[Note: I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of The Habitation of the Blessed read by Ralph Lister. It took me a while to adjust since I have recently listened to Lister read three installments of THE GOREAN SAGA and I at first had a hard time hearing the priest Prester John instead of the sadistic misogynist Tarl Cabot. But I got over this soon enough and thought that Mr. Lister did a great job with this one.]
In The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynne M. Valente lets her extravagant imagination loose on the 12th century legends of Prester John, the Nestorian Christian priest who set out from Constantinople to search for the tomb of Saint Thomas and ends up as the beloved ruler of Pentexore. This is an ancient land of strange, nearly immortal, creatures who’ve never heard of Jesus Christ and who practice the Abir, a lottery which reassigns them to new lives, jobs, and mates every three hundred years. The Abir staves off boredom, keeps them from being forever ruled by a despot, and allows ambitious folks a chance to be ruler, though it often causes feelings of sadness, loss, and envy, too.
When Brother Hiob von Luzern goes looking for Prester John (who left Constantinople a few hundred years ago and sent his famous letter to the Pope) and finds himself in Pentexore, he’s allowed to pluck and read three books that are growing from a tree as if they were fruit. One book is John’s account of his search for Saint Thomas and his experiences in Pentexore:
I could not think where I had beached myself. It was as though every story I had ever heard had broken itself on the shores of this place like blind brittle whales and I walked among their shards that could never be made whole again.
The other books were written by a blemmye and a panoti who became close to John. Unfortunately, just like fruit, the books begin to rot, so Hiob decides to alternately copy a chapter from each, hoping to acquire as much information as possible before they disintegrate. Thus, similar to the connected story devices used in some of Catherynne Valente’s other novels, The Habitation of the Blessed is told as four separate intertwining narratives in which we learn about Prester John and the Pentexorians he meets, medieval Roman Catholic Christianity, and the fascinating cultural practices of Pentexore.
If you’ve read Catherynne Valente before, you’ll already have recognized that the Prester John Legends are perfect source material and you won’t be surprised to learn that this tale is full of the kinds of wonderful visual imagery and dreamy ideas that inhabit her other work. She brings a whole new life to the Fountain of Youth, the Gates of Alexander, and the Garden of Eden. Her account of the Tower of Babel is chillingly awesome and made me wish I was talented enough to paint it. In The Habitation of the Blessed you’ll meet gryphons, pygmies, troglodytes, lamia, a sea of sand, warmongering Cranes, and trees that grow maps, diagrams, books, beds, sheep heads, and equipment for medieval warfare. Each of these wonders is lovingly described and packed with personality.
Prester John’s interaction with those he meets is often gently humorous as he subjects these lost (but immortal) souls to Sunday School lessons and sermons about the trinity and transubstantiation and has them conjugate Latin verbs, say Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and pray the rosary. So far, John is learning a lot more about his faith than his students are, but his wide-eyed bewilderment and good-hearted intentions make him a lovable figure. Even Brother Hiob, who’s scandalized by John’s congress with these demons, is a likable character.
The writing is luxuriant, as always, and the dialogue is often reminiscent of the delightful repartee found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t help but laugh at the peacock historian who, after the most recent Abir, was assigned to be a fiction writer. He laments that now he has to make up ridiculous stuff that never happened and must work with motifs, metaphors, and themes (“What rot!”).
Also, as usual for a Valente novel, there are plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. As Hiob the monk reads the three books, he experiences the same crises of faith that John and Thomas suffered previously. Is Pentexore the Garden of Eden? Prester John seems to think so when he says “This is the country God kept for men before we fell,” yet if Pentexore is paradise, there would be no need for the Abir. Do nearly immortal creatures need redemption? Would we really want to be immortal on Earth? What does the land of Pentexore, a rich and sensual place, mean for the faith of medieval Christian monks? Did God intend for His followers to take vows of poverty and chastity and to withdraw from society or does He mean for us to experience and engage with the magnificent things He’s made? If God has given souls to those we consider monsters, how are we to treat these monsters? And, if we were wrong about the monsters, where else may we have misjudged God?
If, in The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynne Valente had only invented the wild and amazing world of the fictional “three kingdoms” of Prester John, the mythical priest-king of the east, she would be a rock star. If she had created the kingdoms and used them to provide a critique of colonialism with prose that is by turns lyrical, concrete, incisive, lucid and funny, she’d be a queen of words. But to do that and create the powerful, dreamlike image of trees that bear books as fruit, you’d have to be a goddess, and that’s what Valente is: a prose goddess.
The Habitation of the Blessed is the first book of a three-book series called A DIRGE FOR PRESTER JOHN. In my opinion, there are probably three writers on the North American continent who could do justice to the legend of Prester John: John Crowley, Margaret Atwood and Catherynne Valente, and Valente has tackled it head-on in this rich, phantasmagorical tale.
At the end of the seventeenth century, a group of monks travels in search of the kingdom of Prester John, a mythical Christian kingdom ruled by a priest king. Prester John is a folktale whose origins are traced to a series of letters sent to various rulers in the middle twelfth century. Prester John’s letters speak of a land of wonderful creatures, fabulous riches, and a fountain that bestows eternal life.
In a remote village in Pakistan the monks meet a strange and powerful woman. She takes the leader of them, Brother Hiod, to a tree where books hang like ripe fruit. The woman allows Hiod to pick only three books. He chooses at random, but of course the volumes aren’t random at all. Like ripe fruit, the books begin to rot almost immediately. Hiod decides to transcribe a section from each of the books in turn, so that he copies as much of each book as he can before it decays. It is no coincidence that the three books, each written by different authors, unfold the story of the Nestorian monk named John. One was written by John himself, and one by his wife. The third book is a collection of nursery tales, but the tales explain about life in this land, and the lottery, the Abir, that occurs every three hundred years.
The interwoven narratives interact with the seventeenth century monks, creating a layered and nuanced story of wonder, ambition, jealousy and love. Hagia, John’s wife, scribe and author in her own right, was born in the land of Pentexore. Hagia is not human. She is one of the races who populated this land, immigrating, according to the nursery tales, in a Ship of Bones. Her shape is that of a headless woman with her face carried on her torso. John thinks she is a demon (although he is surprisingly comfortable with her two friends, the red talking lion and the gryphon, because he can rationalize them as being Christian symbols). In Hagia’s narrative, she shares with us her first pilgrimage to the Fountain, a visit all residents of her land make three times. They drink from the water and become immortal.
This world is full of other wonders, though. Anything planted in the earth sprouts a living replica: not just books, but cannonballs, sheep and even people. The land is bordered by an ocean of sand; not a desert, but a crashing, storming ocean of sand. In the distant mountains, a wall made of diamonds holds back the kingdom’s powerful and fearsome enemies, two brothers who are the opposite of life, or at least that’s what the tales all say.
The book is not just a tour of a fabled land. John brings his shuttered beliefs into this place and is determined to turn it into a Christian land, a reversal of the Garden of Eden tale (and he compares Pentexore to Eden on more than one occasion). In developing John’s reaction to Hagia, Valente riffs beautifully on the biblical phrase, “The woman tempted me.” Faced with innocent questions about his beliefs by the gryphon Fortunatus, John reacts to the inconsistencies revealed in his religion by clamping down more tightly, and insists on teaching the Pentexoreans Latin prayers. The locals find the Latin classes entertaining, but the seeds of tragedy are planted early, and in this fertile soil, everything that is buried grows.
The Habitation of the Blessed is filled with glorious sentences, whether it is Brother Hiog describing the scent of the fruit books as “apples steeped in brandy,” or a pamphlet calling Lent “the Season of Eating in Secret.” The trinket Hagia gets as a child, her first trip to the Fountain, the revelation of the fountain (so different from what anyone would expect, yet so plausible), the amethyst pillars of Al-Qasr; these details pulled me deeper into the story with each page.
The book is not perfect. I have to wonder for example, how a pregnancy affects Hagia’s ability to eat or talk. It’s not completely clear to me why seventeenth-century monks would still be obsessed with Prester John, who must have been considered a fable by that time. I also don’t completely understand what motivates Fortunatus to help John at the end of the book, unless, unlike Hagia, he thinks the priest is harmless.
And do any of these questions matter? They do not. Valente’s commitment to storytelling and exquisite prose is a good match for her education in the classics. I will snatch up the copy of The Folded World, the second book in the series, and hurl myself into it as soon as I possibly can, because I want to know what happened, not only to the hapless Nestorian priest turned king, but to the immortal Hagia and even to Brother Hiod, who has entered into a new phase of his journey of discovery. I can’t wait to spend more time with Hagia, Fortunatus, Hajii, the lion Hadulph, and the other fabulous beings who people Valente’s fertile kingdom.