Prester John has been king in Pentexore for many years now, aided by his wife Hagia the blemmye. He loves the creatures he rules and has spent his time teaching them about Jesus Christ and trying to reconcile the creation story in Genesis with his new knowledge of the world. When one of John’s daughters brings a letter from Constantinople, asking John to bring his army of monsters to fight the Muslims in Jerusalem, he decides that they’ll go. Although he is happy with his new life in Pentexore, he is still a faithful Christian and he feels that it’s his duty to clear the sacred city of infidels.
The creatures of Pentexore, though they claim to be Christians to please their beloved King John, think the whole Christianity thing is a game involving silly hand motions and recitations. When they agree to fight on John’s side, they have no idea what they’re in for. To them, war means “mating and keening” and they don’t understand the ancient battle between the Christians, descendants of Abraham’s son Isaac, and the Muslims, descendants of Abraham’s first but illegitimate son Ishmael. When they cross the wall into John’s world, they are shocked at the treatment they receive and the way humans treat each other.
The Folded World is similar in structure to the first novel in Catherynne M. Valente’s PRESTER JOHN series — a monk is alternately copying chapters from three different books (written by Hagia, Vyala the White Lion, and the explorer John Mandeville) and desperately trying to transcribe them before they rot. All the while, he tends to the dying Brother Hiob and attempts to understand what Pentexore means for his own faith.
The greatest impact of The Folded World comes not from its ideas about creation, salvation, eschatology, or faith, but from Catherynne Valente’s powerful presentation of every creature’s struggle to understand the world, its beauty and terror, and his own place in it. I cannot think of another author who can fill one book with so many thoughtful ideas so beautifully spoken:
Love is a practice. It is a yogic stance; it is lying upon nails; it is walking over coals, or water. It comes naturally to no one, though that is a great secret. One who is learned might say: does not a babe in her mother’s arms love? From her first breath does she not know how to love as surely as her mouth can find the breast? And I would respond: have you ever met a child? A cub may find the breast but not latch upon it, she may bite her mother, or become sick with her milk. So too, the utter dependence of a tiny and helpless thing upon those who feed and warm her is not love. It is fierce and needful; it has a power all its own and that power is terrible, but it is not love. Love can come only with time and sentience. We learn it as we learn language — and some never learn it well. Love is like a tool, though it is not a tool; something strange and wonderful to use, difficult to master, and mysterious in its provenance.
If love were not all of this, I would not have devoted my mind, which is large and generous and certainly could have done much else, to it for all these centuries.
If love were not all of this, I would never have known that wretched, radiant little girl, nor let her learn her teeth on my heart, which children can find with more sureness than ever they could clasp the breast, and latch upon it, and bite, and become sick, and make ill, and all the worst of the six ails of loving, which are to lose it, to find it, to break it, to outlive it, to vanish inside it, and to see it through to the end.
The entire book is like this — beautiful nuggets of wisdom on every page.
I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version, which is dynamically read by Ralph Lister who is convincing in all of his human and monster roles. He does a great job and I’ll be reading the third volume of PRESTER JOHN in this format.
The Folded World is highly recommended, but it’s not what you need when you want to read an action-packed adventure story. Save this for when you’re in a pensive and vulnerable mood. It’s incredibly gorgeous.