted in many different ways. These mysteries at the heart of the text make the book more interesting.
There is, however, one important part of the book that is quite easy to understand. Fearful of spoiling the plot, I will simply point out that the most powerful character in the book is a servant. The idea that the humblest character in the book is also the most important has clear Christian overtones. However, seeing this character simply as a Christ figure is again perhaps too simplistic an interpretation. Certainly that is one viable level of meaning in the text, but the character also seems to represent a general endorsement of humility for both spiritual seekers and artists.
Noting some of the other reviews here, I would like to add that reading this book as a commentary on the Rosicrucians is almost certainly much too simplistic an interpretation. The Journey to the East is a poetic work, and should not be read so literally. Secondly, I want to agree with the reviewer who was surprised to find that Hesse's work was not as jejune or adolescent as he expected. Even in the old editions that we read in the sixties, the text was accompanied on the back by endorsements from Thomas Mann and T. S. Eliot. Hesse lives up to the kudos that he received from his great contemporaries. I believe that Hesse will still be read long after many of our more famous and highly praised contemporary writers are forgotten.