Science Fiction, Hopelessness, and the Legend of Prester John

I'm a bit behind the curve when it comes to TV shows. I don't get cable and haven't in three years. I'll occasionally turn on the TV to see what's on (c.f. two posts ago) but I don't watch any shows regularly.

I do, however, buy TV shows on DVD when they come to me highly recommended. Thus a few days ago (before my Legal Methods exam) I bought the first season of the new Sci-Fi channel Battlestar Galactica series. While I'm familiar with the premise and characters of the original series, I haven't seen any episodes of it so I can't fairly speak to any issues of faithfullness. But I have really enjoyed the introductory mini-series and the first episode, for what that's worth. I would go on with a review, but that would be silly; most people seem to have already discovered the show months ago, and I've only just arrived at the party. Moreover, those watching on TV have just seen the second season draw to a close, while I've only seen the pilot and the first regular episode of the first season. Anything I could say would likely involve silly speculation that other people would already know to be laughably false. So I'll limit my comments to one issue of particular interest to me.

The premise, for those unfamiliar with Battlestar Galactica, is that the human race is organized into the Twelve Clonies of Man. Some indeterminately long time ago they created the Cylons, a race of robots. The Cylons rebelled, as intelligent robots are wont to do, and man fought a bloody war which they apparently quasi-won; they didn't vanquish the Cylons, but they did banish them from human space. Now, forty years after the war, the Cylons have launched a surprise attack, wiping out all twelve colonies and all but one ship in the Colonial navy, the Battlestar Galactica. The Galactica is now steward to a small fleet of civilian ships holding just under 50,000 people, all that remains of the human race. The Galactica and fleet then set out to find a new home for humanity and escape the Cylons, who continue to pursue them.

This is where, apparently, the original and the new series diverge somewhat. In both the Galactica is ostensibly searching for Earth, the mythical lost Thirteenth Colony of Man. In the original series, this has the character of an intergalactic treasure hunt. They find clues and follow them in search of the lost colony that everyone knows exists. In the new series, Earth is essentially a placebo. Commander Adama uses it to give people false hope for the future. Sure there are legends, but nobody really believes them. Yet, for the remnant of the human race, it's important to have this hope to cling to. There are only 50,000 human beings left of a population of, we are lead to believe, tens of billions. For the crew of the Galactica, unless you've effectively won the lottery and one of your friends or family is among the civilians, everyone you knew or loved outside the Galactica is now dead. Moreover, the threat of extinction continues to loom, and unless you do your job well it's all over for the human race. Without some hope of salvation, even if deep down you know it's a false one, there's no reason to even bother.

All of this reminds me of Prester John, the most important imaginary person in Medieval European history. Essentially, in the 12th Century a man styling himself an emissary was received by the Pope. At the time the crusades were going poorly, as the crusades generally did, and support for Middle Eastern adventures was waning. So this fellow shows up and tells everyone, in essence, "Fear not! Right now it looks like the Muslims are a mighty military force, able to kick your ass all over the place, but they're nothing! I come from the Kingdom of Prester John, decendant of one of the Three Magi. He rules a great Christian empire far in the East, farther than you have ever travelled. It dwarfs the Muslim kingdoms, and indeed all of Europe, by comparison, and contains many strange and wonderful beasts. Prester John has a mighty army, and he has seen your troubles and smiles upon you. If you can just hold out a little longer, Prester John will swoop in from the East, defeat the Muslim army, Christianize North Africa, expel the Moors from Spain, and deal with whatever other problems you've been having. All you need do is swear your fealty to him when he comes, and perhaps send a nice little tribute gift back with me." It was pretty apparent at the time, and has since been made abundantly clear, that the man was a shaister.

And yet Prester John became a huge figure in Europe. Knowing about Prester John is an essential element of Medieval cultural literacy, because, from the 12th century onward, he gets referenced all the time in Medieval liteature. For the most part, people seem to have bought into it. A large part of this is because of the general sense of dread in Medieval life. Leaving aside the day-to-day drudgery and local concerns of war and famine, there was a broad feeling that these were the End Times, the waning days of Christianity. The Roman Empire had long ago crumbled, leaving warring tribes in its wake. The Christians had been expelled from the Holy Land, the Moors had conqured the Iberian peninsula and had designs on moving eastward into France, the Byzantine Empire in the East was crumbling and soon the Muslims would be invading Eastern Europe. To the South were the Muslims of North Africa, and in the Far East were rumors of Mongol hordes moving westward. All in all, there was a feeling that even if you eked out an existence day-to-day, the long-run prospects for Europe and Christianity were pretty bleak.

And now here comes news of Prester John. He has a huge kingdom out East, beyond anywhere you've seen, and he's ready to come in and expell the Muslims and take care of your problems for you. So it's not surprising that Prester John's emissary was welcomed whereever he went, and tales of Prester John soon spread across Europe and infiltrated the literature. Even if people didn't really believe he existed, he was a source of hope. Sure, we just got our heads handed to us in yet another poorly-managed, misguided Crusade, but fear not! Prester John is coming, and he'll set everything right.

Now I don't know if the folks behind Galactica intended parallels to Prester John. As mentioned, he's big in Medieval literature, but since most people don't delve deeply into Medieval literature, chances are any parallels exist only in my mind. More likely it's just a common human theme of willingness to believe something patently false in order to maintain hope in otherwise desperate time. Still, it gave me an opportunity to write a blog post about Prester John, and in the end isn't that all that matters?

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This page contains a single entry by Zach published on September 25, 2005 1:41 PM.

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