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  • Writer's picture Gary Bills

Prester John

In the Bizarre Fable, The Beggar of Shadows, the decadent and wicked king, Naygud, longs for a visit from the mysterious monarch, Prester John.

But who on earth was Prester John? Did he even exist?

He was certainly a legendary figure during medieval times, whether he was real or not. The first thing to state is that he was a legend from the Christian tradition. In my story, The Beggar of Shadows, Naygud's little city state, Akarmi, seems to have both Christian and Islamic elements; but the kingdom is surrounded by, and potentially threatened by, pagan kingdoms. We hear that Akarmi might be invaded and that its children might be thrown alive "to the bearded god of bonfires".

In one sense, then, Naygud and Prester John potentially face similar problems, in that they rule over kingdoms that are possibly not typical of other kingdoms in their region - wherever that region might be. But whereas Prester John is a paragon of righteousness, Naygud is spoilt, cruel and corrupt.

I think of Prester John as a kind of King Arthur figure, in that he represents the best example of medieval kingship, and there is a mystical element to his legend.

So far as we know, Prester John was first mentioned by a certain Bishop Otto in 1145, and the good bishop only claimed to be repeating someone else's account.

Prester John was said to be a descendent of one of the three Wise Men, mentioned in the Gospels, and his distant Christian kingdom was unequalled in wealth and full of marvels. No doubt Prester John wasn't short of a unicorn or two.

The problem was, as the legend grew, no one seemed to know where to find Prester John. Was he in the Middle East? Was he in India? Was he, even, in Africa?

The truth was, he existed wherever imagination could place him, but always far away. To draw near his kingdom, it seemed, was to move him on, forever out of sight...

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