thoughts of Three

blake_death_pale_horse__Best copy














This won’t be my horse for Three, but as you can see I have my eye out already. Here’s a William Blake rendition of ‘Death on a Pale Horse’ — after the Turner of that name we have on the cover of Two. It’s fairly perfect, at least to think about Three with. Is that a History scroll above? Is that, beneath, a black horse and a driving spirit whose name might be he of the Black Tuq… my Jamuqa drives my Temujin in these wars — psychic presence though he is. Imagined? Is Temujin mad these days? In our terms, no doubt, but what about his own? Whatever the case, he leans on Jamuqa for the work he has to do in Three. Like the face in the Blake, he’s committed but freaked out, and you notice the wild spirit’s ahead of him. He feels he has a mission in/from history, yes. History accumulates in Three (a weight on his shoulders, and a struggle for me: how to make that history digestible). There was a quote I liked very early on, from a Joachim Barckhausen, L’Empire jaune de Gengis Khan, Paris 1935:

Genghis Khan was certainly one of those men — perhaps the greatest — who made history. But he could only become it because History created him. He acknowledged this role by trying to understand it and play it, by subordinating himself to it, by serving it...

I’ve always thought there’s something in this, and Ile Ahai has been ruminating on it ever since (he owes at least one speech to Joachim Barckhausen).

This morning I thought I might need a nightmare horse, Fuseli-style, or a war horse done in horror fashion. Or else, the one-horned beast leapt to mind too. The unicorn vision they have in India has become significant in my telling — maybe he’ll belong on the cover, for the Wonder side of my draft, to-be-ditched title, Wonders and Horrors. Can I fuse both?

Meanwhile I like this Blake, to think by. Temujin an old king (hey, he’s only sixty at the end, but let’s exaggerate in picture) and believes he’s on a white horse, doesn’t he? In China white is for a funeral, white is death & ghosts, whereas on the steppe white is blessed and the holy ride white horses. Chinggis has a white tuq for his days of peace, a black tuq when at war. When he gives the reins to Jamuqa (unaged, dead at 39, in scale armour or just scales), lets the black horse loose… Jamuqa being, at this point, a figment of his mind, his attempt to be Jamuqa may end up worse than Jamuqa. “Nobody stopped me,” Jamuqa said once.

The unicorn stops him. We may yet have a unicorn.

Good cop/bad cop: Chinggis/Genghis

On the very split personality of our most famous Mongol. For years past I have believed that there can’t be another historical figure with such opposite images… can there? Since I only know bits & pieces of history I haven’t claimed this to be so, but a few pages by Timothy May on ‘Mongol Image’, in his book The Mongol Conquests in World History, have kicked off this post. May’s pages display plainly his split image.

He divides them on the names: after running through “the most innocuous forms of popular entertainment, from movies to comic books,” to see the sheerly casual use of the Mongols to stand for evils and worst-case events, he concludes, “the G-Word or Genghis Khan appears to be the avatar of this image, while Chinggis Khan is the historical figure.” [102]  Let’s footnote that ‘Genghis’ can be insisted upon by publishers, on the grounds that the general public doesn’t know who Chinggis is (John Man says his did, and John Man’s book falls on the Chinggis side).

It’s not a matter of popular culture versus scholarly history – not in the least. But I’ll linger for a moment on the popular culture. The Mongols, and Genghis in particular, are at saturation-level on the internet, television, in casual talk. Last week on QI the honourable Stephen Fry gave us twaddle about Chinggis – a little barb in my thin skin, as it always is. For a Mongol researcher like me, it’s dangerous to turn on the internet. The amount of off-the-cuff, casual – I’m going to use that word a few times – use & abuse of Mongol history, and Chinggis in particular, has got to be beneath the internet’s usual standards… hasn’t it?

Timothy May, just yesterday, told me that yes, the Mongols (and Chinggis in particular) are a stand-out case. He has told me that the stigma and infamy are, indeed, unexampled. “Certainly the Vandals garnered some recognition,” but they don’t have the Mongols Motorcycle Club, rival to Hells Angels. [103]  As a teacher of world history, he ought to know, and he has told me this much in a scholarly book, and I am going to try to explain the effect on me. However weird this post turns out. You see, historians rarely look at the popular culture – as if there is a partition and they needn’t be concerned – and so, I haven’t seen this situation described in an (ahem) legitimate source. And you know what? I feel legitimated – in the emotions I have had, as a Mongol researcher. I feel like I’ve been a secret alcoholic and now I’m standing up and talking about it, because a person has given me permission. I have been given permission to feel what I felt. Therefore, you’re going to hear about it. I promise not to be too splashy-emotional, and Timothy May is in no way to blame for the content of this post. He only wrote a few pages on ‘Mongol Image’.

As I said above, it isn’t only popular culture. If it were, we’d fix it in no time, for there isn’t a partition, there’s a… zone… and I live in that zone. It isn’t as simple, either, as that old scholarship = negative towards Mongols, new scholarship = more enlightened. Rene Grousset (1939), Michael Prawdin (1935), even Henry Hoyle Howorth (1876–1888), can give you more sympathy towards Chinggis and his Mongols than you might find in a recent biography. In fact without Rene Grousset… this post is a sort of sequel to one on Grousset’s tragic Jenghiz Khan, where I talk about the inception of my novel and complain about scholarly portraits of Chinggis, so I needn’t do that here. Today I just want to describe my experience.

The bad cop Genghis input – not only when I ventured onto the internet, but in the privacy of my library of academic books – barraged me for years. I felt mentally battered and besieged, by my own books. That good cop/bad cop routine is meant to discombobulate you, right? It did me. I’m not natively thick-skinned… I tried to grow elephant hide on the Mongols’ behalf, and not be a wuss or make a fuss. I used to feel sorry for myself, in a quiet, hangdog, hunched-up way, and I had to wonder, do other researchers cop this flak? Flak’s the word for it: random, violent, senseless, everywhere. Misery wants company, and I sniffed about for others with misunderstood pet subjects… there were the Richard III Rehabilitation Society people, perhaps they suffered a bit too? But not like me. This was in the days before Jack Weatherford published. When his Genghis came out, in 2004, I reacted like a starved prisoner dragged suddenly in front of a banquet: you can’t eat it, you can’t digest it, you half-hate the sight of it. I went into a strange mental reel, because I was in an unhealthy state, head huddled in my arms against the blows of my library books. Things have climbed from there, I stride the world with confidence, I don’t cringe at the mention of Genghis…

See, Timothy May told me yesterday that the Mongols — and Chinggis in particular — are an exceptional case, that the casual, saturation-level vilifications go beyond what researchers on other subjects have to face. I had a reason for my self-pity. It feels good, I feel liberated to talk about it.

Dashi_Genghis_Khan_gallery page
Of course, his other image lives in Mongolia, largely. Very largely – have you seen the size of the statues? As May says, as has been said before, at home he’s a King Arthur equivalent, but elsewhere he’s a Hitler. These two collided with the installation of Dashi Namdakov’s sculpture at Marble Arch in London (pictured). You can see this is an inspirational, spiritual image, Genghis as “thinker” as Dashi said to the papers. Quote a councillor: “To erect a statue of Genghis Khan at Marble Arch is a bizarre decision… Who’s next? Stalin? Pol Pot? Saddam Hussein?” Here’s the story in the London Evening Standard. If that comment were unusual… but it isn’t, it’s absolutely standard. Genghis is so often bracketed with Hitler that a phrase has come into use, ‘to the right of Genghis Khan’. I can only explain the etymology of this by assimilation: Genghis & Hitler = killed a lot of people: Hitler & Genghis = extreme right-wing. The senselessness. Timothy May has an online post about that phrase: To the Left of Chinggis Khan. Hey, I used that title… I hadn’t met his when I did. Irritated minds think alike.

I wish May’s discussion of image had covered fiction. He talks film, from John Wayne to Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol. That latter was a healing event for me: Genghis in the cinemas, and the most sympathetic fictional portrait in existence… outside of Mongolia. I have seen three or four Mongolian-made historical films on/with Chinggis, and of course they have far more of King Arthur than of Hitler. Hitler doesn’t enter. It helps to understand – as Timothy May iterates – that Mongolians remember him for his internal activities, not so much his external wars. It’s like the Secret History, where the off-steppe conquests are the least important thing he did. I’d kill (oops) to have Mongolian fiction on Chinggis translated and widely disseminated. Novels are better than movies. I believe it’s fair to say that our novel-reading public expects and wants bad-Genghis, and that’s almost always what they get. Historical fiction is allowed to fictionalise. It isn’t written to salvage his reputation. It does affect the view of him in the streets. Example: in nine out of ten Genghis novels (I have a little collection) he rejects or is estranged from his son Jochi because of Jochi’s bastardy. For the sake of a story, although we have Jochi’s own word for it that Chinggis accepted him as a son. When we rob him of documented good deeds, he hasn’t got a hope. I cheered when Bodrov’s Mongol has him embrace two bastard kids (he adopted several enemy children — they have an excuse to make it two). A Japanese novel, The Blue Wolf, hangs its theme and story on his rejection of the bastard, and has him psychotic at the age of eight. A French Blue Wolf tells the story this way: “But soon, his hunger for power becomes increasingly violent and leads him to experience overwhelming paranoia and a growing mistrust of old friends and allies…” (perilously, I quote the blurb – never believe a blurb, but I have the book for back-up). As I say in my Grousset post, see above, what I admire Temujin for is exactly that this didn’t happen. However, the negative image in fiction is changing too: Chinggis isn’t bad cop in Tom Shanley’s, while Elizabeth Bear has historical fantasy where Mongols are simply human beings.

I’m going to wind up this post, that has been a catharsis for me. Thanks for listening.

Mongol women: a miscellany, part 1

Wenji - whole
A miscellany on Mongol women. My topic in part one is the state of our ignorance about them. It was Socrates who said – more or less – your first step towards knowledge is to understand that you know nothing, and for the study of steppe women, I think he’s right. The false sense of knowledge is the danger; it means we’ve used a template familiar to us and assumed a similarity. So to start with, I want to talk about how much we don’t know.

An example is the difficulty I have in illustrating this post. I want primary source and it’s hard to get. For reconstructions, go to Zaya’s glorious gallery of Mongol queens and ladies. But where can I find images of steppe women from the time, and if I can’t, how can I know what they look like?

When Linda Cooke Johnson set out to study Jurchen women, she had a single rich image. In her book Women of the Conquest Dynasties she writes: “Jurchen tribal culture is best represented in the painting Wenji gui Han… Apart from the Wenji painting, most extant works of art reveal very little that is specific.” [57, 54]  Above and beneath is the painting; I’ll just have LCJ point you to the women and leave you to look at them: “Six women are shown in the painting: Wenji herself at the centre of the composition, two servants running beside her horse, a woman on the lead mare holding a flag, and two women among the group on horseback.” These last are centre-back in “round fur hats”. [57-8]
Wenji herself

This is a painting on an ancient historical subject. Here’s how the Met Museum captions a Song dynasty painting of the same story:

Represented here are scenes from the life of Lady Wenji, who was abducted by a horde of marauding barbarians about A.D. 195 and spent twelve years among the Xiongnu, a Mongol tribe, as wife of their chieftain. She bore him two children before she was finally ransomed and returned to China. The Southern Song emperor Gaozong (r. 1127–62) probably ordered the story illustrated as a reminder of the capture of his kinfolk by the Jurched Jin. In this scroll, the costumes of the nomad invaders are those of the Khitan people, who established the Liao dynasty (907–1125) in northeastern China. To the early Southern Song viewer, Eighteen Songs, which presents a historical drama in contemporary details, did not represent a mere historical romance but a true, pervasive national trauma. — at

It’s interesting, then, how the Jurchen Jin portray this story (Jurchen are the tribal people who established the Jin dynasty when they conquered north China from the Song). The Jin painter dresses these third-century steppe people in Jurchen costume. Linda Cooke Johnson on this: “To the Jin court of the early thirteenth century, the civilized south was Jin China and the sheng (wild) Jurchen have become stand-ins for the ‘barbarians’ who abducted Wenji.” [59-60]  They view the story in the costume of their own tribal past: “To members of the sophisticated Jin court, these figures would have seemed bizarre, an aberration from the past.” [57]  A recent past – within the century.

As an aside, the ‘horde of marauding barbarians’ only has a name in Chinese transcription: Xiongnu. It’s not their name for themselves, which cannot be certainly recovered from its Chinese disguise. When people call them by the perhaps simplified name of Huns, it’s to acknowledge that Xiongnu is not their original name. If you like you can just call them a horde of marauding barbarians. See the entry on them at Iranica Online, with discussion of the Xiongnu/Hun name.

LCJ has this note on the art she consults: “Because of questions of authenticity and interpretation, I am not making use of paintings depicting pastoralist life that are attributed to Song or later artists… I have previously identified the Kitan tribesmen depicted in [Eighteen Songs of a Nomad Flute – the Song painting of Wenji in the Met Museum, above] as ‘generic versions of barbarians’ because they are all dressed alike…” [190]  Chinese illustration of steppe life can often be classed as exotica. So the only authentic painting she has is from Jin, who at least depict their own old dress-style with antiquarian accuracy.

And as for me – who’d like to give you Mongol women on the steppe, as they lived before the Mongols conquered China – I have nothing for you. To quote LCJ, for the last time, “Liao and Jin women may not have been as unusual as the Liaoshi  [the Chinese history of the dynasty] claims. Liao, Mongol and Jin women alike drew their strength from steppe traditions. To make a firmer case, however, we need to know more about women in steppe society beyond the frontiers of China.” [139]  And we don’t. It’s important to know we don’t.

To that end I’ll also quote a statement by Bruno De Nicola, whose research has specialised in Mongol women. From the abstract of a seminar paper:

This paper is a section of a bigger project that seeks to analyse the status of Mongol women throughout the Mongol Empire. The main objective is to ‘incorporate’ the history of these women into the general history of the Mongols by looking at the role played by them in different aspects of medieval Mongol society… Mongol women should not be taken as anecdotic agents or placed at the margins of history; rather they are a constitutive element of pre and post Chinggiskhanid Mongolia. Understanding the role played by these women will allow a more comprehensive approach to the social history of the medieval Mongols and their interactions with the societies that later came under their domain. – this abstract on

In other words there’s much more to do. We need to keep in mind that the above hasn’t been done yet. Socrates was right: acknowledgement of our ignorance is where to start – we can go forward from there.

Women in the Ilkhanlig are getting attention (another note on names: I prefer to say khanlig instead of khanate, which is an ugly amalgam of Latin onto Altaic. Let’s stay Altaic). Bruno De Nicola, just quoted, has a book in preparation on khatuns (ladies/queens) in the Ilkhanlig. A study by Yoni Brack, ‘A Mongol Princess Making hajj: The Biography of El Qutlugh Daughter of Abagha Ilkhan’, [on]  retrieves the life and doings of a Chinggis great-great-granddaughter from a Mamluk biographical dictionary, where she rates an entry because she was the first notable from the Ilkhanlig to travel into Mamluk territory on hajj. This is a piece of luck, as al-Safadi records more detail on her than we have from Ilkhanid sources. Here are excerpts:

She was the aunt of Ghazan and Kharbanda  [Oljeitu Ilkhan]. Among the Mongols, she was greatly respected, often referred to, highly revered and her words were valued and appreciated. She was sharp-minded and skilled in furusiyyah [the knightly arts, centred on horsemanship]. She was married to Urab Ti  [Ghurbati]… When her husband died, she rode on her own and killed his killer, beheaded him and hanged his head on the collar of her horse. It stayed there for a long time until she was approached about it and she then got rid of it. Some say that she only got rid of it when instructed by a royal decree. She never married again after Urab Ti.

Then she comes on pilgrimage, in the year 1323, when she is estimated to be in her fifties:

The judge Shihab al-Dın Ahmad b. Fadl Allah said: ‘I was undertaking the hajj that same year and I saw that she was a woman deemed worthy among men for her resoluteness, decisiveness and honour. She had on her the expression of greatness and the gracefulness of majesty. She gave great sums of money to charity and it is said that she gave to charity in the two holy places thirty thousand dinars. She travelled the way on a palanquin and rode a horse, the quiver fastened to her waist and the parasol raised above her. She led ring hunts and hunted all along the way. She was greatly respected for countless good deeds. When she arrived at Damascus, the commander Sayf al-Dın Tankiz went out to meet her and he treated her with most kindness and honour so she entered Damascus without a parasol over her head.’  [parasol etiquette was different in the two states]

Yoni Brack’s study of this biography suggests that her vengeance for her husband may have been execution-style — for injured parties were allowed to perform an execution — and compares it to the vengeance recorded of a Chinggis daughter in Juvaini: she went into the reduced city of Nishapur and slew widely, after her husband had been killed in the fighting. That leads me to the question: how often were Mongol women present at the fighting? We don’t know. This Chinggis daughter is mentioned because of the incident at Nishapur – Juvaini hasn’t told us before that she was on campaign. Who else was on campaign, but didn’t happen to earn an anecdote in the histories? We don’t know. At battles in the Ilkhanlig – again my source is papers by Bruno De Nicola – high-status, high-profile women are mentioned as present. But do they rate a mention because they are Chinggisids? Or, were only Chinggisid women present? Unknown.

I’ll end with a celebration of life in the Ilkhanlig. This time I’m not going to predispose your mind with comment, even to point out the women. I wish I had found more images online, for there are other exhibits in The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256 – 1353.

In part two of this miscellany, we’ll visit the world of celluloid from Inner Mongolia; the complaint of a Mongolian princess in a 1935 newspaper; and ‘Monstrous Mongols’ – androgyny in European depictions of the Mongol Other.


IlkhanidHorseArcher WikiCommons











Why I like indie covers

Quick and easy answer:
Because the creator of the work chooses them.

Under those conditions, you can judge a book by its cover. Its cover is an integral part of the creative work – is the writer’s expression of what her/his book is about.

I have come to see, over a couple of years, I’m on what I’m going to call now the anarchist end of indie. In cover terms, that means, to my mind the idea isn’t to look ‘just like a trad cover – you can’t tell it isn’t.’ No, no, trad covers are ugh, we’re here to fix what’s wrong with them. This is your chance to get out of the rut. I don’t care if your cover’s not quite up to scratch in production values – what interests me is your creativity (doesn’t mean you have to draw it yourself. If you can, I’ll be wowed). It’s about the idea. Put into a picture your idea of your book, and I’ll learn about your book in a way I can’t from a market-standard cover. Indies can be artisans and craft their books as objects too, inside, outside. When I love an indie cover, I think I’m in tune with the writer and am likely to love the story. Trad doesn’t have that chance at self-expression, nor that additional data when I try to pick whether I’ll like a book.

Indie: Today stands for Individual Fiction.

Title page by ‘The Author & Printer Will.m Blake’, a patron saint of indie.

The author and printer Will. Blake


I want to thank…

I’m 50 today and kids, it’s tough to turn 50. I’ve had a questioning week. You’re lucky you’re not getting a post called Futility at Fifty, but instead, by grace, I’m in the mood to thank a few people.

First my sister, without whom. Every book of Amgalant has this dedication:

My sister has been godmother to the book. Amgalant, what’s written and what isn’t written yet, is dedicated to her, with waves from Tem and Jam, and no sight or scent of a goat. In steppe epic, a steed and a sister are your trustiest, most intelligent and indefatigable aid: the hero doesn’t have to be heroic, but these do.

When gloomy in the past week, I browsed writers’ blogs for the harsher side of the writing life. The sad experience is, numbers of writers operate without support from those closest to them – or with active sabotage of their attempt to write. One comment I saw this week I understood: a writer said she found dedications in books hard to read. A few years ago, I did too. You don’t like to confess it. But those dedications that go, ‘my wife lived with this novel for five years, and listened to my instalments every evening at dinner…’ I mean, frankly, you think, poor wife, don’t you? And if you’re me you think, I don’t know how to ask that of another person, even if I believed you should, and I have to believe you shouldn’t. Neither do I happen to know, in person, of writers with this sort of husband; if you do have a significant other like this, value them and for God’s sake don’t ask too much. It can hurt to see dedications. Because of the ones you don’t see: ‘I wrote this alone and nobody helped.’ I felt like that a few years ago, but I was with a man who gave me daily discouragement. I think he sensed – and he was quite right – that the novel was the only thing to have come along that mattered to me as much or more than he did; and it was a shock to him, who had been the centre of my attention. I left the man and kept the book, as any sensible writer does. People don’t write dedications such as that in published books, and so struggling writers only see the nice ones. On blogs, in writers’ groups online, is where you see admissions of the real situation. There are writers who have to function in the total absence of support from husband, children, family and friends. I know how lucky I am to have my sister. Without whom, I’d be a worse person and possibly no writer.

At slight risk of embarrassment to him, I next want to thank Don Jansen, because he’s the perfect reader, of whom we writers dream. Why is he the perfect reader? He’s an intelligent, curious reader who ranges widely, without prejudices. He reads at the high end too but has no genre prejudice; and nor does he avoid the self-published. Bless his socks. While one can count one’s readers on one’s fingers (or at least, readers who don’t wish I were Conn Iggulden – because folks, I never set out to be, I never shall be; live and let live, I wish him well) – in that situation, a single reader can make it feel worthwhile. Sorry to embarrass you, Don.

Thanks to fellow novelists. For instance, I assured Gary, twice, he shouldn’t feel he has to read mine – his subject had been a hook to me but I couldn’t see he had any earthly interest in Mongols – still, he read it on the quiet and surprised me. John, no doubt, is too much of a gentleman not to have returned a read; even so, it was in no way incumbent upon him to read Two.

Thanks to Joseph. It’s hard even to place mine with book bloggers, I think, and therefore, to have his professional reviews, of both One and Two, is invaluable. To be honest I can’t work out how ‘professional review’ is defined in the indie context – I certainly don’t mean paid reviews, which I abhor. Whatever, I know he’s a professional, and his opinion has mattered as much to me, in its own way, as the coveted ‘reader-only’ opinion.

That’s it. I’ll go away and be fifty now. You’ll excuse that I complain about this fact online; I’m a solitary creature and when I talk I tend to tweet or blog.

mucked with

When I was 49, with heavy book on shoulder. I tried to do an imitation-shot after Joy Hester’s ‘Girl with Book on Head’ – which is such an identification-picture for bookish girls – but the shot didn’t work out.
Girl with Book on Head




Oral epic online

If I have life in me after I finish this dratted novel, I want to spend it with oral epic from the steppe. Perhaps I can begin to learn Turkic from my dual-language edition of Manas … where I like to browse the facing page for a sense of verse and rhyme. I say ‘Turkic’ because yesterday I read Paksoy’s book on Alpamysh. It is his strong conviction that the ‘cultural-linguistic unity’ of Central Asia has been split up into artificial languages, in a Soviet divide-and-rule strategy: the epics are common cultural heritage and are a way back into that shared tradition. I found this vision a glint of a light of hope – maybe I can struggle into Chagatay, the old common language that he explains to me is more rightly known as Turki and is ‘alive and well across Central Asia. It has never died.’ – although pronounced extinct. Until yesterday I understood I faced Kazakh epics, Uzbek epics, Karakalpak epics… If this was meant to make the task seem impossible, it certainly worked on this interested party in Australia.

Even in Paksoy’s functional translation, Alpamysh is richly a poem. This was thrust home upon me when today I turned to the Battalname (Turkish with Arab background, written down in the 15thC), a folk epic in prose. Battal’s life on the Byzantine frontier has story coincidences with Alpamysh in his setting over east, but suffered from the contrast, being such plain prose. No, no, I want the poetry.

Paksoy also told me that the plot summaries most of us rely on for acquaintance with steppe epic (eg. in Oral Epics of Central Asia or The Oral Epic of Siberia and Central Asia) issue out of a process of distortion with political intent. So there is both heartening and depressing news from him.

For incentive, I have my despair of ever reading Kyrk Kyz /Qirq Qiz unless I learn to in the original. The title translates as Forty Maidens/Girls. If you know me, you might know I have a thing for fighting girls – well, there are forty of them in that plot. [1]  (Never, never tell me that women with weaponry are a contemporary fictional fashion, because I’ll quote you old epics from the Mamluk-age Sayf, Knight of the Yemen to the Byzantine Digenes Akrites – in the latter of which they are wretchedly done. But that only proves they have to be there.)

Let me not get side-tracked.

Oral poetry resources online. First, H.B. Paksoy makes his work available for free online at Carrie Books.

John Miles Foley, pioneer (alas, the late) believed in the congruence of the internet and oral tradition. See his philosophy on this at the Pathways Project.

The Oral Tradition Journal, founded by Foley above, is online and open access. Issues from 1986 onward. A very well-ordered and usable site, and amen to their statement on universal access.

The Archive of Turkish Oral Narrative. PDF files, MP3 audio files, video files. Extremely valuable but not extremely easy to navigate, at least if you need to find English content.

Again I direct you to the online Manas. As Paksoy says, Manas “contains one million lines and requires up to six months to perform.” Here we have the beginning. It’s marvelous so far.

I’ve always liked epic, and spent most of my thirties with Beowulf – a translation that tried for too much poetry, and a novel from Grendel’s point of view, both away in a drawer. But now I have met the epics I like more than Homer… I won’t say more than Beowulf, but he gets enough attention and these don’t.

One thing I smiled to see – as a historical novelist – was at the end of Paksoy’s book, where he talks of a new way to save the dastans, historical fiction inspired by them. Published in Tashkent and Alma-Ata. Like the Mongolian novels I hear about (one called Water on Fire, about Temujin and Jamuqa) – unlikely to be seen in English.

Did you hear of the guy who taught himself English entirely from his copy of Shakespeare? He was a fantastic conversationalist. I’m going to start following my Manas on the facing page.

  1. potted plot (from a Soviet encyclopaedia):
    (Qïrq qiz), a Kara-Kalpak heroic epic. It was recorded in 1939 and 1940 in 20,000 lines from the recitation of the folk narrator Kurbanbai Tazhibaev. The main plot has much in common with Herodotus’ accounts of Queen Tomirisa of the Massagetae tribe and of her war against the Persian king Cyrus, as well as with Diodorus Siculus’ account of Queen Zarina of the Sacae, who freed her people from foreign bondage. In Forty Maidens the heroine, Gulaim, goes into battle against the Kalmyk khan Surtaishi and the Iranian ruler Nadir Shah; she is aided by her beloved, Aryslan, and by 40 girl-warrior friends. Having freed Khwarazm, Gulaim and Aryslan form a government from the representatives of the four nationalities inhabiting the country: the Kara-Kalpaks, Turkmens, Uzbeks, and Kazakhs.

mucked with

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

Inspiration by Dashi

Official London



An inspired Genghis, who for a few months wowed the crowds when installed in the great outdoors in Marble Arch, London. Images from Dashi Namdakov: A Nomad’s Universe exhibition in 2012 at the Halcyon Gallery.

Dashi_Genghis_Khan_gallery page

See more at his site dashi-art

In graphical works, his Warrior series, his Mongol series, and his shamans are of perpetual inspiration to me. But I am speechless about them, so go see.

I like

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

Regrets, I’ve had a few: the self-critical spirit in the Secret History

David with the head of Goliath - Caravaggio














What follows is an interaction with a truly wonderful piece on the Secret History of the Mongols by Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hurelbaatar, ‘Regret as a political intervention: an essay in the historical anthropology of the early Mongols.’ You can download a PDF from Humphrey’s page at

This post won’t be for the faint-hearted. But nothing I’ve seen on the Secret History touches ‘Regret’ for depth and sensitivity of treatment, and I have bounced off it; it’s been a framework to hang my impressions from, great mental equipment (both an exerciser and an organiser), and I am happy to have got down the main things I want to say about the Secret History, in another format than my fiction. A few months ago I complained about a dearth of arts criticism on the Secret History: that was before I stumbled on this essay, which is exactly what I had in mind, although written in the light of anthropology. If any visitor – I have visitors, they’re fairly quiet – knows of other work on the Secret History, interpretive work of this quality, I beg you to point me to it.

By way of introduction Humphrey and Hurelbaatar (hereafter H&H) ‘characterize’ the Secret History [section starts page 5]. They list the ways in which it is unexpected. “Curiously absent in it are what one might expect from a document written at the pinnacle of Mongolian success.” [7]  It isn’t one-voiced, or an official discourse. It has space for a plurality of voices, voices in conflict with themselves and with the ideas of the day. It pays great attention to human subjectivity, to “imaginative possibilities for individual people” [45], and allows its actors space to be free agents – these “political actors involved in [a] great historical transformation… a revolution.” [41-2]  For us, in matters of interpretation, it’s important not to forget this work’s unexpectedness – lest we see what we expect to see in it. It’s a unique document, “genuinely Mongolian” [6], and “whatever its evident defects as factual history, it is only in this curious historical work, written by Mongols for Mongols, that we can gain some understanding – patchy, it is true – of what were internally plausible depictions of psychology at important moments of political life.” [10]  It is only in this curious work we can hope to enter the mind and the imagination of Mongols. Luckily the work is preoccupied with ‘politics and ethics’ and how these intersect.

I’m going to jump to H&H’s five examples of regret. First up is Ambaqai/Ambaghai and his misjudgement of an enemy. [27]  The attitude of ‘learn from my mistake’ – in the message he sends home – I see as very present in the Secret History, and one reason why people might admit to mistakes. Second is Chilger/Tchilger. [28]  On him I have more to say.

Chilger has done no wrong. We’re reminded of this when we meet him: his passage [Secret History #111] starts with the history of the feud, how Temujin’s father stole his mother from Toqtoa’s brother; years on, in direct if late retaliation, Toqtoa steals Borte from Temujin. It’s justice. Chilger is only mentioned as involved when Borte is given to him, another brother of the injured party – who must be dead, so that Chilger inherits rights to this compensation. Furthermore, the language used of his time with Borte isn’t negative. In Cleaves, “they seized Borte Ujin there and made her to be cared for by Chilger Boko, the younger brother of Chiledu. As he had been caring for her since that time…” IdR has “they entrusted her… [he] had been looking after her”, while Onon goes with “keeping” her. Cleaves is very literal: the word means care, he isn’t influenced by context to make it a worse word (I’ve seen Chilger assumed to be an evil rapist in both documentaries and novels – this is to ignore the source).

After we’re told of his position, we go straight into verses in his voice [quoted 29] – verses of a self-blame intensified to self-hatred. His action, not wrong in itself, has had disastrous results for his tribe, and now he feels his possession of Borte was a huge sacrilege – very obviously wasn’t meant to be, and as the cause of catastrophe he demeans himself in imagery and calls down his punishment. I don’t know about you but I feel sorry for the buzzard who ought to have been content with his scraps of skin. It helps that he is so polite to Borte. Since he is extreme with the ‘I should have kept my hands off’ line, the way is open for a Mongol audience to pity him, and I believe that’s asked of them. I’ll suggest that we don’t need to see his self-blame as about social station. He heaps on himself terms of abuse  – wild terms, or at least wildly translated; most of them are in contention, if they aren’t plain unknown. Where they are social status terms, may not Mongol do a little of what English does, with them? In one line Onon has “ignoble and bad”, Cleaves, “commoner and bad”, IdR, “lowly, base.” Chilger is of chiefly family, his brother a tribal head or king – he won’t call himself a commoner, but can call himself ignoble.

That leaves unanswered the question of what he has done wrong to feel so bad, if it isn’t to violate a social order. He has violated a queen, but that is Mongol hindsight. I think the next passage in the Secret History can shed light, because it has echoes of Chilger’s. It’s a strange little incident, that I’ll quote in full. Belgutei’s mother was captured along with Borte, and now he’s in search of her:

#112 “It being shewed by somebody, saying, ‘The mother of Belgutei is in that ayil,’ Belgutei going for to take his mother, with Belgutei’s entering into her tent by the right door, his mother – clothed with a raiment of tattered sheepskins – being gone out by the left door, when she spake unto another person outside, having said, ‘I am told that my sons are become qad {plural of qan/khan}. Being joined here unto a bad man, now how shall I behold the faces of my sons?,’ she ran and slipped into the thick woods. So he sought her, but she was not found. Belgutei Noyon, saying, ‘Bring thou unto me my mother!,’ shot with yodoli {blunt arrows} any person which was but of the Merkid ‘bone’. ” [Cleaves]

Like Chilger, she runs away from her own people – from her own rescue, in her case, with the only explanation her remark to a bystander that she has been too humiliated in captivity to face her family. She slips into the ‘thick woods’ like Chilger in his ‘dark defile’ and is never seen again. But Belgutei is desperate to find her, and displays no consciousness that she need hide from him or be ashamed. Nobody’s going to blame her for being given to an enemy ‘bad man’ – no more than Borte is blamed for Chilger (Borte has already run to Temujin, in the moonlight; they happily embrace). The problem is in her head. She has psychological damage from captivity. Chilger’s self-blame is likewise inexplicable – irrational and yet a psychological fact. These are portraits of consequences, from this violent time, emotional consequences unattached to who’s done right or wrong, who’s been just or unjust. Chilger needn’t make more sense than does Belgutei’s mother. Because, as H&H several times assert with academic passion, these aren’t culture-robots (excuse my lack of academese) whose behaviour is determined by their social norms. They are individuals, with agency. I’d stretch and say both Chilger and Belgutei’s mother are in these moments mad, by our lights and theirs. Come to that, when Belgutei shoots blunts at captured Merkit, we have no real idea what he’s doing. Books tell you things like, he was marking them out for execution, but that’s an absolute guess. Emotional fallout? Perhaps he’s gone a bit mad too – a third in these sketches between the winning of the war and the celebrations.

And there’s a reason why I want to look at the Secret History as art: so we don’t over-rationalise behaviour. I don’t understand what H&H are telling me about anthropology (its uses in study of this historical text) – not my discipline, but for me, habits of arts criticism help. Letting people be irrational, for instance. Nothing more common in novels.

I want to go back now to the cause of this quarrel, when Temujin’s father Yesugei seizes his mother Hoelun from Chiledu, in #54-6. We begin with Yesugei as he sees the couple and pursues, but then we switch perspectives to the victims of his attack, as Hoelun persuades Chiledu to save himself and flee. In fact, neither Yesugei nor Chiledu has a spoken part; it’s Hoelun we hear from, her concern for her husband, her laments for him after he’s gone. It isn’t pretended, in this Mongol history, that she is happy to be stolen, later to mother Temujin; she has a poignant gesture of love for her first husband, where she tears off her inner garment, a shift perhaps, for him to remember her by scent. Because this telling is focused on Hoelun, we may think, as is likely – she survived the other parties – that she’s one who told the tale.

The Secret History follows victims if that’s where the story is.

It is similar with Temujin’s Tatar wife Yisui, in #156: she too loves the husband from whom he took her, and that enemy husband is given a romantic end, in the telling. He walks into the lions’ den of Mongols to glimpse his ladylove. Yisui, sitting with Temujin, sights him in the crowd and ‘sighs deeply’; this alerts Temujin to his presence. The Mongols single him out in view: he is “a young, good, elegant person” in Cleaves, or in Onon “a handsome young man”. If there is a villain’s part in this story as presented it’s Temujin’s, who has him executed (not unjustly). Yisui spends her subsequent life a major queen; Temujin listens to her and trusts her; she is alive and with him at his death, and the Secret History is dated a year later. None of which inhibits this story, which must have touched a Mongol audience’s sensibilities.

The Secret History’s liking for pathos and for tragedy means it won’t be a political tract, a discourse of the victors. Pathos, tragedy: H&H use these words about the death of Tolui, who offers himself to outraged local spirits in China as a substitute for his brother the khan, whom they have made sick: “Now it can be seen from the pathos with which Tolui’s act is treated that this episode is meant to be understood as tragic.” [24]  Tolui’s self-sacrifice is too often explained, with vast reductionism, as a fancy story to gloss over his death by drink. But as H&H say: “It seems unlikely that this drama could have happened quite as depicted, but this is nevertheless what the authors intended as a plausible account.” [24-5]  It made sense to, and had significance for Mongols, and tells us more about them than the facts. It isn’t that the conquest is thought wrong, but they are aware of consequences: the victims’ spirits strike back and claim a victim. The episode of Tolui’s death unsimplifies the conquerors’ feelings about conquest.

On to H&H’s third example of regret, Ogodei, from imperial days, with a formal statement of his wrongs. [30]  Clearly he feels the honesty incumbent upon him. For a sense of Mongol values of honesty, let’s look at a contemporary account of the army: “Chinggis Khan moreover in {the administration of} justice was such, that, throughout his whole camp, it was impossible for any person to take up a fallen whip from the ground except he were the owner of it; and, throughout the whole army, no-one could give indication of {the existence of} lying and theft.” [Juzjani, quoted in Lane, 5]  High attainment for an army but such are the witness statements (and Juzjani is thought a hostile witness). We might imagine that this level of ethical commitment has to be led from the top, or the example set at the top, and here’s Ogodei to do his bit. For obligations at the top, we can look at Chinggis, too. Whatever ‘toru/principles’ meant to the Mongols at the time [see pages 25-6], toru was a two-way street. Chinggis twice invokes ‘the great principle’ – without, unfortunately, spelling it out – and one of those times is about what he owes to Jurchedei for service. Toru, H&H say, starts to refer to “a number of sacred political-moral principles imminent in the new order”, and these include “honesty in acknowledging what one has done.” [25]  Ogodei’s third wrong seems to be the confession of a murder that isn’t recorded elsewhere. Whether it was common knowledge or suspected or whether he here admits it for the first time, we can’t tell, although the act was done ‘secretly’, with suggestion, in the words used, of a grudge or feud. Later I’ll put a case that his father has set a precedent for this acknowledgement of Ogodei’s.

Fourth is To’oril/Toghrul: Temujin’s message of reproach to him from Baljuna, Toghrul’s expression and gesture of remorse. I thought first of Toghrul when H&H say, “The Secret History provides ample evidence of the Mongols’ attentiveness to singular personality and the way individuals go on taking characteristic action in different contexts and over time.” [42-3]  Toghrul is dragged through unforeseeable events; he remains himself, although that self is unpredictable, by him or us. The Secret History’s interest in personality is evident in the weight given to Toghrul’s regrets, which, as H&H point out, “as a political intervention… were ineffective.” [35]  His remorse leads nowhere, it doesn’t aid Temujin’s cause, it has no sequel in the ‘plot’. That doesn’t make it unworthy of being recorded. It’s a big moment for Toghrul. The Secret History cares about his mental or moral life for its own sake. The story must have moved the audience. It moves me. In their conclusion H&H have this: “Declaring regret… always says also ‘I retain my freedom from my act’.” [45]  That moves me, too. Toghrul is not reduced his worst acts – in his own eyes, or in the Secret History’s eyes. He may be a frail old king, but he can stand apart from his frailties for a moment here, and be watched ‘attentively’ in H&H’s word. Because he’s a free agent – as in a novel. He can behave above himself or beneath himself, he can change his mind, he can disown his actions, and a mental event is important, whether or not it has effects in history. These are descriptions of art. Toghrul is often called tragic at this point, in his conflicts and his inability to act up to his best. Their next exemplar is the other who gets called a tragic figure.

Fifth and final is Jamuqa, his last speech to Temujin wherein he asks for his own death. I don’t want to blubber on the keyboard, so I won’t comment on him. Here, though, I have to come clean and say I run counter to H&H on the political trajectory… on what the Chinggis project was about. It isn’t easy to determine – in the Secret History itself, “expositions of an overt ideology are altogether absent” [7] – and there is great disagreement. What did this ‘revolution’ of his stand for? He overthrows clans and kinship, but what did he replace them with? The answer has been seen several ways. For instance, where H&H talk of a new order of centralism and hierarchy, Isenbike Togan talks of a new order of universalism and equality – spoils for the common soldier. If I have a regret, it’s that I didn’t write Temujin and Jamuqa as Isenbike Togan has them: Temujin the universalist, Jamuqa just as sincerely committed to an old pluralism – friends split over politics, and both sides with ideals I can invest in. That’s for another novelist. On this subject, I’d ask us to keep in mind that revolutions don’t always end up where the starters of them wished or envisioned. Indeed, do they ever? I want to say that we can’t assume Temujin’s objectives from the imperial-age results.

For the rest of this post I discuss Temujin. “Even the great founder, Temujin/Chinggis, is not excepted from the tendency of the authors to record blameworthy acts, and he is depicted as often afraid, sometimes committing wrongful actions, making mistakes, accepting criticism and changing his mind.” [8]  H&H look at an incidence of these last two things, when he is talked out of the execution of his uncle Daritai. In their own lovely translation, “And they spoke with him like this until /He sobbed so much it was as if /He had smoke in his nose. ‘Let it be,’ he said.” [11]  Those two little lines I’ve italicised are in verse, and then he quotes the Beatles. Because of the bodily description, the sobbing, no-one, this time, doubts Temujin’s genuine emotion. But in other incidents he is very often taken to be insincere, a note I find false. Does the Secret History deal in insincerities? Do they even work in the society it portrays, in this ‘moral community’, this polity made up of ‘human relationships’? [26,10]  The thing is, if you have a certain view of Temujin, you have to see him as a practitioner of hypocrisy at several cruxes. For one, when he offers to Jamuqa in their last scene a companionship of equals – see H&H on this. Because Isenbike Togan understands a different politics, she needn’t postulate that he only pretends. It’s simplest to take him at face value in his speech to Jamuqa. The Mongols did; they depict him as ‘blameworthy, afraid’ and the rest, but not one to feign emotion or commit that grave fault, to lie.

I mean to take Temujin through a single episode in his youth: the Secret History’s #75-78, his murder of his half-brother Begter/Bagtor. I think this is a story that has been told by Temujin, and implicit in the telling is his acknowledgement of wrong.

The story is told at the level of personal memory. The others who shared these memories, his mother Hoelun and brother Qasar/Khazar, significantly predeceased him; also, there’s no reason to think that Chinggis went without a voice on the question of what the Secret History was to record. As H&H note, “There is a widespread, though not universal, agreement among historians that the urtext… was written down in 1228… shortly after the death of Chinggis Khan in 1227.” [6]  I’d say he had a hand in it, he who was the prime mover for other Mongol records. On memory, and on subjective experience in the Secret History, I’ll quote H&H from their introduction and conclusion. Their argument is: “that there were resources within early Mongol culture for ‘thinking the self’, and that the expression of painful reflections on action is one way we can access such reflection.” [5]  And they conclude: “{The Secret History} reveals the Mongols’ understanding of subjectivity in a broad sense, in the form of recollection and memory, self-consciousness in relation to the opinions of others, reflections on the self by analogy with creatures in the world, or imaginative projections into the future.” [42]  They look at this range of subjectivity in speeches – what can be ‘elaborate’, long, poeticised speeches. Isn’t it only a step from this, to conjecture that Temujin’s real speeches upon his past may be elaborated, poeticised and incorporated in the Secret History, as this tale? I see ‘painful reflection’ in the way the tale is told.

After the famous verses on Hoelun’s tireless efforts to feed her children, they grow up enough to have the desire to feed her in return: Saying unto one another, ‘Let us nourish our mother,’ /Sitting on the bank of Mother Onan, /Preparing for one another fishhooks, /Angling and hooking /Maimed and misshapen fishes, /Bending hooks out of needles…  /Catching little fishes, /They nourished the benefit of their mother. [#75, Cleaves]  That last expression is awkward in English. ‘Benefit’ is the word hachi, that means a return of like for like: they feel they owe her food. Their efforts are childish and inadequate. Only ‘maimed and misshapen fishes’ allow themselves to be caught. I hear a wry memory in that – along with the sense of innocence, how well-intentioned they were. There’s no mention they want to feed themselves.

Then they are at odds with their mother. It is this that is focused on, as if this is where the pain was: Begter and Belgutei’s seizure of food is told briefly, but the spoken exchanges are between Temujin and Qasar on the one side and their mother on the other. She refuses to listen to their complaints against the half-brothers, and instead tells them off themselves for family dissension. Upon the second such exchange, when they leave her tent to go and kill Begter, ‘They flung open the felt door’, lit. ‘they cast aside the (felt) door’ [#77] – in the translation of IdR, who notes, “corresponding to our ‘slammed the door’”. [366]  They exit rudely. For Mongols, a door has sacred properties: it’s very rude, and it’s a memory, one that might well stick in the circumstances.

As for the killing, I think it only seemed like a good idea for a short time. Begter, before he is shot, is given Hoelun’s own lines to them, her phrases and her verse: to the effect that Tayichiut is the enemy, not each other; they are in a forlorn situation, and fighting amongst themselves can only make it worse. Hoelun uses these phrases yet again when they come back from the killing. Dunned in three times, I think this is the lesson to be drawn. Begter also asks them to spare Belgutei, which of course makes him sympathetic. After the fact, they don’t have a word to say for themselves to their mother. She ‘perceives their faces’, understands from their faces what they have done, and delivers a tirade in verse, savage animal imagery. Her condemnation is left to stand; “she berated her sons violently” (Onon) and that ends the episode. In the exchanges with their mother Temujin and Qasar give their motivation then. But in the now of the story’s telling, no defence is offered: on the contrary, their mother and even the victim have the last word, the right word. That’s plain in the telling, and if these are Temujin’s memories, he has told the story against himself, entirely.

Of expression of regret in general in the Secret History, H&H observe: “These regrets do not take the form of apologies, pleas to be forgiven, or vows to compensate or atone for wrongs committed. The righteousness of many modern expressions of apology is absent. Nor can these Mongolian regrets be seen simply as tactical manoeuvres in a game of political reconciliation. They are, at one level at least, simple declarations of having got it wrong.” [7]  There are none of these things in the Begter episode. But in the telling, I believe, Temujin declares he got it wrong, just for the sake of saying so. I hope that after this journey through the Secret History we have at least seen that it is not out of place, or foreign to the culture, for Temujin to have acknowledged this wrongdoing. It makes a difference, of course, in how we think of him.

Don’t miss the last sentences of Humphrey and Hurelbaatar’s essay, that affirm human freedom. And you wondered why I love the Secret History.


David head lrg


translations used:

Cleaves: The Secret History of the Mongols, Translated and edited by Francis Woodman Cleaves, Harvard University Press, 1982. Online here
IdR: The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, Translated with a historical and philological commentary by Igor de Rachewiltz, Brill, 2004
Onon: The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, Translated, Edited and with an Introduction by Urgunge Onon, Curzon Press, 2001

other works cited:

Isenbike Togan, Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kerait Khanate and Chinggis Khan, Brill, 1998
George Lane, Early Mongol Rule in Thirteenth-Century Iran: A Persian renaissance, RoutledgeCurzon, 2003

I warmly recommend Caroline Humphrey’s book written with Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols, Oxford, 1996. This has been, for my purposes, head and shoulders and torso above whatever else I have managed to consult in order to write about early Mongol religion.

can use

about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

‘Milk in his veins’: Mongol slang

or, A Hymn to Idioms

mongol-archer-in-inner-mongolia-1940sSlang, idioms, figures of speech: I love them, love the use of them; they individualise your talkers, and with a culture-specific figure you give the guys Applied Culture – hands-on, without stopping to feed them information. Idioms do wonders. Let’s talk Mongol ones.

About the first thing you notice, when you come to the question of when to use them in your English-language novel, is how very usable they are. Figurative language in the Secret History to do with milk and its products, or to do with sheep and shepherds, has a lot of commonalities with us. Take a look at milk.

My titular example, I admit, might be construed two ways. Is that an insult – to have milk in your veins? Not in Mongol. Grown Mongol men drink milk, so you can’t walk into a bar and order milk with the success he had in Victor Victoria. “Is that cow’s milk, or mother’s?” “How about your sister’s?” Start fight. I doubt milk ever has negative connotations, while mother’s is mentioned like this: “You will not die of this wound. The flowers of the mountain with your mother’s milk will be salve for it.” [The Book of Dede Korkut]  “Thou speakest so as to harden the butter affection and so as to sour the milk heart of thy mother.” [Secret History #254]  Milk-for-blood means the milk of human kindness. I use butter heavily too: “Ogodoi is total butter,” says Temujin, or Toghrul says to him, “I am butter to you,” and the both of them to Jamuqa are “as soft as butter.” This cluster, in English, is the lovely obvious and makes direct sense to us. We can also make sense in Mongol. I can import from English: ‘butter wouldn’t melt in his mouth’, ‘butter up’ and other proverbs from the dairy. Spilt milk, the Milky Way. Like the foodstuffs, milk’s imagery is endlessly useful. (Do you know what number of foodstuffs made from milk there are in Mongolia? Neither do I).

Less edibly… “If one wrap them in green grass, they will not be eaten by an ox; if one wrap them in fat, they will not be eaten by a dog.” [Secret History #255]  Temujin said, or is reported to have said this, on the succession question, so it’s famous. I haven’t used this as often as I might, because in our language, it’s oddly insulting. An example of the over-expressive speech I’ve noticed, that in English is too strongly put. I found an opportunity when Jamuqa describes Nilqa – “Wrap him in fat, a dog wouldn’t lick him” – for there the insult’s fair enough. But Temujin’s talking about his descendants. He goes on: “will they not miss an elk breadthwise, a rat lengthwise?” – i.e., they couldn’t hit the side of a barn. But he doesn’t mean to be as insulting as that. The ‘wrapped in fresh grass’ is a well-attested saying, and Temujin is only speculating about useless heirs; the gratuitous sense it gives in English makes it hard to place. Mongols were outspoken.

In the origin legends at the start of the Secret History, that tell of the beginnings of things, Bodonjar seems to invent for the Mongols both falconry and government. “If a body hath a head, it is good; if a garment hath a collar, it is good… The people at the Tunggelig Stream are without a difference between big or little, bad or good, head or hoof. They are all equal. They are an easy people. Let us rob them.” [#33-34]  More or less. The commonest governmental metaphors are horse gear: bridles, halters, tethers – ‘horsey’ as Altan sighs. It’s a truth that the Mongols knew no word for power, political power, at this innocent stage, but they talked about it figuratively. – It was charged of them by a Chinese that they possess no word for peace. Temujin has his answer ready for my third book, and it’s a trenchant one, but here I’ll just say maybe so – because they talk figuratively about that too. There’s a phrase ‘the many days’ that I have translated ‘ordinary days, days in the main’: this means peaceful days. Which is a splendid answer in itself to the Chinese allegation, for the days without war were thought to be the normal days. How would you find that out, unless for the figurative language? They won’t sit down and tell you, ‘we thought of war as the exception’. It comes out in the idioms.

Hoelun uses hair to lament her first husband, “whose tuft hath never blown against the wind” – that is, the adverse winds of fortune have never blown back his Mongol-style forelock. But “now, tossing his two braids one time on his back, one time on his breast, one time forward, one time backward” – now he has a bumpy ride from fate. [#36]  See, you’ve just learnt about Mongol hairstyles, and it wasn’t like a lesson: that’s idiom.

Another famous one, “with fire in his/her eyes, with light in his/her face,” is nicely self-explanatory: the fire of spirit, the light of intelligence. Hoelun has “a heart bright like the sun, wide like a lake.” [#254]  Then there’s a physicality beyond where English goes. It’s usual to locate a promise in your internal organs: “Let my promise be in the back of my kidneys, in the diaphragm of my breast.” [#96 and elsewhere]  However, Urgunge Onon says this is mistranslated; the Chinese annotators mistook their bowels for kidneys; he gives, “Let my thoughts be in the depths of my bowels and in my backbone/in my ribcage.” Bowels can even be anus, he notes. [Onon, p.32-3]  Deal with it. Meanwhile “a stinking liver” means a bad disposition [Secret History #152] … that’s poor old Toghrul. My Jamuqa says Toghrul “stinks to high heaven,” in a semi-imitation of this – in fact I thought that phrase a lucky import, what with the Mongol heavens and the moral stench idea.

What about obscenity? Obscenities that wouldn’t have been written down? Nah. They used strong but not obscene language, or that’s the theory I’ve run with. I’ve backdated ear-witness reports that Mongolians were tame swearers – before the advent of television, of course. Their neighbours laugh at them for it. English obscenities I do use as a marker of influence from the big bad world outside. It’s true that John of Plano Carpini reports of the 1240s: “Their women are chaste, nor does one hear any mention among them of shameful behaviour on their part; some of them, however, in jest, make use of vile and disgusting language.” [Mission to Asia, p.15]  Unfortunately he can’t write down any samples, of what he considers disgusting, for a woman. Maybe they joked about their dildos. A Chinese in his memoirs tells us about them: a certain phallic root that enlarges itself with moisture…

Then there are the puzzles. Temujin has insulted Nilqa by a reference to Toqtoa the shaman and a fat-tailed sheep. Nobody knows what this means – it might rest on a proverb we’ve lost. I’ve made it a witticism of Temujin’s that fits my Nilqa and offends him direly.

Items of daily life: the ger (felt tent), the hearthfire. Destructive images: to dismember a door frame, to extinguish a hearth. These translate well, and the resonance in Mongol, where a hearthfire is sacred and a threshold mustn’t be trodden on, is quickly learnt. Carts and wagons: the cooperation of allies is always figured by two wheels, and Temujin’s leadership is symbolised by the big ger wagon that transports the home.

Homely metaphor around a few essentials: tents and hearths, carts and draught animals, milk and butter. This is the palette. I have made my Temujin a master at homely metaphor – with inspiration from the simple parables of Jesus. I’m proud to say I’ve never told you what constitutes a bow – I leave that to Temujin in simile. He’s talking about a son suspected dead:

“Why Ogodoi? When Jagatai fought Jochi for agha-rights Ogodoi was the fish glue. The glue between the horn that pushes and the sinew that pulls. The glue gets ignored, but you know, Ahai, up to half of a bow is glue. I suspect Ogodoi is the son I can least afford to lose.”

Temujin also tells you how to churn ayrag (fermented milk):

“My task is a joint labour and whereas Temujin is me, Tchingis is us. Mine is the sack, yours is the milk poured in; Tchingis is stood by the door with the churn in his neck and together we try to beat him a thousand times a day, and whenever we step in or out we lend a hand.”

If it’s strange for Temujin to draw an extended metaphor of himself as an ayrag sack, I take leave from the habits of the poetry, which to my mind is almost of the Metaphysical school. For instance, Blue Jos describes Tchingis, a bit bizarrely, and turns him upside-down:

In his hazards he tied his head behind him with his bags,
For safety from spillage he kept his blood in his flask.
With his sleeve for his cushion,
With his coat-skirts for his couch,
The flesh between his teeth he ate for supper
And swallowed his spit to slake his thirst.
In his efforts for us the sweat of his brow ran to his feet,
The sweat of the soles of his feet ran to his brow.

Those detachable body parts: figurative language is slipping into poetic tropes here, which I guess is another subject, but I have mused on them, through Temujin, as a poetry of war wounds. Body parts come off, except they go back on again – in the poetry.

At first I didn’t use the full verse above for my chapter epigraph – the sweaty soles were too odd for me and I left them out. Until I grew to love them. Again, it bothered me, in Jamuqa’s spontaneous poetry to the Naiman king, that he has a drooling falcon. Hang on. Falcons don’t drool, do they? Until I got it through my head, it’s poetry, you dolt. And a Mongol knows better than me. I’ll shut up and translate.

Let me end with a piece of Jamuqa’s spontaneous poetry (straight translation by me). These are Temujin’s dogs of war:

“My anda Temujin keeps four hounds to hunt for him in battle. Their brows are welded bronze, the whiskers of their muzzles iron spikes, their hearts are cast bells with great clappers, their tails cable whips. In the days of peace he ties them up with iron chains and the dew of the dawn nourishes them. On the day men slay and are slain they feast on the flesh of men. When enemy encounters enemy Temujin encourages his hounds with the quarry’s offal. See, he has unfettered them: those are his Four Hounds who chase your watch in cry; they are off the leash, they are jubilant, their jaws drip. Their names? They are Jelme and Zab, Jebe and Khubilai.”

Mongol Archer, Inner Mongolia ,1940'sI’ve used the Francis W. Cleaves translation of The Secret History of the Mongols, available online:  At times I’ve simplified it — mostly, I’ve taken out his brackets.

Urgunge Onon (translator), The Secret History of the Mongols: The Life and Times of Chinggis Khan, Curzon Press, 2001

Christopher Dawson, Mission to Asia, University of Toronto Press, 1980

Photographs from Inner Mongolia, 1940s


oh yeah


about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

Slumming in historical fiction

or, Politics? What Politics?

Yesterday I read a Tim Kreider piece at the New Yorker blog: Our Greatest Political Novelist? In it he argues that a science fiction writer might count as our greatest political novelist, and boo-hiss to genre snobbery. His chosen one is Kim Stanley Robinson. As an old science fiction lover, I thought his first few paragraphs simply the statement of an overdue truth: of course we’re important. Then he comes to discuss Kim Stanley Robinson’s foray into prehistoric fiction – which he introduces thus:

“Robinson’s new book, Shaman: A Novel of the Ice Age, is what you might technically call historical fiction, though it’s not the kind with a buff Byronic groomsman clutching a swoony supermodel heiress on the cover.”

F***. As I tweeted at the time. Genre snobbery? From the intellectual heights of his science fiction, Robinson slums in historical… Tim Kreider, genre champion, trots out the worst of the stereotypes.

Are the charges true?

Is HF a tame genre that doesn’t throw out experiments? Does it fail to do any analytic task, when it talks about history? Why are we lampooned, by a genre champion?

What I hear from listening is that historical novelists, when they think about their job with history, think of accuracy. Accuracy first, and they can obsess over accuracy. How about analysis? You have to think about your history too, but it’s fair to say analysis is less discussed. These are the two parts of the job with history, and it’s the analysis one that matters and that makes for fiction that aspires to be exciting (in an intellectual sense) or important.

Science fiction isn’t afraid to use these terms of itself, in the face of a sceptical world. They know they’re writing important stuff, stuff on the edge of the intellect, and they can knock your brains out of your head. They know this, they are self-aware, whether or not the world sneers at “that embarrassing little Saturn-and-spaceship sticker on the spine.” (quote Kreider)

Why can’t I stand up and confidently say these things of historical fiction? Why does the world still sneer? Why does Tim Kreider sneer?

Perhaps Kim Stanley Robinson himself wasn’t aware of the potentials of historical fiction, since he’s put out a tamer effort with not enough analysis – going from Kreider’s criticisms. (Or he just wanted a rest. Because he has been to history in The Years of Rice and Salt). – I can see an argument that the experimental stuff is happening in historical fantasy. Guy Gavriel Kay is said to think about history, although I was let down by his Under Heaven. Or KSR in the alt-history just mentioned.

Kreider seems a groovy dude, but his attitude to historical fiction is out of the dark ages, and I see our reputation is as low as ever, at least in his quarter. And I do care what he says, as a cultural commentator, and as a champion of science fiction – the thinking person’s genre.

Why isn’t historical fiction a thinking person’s genre? The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves. My first instincts, that I Twittered out, were, ‘It’s not his fault, either. It’s ours.’ I was in a slump with historical fiction yesterday, anyway, and had turned for strong liquor to 70s scifi in the person of James Tiptree Jr (intellectual giant). So this New Yorker post struck a chord. We’re not as well-off for thinking books as science fiction. I grew up on Dangerous Visions and Again, Dangerous Visions. Where were historical’s dangerous visions? Where are they now?

Intellectual work can be done by historical fiction. This statement of Tim Kreider’s is rich to my ears in unintended irony: “Science fiction is an inherently political genre… It is also, I’d argue, an inherently liberal genre (its many conservative practitioners notwithstanding) in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…”

What the eff is historical fiction for, then?

Historical fiction sees, or should see, our present as just the latest slice or stage of history, as subject to change as that which went before. It studies, or should study change.

Yet I bet he’d call us an inherently conservative genre. Because I’m almost fit to do that myself.

I worry about the time we spend with kings and queens. It’s nice when we have revolting peasants instead, but notoriously, they don’t look so glamorous on the bestseller shelves. The least-thinking sort of historical fiction lets every woman live a queen’s life and every man revert to a Viking. – And do we need an Anti-James Tiptree Jr Award in hf, as the least gender-questioning of genres? Yes, we do.

Criticise your king. If you wouldn’t vote for a king today, but you’re writing about one in the past, don’t leave your politics at the door. Think about them. There’s a crowd of what I can call wish-fulfilment hf, where we sink indulgently into history because it was more vivid, more bloody, more glamorous – that’s our pulp, like sf has a pulp, and most of us are fond of pulp. Right now I’m only here to talk about the intellectual end. There is one, even if Tim Kreider hasn’t caught up with the fact.

Every page we write has consequences. As he points out, prehistoric fiction has to take a stand on rather major and contentious issues: human violence, human sexuality. I’m here to tell him, if he doesn’t know, historical fiction does too. My subject’s steppe-and-settled, and I meet major issues. Write a page, it’s political.

On that I agree with Julian Rathbone. In an interview he said this:

“We should acknowledge that we experience our sources through modern sensibilities. All historical novels, consciously or unconsciously, present a point of view and I think it is better if the writer knows what he is doing, rather than not. It’s a more honest approach. If you think of historical fiction in the past, Walter Scott for instance, they definitely had contemporary relevance – the Whig view of history for instance. When you get into modern popular historical fiction, on an overt conscious level that disappears – but however unconsciously, the writer’s ideology or agenda are still there.” — the interview online

They are still there. Politics sticks out a mile. No doubt a great artist can disguise it… but these are the Rathbone Rules –
1) Your politics comes out in your work, no matter what.
2) It’s dangerous to have unconscious politics in your fiction. Better have them conscious.

I know how present politics is, I know I face political questions, big ones, and I don’t want to dodge them, I want to tackle them head-on. Leave my politics at the door? leave my beliefs & principles? No way, or else what’s the use to even look at the past? I’m with Julian Rathbone on this. As for Tim Kreider, to write about the past can be as political as to write about the future. Inherently political, even inherently liberal, “in that it sees the status quo as contingent, a historical accident…” That is HF’s job.