by Master Richard the Poor of Ely
The Realm of Prester John
Doubleday & Company, Garden City NY
Copyright 1972 by the author
Of the many legends of the Middle Ages, one of the most intriguing and enduring was the legend of Prester John. Said to be a Christian king and high priest of India, he was offering his aid to Manuel Comnenus, Emperor of Byzantium, in fighting off the Moslems. The problem was that no one had ever heard of him or knew where to find him. The search would last for four centuries and end up in Ethiopia, of all places.
Robert Silverberg has written a comprehensive account of the legend and the searches that it caused. The entire history of the legend is analyzed, from the first hints of Prester John’s “existence” to the Portuguese mission to Ethiopia in the mid sixteenth century.
Silverberg has to touch on many topics. Prester John’s being a Christian means a discussion of early Christian sects and the legends of the Apostle Thomas. He looks at the linguistic analyses that were done to make various titles and honorifics sound like “Prester John.” He discusses how the original letter was built on to become a collection of virtually all the geographic fables to back up the legend and keep people searching.
The earliest searches were in Asia, where missionaries and diplomats looked among the Mongols for Prester John. To discuss these attempts, Silverberg essentially gives a history of the Mongol Empire.
The strongest part of the book is the last section on the Portuguese explorations of Africa and their “discovery” of the Kingdom of Ethiopia. Thanks to the Ethiopians’ practice of not letting foreign visitors leave, it took decades for formal relations to be established. Those decades were filled with bad luck and missed opportunities. And when it was all over, it was the Europeans (Portuguese) who saved “Prester John” from the Moslems, and not the other way around.
Silverberg closes with the thought that unlike other Great Searches (El Dorado, the Seven Cities of Cibola, etc.), the search was a purely noble one. Europe was only interested in meeting this great ruler; there was no thought of profit involved. As such, it stands as a symbol of man’s enduring desire to Know.
NOTE: The edition that was read for this review is now out of print, but Ohio University Press is releasing both hardcover and trade paperback editions. Look for them in your local bookstore.
[from the December 1996 Seahorse]