by Andy Beau
The Prester John series by Norvell Page (1903-1961), hasn’t been published in its entirety in over 35 years. Page wrote for the pulps during the 1930s and some of the 1940s, in many genres -- westerns, weird menace, detective. He’s probably most famous for writing most of the Spider stories, under the pen name of Grant Stockbridge, about a vigilante crime fighter. In 1933 he was president of the New York chapter of the American Fiction Guild, a nation-wide group of professional pulp writers.
The Prester John / Wan Tengri stories were his only venture into sword and sorcery and swashbuckling historicals. I wouldn’t be surprised if his Prester John tales were inspired by some of Harold Lamb’s stories and Robert E. Howard’s Conan tales; they seem to be a combination of the two. This is a short two story series about the legendary European Christian warrior/priest, Prester John, who was believed to have become king of parts of Central Asia. Later, the legend had him in Ethiopia instead. The more common version of the legend takes place during the time of the Middle Ages and the Crusades. Page includes some background on the legend itself and chooses to place his version of Prester John during the 1st century AD, which is from a lesser-known version of the legend.
A sixteenth-century image of Prester John from a map by Diego Homem
The name “Prester” in the legends of Prester John is commonly believed to mean “priest”. Page couldn’t believe that a priest could “carve an empire out of a hostile land” and dug deeper into the origins of the word “prester.” He discovered that it originally meant “hurricane” in Greek, “the whirlwind that sometimes sweeps the Mediterranean, bringing swirling black clouds and the shaken, steely spears of lightning.” Page also claimed to have discovered, according to his introduction in the first book, that there was a gladiator in First Century Alexandria, Egypt actually named Prester John. John was pitted against overwhelming odds such as four other gladiators or three lions. He was named Prester by the arena crowds because of his mad fighting rages and because of his speed using his curved sword that glittered like the lightning. Page contends that only this type of man could have fought and struggled to create his empire in an alien land. Page does concede that later in life Prester John could have become a priest, but Page’s tales are about his life as an adventurer.
All of the preceding information comes from Page’s book introductions. Whether all this is actually true or merely the sort of fictional scholarship or false story background such as Edgar Rice Burroughs and others sometimes indulged in, I’ll leave for others to discover. Since this is a fictional series, it provides an interesting backdrop for the hero, true or not.
The first Prester John book is titled Flame Winds. Prester John is an extremely tall and muscular Scythian , sort of a Conanesque figure, but with long red hair and a long red beard. He is also a Christian and around his neck he wears a piece of the True Cross (that Christ died upon) as a sort of amulet against the magics he encounters. At this point in his life, Prester John has had to leave gladiatorial life in Alexandria, Egypt, “for his health”, and has traveled east, leaving the Western world behind. He has traveled through Hind (India), Ceylon, Chin (China), and other Asian countries, apparently having to leave these places when he ran afoul of the authorities. For instance, in Chin, he stole the emperor’s favorite concubine -- another Conan trait! It appears he is now in the area of present-day northern Mongolia. Along the way, he has acquired the Asian form of his name - Wan Tengri. In Asia, the tengri are the fierce spirits of the upper air, the hurricane; hence, Hurricane John. His self-image is such that he boldly lets others know that he is able to overcome any foe, any obstacle that is in his way. He has an “insatiable pride” that would make Conan seem like a shy introvert!
He arrives at the walled city of Turgohl, looking to do a little thievery, but quickly finds that robbing one of the wizards in the city is both fruitless and dangerous -- the wizards have a unique way of recovering their possessions and punishing the would-be thief. The wizards also control the city and have imprisoned the ruling princess in a tower for the past several years. However, this is not your typical rescue-the-princess-in-the-tower story, which Prester John discovers later. Prester John is actually planning to start his empire here. He believes that the Christian God, Christos, will help him if he promises Christos that 100,000 people will bow down to him if he helps Prester John with his conquest of an empire and its riches, starting with Turgohl.
As Prester John states in the second book:
He learns that the flame winds come from the nearby desert and are used by the wizards as a weapon upon their enemies within the city. He hooks up with the small, scheming leader of a ragtag group of thieves to overthrow the wizards, rescue the princess, and become king of Turgohl. However, this is easier said than done! He first becomes captured by the wizards and is forced to fight three battles in the city’s arena. No one has ever survived this contest in the past. Armed only with the manacles and chains on his wrists, he is to first battle a tiger, then two black-maned lions.
In the battle with the tiger:
Tengri then goes on against seven armored and armed warriors at one time, and finally fights against the magic of the wizards themselves. He escapes the arena and organizes the thieves to defeat the wizards by trickery and battle prowess. Prester John uses the actual flame winds in a bizarre way to defeat the wizards and their armies. He then commands the 50,000 people of Turgohl to bow down to Christos, fulfilling part of his promise to Christos. However, just when it appears he has rescued the princess and has become the king, a surprising event arises that forces him to leave the city.
The second book, Sons Of The Bear-God, continues with Prester John’s adventures after he is forced to flee Turgohl in the first book. He is traveling with the short, scheming wizard, Bourtai, from the fist book. They travel through a large swamp-like area when they covertly spy a column of large, red-headed, clean-shaven, armed soldiers, ethnically the same as Prester John. They are being whipped as they march by hands unseen because of the tall grass. Crawling through the grass, Prester John spys white men less than five feet tall with long beards doing the whipping. Seeing this and having an automatic affinity for people of his own “race,” he battles these wizard/slave-masters, after first overcoming their spells. These wizards/slave-masters consider themselves the grandsons of their bear-god.
The following is a scene from this:
After defeating the slave-masters, he decides to use these once-enslaved warriors as a means to rule Byoko, the city of their ex-masters. He realizes that these warriors allowed themselves to become enslaved because they were frightened by the wizardry of their much shorter masters. By his unique ability to defeat the wizardry of the rulers of the city, he becomes the ruler and forces the previous rulers to flee. Others convince him that he should chase down these people before they rise against him in the future. He and some of his red-haired warriors pursue the short people all the way to the Pacific coast of China. On the way, he conquers other cities and now has a large empire. However, because of a turn of events, both in these cities and in Byoko, Prester John once again loses his conquests. As he travels on, he vows that when he conquers his third kingdom, he will return to raze these two cities he recently lost. This is where the series ends. Page never wrote a third story about whether Prester John did in fact establish a third kingdom.
The Prester John series is an action-packed sword and legends and sorcery series (if there is such a hybrid genre!), with a unique hero. Wan Tengri has a genuine sense of humor--many times he is laughing and joking in the midst of battle, nor is he given to brooding like many sword and sorcery heroes. With his extreme self-confidence, mightily proclaiming his superiority in overcoming men, beasts, and magic, he intimidates his enemies and instills courage and strength in his allies. His one big flaw is what eventually causes him to lose his two conquered cities.
Finding the Fiction
These two stories originally came out in 1939 in Unknown, a pulp fantasy magazine of the time. I have the two 1969 books that are the reprints of these stories. Flame Winds, alone, was also reprinted in 1978. Used copies of these books each sell for a few bucks on Abebooks.com and other used-book web sites.
Forgotten Stories of Fantastic Sword-fighters.
About the Author
Andy Beau has lived in San Diego, CA since he was 16. There were no computer degrees in the 1960s, so he graduated with a degree in math and worked in the computer programming field from 1969 until 2003, when he retired early at 57. Prior to these articles all of his writing has been technical--the composition of user manuals--and there wasn't much call for analysis of plot and character development in that. Andy's been a fan of sword and sorcery tales since college in 1966. This has lead him to other fantasy adventure genres: lost race, supernatural thrillers, Lovecraftian horror, and more. He shares his long-term love for and knowledge of sword and sorcery with his readers in these columns. SwordAndSorcery.org is proud to have him.