[Note: I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of The Habitation of the Blessed read by Ralph Lister. It took me a while to adjust since I have recently listened to Lister read three installments of The Gorean Saga and I at first had a hard time hearing the priest Prester John instead of the sadistic misogynist Tarl Cabot. But I got over this soon enough and thought that Mr. Lister did a great job with this one.]
In The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynne M. Valente lets her extravagant imagination loose on the 12th century legends of Prester John, the Nestorian Christian priest who set out from Constantinople to search for the tomb of Saint Thomas and ends up as the beloved ruler of Pentexore. This is an ancient land of strange, nearly immortal, creatures who’ve never heard of Jesus Christ and who practice the Abir, a lottery which reassigns them to new lives, jobs, and mates every three hundred years. The Abir staves off boredom, keeps them from being forever ruled by a despot, and allows ambitious folks a chance to be ruler, though it often causes feelings of sadness, loss, and envy, too.
When Brother Hiob von Luzern goes looking for Prester John (who left Constantinople a few hundred years ago and sent his famous letter to the Pope) and finds himself in Pentexore, he’s allowed to pluck and read three books that are growing from a tree as if they were fruit. One book is John’s account of his search for Saint Thomas and his experiences in Pentexore:
I could not think where I had beached myself. It was as though every story I had ever heard had broken itself on the shores of this place like blind brittle whales and I walked among their shards that could never be made whole again.
The other books were written by a blemmye and a panoti who became close to John. Unfortunately, just like fruit, the books begin to rot, so Hiob decides to alternately copy a chapter from each, hoping to acquire as much information as possible before they disintegrate. Thus, similar to the connected story devices used in some of Catherynne Valente’s other novels, The Habitation of the Blessed is told as four separate intertwining narratives in which we learn about Prester John and the Pentexorians he meets, medieval Roman Catholic Christianity, and the fascinating cultural practices of Pentexore.
If you’ve read Catherynne Valente before, you’ll already have recognized that the Prester John Legends are perfect source material and you won’t be surprised to learn that this tale is full of the kinds of wonderful visual imagery and dreamy ideas that inhabit her other work. She brings a whole new life to the Fountain of Youth, the Gates of Alexander, and the Garden of Eden. Her account of the Tower of Babel is chillingly awesome and made me wish I was talented enough to paint it. In The Habitation of the Blessed you’ll meet gryphons, pygmies, troglodytes, lamia, a sea of sand, warmongering Cranes, and trees that grow maps, diagrams, books, beds, sheep heads, and equipment for medieval warfare. Each of these wonders is lovingly described and packed with personality.
Prester John’s interaction with those he meets is often gently humorous as he subjects these lost (but immortal) souls to Sunday School lessons and sermons about the trinity and transubstantiation and has them conjugate Latin verbs, say Hail Marys and Our Fathers, and pray the rosary. So far, John is learning a lot more about his faith than his students are, but his wide-eyed bewilderment and good-hearted intentions make him a lovable figure. Even Brother Hiob, who’s scandalized by John’s congress with these demons, is a likable character.
The writing is luxuriant, as always, and the dialogue is often reminiscent of the delightful repartee found in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. I couldn’t help but laugh at the peacock historian who, after the most recent Abir, was assigned to be a fiction writer. He laments that now he has to make up ridiculous stuff that never happened and must work with motifs, metaphors, and themes (“What rot!”).
Also, as usual for a Valente novel, there are plenty of interesting ideas to chew on. As Hiob the monk reads the three books, he experiences the same crises of faith that John and Thomas suffered previously. Is Pentexore the Garden of Eden? Prester John seems to think so when he says “This is the country God kept for men before we fell,” yet if Pentexore is paradise, there would be no need for the Abir. Do nearly immortal creatures need redemption? Would we really want to be immortal on Earth? What does the land of Pentexore, a rich and sensual place, mean for the faith of medieval Christian monks? Did God intend for His followers to take vows of poverty and chastity and to withdraw from society or does He mean for us to experience and engage with the magnificent things He’s made? If God has given souls to those we consider monsters, how are we to treat these monsters? And, if we were wrong about the monsters, where else may we have misjudged God?