The Realm of Prester John
by Robert Silverberg
Silverberg, probably best known as a science-fiction and fantasy writer, also has a long list of historical non-fiction books to his credit. This one’s about the Christian King in the Middle East, whom medieval Europeans believed would give them victory over the Muslims who had taken the Holy Land. Guess what? He didn’t exist. How the idea of Prester John took hold, and what fragments of reality underlay the myth that developed, is what this remarkable book charts.
Silverberg covers a lot of ground here — almost five hundred years of history, and a sort of widening gyre that ultimately takes in large parts of three continents. You can’t pack that much into a book without strong writing and structuring skills, as well as a strong command of your sources. His research seems strong, and his ability to evoke the different eras and societies he writes about is superb.
Perhaps most suprising, at least to me, is the extended section toward the end of the book which follows the Portugese involvement in Ethiopia in the sixteenth century, a function of the last belated belief in Prester John. It’s a detailed, intriguing presentation of a part of history that’s not discussed all that much. But it’s only one of the cultures, one of the points of contact between cultures, that Silverberg charts; indeed, one might say that the Prester John myth was born out of a kind of interference pattern where different cultures met and failed to communicate. Medieval Catholics and post-Genghis Mongols, most notably, but also, say, early Christians and Indian kings, or romancers and quasi-historians from across centuries whose imaginings were, bit by bit, integrated into the story of the kingdom ruled by the wise Prester John.
There’s probably an inelegant comparison to be made between the realm of Prester John — said to be filled with wonders and gems and gold — and the riches of The Realm of Prester John — which is inarguably filled with narrative gold and colour. But stories and character aside, this seems to me (though I am not an expert in this field) a well-researched book. The version I have is lacking in footnotes, an omission which grieves me deeply; but Silverberg does not stint on quoting from primary sources, and so the book moves along with the rhythms of medieval prose, and thus also of medieval thought. Which helps the reader, almost subliminally, enter the mindset in which kings who command miracles may be imagined, and indeed may be believed to exist.