Monday, December 21, 2009

Prester John

I do not have a great deal of time for recreational reading lately but I decided to treat myself to a novel over the Christmas break. You do not expect to find something in Umberto Eco's Foucault's Pendulum that leads to J.R.R. Tolkien but something did. This is, unfortunately, one of those areas where my personal library fails me for research. Although I do have Humphrey Carpenter's biography on Tolkien, my collection of what could be called 'occult' books is restricted to one small volume on the tarot. So I have had to resort to the 'Net. Sorry.
Eusebius of Caesarea is one of the first to mention Prester John, the king of a mythical Eldorado in the East. He did not start off that way. Eusebius was merely distinguishing him from John the Apostle. The legend of a king in the Orient with all the wealth and refinement of the East except that he was one of 'our guys' became current in the Middle Ages, especially during the Crusades. The Crusaders were hoping this king would come with all his splendor and huge armies to rescue the crusade from disaster.
John Mandeville wrote about the kingdom of Prester John in his Travels. Marco Polo also wrote about who he thought Prester John might be. Prester John was supposed to be descended from one of the three Magi and carried an emerald scepter. Prester John is implicated in the search for the grail in Wolfram von Eschenbach's Parzival by being John, the son of Fierefiz and Repanse de Schoye. The introduction to my copy of Parzival avoids mentioning Prester John at all even though the green stone of the grail (lapis exiliis, a stone that has fallen from Heaven), seems to be mirrored in Prester John's emerald scepter. I have read somewhere, forgetting where, that in gnostic writings the emerald was a stone that fell from Lucifer's (who was the true King of the World) crown when he fought with the usurping Demiurge (who we now erroneously worship as God). This is strange territory for Tolkien to be venturing in.
The letter from Prester John that was circulating around in the Middle Ages, claimed that among his treasures which included the Fountain of Youth, was a mirror which allowed the king to see everything that went on in his kingdom. The question now would be, since this would appear to be outside of Tolkien's normal area of study, is how would he even be aware of this mirror? From Charles Williams of course. Williams, who was a member of the Inklings and one of Tolkien's friends, wrote a book called War in Heaven in which Prester John is a protector of the Holy Grail. Williams was a Rosicrucian and was good friends with Evelyn Underhill, who was a member of the Golden Dawn. One has to wonder what this means for Frodo's alias. However, I am going to state that I think the mirror, or mirrors, of Prester John is the inspiration for the palantir. Williams' book was published in 1930, early enough to have influenced Tolkien, and the Medieval legend has been around even longer than that.
The only thing bothering me is that spotting all these little details is beginning to spoil my enjoyment of the novel.

20 comments:

jezebel64 said...

Excellent research, as always! And some fascinating connections - the Golden Dawn and Rosicrucians - we'll be into Dan Brown territory before too long :)

The only thing bothering me is that spotting all these little details is beginning to spoil my enjoyment of the novel.
I sometimes find that - I have to try to blank out the references first time round, and concentrate on the actual story - then re-read it in more detail another time, easier to do as you don't have to concentrate on the plot - compartmentalization is the only answer!

And now I really want to read Foucault's Pendulum - something for next year's booklist.

Kristin said...

In one version of the Grail legend, the Grail was said to be the emerald that fell from Lucifer's crown as he fell from heaven.

That magic mirror sounds an awful lot like our old buddy John Dee as well (although that's more comparable to the dragonglass in ASOIAF).

Kristin

Kristin said...

Added: Lucifer's emerald came to be associated with the Emerald Tablet of Hermes Trigmegistus by the Hermetics. In the original Grail stories (most likely the Celtic, not the Continental) the Grail was a stone. It was not a cup. It didn't become a cup until Robert de Boron made it one in the late 1100's in his Joseph d'Arimathe and Merlin. He is the first writer to make the story of the Holy Grail a Christian story, but it had been around for centuries (if not millenia) in one form or another.

According to him, Joseph of Arimathea used the Grail (in his version, the cup of the Last Supper) to catch the last drops of blood from Jesus's body as he hung on the cross. Joseph then took the Grail to the vaus d'Avaron, (the valleys of Avaron in the west), which got changed to Avalon and was later associated with Glastonbury. It was kept there until the time of Arthur and Percival.

The Red Witch said...

I wish I could say the research was excellent. I couldn't find one of the letters of Prester John that were circulating around Europe in the Middle Ages. One of the sites that I was looking at said there were several mirrors and that John had one mirror that could see what the others see. It sounded very much like the palantir of Osgiliath.
It is interesting to see that, through his friendship with Williams, a little alchemy may very well have crept into Lord of the Rings in spite of Tolkien thinking that Williams' books were "wholly alien, and sometimes very distasteful, occasionally ridiculous"

lunas-ceiling said...

I just lost my whole long comment because of livejournal log in. I think it is very possible Williams influenced Tolkien despite Tolkien's protestations over Williams work. I think Tolkien was more of the philosophy that the creation flowed through as opposed to the JKR school of " I invented everything."

I was reading some additional links because I don't know much about Demiurge and Lucifer. Lo and behold first link I came to was this one by Harold Bloom. Oh nostalgia, lol.

Anonymous said...

Incredible things you can dig up from a novel!

The Red Witch said...

I couldn't see the Times article. Is that the one where he reviewed Harry Potter?
I got into reading about the gnostic texts when we were reading The Golden Compass because I felt pretty sure Xaphania was Sophia.
If you have ever read Tolkien's essay On Fairytales, he talks about writing stories as though they are like making a pot of soup. You put a little of this and a little of that in it. The image of the Cauldron of Story is such a strong one that it has stayed with me when I look at things like this. Any good soup maker uses whatever is around in the kitchen: leftovers, scraps, fresh stuff if you have it. The older stuff makes the soup taste better. If you have to borrow an onion from your neighbor, then do so. You can't have soup without an onion. etc.
Eco wrote another novel about Prester John called Baudelino. I spotted it in a second hand store and bought it. I guess he liked Prester John, too. The journey to his land reads a little like Swifts' Gulliver's Travels.

Steve Hayes said...

There seems to be a lot of discussion about Charles Williams and Prester John -- see my blog post at Prester John: Khanya, for example.

I don't think Charles Williams was a Rosicrucian, though he was associated with the Golden Dawn for a while, or rather some people who broke away from it.

The Red Witch said...

At least my blog post will point you to some primary sources to help you sort out the legend. I am not as into the 'secret society' mythos as other people but it does provide material for lucrative novels as Dan Brown has proved.
I don't know much at all about Charles Williams but I would not be surprised if there are some inaccuracies floating around on the web about him. I try to use reliable sources but on this subject, I had no books.

Tracy said...

Incredible things you can dig up from a novel!
Well, Anonymous! - it's an incredible novel and very funny in places. Have you read it?

The image of the Cauldron of Story is such a strong one that it has stayed with me when I look at things like this. Any good soup maker uses whatever is around in the kitchen: leftovers, scraps, fresh stuff if you have it. The older stuff makes the soup taste better. If you have to borrow an onion from your neighbor, then do so. You can't have soup without an onion. etc.

That's a good analogy, Red Witch, although some authors seem to do little but borrow onions, carrots, potatoes etc from everyone else.

And the Cauldron of Story reminds me of Haroun and the Sea of Stories by Salman Rushdie - excellent book, written for children but most adults enjoy it too.

Tracy said...

It is interesting to see that, through his friendship with Williams, a little alchemy may very well have crept into Lord of the Rings in spite of Tolkien thinking that Williams' books were "wholly alien, and sometimes very distasteful, occasionally ridiculous"
There is a book on Alchemy in LoTR. And the transformation of Sam Gamgee is a prime example of alchemy - definitely a case of turning lead into gold! (look at his thirteen golden-haired children, his golden-haired wife, his gold chain of mayoral office, not to mention Ring-Bearer - the ring that guarantees immortality)

The Red Witch said...

"although some authors seem to do little but borrow onions, carrots, potatoes etc from everyone else. "

Do you have someone in mind? :-D

For sure much of the Norse mythology and Anglo Saxon tales that Tolkien draws upon had none of these elements(alchemy) but Tolkien draws upon other writers from the Middle Ages as well and many of them do touch upon those subjects. And the Inklings read their writings to each other at their get togethers for discussion.

Tracy said...

I found a quote in Harris' Imperium which reminds me of Foucault's Pendulum! It's the point where Cicero knows that the entire election is being rigged, but has no proof, and doesn't know the motive, because no-one will talk:
p.408 But still Cicero refused to accept that someone would not talk. "We are dealing with bribery agents," he shouted, in a rare show of anger, "not an ancient order of Roman knights!"

Those Templars really do get everywhere!

The Red Witch said...

LOL except this action takes place before the destruction of the Temple of Solomon so there was no need for a secret organization to hide and protect its treasure.

Tracy said...

I agree - it's a pretty anachronistic comment in the book! Are there any other secret organisations of ancient Knights Robert Harris could have in mind? I only noticed that comment because I'd recently read Eco's book, otherwise it would have gone straight over my head.

Have you read Baudelino yet?

The Red Witch said...

except that the equestrian class, of which Cicero was a part, were an ancient order of knights.

Tracy said...

Okay, you win! :)

But was it a highly secretive, would never divulge those very important and seductive secrets even under torture, organisation? Because that was certainly the implication of Harris' thrpowaway joke.

The Red Witch said...

They definitely, at this point anyway, are not a secretive organization. It is simply a social class, minor nobility.

Tracy said...

When I first read the comment I quoted, the image that flashed into my mind was the picture on my edition of Foucault's Pendulum a detail from The Chronicle of France - which is of Jacques de Molay, last leader of the Knights Templar, being burned at the stake, looking thoroughly miserable (unsurprisingly) but refusing to talk.
My version of synaesthesia - once words are linked with an image in my head, it's very difficult to override.(Others prefer the term stubborn :))

The Red Witch said...

LOL That's okay. I was reading Shakespeare's The Tempest last week and when I saw that Prospero had an invisibility cloak all I could think was - Harry Potter.