Title: The Habitation of the Blessed
Series Title: A Dirge for Prester John
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Date Added: September 28, 2012
Date Started: March 26, 2018
Date Finished: May 23, 2018
Reading Duration: 58 days
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Christian Mythos
This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?
Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit. These strange books chronicle the history of the kingdom of Prester John, and Hiob becomes obsessed with the tales they tell. The Habitation of the Blessed recounts the fragmented narratives found within these living volumes, revealing the life of a priest named John, and his rise to power in this country of impossible richness. John’s tale weaves together with the confessions of his wife Hagia, a blemmye–a headless creature who carried her face on her chest–as well as the tender, jeweled nursery stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family.
They think you childish, that you insist your god looks just like you. That is how a baby thinks, because she has only her parents to protect her, so all the power in the universe bears her own face.
Catherynne M. Valente is mostly a hit with me, and though I’ve had issues getting into a few of her novels before, I was determined to give The Habitation of the Blessed another try. Not only did I love the language and mytho-religious basis of it, but the following book The Folded World seemed even more intriguing. Of course there’s no rule that says you must read all the books in a series; I just don’t like entering a narrative in the middle unless, of course, it’s in media res. The second attempt was more fruitful, and my inabilities prior might have been due to my own concentration issues. The beginning is a bit slow, but it doesn’t last for long.
The Habitation of the Blessed exists as a series of vignettes tied together and hinged on a butterfly’s wings. Using the framing device of Brother Hiob searching for Prester John who went abroad to teach Christianity, but found himself the recipient of an immortal faith. This style of story within story is very similar to Valente’s other series The Orphan’s Tales, though Habitation doesn’t go quite as Inception as the fore mentioned. It also involves multiple story tellers as opposed to just one.
The books Hiob harvests from the tree tell the story of John who himself was searching for St. Thomas the apostle, also known as Thomas Didymus, or Thomas the Twin whose “surname” means “twin” in Greek. The name Thomas itself has its etymology based in the word “twin,” so Biblical canon and Habitation calling him Thomas Didymus could be taken to mean “twin twin,” as if confirming in replication.¹
Hiob is essentially only the framing device for John’s story, but Valente still manages to make him a character of his own with an arc to fulfill in “devouring” the “fruit” of the tree before it rots. Indeed there is a time limit to the tale of Prester John that we are reminded of at intervals as Hiob struggles to absorb all the knowledge before it is lost forever.
John comes as a stranger in a strange land to Pentexore, a place outside of Christendom, where he initially attempts to proselytize, but soon finds the odder, older, and wiser inhabitants see his religion and god as fanciful stories, but certainly not gospel truth. It is John who is changed as opposed to these ancient folk, though it doesn’t happen overnight. We are gifted with knowing the future before the priest, so while his disgust of Hagia, the blemmye, initially rankles, the blurb itself names her his wife, and there’s even foreshadowing in his encounter with a war (and afterwards orgy) between pygmies and cranes that John has found ways of overcoming his revulsion before. Prior to this experience, his mindset was “like goes with like,” but the pygmies and the cranes have always lived this way, so to them there is no perversion or debauchery.
The blemmyae are headless humanoids who carry their faces on their chests, and because of this they have…fucking…EYE NIPPLES.
*image not found due to author’s unwillingness to google it*
Of course the image of Jenova from FFVII is all I can think of, but Hagia isn’t a parasitic alien though you wouldn’t know it from how John initially treats her. She is wiser than him, as are all of the inhabitants of this place, and the realities of their lives eventually prove to him how absurd his attempts at converting them are. Hagia’s interpretation of the Eve myth, for example, stands in opposition to how it’s typically taken. You would grow tired of Paradise and eternity if nothing ever changes, and even that paradigm is accounted for in the habitation of the blessed. Every certain amount of years, they hold what is known as the “abir,” where lots are chosen and lives are exchanged. Afterwards, those you once knew, even relatives, are strangers, and you abide by the lottery’s decision even if it means leaving spouses behind for new.
Immortality carries its own burdens, which is explored in John’s journey and another vignette concerning Imtithal, the “butterfly” nursemaid to three royal children who must be made to understand the only way for either of them to inherit the throne is through regicide. Immortality means stagnation. Death makes the wheel turn.
This novel was far deeper than I could’ve ever imagined, and in more ways than one, was a religious journey. Directly, it was one for Prester John with results he never expected, and by extension, it was one for Brother Hiob absorbing the priest’s story. Even Hiob’s search is passed on to his assistant Alaric, and in the way of whisper down the lane, the latter believes the “strange creatures” John describes were metaphors and allegories for virtues and/or sins. In the initial steps of his journey to the immortal fountain, John saw what he viewed as Christian signs: a fallen tower he likened to Babel and Qaspiel, one of his travel companions, who resembled an angel. It presents the question of whether or not these Biblical stories came out of Pentaxore, and that’s why they exist in the world of the novel in the first place, where Pentexore is the true basis of Heaven since whoever drinks from the fountain three times will never die.
Valente turns the idea of a proselytizing priest on its head with the so-called being absorbed into a culture that far predates and overrides his beliefs. This is a momentous metamorphosis of someone known as a legendary Christian patriarch and king, as well as a potential critique of patriarchy itself, though I’m sure proponents of that system could accuse Hagia of the same crimes as Eve in bringing sin and not knowledge to an ignorant man.
“Prester” comes from “presbyter,” which means “elder” and is the origin of the English word “priest” (it’s also obviously the root of the sect name “Presbyterian). Prester John is said to have ruled over a Nestorian (Church of the East) Christian nation lost amid Muslims and pagans of the “Orient” in which the Patriarch of the St. Thomas Church resided, so that’s another way John and Thomas connect. The accounts of the priest’s adventures are varied collections of medieval, popular fantasy (of which I’d never heard of until reading this and doing my brief research) depicting him as a descendant of the Three Magi, ruling a kingdom full of riches, marvels, and strange creatures, which is clearly where Valente pulled her tale.¹
The search for Prester John is a medieval legend that viewed him as a beacon of hope for the struggle between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. His creation is like an atomic bomb of propaganda that Europe hoped would help them in the Crusades. This bit of information makes me like Valente’s novel even more, as she has the patriarch assimilate into an opposing, “other” culture instead of the normal European method of conquering, colonizing, and converting. Because Prester John was never found, it went from his kingdom being in Asia to Africa in the frantic hope he existed in some remote corner of the globe. Merely the belief in him apparently had a profound affect on European exploration and discovery of Asia and Africa…much to those continents’ rue. ²
The St. Thomas Christians are also called Syrian Christians of India, so the tying thread is John and Thomas proselytizing in the east where the story’s “stranger in a strange land” motif has its base. Instead of finding humans who hadn’t heard the “Word,” Thomas and John find creatures with their own culture, tradition, and beliefs, and instead of the indigenous population being converted (or, let’s be honest here when it comes to this, forced to convert), the wannabe missionaries are changed.
Habitation is a rebuttal of the idea of spreading Christianity across the globe and a treatise of respecting the faith of where you find yourself instead of condemning them and attempting to alter people who have no desire for it, no matter how strange, foreign, or “disgusting” you might (initially) view them.
There is a bit of ending fatigue with the novel, and I’d pass if you’re not a fan of eloquent/flowery language (aka purple prose). I loved the lush, beautiful descriptions almost mad in their eloquence. The novel is more of a collection of parables and fables as opposed to action oriented, which is very signature Valente, and also seen in her Orphan’s Tales series. Her focus on story telling is divine and it resonates through every carefully chosen word.