Browsing Goodreads reviews for Catherynne M. Valente’s eighth novel The Habitation of the Blessed, I came across this note, written by someone who’d marked the book as “to-read”:
*sigh* According to the book’s summary, the premise is that the Kingdom of Prester John did exist and everything reported about it was true. That summary then goes on to say that it’s not a Christian kingdom, but rather blah blah blah blah. Right away I’m rolling my eyes. Given that the KEY FACTOR IN THE ACCOUNTS OF THE KINGDOM OF PRESTER JOHN was that it was a CHRISTIAN KINGDOM, then obviously everything reported about it WASN’T true according to this novel. I hate clumsy attempts at twists.
There are several negative reviews on the page that I disagree with, and even a couple of positive ones that largely seem to miss the point of the book, but this was the one that got me composing scathing responses in my head; because it seems to me that, far from being a “clumsy attempt at [a] twist”, this novel’s use of the Prester John story is actually deeply engaged with its Christian origins – something that should have been obvious if this reviewer had ever actually read the book.
Perhaps some context is useful here, because the tale of Prester John is now more obscure than it deserves to be – although it was immensely popular in its heyday. It seems that early in the twelfth century reports began circling of a wealthy Christian king ruling a fabulous land in the East. The reports were cemented by a letter supposedly written to the Byzantine Emperor by this very king, Prester John, describing the fantastical peoples he ruled over and the wonders of his magical country. Of course, there never was a Prester John, and the letter was likely written by a Westerner. But his legend held on till the seventeenth century, the supposed location of John’s kingdom shifting as Western explorers “discovered” more and more of the world.
So. Valente’s Prester John arrives in the land of Pentexore after his ship goes adrift in the Rimal, a great shifting sea of sand that separates this strange country from the mundane world he hails from. There he finds a stable, prosperous society of gryphons, cranes, pygmies, lions and stranger things: people with enormous ears or huge hands; headless blemmyae with their faces in their chests. The people of Pentexore are functionally immortal, being the possessors of an honest-to-goodness Fountain of Youth; to stave off the stagnancy of a deathless existence, they have the Abir, a lottery they run every three hundred years which assigns each person a new role in society: a new job, a new spouse, a new social status.
The meat of the book lies in John’s attempts to impose his theology and his understanding of the universe on Pentexore and its inhabitants. Right from the start we know that his coming to Pentexore will be disastrous, thanks to the novel’s intricate form: it’s made up of three interweaving accounts, one written by Prester John himself, one by Imtithal, nursemaid to the Queen of Pentexore’s three children, and one by Hagia, the woman who’ll come to be John’s wife. A fourth point of view is provided by Hiob, a fifteenth-century priest looking for news of Prester John who transcribes the three strange books that contain these accounts.
It’s Hagia’s account that’s the doom-laden one, as she looks back from some desolate future on John’s career in Pentexore. Hagia is a blemmye, a headless woman with eyes for nipples, which presents something of a moral quandary for the devout John: he sees her nakedness as sinful, whereas for Hagia it’s just a fact of her anatomy. (She’s hardly going to wear clothes that cover her eyes, after all.) This essential failure to come to terms with Hagia as she is, rather than viewing her through the lens of religious dogma, characterises John’s relationship with Pentexore as a whole: he insists on trying to read the land and its people Biblically. So he equates this land of immortals, with its Fountain of Youth, with the Garden of Eden; the mighty collapsed tower that forms one of its main landmarks must be the remains of Babel. Then there’s Qaspiel, a winged creature who looks to John like an angel, and who he persists in reverencing despite Qaspiel’s distress and discomfort at such treatment. John’s efforts at attempting to bring the word of God to the population may go awry – his pupils tolerant and amused by his fanciful stories – but the novel makes it clear that his dogmatic attitude is plenty dangerous all by itself: he sees Pentexore, its inhabitants and the Abir as tools for advancing the glory of his God.
I’m inclined to think that your reading of The Habitation of the Blessed will depend on your personal relationship with Christianity, as well as on your general readerly preoccupations – to a greater extent than normal, anyway. Although I come from a background that’s I suppose culturally Christian, I haven’t been a Christian since (ironically) Catholic school, and I have a general mistrust of Christianity’s record of homophobia, misogyny and colonialism. Accordingly, I never really saw John as anything other than a coloniser, an unintentional villain who’s all the more dangerous for his belief in his own righteousness. But I think there probably is space to read John as a more sympathetic character than I did: still a danger to Pentexore, but someone ultimately struggling with his religion in good faith. Not that John ever gets off lightly: his coming to Pentexore is no less a disaster for its inhabitants for the fact that he didn’t intend it to be. But the very fact that multiple readings are possible speaks to the subtlety and generosity of Valente’s characterisation.
The Habitation of the Blessed is a complex book, then, with its eloquently layered imagery, its bittersweetness, its intricate fourfold narration. It’s more, hmm, academic than the best of Valente’s work, her Radiances and Palimpsests; less lush and enchanting. But it’s still a deeply unusual novel: Valente clearly knows the time period well, and in the sea of romanticised medieval Englands that plague contemporary fantasy The Habitation of the Blessed stands out as a beautifully fashioned gem.