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Prester John

21 January 2010

There was an interesting discussion in the Charles Williams list recently, on the topic of Prester John, sparked off by the following post from Roy Laroya:

Some time ago I had asked about Prestor John a character in “War in Heaven”. Someone mentioned that there was a book titled “Prestor John” by John Buchan. I finally got around to reading it, but it is more about a distant relative rather than Prestor John himself. Does anyone know of any other books about Prestor John?

Prester John is a quite prominent character in Williams’s War in heaven, but John Buchan’s book Prester John, as Roy says, has little on the character himself. Buchan’s book has a lot more in common with another novel of Williams, Shadows of ecstasy, in that both deal, at least in part, with a “native uprising” in colonial Africa.

Another thing that they have in common is that each has as a character a black African clergyman. In Buchan’s book, the clergyman is the villain of the story, and is also a caricature of a leader of an African independent church. Williams’s clergyman character is much more true to life, and is an altogether more believable character.

John Buchan was a British civil servant (he eventually became Governor-General of Canada), and was a member of Milner’s Kindergarten, the group of bright young men recruited by Milner to help with reconstruction after the Anglo-Boer War (a war which Milner himself had started almost single-handed, rather like George Bush in the recent Iraqi-American War).

Milner was the British High Commissioner for South Africa. Buchan’s novel is set in the Transvaal Colony (a state which lasted
exactly 8 years, from 31 May 1902 to 31 May 1910, when it joined the Union of South Africa). The protagonist is a young Scottish manager of a country store who is recruited as a spy by a British intelligence agent. While the geography is fictitious, it is generally based on the region around Tzaneen, in what is now Mpumalanga Province.

Buchan wrote several novels in the spy-story genre. I read several of them when I was at school, and Prester John was in fact a set-book when I was in primary school, perhaps as part of an intentional indoctrination in British imperialism. I recently tried to re-read another of Buchan’s spy stories, The thirty-nine steps. It had thrilled me when I was 11, but on rereading it as an adult I found it painfully boring, and never managed to finish it. His Greenmantle, however, is probably bang up-to-date, reflecting Western fears of radical Islamism.

Prester John, however, was somewhat different. One of my continuing research interests is African Independent Churches (AICs), and Buchan’s book is interesting for the light it throws on the attitudes of some colonial civil servants towards the African independent churches. “Ethiopianism” was seen as a threat, particularly after the Bambatha Rebellion in Zululand in 1906, and Buchan’s novel seems to have been written to sensationalise that.

The discussion also moved me to once again upload my own attempt at writing a novel in the Charles Williams genre, called The year of the dragon. It can be found in the Files section of the Neo-Inklings (Eldil) forum, and I invite people to read it and comment on it, and give me some sort of critique.

It too, has something in common with Shadows of ecstasy and Prester John, in that one of the characters is a black African clergyman, though I hope less of a caricature than the one in Prester John. I’d be particularly interested in comments from people who have read both those books.

Prester John as an actual character features much more prominently in Charles Williams’s novel War in Heaven, where he is the guardian of the Holy Grail (Graal). He is a mysterious character, and it is never quite clear who or what he is. The historical legend of Prester John inspired strange maps, and odd notions of geography.Some thought he was Middle Eastern, some thought he was Indian, some thought he was African. Williams’s character gives hints of all three.

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