Robert Silverberg: The Realm of Prester John

November 10, 2015

51Hlfo-MbXL._AA160_The Prester John legend seems to have its roots in the idea that the apostle Thomas (doubting Thomas) travelled to India and set up an early Christian community there; with the sketchiness of mediaeval geography and Muslims in between the Middle East and the Far East, all sorts of rumours emerged… Prester John, according to a forged document which first came to light in the early decades of the twelfth century, was a Christian priest and ruler of fabulous wealth and power somewhere ‘out there’ in the east, and a potential ally of the West in its struggle against the spread of Islam.

I first became interested in the legend after I read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, a novel I rate a close second to The Name of the Rose, and which shows off Eco’s mediaevalism brilliantly. I then hunted out John Buchan‘s Prester John, and started reading whatever I came across on the legend, including early travellers across the Silk Road such as William of Rubruck.

Robert Silverberg I already knew as a science fiction writer, but this is an impressive volume of historical and literary research: he reviews and details the possible origins of all aspects of the legend which arose at some point in the twelfth century. The detail is fascinating, as is how mediaeval knowledge was so circumscribed (geographers conflated India and Ethiopia, which is why Prester John was to be sought in both places…) The story was developed, enlarged, embroidered, pirated and plagiarised over the centuries, even when real travellers brought back increasing amounts of accurate information, accounts of places, events and peoples.

Mediaeval travellers failed to hunt down the fabled ruler in the far East, although they visited the courts of Genghiz Khan and his successors and brought back many fascinating accounts of life there, as well as encountering the Nestorian (heretical) branch of Christianity which had flourished in the region for many centuries. So they turned their attention to Ethiopia, which is where the story links in with Portuguese empire-building in the sixteenth century… Europeans came to insist on calling the ruler of Ethiopia ‘Prester John’ even though it was not his name, he had other names, and had never heard of Prester John.

Utterly fascinating for being a full and easily readable account of the entire story as far as it is known, and clear insights into the workings of the mediaeval mind and its attitudes to knowledge, I must also mention that it’s a well-produced and bound US hardback from 45 years ago, good for another 45 years at least. The Americans do know how to make decent quality books.

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