Prester John has been king in Pentexore for many years now, aided by his wife Hagia the blemmye. He loves the creatures he rules and has spent his time teaching them about Jesus Christ and trying to reconcile the creation story in Genesis with his new knowledge of the world. When one of John’s daughters brings a letter from Constantinople, asking John to bring his army of monsters to fight the Muslims in Jerusalem, he decides that they’ll go. Although he is happy with his new life in Pentexore, he is still a faithful Christian and he feels that it’s his duty to clear the sacred city of infidels.
The creatures of Pentexore, though they claim to be Christians to please their beloved King John, think the whole Christianity thing is a game involving silly hand motions and recitations. When they agree to fight on John’s side, they have no idea what they’re in for. To them, war means “mating and keening” and they don’t understand the ancient battle between the Christians, descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac, and the Muslims, descendants of Abraham’s first but illegitimate son Ishmael. When they cross the wall into John’s world, they are shocked at the treatment they receive and the way humans treat each other.
The Folded World is similar in structure to the first novel in Catherynne M. Valente’s PRESTER JOHN series — a monk is alternately copying chapters from three different books (written by Hagia, Vyala the White Lion, and the explorer John Mandeville) and desperately trying to transcribe them before they rot. All the while, he tends to the dying Brother Hiob and attempts to understand what Pentexore means for his own faith.
The greatest impact of The Folded World comes not from its ideas about creation, salvation, eschatology, or faith, but from Catherynne Valente’s powerful presentation of every creature’s struggle to understand the world, its beauty and terror, and his own place in it. I cannot think of another author who can fill one book with so many thoughtful ideas so beautifully spoken:
Love is a practice. It is a yogic stance; it is lying upon nails; it is walking over coals, or water. It comes naturally to no one, though that is a great secret. One who is learned might say: does not a babe in her mother’s arms love? From her first breath does she not know how to love as surely as her mouth can find the breast? And I would respond: have you ever met a child? A cub may find the breast but not latch upon it, she may bite her mother, or become sick with her milk. So too, the utter dependence of a tiny and helpless thing upon those who feed and warm her is not love. It is fierce and needful; it has a power all its own and that power is terrible, but it is not love. Love can come only with time and sentience. We learn it as we learn language — and some never learn it well. Love is like a tool, though it is not a tool; something strange and wonderful to use, difficult to master, and mysterious in its provenance.
If love were not all of this, I would not have devoted my mind, which is large and generous and certainly could have done much else, to it for all these centuries.
If love were not all of this, I would never have known that wretched, radiant little girl, nor let her learn her teeth on my heart, which children can find with more sureness than ever they could clasp the breast, and latch upon it, and bite, and become sick, and make ill, and all the worst of the six ails of loving, which are to lose it, to find it, to break it, to outlive it, to vanish inside it, and to see it through to the end.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version, which is dynamically read by Ralph Lister who is convincing in all of his human and monster roles. He does a great job and I’ll be reading the third volume of PRESTER JOHN in this format.
The Folded World is highly recommended, but it’s not what you need when you want to read an action-packed adventure story. Save this for when you’re in a pensive and vulnerable mood. It’s incredibly gorgeous.
The Folded World is the second book of Catherynne Valente’s DIRGE FOR PRESTER JOHN series. In Volume Two, much has changed. In the seventeenth century, Hiog is no longer transcribing the books that fall from trees like fruit. His apprentice, Alaric, is. In Pentaxore, Prester John’s wife Hagia and the crane-girl, Anglitora, who is John’s daughter, are in hiding in the land of the cranes, while Hagia describes what happened when, at John’s urging, the Pentaxoreans left their home and went to war.
In the other half of Pentaxore, beyond the diamond Wall of Alisaunder, another explorer named John appears. John Mandeville is a rascal, a vagabond, a thief and storyteller, who has stumbled into a world even his active imagination could not have conjured. The book has two princesses: Anglitora, and Selafet, the daughter of John and Hagia, a strange, tormented jigsaw-puzzle of a child who plays a crucial role in the events that unfold in The Folded World.
The theme of the book is twins, mirrors, reflections; thus there are two princesses and two foreigners named John, and two versions of the war, millennia past, that led to the building of the Wall of Alisaunder. The book is about reflection, both in the sense of an image bounced back to you from a shiny surface and the insight that comes from looking within.
Prester John, responding to a letter from a Christian king asking for troops to help defend Jerusalem, mounts an army and sails across the Rimal, a sea of sand. Since Pentaxore is ruled by the Abir, a great lottery held every three hundred years, John uses a lottery to choose his warrior companions. So many of his friends or companions are “chosen” to accompany him that Hagia cannot help but harbor doubts that John fixed the lottery, since it would not be the first time he has cheated. For those who remain behind, including the white lion Vyala and Selafet, John gives an assignment of breathtaking hubris: go to the ruins of the Tower of Babel and build a cathedral there, to be dedicated to St. Thomas the Twin.
Despite a battle to fight and a cathedral to build, despite the reader’s first view of the world beyond the wall, The Folded World is somehow a slower and quieter book than Habitation of the Blessed. It may be that the wonders of Pentaxore are familiar now, but even John Mandeville’s discoveries on the other side of Pentaxore are not so strange. Every page of the book is still beautiful, filled with dreamlike images and precise, glorious prose. Mandeville is a witty raconteur who can’t quite keep sadness, remorse and horror from his writings, even though he tries. The monk Alaric struggles with his desire for women, as Hiog struggled with, and succumbed to, his gluttony. Alaric’s censure of females — he calls the white lion Vyala a “slattern” for her beliefs about love — are undermined, perfectly, by the lyrical descriptions of women he’s glimpsed in his past.
I shuddered and flushed all together, and I felt as I did once long ago, when a girl came to my window all bright with the night, her eyes full of stars, her lips dark and trembling with the January cold and the nearness of sin.
Hagia has the most difficult story to tell, as the army of Pentaxore reaches our world, and encounters a monastery of Nestorian monks. John is a Nestorian and he is torn between his love of Pentaxore and his desire for the familiarity of the monastery. I found this to be the only unsuccessful part of the book; John’s struggle seemed more pathetic than poignant. Of course it is told through the filter of his perceptive, skeptical, and slightly jealous wife. Hagia must also confront her own attraction to another mortal man, a reflection of the man John could have been.
Selafet’s story was the most compelling to me. Whether it is her dreams of the leashed hounds circling an ancient pillar, her growing relationship with Vyala, or the startling, cataclysmic action she takes at the end of the book, her story pulled me along. The discovery of her special tree brought tears to my eyes. Valente echoes this perfectly in a scene later in the book, where, after the battle, Hagia and her comrades begin to bury their dead in the sterile earth of our world, because they don’t completely understand yet that trees in our world are not like the trees in theirs.
Whichever narrative is spooling out, paragraph by paragraph the book is lyrical, funny or shocking, and sometimes all of the above. Valente understands that to make the surreal accessible it has to be grounded, and she gives us perfectly chosen details that do that.
She also uses this book to play with the conventions of narrative, so Mandeville’s story is written like an encyclopedia, because John tells us that he sees books as tyrants, demanding you read them in a certain order, and his story you can open at any page. Selafet’s narrative takes different prose forms too, and even Hagia’s memoir interfaces with the editorial comments of Anglitora, who reads over her shoulder as she writes. In Habitation of the Blessed, Hiog’s three books stood alone, although they connected with their readers; the three stories that Alaric and the others transcribe interact with the world, inform and are informed by other works, other stories.
This is all very literary. You can choose to read this series as a literary treatise on the evolution of stories; a critique of imperialism; a commentary on the power and danger of belief systems. You can explore the power of feminism or discuss deconstructionism. Valente writes in as many layers as anyone would want, but first and foremost, the reader can just let go and be swept into a glorious tale of a strange and magical kingdom and the people who live there.