The Search for the King of the Original Narnia

In the twelfth century, a letter started circulating around medieval courts. This letter was from Prester John, the ruler of a utopian Christian nation with utopian societies and perpetual miracles. It was one of the first fantasies about stepping through a special passage to a magical land.

For three centuries, European monarchs sought out the kingdom of Prester John. Cartographers put in on maps, moving it from Asia to Africa to the Americas, as geographic knowledge expanded. Expeditions, many of which never returned, were sent out bringing letters and gifts to the great king.

This supposed kingdom blended fantasy elements with strong Christian morals — just as C.S. Lewis' portal fantasy Narnia series did over 800 years later. The letter spoke of the land being inhabited by “that bird which is called the phoenix, cyclopses, satyrs and women of the same race,” while also being a Christian stronghold among the pagans where, “In our country there is abundance of milk and honey; in another quarter in our land no poison hurts, no frog croaks, no snakes hiss in the herbage; no venomous animals can abide there, or do harm to anyone. “ It’s not really clear why croaking frogs are such big problems, but oh well.

The original letter was rather short, talking about how Christianity allowed Prester John to have a kingdom of unsurpassed riches, goodness, and moral righteousness, while other religious leaders served under him as tributaries. Over time, however, legends of Prester John grew more involved. His kingdom became greater, including rivers of precious jewels and seas of gold sand. This is what some of the early explorers were after, and why kings paid for their journeys.

Later on, explorers were looking for El Dorado or the Fountain of Youth, but medieval Europeans were striking out to find the kingdom of Prester John and his bejeweled rivers, salamanders that lived in fire, and palaces of gold. Prester John’s kingdom was a good three centuries earlier than most of the portal fantasies we know, and too unreservedly Christian to fit in with most adventure or pop culture stories, but it’s interesting to know that Christianity and fantasy were blended so early, and that they had such a profound effect on history.

Now if only we could say that the kingdom was on Mars. We’d get there much quicker.

Via About, Mary Jones, and Prester John's Letter: A Medieval Utopia