Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Prester John

Legendary religious ruler of a Far Eastern Christian kingdom. Word of a distant Christian outpost began to filter back to the West from missionaries in the 12th century. A letter signed by PJ was supposed to have been received by the Holy Roman Emperor Frederick Barbarossa in 1165, though this has long been regarded as a hoax aimed at encouraging support for the Crusades by suggesting there would be help from the East. The Nestorian Christians who lived among the Mongols knew the ruler of this kingdom as Owanh-kohan, meaning Prince-Chief, but mistranslated it as John-Priest. PJ was supposedly defeated by Genghis Khan in 1202. The legend soon attached itself to other Christian myths, most especially that of the Holy Grail. PJ appears as the cousin of Lohengrin, and later as Guardian of the Grail in Parzival (?1200-1210) by Wolfram von Eschenbach (?1170-?1220) (see Perceval), a theme later embellished in Der jüngere Titurel (?1272) attributed to Albrecht von Scharfenberg (13th century). Although the Grail link with PJ has generally been forgotten, it was utilized by Charles Williams in War in Heaven (1930). PJ's existence seemed to be authenticated by Marco Polo (1254-1324) in his wildly fabulated Travels (written 1298). Needless to say, that great fabricator of Travellers' Tales John de Mandeville (?   -1372) recounted his meeting with PJ in his own Travels (1360), making him a descendant of Ogier the Dane (see Morgan Le Fay) and king of Teneduc in northern India. By the time PJ surfaced in Orlando Furioso (1516) by Lodovico Ariosto he had become the blind king of Ethiopia and the richest monarch in the world. It is in Ethiopia that John Buchan placed PJ in Prester John (1910). Frequent references by travellers to his continued existence made him seem immortal and some kind of accursed figure, like the Wandering Jew. It is in this guise that Esther Friesner portrays him in Yesterday We Saw Mermaids (1992), where he appears as one of the Wise Men of the East who betrayed the birth of Christ to Herod and was thereafter cursed to rule a kingdom of magic beings forever. Friesner, rather like Jean Morris in The Donkey's Crusade (1983) and Peter S Beagle in The Folk of the Air (1986), presents PJ's kingdom as a Land of Fable weakened by Thinning and thus consigned to the world of Myth. Norvell W Page re-created PJ as a mighty hero and swordsman in Flame Winds (1939; 1967) and its sequel Sons of the Bear God (1939; 1969), where PJ (as Wan Tengri) is a gladiator who escapes from Alexandria and travels across Asia. Page, who wrote the first of these novels in a matter of weeks to meet a deadline, may have been encouraged to write about PJ by H Bedford-Jones's use of the character in "The Singing Sands of Prester John" (1939), one of his Trumpets from Oblivion series. PJ has increasingly become an Underlier. [MA]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.