What I’m Reading: The Realm of Prester John, by Robert Silverburg
I’m not entirely sure where I first heard about the mythical Prester John. It was almost certainly prior to college, where my history professor responded to a question about him with a lengthy lecture on the outsized influence he’d had on the Crusades and various wars in the Middle East (to the point where even Moslems were trying to figure out who this guy the Europeans kept talking about was.) It might have been in casual conversation with a friend about the story of the Ethiopian Eunuch. It might have been part of one of the Kiwanis travelogues my family was fond of attending.
Regardless, I’ve always found the legend to be deeply fascinating. For those not familiar, “Prester John,” was the writer of a very letter (supposedly) written to the Byzantine Emperor. The writer claimed to be a Christian priest-king of a vast, powerful kingdom of riches and beauty, (“India”, he said, a common European word for basically any place that wasn’t Europe or the Holy Land; later versions of the legend would put him in Ethiopia) and the descendant of one of the three Magi who visited the baby Christ in the gospels. He said he was interested in helping out with one of those crusades that the Europeans kept doing.
For years–centuries–after, scholars, explorers, soldiers, and churchmen eagerly sought for “Prester John.” Once people hit on the idea that perhaps he was in Ethiopia, as a result of St. Thomas ministering to the Ethiopian eunuch, that became a popular place to seek him. Writers also recounted stories of “Prester John” as a king in India, Mongolia, or Egypt. The Europeans talked about him so much, the Saracens actually became concerned about who this guy was and if he was some powerful ally of the Europeans that they somehow had completely missed. Regardless, there was no such person to be found. According to my history professor, the original “letter” was likely an invented story from a bored monk (the only people who could write at the time) familiar with various other “travel narrative” writings and their fantastical claims. Prester John to all appearances was an entirely ficticious person.
I probably should have chosen a book by a more scholarly author (Robert Silverburg is apparently mostly a sci-fi author), but The Realm of Prester John jumped out at me from the bookshelves of a local used bookstore, and I grabbed it as part of my trade-in credit for the copies of my book I’d donated. And really, I can’t complain. I’d worried it would be conspiracy-theorist tripe, but the entirety of the book is detailed and comprehensive, with quotes, theories and counter-theories, and entirely grounded arguments. It is, in fact, almost disappointing with how thoroughly it dissects the legend of Prester John, showing how different legends were likely corrupted second or third-hand accounts of real, but very normal and inconsequential monarchs. It leaves very little room for supposing that there was any sort of real-life Prester John.
Perhaps the more interesting point, then, is how enduring Prester John was, despite never having existed. Multiple writers from multiple time periods and at various levels of credulity recounted tales they’d heard of him being here, or there. The tales are often true, just with different figures. Often there’s an understandable similarity in the names, but it seems strange that so many travelers would have been willing to overlook this problem. Prester John, it seems, was so completely believed in, even by the most skeptical of travelers, that they assumed any similarly-sounding monarch MUST be this figure of legend.
There’s a bit in Tolkien’s unpublished sci-fi story “The Notion Club Papers” (Have I written about that? I should, it’s awesome) where he talks about if you moved toward the past, you would find history growing more mythic; not more factual but less. When the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle reports a dragon’s corpse being found in a river, or a doctor’s autopsy describes a person’s heart as the size of a prune, they’re not trying to lie, there’s an odd sense in which they do perceive that to be true, and remember it as true. Hence while it may seem very strange to us that people in the medieval era would believe in things like immortal priest kings and sand-oceans complete with their own fish and one-footed Sciapods who lie on their back with their foot in the air to shield themselves from the sun (dude, Lewis steals ideas from all over), to them it was not just plausible, but entirely similar to their own experience–or at least their memory of their experience.
But now we’re very much more fact-based, in which sense this book is very much more reliable, and in truth, exactly what I wanted: recounting the myth without delving into conspiracy, relying on facts. Which is possibly disappointing, but in some ways it’s own kind of interesting.
What I’m Listening To: Killing the SS by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dugard
Bill O’Reilly gets a bad rap, but he’s actually quite well-educated, having received a Master of Arts in broadcast journalism at Boston University. He also taught high school English/history for two years, which maybe goes a way toward explaining his temper. And alongside Martin Dugard, he’s co-written a number of books (though that itself is no guarantee of education or intelligence, as my own example shows.) Killing General Patton, Killing Ronald Reagan, and Killing England are all co-written by him. I can’t vouch for those, having not read them, but Killing the SS is a largely factual affair, with little of the political or the agenda-driven behind it, and has nothing to do with character assasination, but actual assassination, kidnapping, and Nazi-Hunting.
I got the audio-book to listen to on my long drives to visit my folks. Took me a while to finish it, after I had to cut that out, but I finally have. It’s a good book, with just enough dramatic flair to spice up the dizzying array of details (it is possible for even stories about Nazi-hunting to get boring). It examines Nazis of all levels, all horrors, the ones that got away and the ones that were caught. It even covers a few who were hired by other governments, even the Mossad, in the full knowledge of who they were. Often this was to face off against the commie threat–with the Mossad, they were targeting Nazi rocket scientists in Egypt.
I’m a firm believer that the ends don’t justify the means–and that often, in the end, the means wind up being counterproductive anyway. Maybe there are some grey areas, but “hiring war criminals” is not one of them. Klaus Barbie, the Butcher of Lyon, a horrific war criminal who worked for the CIA against the communists for years, ended up being exposed by Mossad and fled to Bolivia, where he aided with the rise of El Chapo.
Maybe Chapo would have risen to power anyway. Certainly someone would have; there are too many contributing factors in the rise of the drug industry for one person to have started or stopped it. And it’s hard to know whether Chapo’s replacement, if there was one, would be better or worse. But we wouldn’t have had a hand in it. I feel strongly that a lot of America’s distrust in its current government stems from the shady and morally dubious acts it took during the Cold War.
Yes, in the end, it worked. A certain part of me has to be grateful to my ancestors for coming out successfully from a potentially-apocalyptic period in our history. Each generation has its own mistakes and its own challenges left over from the mistakes of the last generation. Arguably, the Communists were themselves the result of the mistakes of the “Greatest Generation” in reaching out desperately for any ally against the Nazi menace.
But I genuinely wish, sometimes, that we would commit as a government to acting with honor. Sometimes “survive at any costs” really seems like it ends up costing too much.
This is way off the topic of the book. It was good. I constantly found myself wondering how much these Nazi war criminals truly “escaped justice,” as they lived a life of constant watchfulness, often separated from any loved ones, often living in isolated, far-flung locations in poverty. Josef Mengele, “Dr. Death,” notably died of natural causes, drowning in a lake before justice could catch up with him. Yet when his grandson visited him prior to his death, he found a querolous, cancer-stricken old-man, full of nothing but bitter memories of what he saw as a glorious past. Mengele was hungry for his grandson’s affection, pleading desperately for him to come again. He was struck by a stroke, left with half his mental capacity, alienated from even his oldest friends. When he drowned in the lake, he must have been in utter terror. His fate, in some ways, seems far more painful than Eichman’s execution.
It seems incredible, but none of the war criminals in the story expressed remorse for what they did. Mengele actually saw himself as “saving” them from the horrors of the concentration camp. The closest, perhaps, is the Ravensbruck camp guard, tracked down nearly sixty years after she fled to America and married a Jewish man. Yet even she claimed to have had no part, to have committed no crime. She’d lived for years in a Jewish community and was seen as kind and considerate. She’s still alive, now, in a German rest home, described in the book as horribly bitter, wrathful, rude and inconsiderate.
I think about that woman a lot.
What I’m NOT Watching (And I’m Mad about that): Macbeth (Rupert Goold 2010)
Me: “I should come up with a third thing, but I’m still playing the same games from last week.”
Other Me: “Why don’t you watch the Patrick Stewart Macbeth? You keep thinking about how much better it was than the Denzel Washington one.”
Me: “Okay, cool, let me just dig it out of my Amazon Prime acco–what? It’s not there? I think I actually bought it, how can it not be… Buy a Broadway HD Subscription, are you KIDDING me?”
Truly, I don’t feel like there’s a standout great Macbeth interpretation. Ian McKellen is too dry, Michael Fassbender is one long whisper-fest, Kenneth Branagh (yes, he has one) is shouty and rushed, Orson Welles is good but a bit abstract and the hand-washing scene is disappointing (my opinion of Macbeth adaptations is largely determined by their handwashing, “dagger before me,” and witches scenes. And the “tomorrow” speech, I guess.)
Patrick Stewart is the one I show my students, and maybe it’s just because I’ve seen it so many times that makes me enjoy it so much. (I’d like to watch the Roman Polanski version sometime. I haven’t yet.) It’s still weak in parts–the “dagger” scene is entirely Stewart staring at the camera, the dinner scene has a bizarre Russian dance included, and Stewart has several cringeworthy moments where he imitates animals.
Yet overall Patrick Stewart plays well a conflicted and guilty man who is slowly driven mad by his quest for power. Kate Fleetwood does an excellent portrayal of an ambitious wife disturbed by her husband’s turn and his corresponding alienation from her (Her handwashing scene is chilling). The witches, a key element of any adaptation, are not just creepy in a thoroughly modern way, but are wonderfully omnipresent, often seen in the background of unrelated scenes, or appearing suddenly before incidents like the feast with Banquo to provide a good, ominous foreshadowing.
I can’t love this adaptation, though. And it’s because in its last stretch, it makes a baffling decision. Macbeth’s final line, “And damned be he that cries ‘hold, enough!'” is split so that Macbeth instead says “damned be he that cries ‘hold…'” to open his fight with MacDuff, and then, when he sees the witches again, goes limp and says “…enough,” giving in and letting MacDuff finish him.
IT’S SO WRONG. Like not wrong in some esoteric, scholarly interpretation way, wrong in a deeply self-evident way. It overturns not just the implicit meaning, but the explicit statement of the text and Macbeth’s entire character arc. The whole point of the line, and leadup to it, “I will not yield… though Birnam Wood be come to Dunsinane, and thou opposed being of no woman born, yet I will try the last,” clearly sets up the idea of Macbeth attempting to defy fate, fight the prophecy at the last minute. He is determined NOT to resign himself to death.
And yet that’s what they go with. Michael Fassbender’s does this one worse, by having Malcolm almost honor Macbeth post-death by giving him a line used to describe Siward’s son.
If I had to guess, it’s because since you focus the movie around Macbeth, you feel it needs to be about his character, with an appropriate resolution, which you can’t get if he dies fighting it. Macbeth dying defiant makes it more generally about the kingdom and the moral struggle.
I still don’t like it.