Posts Tagged ‘John Buchan’

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.

On compulsive book-buying

October 27, 2015

I have too many books. There are people who would say you can never have too many, and I was once one of them. But they are taking over, and what is worse, I can’t see myself ever reading them all. Life is now too short.

The problem is, I love bookshops, especially secondhand ones, and I love looking in bookshops when I’m in France, with a chance to see all the books that are never going to be translated into English. And I treat myself, rather than regret not doing so, later. The books pile up; a lot of them do get  read, but for some of them, the moment passes and they just sit there, reproachful.

I have often been scathing about people who spend money on things I don’t approve of, who waste or fritter money away, by my standards, on things they’ll never use, clothes they’ll only wear a couple of times, and so on: I’m very moralistic about such things. And then I think about my book-buying habits: how is buying a book I’ll never get round to reading any different? Except that I can tell myself it’s something worthwhile, cultural, mental stimulus or whatever, and therefore superior to other people’s fripperies. The fact of the matter is that I’m likely now only to read it the once, or maybe twice if I really like it…

With other stuff, that other people (and I) accumulate, disposal seem easier. But parting with books is, while not exactly painful, pretty difficult for me. I can always tell myself, well, you may read it one day, well you may re-read it one day, if you’ve got rid of it then it will be harder to find when you do want it and it will cost a lot more than the £x you paid for it… I don’t have the patience to re-sell books online, so I end up giving them away to charity, a sort of tax, if you like.

I can criticise others for impulse-buying, and yet that often happens with books! I’ll be in a secondhand bookshop and see something, think, ‘That looks interesting!’ or, ‘I read something about that last year and I’d like to read more…’ and another book joins the pile. So, last week, a book about Prester John joined the pile, because I love Umberto Eco‘s Baudolino which is partly about the quest for Prester John, I enjoyed John Buchan‘s eponymous novel, and I have two volumes of a weighty Hakluyt Society publication about Prester John that have beenwaiting for me to read for over ten years…

I’ve also gradually learned that there’s something like overeating, but with books: I can follow a theme or topic and overdo it, acquiring and trying to read too many books on that subject, eventually too full with it, as it were. So, my next post will be about an Arabian traveller of the twelfth century, with whom I probably should not have bothered, like an extra serving of cheese or pudding…

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