(Spoilers ahead for large chunks season 2 of the Netflix original series “Marco Polo,” including the season finale. And a disclaimer: Yes, we know “Marco Polo” is a fictionalized dramatization of historical events, and does not follow historical records to the letter.)
For the most part, the second season of “Marco Polo” focuses on characters we already know from season 1, with a few interlopers here and there like Pope Gregory X and some new Mongol khans.
Season 2 centers on the fallout of season 1: Now that the Song Dynasty is pretty much done for as a power in China, and with no other external force on the horizon, the Mongols are dealing with a bunch of internal conflicts.
But season 2 also lays the groundwork for season 3, beginning with the fourth episode, “Let God’s Work Begin,” in which Nayan meets with Pope Gregory X and Niccolo Polo in Acre, Israel, and tells them of how he converted to Christianity.
Nayan says he was alone in the desert, dying, when he encountered a man who saved him through supernatural means. They walked together for weeks, Nayan says, without food or water and without any thirst or hunger.
This man is Prester John.
“We’ve all heard the stories,” Nayan says. “Descended from the Magi, casts shadows in the night, resides by the river of heaven, which imparts everlasting life.”
“He’s cunning. He’s merciless,” the Pope interjects. “The Hand of God. His vast army sweeps undetected across the land, leveling faithless villages and cities…Our Crusaders have long prayed to meet him and his army. I’ve sent emissaries in search of him, but none has ever returned.”
We catch glimpses of Prester John in later episodes. First, when he wipes out a camp of Mongols — with no bodies left behind, weirdly. Then, after Kublai’s forces destroy the Crusader army that Pope Gregory had sent to China, Niccolo Polo is left to wander alone through the wilderness until he encounters Prester John the same way Nayan had.
And then, finally, in the season finale, we see Prester John’s army for the first time as it approaches the Mongol camp at Xanadu, where Kublai and a whole bunch of other major characters are staying. Marco, seeing the approaching force, is able to warn Kublai. But when Jingim and Byamba ride in from Karakurum at the end of the episode, the camp is completely abandoned — except for Prestor John’s bloody staff stuffed into the dirt.
It’s clear that Prestor John will be a major figure in season 3, perhaps even the main antagonist. But who exactly is he, and what is his basis in history?
In the real world, Prestor John is considered to be a myth. The legend first began with chatter about a Christian ruler in India. Then in the mid-12th century, a document called the “Letter of Prester John” that described many miracles began circulating in Europe, with its tales growing ever taller as it was copied.
As a figure from Asia closely associated with Nestorian Christianity, the legend of Prestor John is often closely associated with the Mongols. When Genghis Khan conquered Persia in the early 13th century, Crusaders in Israel credited the victory to a King David of India, the son of Prester John. As Genghis opened the Mongol Empire to people of all faiths, some Christians traveled east in search of a Nestorian Christian kingdom.
Marco Polo’s book, released at the start of the 14th century, also discussed Prester John several times. Polo claimed that around the year 1200, Genghis sought to marry one of Prester John’s daughters. But Prester John would have none of it, and sent an angry letter to Genghis in response. Then Genghis traveled to Prester John’s lands with an army and killed him.
Many believe the person Marco Polo referred to as Prester John was the ruler of the Keraites, a Mongol or Turkic tribe that lived near what is now the intersection of Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan and China. The dates would line up — the Keraites were conquered by the Mongol Empire around the turn of the 13th century. Other histories, however, say that Toghrul, or Wang Khan, escaped alive after Genghis’ conquest.
That Keraite leader may have been Toghrul Khan, the man who was Genghis’ childhood protector after his father died. Whoever it was, most of the Keraites were known to have converted to Nestorian Christianity in the 11th century, and Genghis’s sons did take Christian wives from the Keraites — one of whom would become the mother of Kublai.
Of course, none of this sheds much light on who Prester John could be in “Marco Polo,” as all of Polo’s mentions of Prester John come from stories that were set well before Polo himself was born. But the show does provide clues, especially since Prester John does seem to be a character with supernatural powers.
Though “Marco Polo” rarely sticks all that closely to either historical accounts or those in Marco Polo’s tales, its narratives do always start with a kernel of fact. We can likely assume, then, that this Prester John is either the same one from Marco Polo’s book or an heir (as Polo notes that Prester John’s heirs still rule the region when he travels through it years after the stories he told of Prester John took place).
And with the general focus remaining on characters who are family to Kublai, either by blood or in the “Fast and Furious” kind of way (like how Marco refers to Byamba and Jingim as brothers), I’d guess Prester John is Toghrul, returning to carry out the Lord’s will against the Khan of Khans.
This appears to be uncharted territory, though, as there may not be an analog for the coming of Prester John in Marco Polo’s book or true history.