Posts Tagged ‘Prester John’

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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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…

Umberto Eco: Serendipities

October 2, 2015

51ODnlHPHtL._AA160_Some of you may have the impression that I think everything Umberto Eco writes is brilliant; I’m not that uncritical. I have never managed to get to grips with Kant and the Platypus, for instance – it’s way above my head. And this slim volume in the end became rather too tiresome and obscure.

Eco’s thesis is interesting enough. Humans have believed lots of things through the ages, some of them completely wrong, like the idea that the world is flat, or the Ptolemaic picture of the universe. And yet, erroneous beliefs have nevertheless led scientists, discoverers, researchers in the right directions after all – hence the serendipities in the title, as we have learned things almost in spite of ourselves.

Eco also enjoys playing with conspiracy theories, as many do, and as this is a relatively early work, it’s possible to see the genesis of some of his novels here. Thus his interest in the legend of Prester John led to the marvellous novel Baudolino, and the Illuminati and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion to the perhaps less successful Prague Cemetery.

It’s useful to be reminded of some of the weird things people have accepted as fact over the centuries, and to reflect on what we might currently treasure as gospel that will be mocked in the years to come.

Umberto Eco: Baudolino

May 11, 2014

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I saw it on the shelf and thought, ‘I haven’t read that for a while!’ picked it up and was off…

It’s a wonderful yarn – a romance, I suppose, to be technically correct – set in mediaeval times, where I’ve always felt Eco is at his best. I don’t call it a novel, because I think Eco has deliberately written a story in the style of the times: the plot is linear, centred around the adventures of a central character, with everyone else as companions or incidental to the plot. It’s a Rabelaisian tale for the twentieth century, complete with the fiction of the teller needing someone to whom to tell his story.

Except – there is also the meta-narrative of the power of the storyteller over the hearer or the reader: we know from the outset that Baudolino is a liar, or an inventor; can he be trusted? but then, what author can?

The story centres around the legend or myth of Prester John, allegedly a Christian king with a great empire somewhere in the unknown lands of the East (perhaps India way, or maybe Ethiopia, depending on which source you follow) with whom various Western monarchs are keep to make an alliance of some kind. Baudolino and his companions create and build the myth, believe in it and eventually set off on the quest. Eco is masterly here, in his understanding of mediaeval ways of thinking and reasoning, and attitudes to knowledge, which is so outside our rational(?) paradigm: something must exist because there is no reason for it not to exist, and, abracadabra! – there it is. “There is no better proof of the truth than the continuity of tradition” – what? Thus the Prester John myth is manufactured, documents created to authenticate it, and so, you can set off to find his kingdom, because it must exist! And if we think it’s a mediaeval trait for humans to be prisoners or dupes of their own inventions, what about the evidence of WMD in Iraq before our invasion…. untruth has its part to play in the powerplays of the world; you can make things have existed just by writing them down, such is the power of the written word. Nor has Eco invented everything himself; much of it is taken from mediaeval sources, such as Mandeville’s travels. If it is in Pliny or Isidore, it must be true!

The imagining of other worlds is done under the influence of alcohol and drugs: no change there, then. There is ample documentation of this in Eco’s fascinating tome The Book of Imaginary Lands.

The actual story involves Baudolino’s relationship with his adoptive father, Frederic Barbarossa and his wars of conquest, his (Baudolino’s) education in Paris and his companions there, their search for clues and maps to enable them to get to Prester John, the crusaders’ sack of Constantinople at the end of the twelfth century, and their journey eastwards and the increasingly weirder creatures they encounter, as they make their way to the city of Pndapetzim, the gateway to Prester John’s kingdom. The weird creatures, whose pictures can be seen around the edges of the Mappa Mundi, and in the Nuremburg Chronicle, embody all the different Christian heresies feared at the time, reinforcing the idea that the truth depends on the teller…

Our hero never gets beyond Pndapetzim; no-one there actually knows if the fabled kingdom is actually beyond the last chain of mountains, or what is there: the kingdom is also the kingdom of Heaven, if it exists, and here we are, confronted with all the possible inventions and unknowables of religion in the world; ironically Prester John’s world seems to be the refuge of all the heretics expelled from known Christian lands over the centuries. So, as well as swashbuckling adventure, we are exploring the nature, purpose and meaning of religious faith, the afterlife, and I don’t know what else… there’s even some masterly detective work in the style of William of Baskerville in the closing chapters.

I think Baudolino is an underrated work; it lacks the polish and tightness of The Name of the Rose, true, but it’s as knowledgeable and as challenging, and a compelling read.

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