Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe is an essay on interpretation of the Secret History of the Mongols, and on my encounter, as a creative writer, with this primary source.
It is available as a digital book for download from the publisher Rounded Globe.
I introduce the essay in this post.
Here’s the note that I have in my books about the Secret History,
the original I make a novel of.
The Secret History of the Mongols is a life-and-times of Chinggis Khan, the Mongols’ first book. Why secret? It was kept in hoard by the royal clan, for insiders’ eyes only; it tells secrets, the clan seems to have felt, in later years as they grew more royal. No doubt there were controversies. There were internal wars, by Chinggis’ grandchildren’s day, with argument about what Chinggis stood for and which side was true to him. By that time, too, Chinggis was agreed to be an earthly god, whether factions listened to him or not, and the book isn’t the portrait of an earthly god – he is human, only too human. Today we suspect there was too much criticism of him, hence the secrecy.
It strikes us as strangely honest, for a monument to great times and the Mongols’ greatest figure. Scholars have even speculated that an enemy of his wrote his official biography. Which doesn’t make sense, but why include the negative material? Why tell us that as a boy he was scared stiff of dogs, and that as a teenager he slew his half-brother? If the Secret History hadn’t saved that fact from oblivion we’d never have known: every other account sweeps the incident under the mat. Here it’s a story told intimately, told by one who was there, who heard what his mother had to say to him. Chinggis lived to sixty and no-one else who was there outlived him. Conclusion? Do we conclude Chinggis told this story?
It was the Mongols’ first book. But they weren’t without examples for how to write their own story. Perhaps he took as his example the stone inscriptions left by the Blue Turks, that are a monument to great times and to glory, yet are strangely honest and not uncritical. They analyse where the Blue Turks went wrong and where they went right. That is the point of them, and they end with an exhortation to brother peoples who come after them to avoid their mistakes. These are the Turks’ first records, inscribed in the name of Bilga Khaghan (the Wise King-of-Kings). Perhaps Chinggis Khan, often acknowledged an heir, in ideology, to the Blue Kingdoms five hundred years on, had a similar concept for his history, a history that teaches lessons. Self-criticism? Yes, he can do that, there are instances in the book. I conclude he was too honest for his grandchildren.
There’s another funny thing about the Secret History: the conquests, which take up the last twenty years of his life, are skimmed over with an almost total lack of interest. For the conquests you have to go elsewhere, you have to go – to upset the bilig – to the losers, with caution, for a history written by them has bequeathed to us a great comic-strip villain. In the eyes of his own, his big achievement was to unify the nomads – who had lived under one government before, with the Blue Kingdoms and the magnificent Uighurs, but in his age were worse fragmented than they had ever been. Indeed, this task cost him more time and effort than the steppe’s subsequent vengeance upon China and the cataclysmic accidents of Turkestan.
What is the Secret History of the Mongols like? Not only in the character of Chinggis Khan but throughout, the human is uppermost. War goes on, as punch to the human interest. But history was seen like that, or experienced that way: history was more personal then. Or there and then, for that’s a truth indigenous to barbarians, east and west, to the other type of society that isn’t civil or civic. The political tale is the tale of his emotional life, to an extent out of the dreams of fiction writers… and this, too, is why the off-steppe wars cease to have significance for the chronicler-poet, who can’t get an emotional fix on them. He’s in his element in episodes of great behaviour and ambiguous behaviour, in crises of ethics and in consequences of actions, in shades to the minds of the heroes and the villains (the villains are a grey lot, and scholars can’t quite decide who they are). Its spine is the friendship-enmity, the love-hate, of Temujin, the future Chinggis, and his sworn brother and rival Jamuqa, who between them run a plot you’d fear to invent. Believe me, I’d fear to, and don’t have to; but motives aren’t spelt out – for how were they to be known, beyond self-report? – and motives I have to construct from people’s acts and quotes. I can tell you that gets tricky as our two thicken the plot. The other focus is on Chinggis’ companions, on anecdotes of their courageous loyalty, a theme and style strongly redolent of the companions of Kings Arthur or Charlemagne. It has been called a Morte d’Arthur of the steppe.
Is it a great work of art? It is art, it’s an epic chronicle, it’s historical fiction, of course, a species much more ancient than history. Speeches are put into mouths and moments of drama have been put into verse. There is a school that laments the Secret History as written down too soon and left to be an in-between beast, neither fish nor fowl, half-digested, the Trojan War not yet transmuted quite into Homer. It isn’t quite Homer, but never mind: what we have is the portrait of a legend-in-the-make from those who had known him, one concerned to be both the truth and art. I follow in its footsteps; I’m not out to dissect the text for its facts; its art, explored, has every bit as much to tell us about how people were.
Speed rescued the book from most sorts of censorship. There was a short addition on his son’s khanship, and while they were there, inserts of backdated or cosmetic titles (his father Yesugei gets to be Yesugei Khan, although no such thing). But that’s the only touch-up, after the end notice: Finished at a meet of the tribes in Hodoe Aral, the Month of the Roebuck, the Year of the Rat. To me the Rat Year has to be 1229, a year after Chinggis’ death. These are communal memoirs, but we assume a master-hand stitched them together. On who, most scholars give us three guesses. None of the three are original Mongols but they are Great Mongols, the name of his union of steppe peoples. There is Sigi Qutuqtu, a Tartar, his foster brother and his Chief Justice; Tartar Tonga, not a Tartar but a Uighur, who adapted the Uighur script for Mongol and taught Chinggis’ children to write; or Chingqai, a Hirai Turk, an old comrade of Chinggis and a major government figure until 1251, when he was a victim of the grandchildren’s first internal war.
In 1251 Chinggis turned in his (secret) grave, as a list of names found in his biography went the way of Chingqai in a purge. For if he had one boast, we know he wouldn’t boast about world conquest; he’d boast that those who live in felt tents were a single people, in a way they never had been before. Give him two boasts, and if he shares the Secret History’s sentiments he might pick this: I was loyal to my captains and my captains were loyal to me… which is more than Alexander can say. It’s more than any of his conqueror peers can say – no generals in revolt, from him no ugly attacks on his own – as has been observed in his defence. But isn’t this half, at least, a tribute to his people? The Mongols (original and Great, mostly original) are the hero of the book, scholars agree.
Pictures from the Black Pencil School – followers of Mehmet who did my banner.
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Here’s a post I did with notes on five English Translations of the Secret History
On this page of the site Monumenta Altaica you can download translations into several languages — in English, the Francis W. Cleaves.
The Igor de Rachewiltz translation has been made available for download, with a reduced commentary, on this page.
about me and my novels on the Mongols –
see my page Amgalant and me