Monday, July 02, 2007

The Department of Lost Barbarians: Prester John


The Prester John of Legend was a Priest King, said to rule a Christian empire somewhere in the Orient circa the 12th century or so. The legends get pretty convoluted, linking Prester John to the Grail Quest, the Three Magi, Saint Thomas, and who knows what else.
In the late 1930s, though, pulp writer Norvell Page took the word Prester, usually said to mean 'priest', back to its Greek origins where it meant whirlwind or hurricane, to create Prester John aka Hurricane John aka Wan-Tengri.
After Robert E. Howard's suicide in 1936, many pulp writers tried to fill the void left by the passing of the creator of Conan. Henry Kuttner had Elak of Atlantis. Fritz Lieber wrote of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser. C.L. Moore's Jirel of Joiry was already appearing in Weird Tales while Howard was alive.
Norvell Page, probably best known as the primary writer (under the pseudonym Grant Stockbridge) of The Spider, a pulp hero whose adventures were so violent that he made the Shadow look like a school girl, stepped up to the plate with Prester John.
Prester John is a Scythian, adventuring in what today would be northern Mongolia. There he is known as Wan-Tengri, named for the fierce spirits of the upper air, the tengri. This is because of his berserker like battle rages where he becomes a whirling, sword wielding madman. Prester John had been a gladiator in Alexandria and traveled across the ancient world to Egypt, India, and Ceylon. In Page's two short novels, all that he ever wrote of Prester John, the red haired warrior fights his way across a sort of mythical Asia.
Prester John is an early Christian, and even wears a piece of the True Cross around his neck which he uses as a defense against the strange sorceries he encounters in his travels. Aside from that he's basically a Conan sort of figure, massively muscled and quick tempered. He has a sidekick named Bourtai, who is a minor wizard and overall comedic figure.
The thing (IMHO) that separates Prester John from most of the other Conan clones, such as John Jake's Brak and Lin Carter's Thongor, is that Norvell Page actually comes close to being able to convey the sort of over the top, berserker fury that Robert E. Howard wrote so well. Most of Howard's imitators just don't seem to be able to deliver that kind of emotional intensity. They can deliver the surface barbarian, the props, the milieu, and so forth, but they miss the main point of Conan, which is his utter disregard for civilization. The laws and the morals of the land don't apply to him. It's not his world and he has no use for it. Page comes very close to that with Prester John. I wonder if it's because Page had so much experience writing the equally over the top adventures of the Spider, which are violent even by the standards of the "bloody pulps."
Both novels were published in 1939 in the pages of Unknown, the same magazine that printed the early adventures of Fafhrd and the Mouser. The were reprinted as slim paperbacks in 1967 with nifty covers by Jeff Jones. Those are the editions I have. Both novels were eventually adapted by Roy Thomas for Marvel Comics Conan the Barbarian comic, with Conan standing in for Prester John and relocated to Khitai, the Hyborian equivalent of Asia.
Anyway, I'm glad that I finally got around to reading both of Page's novels, Flame Winds and Sons of the Bear God, because these may be the best REH pastiches anyone's written. Too bad there are only two of them.

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