Jamuqa and the King of the Dead

The Protagonist Speaks is a blog run by Assaph Mehr, publishing character interviews. This week Jamuqa gets a turn.

Through my novels Against Walls and Imaginary Kings, Jamuqa speaks often about Irle Khan, the King of the Dead. I thought I’d explore this fascination (identification?) of his in my ‘interview’. Because the blog is primarily for fantasy, I chose fantasy-adjacent elements from my historical fiction. I always felt my Mongol epics were fantasy-adjacent, or fit for a fantasy audience.

The hymn to the King of the Dead I adapted from a song found in Oral Epics of Central Asia by Nora K. Chadwick.

Find the interview here:

https://theprotagonistspeaks.com/2021/01/29/jamuqa-of-the-amgalant-series-by-bryn-hammond/

Image © Rixipix/istock. Snow leopard, used on the cover of Me and Atrocity (Amgalant 2.1)

Arrows of Desire

It’s the last day of Quiltbag Historicals’ giveaway of queer historical fiction books. Prize drawn tomorrow: enter here.

For the Twelfth Day of Christmas I am set the theme ‘Drummers drumming’. Here’s a musical interlude from the battle of Tolgoyn Balgas.

As for fuel, that they found, inexhaustibly, in their war music. Those on spell didn’t sleep – they were orchestra and choir, and if the Hirai royal ordo slept that night they did so to Tartary ballads, lays and odes, to lutes and bone-flutes and curly bugles and drums. Now this, Temujin knew, to fight to music, harked back to Tiriet and Zubu, their true barbarian days.

[two nonstop days of battle later]

At dusk that day, after the constant minstrelsy of the Tartar army, the Ba’atud tried their hand at a song.

They had now no quarter from which to hope for aid. They knew they were alone.

The nagoras, the great signal drums, beat a halt. There was a tendency to pause for sunrise and sunset and the Tartars didn’t argue a disengagement but leant on their battleaxes. The Jirgin congregated, and Qadaq scaled one of his barricades to stand above them. This was a halt, not a treaty, but nobody shot him in the shoulderblades. Why not? There’d have been trouble from Jirgin. That was Temujin’s excuse too: he didn’t need to provoke a fight. When they began to sing the Tartars suspended their own music, flutes and lutes, and gave them silence for their voices without instrument. Under a transition sky, a torch on the horizon and big crystal stars, Qadaq, arms out for balance, conducted with his sabre. It was a hymn that Temujin had heard in church, but had not heard sung by a tumen of wounded heroes, who hereby made commitment to fight on until the end, although the end be in no doubt.

Bring me my bow of burning gold;
Bring me my arrows of desire;
Bring me my spear; oh clouds unfold,
Bring me my chariot of fire.
I will not cease from mental fight,
Nor shall my sword sleep in my hand
Till we have built Jerusalem
Where walls of Tolgoyn Balgas stand.

That wasn’t how the hymn concluded in church. The Tartar audience, generously, whooped and whistled, to hear they had yet a way to go to get through the Ba’atud. And graciously, with a very Hirai elegance, Qadaq acknowledged them over his shoulder and swept an arm and bent his head, before he jumped down from his barricade.

As for Temujin, his vitals were wrenched and he wept outright. True, he hadn’t had any sleep for two nights. To his sleep-starved eyes, where Qadaq had waved a sabre, in his other hand he held aloft a tuq, a tuq only by the thinnest tissue of cloud invisible, and that his men saw and sang their hearts out to, in a vow of self-sacrifice. What was its name? What beauty had he wept for?

Its name wasn’t Nilqa. They didn’t fight for him.

That night’s fight, at least to Temujin, who had started to hallucinate, might have been fought in the stars, so close were they, so imminent. They hung over him and he asked them, what ideal do we die for?

In the morning he went to ask Qadaq. People had wondered why he hadn’t. “Talk him round, Temujin.” As if he had arts to talk the stars down from the sky, but he hadn’t. He got nowhere with Qadaq. It didn’t help that he suffered from a bad case of the infirmity he had told Bo’orchu about [he crushes on heroes — Ed.]. He was starry-eyed and swoony, though Qadaq was the one with a forehead split to the bone. What he was meant to tell him? That he was being pig-headed? He was being spectacular. He had won Temujin over with that hymn. Talk him round? He felt more fit to kneel and pour milk on the ground at his feet, as you do in worship of the dead.

Nevertheless he made an effort, and he almost convinced himself. “This has been a valiantly fought battle, Qadaq Ba’atur. But the result has become clear. When that is so, to persevere, that had been admirable, is flagrant waste of lives. Both your men and mine are too valuable to stack on as fuel to a dead fire.”

“I won’t dispute, Tchingis, that the home fires are out, and I’d gladly spare my remnant, on a bottom line of terms. On two clauses only. Can you meet me? Toghrul’s life and dignity of treatment?”

“Of course. Of course. How often do I have to – ? Here.” He plunged his hand in his shirt. “You know what this is. This is his blood.” He kissed the thimble.

“Nilqa’s life and liberty?”

“No.” That came out as from a catapult.

Qadaq nodded. “Like I say. Bottom line.”

He didn’t object that Qadaq despised Nilqa. Qadaq knew he despised Nilqa. “You have oath, I understand. But the dukes who ceded yesterday had oath, and I do not brand them dishonest. Do you?”

The hero wiggled the end of his nose on the rear of his wrist. “They weren’t on duty.”

Even so, he didn’t swoon; he stood in energetic contradiction. “Is he to go scot-free? As if his crimes aren’t crimes? – that men like you, Qadaq, have no yardstick to be measured by. In the winter Hirai and Mongol were friends. From the butchery on Evil Undur, to the throats I had to slit to get here undetected – every person slain on either side this spring – his fault.”

“That seems to be a no from me and a no from you.”

Indeed. He hadn’t quite asked his question. By what name do you call your tuq, your tuq of the spirit that I glimpsed in your hand? He was too shy. Instead – “Before I go, baghatur. On the first day of our combat, in memory of his late anda’s friendship with you, Jurchedei swore to stand and watch while you live and fight. So he does. He confesses to me you’ve run him ragged even though his part isn’t strenuous.”

On this Qadaq took a moment or two, and screwed up his eyes to see into the distance. Temujin caught a chest-heave. “Tell the Chief of Uru’ud from me, I’ll be proud to ask his anda to clasp arms, today, tomorrow. And then have a kip. Oh, and Tchingis.”

“Yes?”

“The right man won.”

He had no fortitude to turn away. Like a girl. Qadaq turned away.

#

I believe this my boldest piece of creative anachronism, and I usually bury it 530 + 440 pages into my trilogy. Today we’re flaunting it. These verses are thinkable for steppe Christians in the late 1100s: an imagery of bows, arrows, spears and chariots are their familiar language; the sky, fire and gold speak to steppe religiosity, while Jerusalem is a misty myth from liturgy. Metaphors, extended metaphors, even metaphysical-style conceits are found in the poetry of the Secret History of the Mongols [see my blog post ‘Milk in his veins’: Mongol slang].

William Napier decided Blake’s Proverbs of Hell had previously been bilig of Attila (bilig: a steppe word, ‘wise sayings’) [Attila Trilogy Two]. The wonderful Julian Rathbone has his inventive Quint quote lines from Yeats’ Byzantium poems while in that city circa 1066 [The Last English King].

I admit I’m enthralled by such creative acts of anachronism — a different animal than the inadvertent anachronism that’s made the a-word dirty in historical fiction circles. If, to portray Attila as an original mind with a reverence for energy, you assign him the philosophy of Blake (‘exuberance is beauty’; ‘the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom’; ‘the tygers of wrath are greater than the horses of instruction’), I’ll follow you, and I appreciate the cheek.

Nothing less than the hymn ‘Jerusalem’ was called for, I thought, at the last stand of the Jirgin Ba’atud (a steppe word: heroes), as they dedicate themselves to an ideal that Tchingis cannot quite grasp but sees as a visionary tuq (steppe word: a banner with horse or yak hair, invested with spirit).

Merry Geese

Merry festival of your choice!  Here we’re celebrating the Quiltbag Historicals Bleak Midwinter Funfest, where authors post for the Twelve Days of Christmas and club together in a giveaway. It may be the height of summer where I am in Australia, but our element is imagination, right? 

Quiltbag Historicals is the funnest Facebook group I belong to. An inclusive queer historical fiction group for readers, writers and historians. Join us, and extend the discussion of LGBTQIA+ lives in history. 

I’m to make merry with the Sixth Day of Christmas theme, ‘Geese laying’.
Well, Jamuqa has a thing or two to tell us about that. 

Geese 1: excerpt from Against Walls

He hadn’t meant to be in love with Temujin. It was a bad idea, and he was pretty short with himself on the matter. For a few months.

Because he didn’t gouge out his horses’ testicles, people alleged to him, “It’s crueller to let him keep them on. Won’t get a chance to use them.”

“Ask the horse,” Jamuqa answered, every time.

“He lives in hope?”

“Whether or not… he lives.”

Jamuqa found he lived, in a way he hadn’t known about before, and he ceased to fight his love, futile or not.

Anyhow, animals aren’t without ways and means; if they have to hump logs, that’s what they do. They do a lot else, too. See, what an animal enjoys, can’t be wrong. That’s a twist of the brain that can never make sense to an animal.

The wild sheep, they’re pragmatic. For eleven months of the year the ewes are off the boil; for eleven months of the year, argali rams in the mountains keep the fires stoked amongst themselves. Down on the steppe, she-hedgehogs nuzzle each other’s pink bits and squeak and shake, a sight notorious enough that if you wish to talk about such behaviour, you can say do the hedgehog. It’s thought harmless, whereas you don’t say do the argali, because what argali do is a crime.

Now and then ganders couple up, for life as is the goosely way, and while a gander with a goose does his triumph-strut alone, gander couples honk and triumph side by side, synchronized. They even, when they have the urge, rear eggs, either abandoned eggs or fathered in a short liaison or else hijacked, and they tend to be top of the goose-pile, since both are gander-strong. And the other geese don’t blink. They don’t clack-clack in gossip, they don’t drive them from the nest grounds.

People, pretty unfortunately from Jamuqa’s perspective, weren’t geese. He’d be a goose in his next life, and in this one, he supposed, he’d be discreet.

#

Jamuqa, aged twenty in this excerpt, remains a great animal-watcher through his life. The animal behaviour that helps him understand his sexuality can all be found in Bruce Bagemihl’s Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity.

In our second excerpt Temujin, now Tchingis Khan, shoves geese down the throat of his First Companion Bo’orchu, when the army have nothing else left to eat. This is a bleak spring… 

Geese 2: excerpt from Imaginary Kings

“For the trek ahead of us, what I regret more than our empty satchels is our lack of felt shelter. Our wounded are unsheltered and have hard travel. The most I can do is ask our sound to spare coats or cloaks for those less fortunate. An extra coat might save a life.”

At his arm Bo’orchu wrenched off his coat.

Guyildar, without jest or bravado, took on himself to answer for the wounded. “Not an awful lot of difference to us. You sit on a horse; you sit on the ground. You know. It isn’t a lark either way. Distracts you to be doing. That’s why I’m such a pain.”

“You’ll take my coat,” Jurchedei told him, “for the duration and without bother. Tchingis said.”

“Smelly old thing, your coat. I’ll have it, if when this is over I can burn it.”

“You can do what you like.”

          #

To go without a coat in the desert spring wasn’t a trivial matter. By his smarts in the wind and his gnawed bones in the frost Temujin knew what he had asked of his sound and imagined what his wounded endured, with their heads huddled in their comrades’ coats. The general purpose grease they had they saved for their faces; people were smeared in grease-masks thick with grit, and they wore a bandage over their eyes, or the ear-flap of a fur hat, the ear on the side away from the wind. The spring wind was God’s own weather, almighty, the air a haze of dirt and salt and sand, the light dim. Your head ached to windward, your ear rang until you were deaf on the left, your mouth felt gritty and smothered. Temujin’s hands and wrists, neck and throat, were stung raw. He thought of when he was a boy, when they had never enough skins and furs, so that he clad himself in grease where he was naked.

Only the zak clung on, when the wormwood was torn out by the roots and turned to tumbleweed. At night the gnarly, knotty skeletons of zak stood the blasts for them. Where zak grew they dug for water. Zak was camel food, but their horses weren’t above camel food and devoured the branches that sheltered them; the wood, uncuttable yet crumbly, had veins of juice. Lastly, in clumps of zak was a perpetual squeak and peep of hedgehog and of hamster. “It isn’t the fact he’s a rat, at bottom,” said Qorchi of Free Baharin as he exchanged gazes with a squeaky hamster in the cage of his fingers. “But he’s too cute to eat. Almost,” he amended.

The great spring flights of birds began, high overhead, a feat and effort in the gales. Now and then a dead bird dropped out of the sky. Temujin’s army watched them with sympathy. A Mongol feels vaguely unholy to kill a bird, a winged creature with the freedom of Tangr’s sky, an image of the soul. A shaman has his bo’orchu, a bird, that is his right hand; you don’t want to harm a bo’orchu by mistake. Aside from these scruples, animals on trek cannot be hunted, who have toil enough. If only Hirai and Tartars extended that clemency to his army.

Temujin said, “Bodonjar did. In the winter he kept himself alive on leftovers from the wolves’ feasts, and in spring he unleashed his falcon in the cyclones of spring birds. His is meant for a tale of hard survival, but we have a tale of that. I won’t starve our wounded amidst a million birds.”

In the Uriangqot custom they wept before they ate. Men sat with a limp goose in their laps, stroked the sleek contours and stretched out the magical mechanics of the wings, until they felt sincerely sorry or drew actual tears; whereupon they thought permissible to pluck it and spit it on a stick.

“How do you like goose?” Temujin asked Bo’orchu.

For a dad his friend had had Naqu the Rich, who never discussed geese the way Yesugei once did with Temujin. He answered, “I like goose, for fear of fish.”

“Fish isn’t so bad.”

“Pah. Fish is wet. Slimy, scaly and wet, and for dinner tomorrow, I dare say.”

“Over a bird and a fish did I feud with my brother.”

“Don’t give me Bodonjar again. I know Bodonjar backwards.”

“His descendants are the Borjigin clan. It means Those Who Lived on Wild Fowl. Why do we boast about his time of misfortune? Because of his time of triumph. He must be the Mongols’ example. – These are my father’s very sentences. Funny, I have forgotten nothing he said to me on his last journey.”

“When I met you,” Bo’orchu told him, “you were a scarecrow. As grey as a fish, and skinny as a wet rat. Distinct kinship to Badai over there.”

“Badai gobbles up his goose and he starts to thrive, after the brown water he had for his hire from my cousin.”

“Yes, yes. See?” Bo’orchu popped goose into his mouth and chewed noisily. His hand was ground and pitted with the sand. On that skin he had the driven sleet. It got near to agony.

“Bo’orchu.” On instinct Temujin’s arms went about him to shelter him.

“What?”

“Nothing. My first.”

“First and last.” He popped in more goose.

The ones without coats used the fat of the geese on the outside along with the inside. Temujin and Bo’orchu rubbed the ointment and the insulation into each other’s windburnt skin.

#

My Amgalant series starts with Against Walls. Oh look — geese in the book description!

Universal buy link

I’ll see you again on the 6th of January for the Twelfth Day and ‘Drummers drumming’… in which the Tartar army sings a strangely familiar hymn.

On the 7th, our prize is drawn. An ebook of Against Walls is in the bundle.

ENTER HERE

The Wall project

I’m excited to see a project underway on a wall system that features in my novels:

perhaps the most enigmatic episode of ‘Great Wall’ construction in China and Mongolia: A wall system located in North China and Mongolia that covers a distance of over 3,500 km. The construction of this complex system, which includes long earthen walls and accompanying ditches, auxiliary structures and roads, is dated roughly to the 10th to 13th centuries CE, but it is unclear who built it, for what purposes, and how it functioned.

The Wall project, on the site of Gideon Shelach-Lavi:
https://gideonshelachlavi.huji.ac.il/wall-erc-project

This ‘enigmatic’ wall system has been wretchedly hard to research. Often referred to as the Jin walls on the guess they date to the Jurchen Jin dynasty, they are sketched in on maps, with sketchy accounts of them, and conjecture what they were for.

I make them Jurchen walls, and directed against Mongols — original Mongols, in the first place, and Great Mongols as Tchingis Khan sought to unify nomad peoples.

If you look at the map from the full project proposal:

The Northern Line on the map is known to Mongols as ‘the Tribute Wall’ in the first of my trilogy, Against Walls. This is an installation to police them, and where they have to bring their tribute in sheep to the Jin government.

The Southern Lines are half-built at the time of Against Walls. You can see on the map the southernmost of them, described by Temujin’s father Yesugei and friends — from the inside — as ‘jaws open wide’. These are placed to close off grass and divide steppe peoples from one another. The other activity on the Southern Lines I am currently writing about in the third of my trilogy, Scavenger City.

The Wall project has a fascinating working hypothesis:

Our research hypothesis is that the medieval wall system was not built as a defense against invading armies, but rather as a means to monitor and sometimes stop the movement of nomadic peoples and their herds. The Wall project will test this hypothesis against a more conventional view of this wall (and other long-walls in world history) as a military installation.

I have been guided before by work of Gideon Shelach-Lavi, and this hypothesis — that walls might function as ‘a means to monitor and sometimes stop the movement of nomadic peoples’ — seems a possibility on lines familiar to me from his previous. I did a post on nomads as state evaders (https://amgalant.com/nomads-state-evasion/), where I squee over a chapter he wrote on how people might choose a pastoralist lifestyle. Were walls, sometimes, to hem them in?

From the project proposal:

The motives behind the construction of the MWS [medieval wall system], its political context and ecological implications, are highly relevant for the understanding of the complex history of China and Mongolia on the eve of Chinggis Khan’s rise to power.

In the third of my Amgalant trilogy, the rest of the Southern Line is built in reaction once Tchingis stands as a champion of People in Felt Tents. Along this wall, nomads are forcibly settled in order to control them. It becomes a battle over lifestyles.

I eagerly await more news from the project, hoping I can profit by some of its research before I finish Scavenger City.

Temujin’s Jesus tribute act at Baljuna

It isn’t often we find a new primary source, with new material. The Akhbar-i Moghulan by Qutb al-Din Shirazi (1236-1311) is a collection of historical notes, discovered in a miscellany of papers and first published in Qum, Iran, 2009. George Lane has put out an annotated translation, available cheaply in ebook.

The work opens with a single episode chosen from the life of Chinggis Khan, at the muddy waters of Baljuna where Chinggis was in the trough of his fortunes. Legends and variant stories grew up around Baljuna, and the Akhbar-i Moghulan has one we have not heard before. The text runs:

Early accounts of Temujin record events in Wadi Baljuna, which is close to the lands of the Chinese. His followers had gone without food for a few days, when one amongst them succeeded in shooting down a desert sparrow. The bird was cooked and then it was presented to their leader. Temujin ordered that the bird be divided equally into seventy portions, and from that he took his own share that was no larger than any of the other portions. It was because of his willingness to share the tribulations of his men and because of his righteousness that people became his devotees and followers and were prepared to surrender their souls to him.

In his notes Lane says, ‘This episode recounting the magical feeding of the seventy is mentioned in no other source’. Lane has also written the entry for this work in the online Encyclopaedia Iranica, where he is more explicit on the ‘magical’ nature of the feeding:

The one anecdote concerning Čengiz Khan portrays the Great Khan in an almost biblical light, magically distributing the meager rations between his beleaguered faithful in the valley of Baljuna, dividing the meat of one desert sparrow among seventy and “from that sharing and righteousness the people became devotees and followers, and towards him they surrendered their souls”.
http://www.iranicaonline.org/articles/akhbar-e-mogolan

By ‘biblical’ he obviously means miracles where Jesus feeds a crowd with five loaves and two fishes, that multiply.

Until I came to Lane’s annotations, I took the division of the sparrow to be an exaggerated/impossible rendition of a concern for equal shares of food (and other stuff). In Against Walls I wrote:

Luxury clothes and clothes-stuffs were a major item of trade, the major, if not the one and only item coveted by nomads that they do not make. It is lightweight wealth, easy to circulate, and infinitely divisible. A strip, a shred of cloth, sumptuous and opulent, can be sewn onto one’s felts and furs – as a sheep can feed an army if you have an army to feed. And the cutting-up thereof, and the counting-out of mutton inches, has a quasi-religious care and solemnity seen otherwise in apportionment of spoils.

I have only the translation to base on, but I think it might be either: an impossible but not miraculous splitting of a sparrow, so that seventy people each get a shred, or a tribute act to Jesus with the loaves and fishes.

I do Jesus tribute in my portrait of Temujin. On the way to Baljuna, at the bottom of his fortunes, Temujin offers to give himself up to an obsessed enemy, and have his head cut off on terms that save his people. Bo’orchu answers him that the enemy wants to ruin Temujin’s image, not help him to a grand self-sacrifice: ‘He wants to expose the effigy for a scruffy rag of felt. He doesn’t want Yesus Christ’.

At Baljuna, on the theme of fairness with food, I tell a variant story of Central Asian traders who arrive with sheep for sale. In his destitute state Temujin can’t pay for the sheep, but he stakes his life to the wary traders that his starving followers won’t steal.

“I see you fear my troops. For that you have no cause. They are hungry, but we won’t rob traders.”

“No insult, Your Majesty. Hungry troops have stomach for strong action. Hungry troops we know.”

He was insulted, nevertheless. “Mine you do not. I’ll be your hostage. Water your sheep, and if a sheep of yours is butchered by my troops, you can truss and butcher me.”

They hovered between a smile and another curtsy. “That… is an extreme guarantee.”

“It is nothing, for my life is in my soldiers’ hands, quite aside from the matter of your sheep. Robbery I won’t have in my army, and these, as you can see, have proved fast to me in my misfortunes. The fettle they are in – their gruesome visage – is the badge of their integrity and not a sign that they are rogues.”

On this promise the traders stay, since they need the water at Baljuna too, and Temujin has time for a charm campaign. He refuses to join them in a sheep feast with his officers, but instead sends his several amputees from their recently lost battle to eat a sheep. In the end the traders are impressed enough to give the flock of sheep to Temujin, and expect payment when his fortunes rise. They tell him this decision through a story about their Prophet Muhammad.

On the third day they came to him and Hasan said, “King, there is a story of our Prophet. He had marched on Mecca and was encamped outside. To judge how dangerous he was the Quraysh sent Urwa to him, who said, ‘Muhammad, you march to war against your own clan – the bluest blood of the Arabs – with slaves and scraps from this-and-that tribe. I warn you, the Quraysh have their milch camels out in leopard skins and swear you won’t enter Mecca. And this motley crew you call Muslims? I see them desert you tomorrow.’ Abu Bakr, who sat beside the Prophet, cried enraged, ‘Suck your moon idol’s nipples. We desert him?’ Urwa watched the Prophet among his companions, watched their treatment of him. When he washed they ran for the water he had used; if he spat they ran to that; if a hair shed from his head they pounced on it. After his observations he returned into Mecca and told the Quraysh, ‘On the one hand these Muslims of his amount to fifteen hundred and are only armed with swords. On the other hand, I have been to see Chosroes in Persia, and I have been to see Caesar in New Rome, but never have I seen a king treated by his subjects the way Muhammad’s companions treat him. The people I saw with him won’t drop off from him, no matter what. Come to your own conclusions.’”

Of course, they mean to say they have seen a similar spirit among those with Temujin while he’s down and out. The traders enter his service, ‘surrender their souls’ to him in Shirazi’s words. They are his first Muslims. He already has Christians, for steppe Christianity was a thing, and so the Jesus (‘Yesus’ on the steppe) references are allowed. Through these Muslims I have Temujin do a Prophet Muhammad tribute act as well.

Lane illustrates Shirazi’s Baljuna tale with two Dashi Namdakov sculptures of Chinggis Khan as visionary with closed eyes, Chinggis in his spiritual aspect (here’s a video of one of these sculptures introduced at Marble Arch, London). He thinks Dashi’s ‘Divine Chinggis’ conveys the ‘biblical style’ of the anecdote in the text. In other words, we need to think of his charisma, and accept from the sources that virtues of unselfishness and humility were a part of it. Another source quote that always struck me as Jesus-y is (as paraphrased in Imaginary Kings) ‘he’d give you the shirt off his back, or step down from his horse and hand that to you and go on foot’. Conscious that I had to create a figure who earned such devotion—earned in the reader’s mind as well as from his followers—I early on turned to religious imagery, and invoked Jesus both explicitly and indirectly.

You notice Muhammad doesn’t speak in that story of him; he sits there in the centre stage but in the background of the action. It’s all about his followers. Last week I read Naomi Standen on ‘followership’ in Inner Asian politics, ‘followership as practiced voluntarily and from positions of political strength’, that is, people’s preference to follow, even when qualified to lead. Instead of a ‘shoving match’ where everyone wants to climb to the top of the heap—a narrative she thinks laid over the sources by the Western political tradition—Standen suggests we imagine a more cooperative ‘dance’. Followers have agency; in premodern conditions on the steppe, followings confer leadership upon a person of their choice. Standen writes of the 7th-10th centuries, and sees traces of these Inner Asian attitudes around leadership ‘at least’ until the 13th century and the age of Chinggis Khan. I feel I have extended them into my Tchingis’ story. Followers make Tchingis, and this seemed to me evident in the Secret History’s tales about his rise. Certainly my young Temujin fits the ‘reluctant leader’ trope. Standen points out that leadership may not be sought by all potential contenders but seen as a ‘responsibility’ that individuals feel they are better off without. I have Temujin’s father describe the khanship to his son in exactly those terms: a heavy responsibility that nobody wants. But there’s more to it than the negative: it’s not only avoidance of leadership, it’s that followership is valued, is valourised. Scholars have observed that the Secret History’s heroes are his followers, not him. As I have him say, ‘Temujin is me; Tchingis is us’. In writing, I thought that religious movements were an analogue I can use to understand this group feeling around an inspirational figure.

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

On moral fiction

Yesterday I read John Gardner’s On Moral Fiction, attracted by the title. I persisted, through one of the most annoying books I’ve read. ‘Social justice’ is a cause, not a subject for art; this holds back fiction for ‘blacks and women’. He mentions slightingly Shostakovich’s song ‘for murdered Jews’—the Piano Trio 2, which is my height of music, but to Gardner a mere expression of compassion. Particular cases –‘blacks, women, murdered Jews’ do not make for true art, which ought to be universal: of course Gardner’s ‘universal’ is Western, white, male, invented in ancient Greece, and Christian.

John Gardner I knew for his novel Grendel, the Beowulf story told from the monster’s point of view. That I located and read while beginning my own novel from from Grendel’s point of view. I’m kicking myself again that I never finished that one.

I kept reading On Moral Fiction in spite of his conservative old white man’s identity politics and dismissal of the identity politics of other people. Because his basic arguments often spoke to me.

Gardner tells us how old-fashioned he is, and his book was published in 1978. The idea of the hero is old-fashioned. In part, fiction is moral for Gardner when it presents some positive values, something to strive for, someone with qualities we’d want for ourselves. It doesn’t have this function when we staff a novel with people we despise. I’m with him on this. The previous day I had decided to make my Chinese point-of-view character the Daoist saint who met Tchingis and not the scholar who became the Mongols’ prime minister. Why? My Daoist saint is admirable, my prime minister less so; and I opted for positivity, to focus on a person who I think did good in his world. Gardner stresses that an artist’s job is to exercise scrupulous justice towards characters she dislikes or disagrees with. I’ll try to be fair to the prime minister, who ‘civilized’ Mongols by the light of his own values which he considered universal, and de-Mongolised them without apology. It’s a rule of mine to have no villains, or if I do—Toghrul’s heir Nilqa comes closest in Imaginary Kings—to give them sympathetic points, to argue for them from the inside, where nobody’s a villain. Bad actions, and bad people, but not all bad (as Jamuqa says of his father).

My motivation to write the life of Tchingis in the first place was a positive one. I am tired of ‘power corrupts’ as a trajectory in story. It does—it’s true, but it’s a truism in novels. In my early reading Temujin seemed an odd hold-out; power seemed to leave him incorrupt (on this, see my blog post ‘Grousset’s tragic Jenghiz Khan’). That’s impressive, and worth exploring. ‘Power corrupts’ would have been a negative reason to write; ‘power doesn’t, for once’ was a positive.

You must never have contempt for your characters—even a disguised contempt, a belittling pity or a resolve to make allowances, to ‘understand’ them in their time and place. You must treat them as your equal. Writers of historical fiction might say ‘I respect how tough they were to survive in those conditions’ but this is not real respect, it’s only the word. —It helps to start with a trait you genuinely admire, and cannot account for (Gardner: art doesn’t know what it wants to say beforehand: ‘it explores, open-mindedly, to learn what it should teach’).

In the year ahead I have a lot of violence to write—the third book of Amgalant covers the Mongol conquests. I want to write with ‘moral responsibility’ (Gardner). Although Gardner insults genre fiction (it’s ‘conservative and conformist’ while literary fiction is ‘individualistic’—pah) I have to talk in examples from my genre, historical fiction. Let me state that literary fiction can deal with violence as irresponsibly as genre. Many HF authors do not at all have the aim to write ‘moral fiction’. That’s fine, but it does bother me when they write immoral fiction. Yes, it’s only a HF novel. But I believe you shouldn’t. This aligns me with Gardner, himself an arch ‘conservative and conformist’ to my eyes, and a sad old fogey.

I have felt a bit isolated in this. I take fiction too seriously. ‘Serious’ is a word Gardner uses, serious purpose; I myself use the term ‘high seriousness’ to mark out fiction from the rest that has no high seriousness, though I find hard to explain the distinction. Here I might be even more old-fashioned than Gardner.

Still, it bothers me when popular HF is written with moral irresponsibility about violence. For my chief example I pick on a granddaddy of HF, Bernard Cornwell. I was pretty disturbed by the end of A Winter King. In the last pages Derfel and Nimue enact revenge on a druid and a king who had done terrible things to them.The reader is invited to buy into these retaliatory killings; there is no level of voice in the text that tells us a bloody revenge is wrong. Now, to insert such a voice—the voice that says ‘this is wrong’—is tricky, and has to be done with the subtlest technique; it can’t be in your face or out in the narrative. But that voice ought to be there, unless Cornwell thinks this act of violence not a problem, called for, and doesn’t mind his readers lustily joining in. Because as it stands, his text only invites the reader, imaginatively and emotionally, to join in.

Amount of violence is irrelevant. It’s how you write about it. One of the bloodiest HFs I ever read was The Religion by Tim Willocks. His Malta 1565 reminded me of the trenches in WW1; the subject deserved this sodden treatment (‘human pudding’, I wrote in review), and there was present, always, that elusive element, seriousness. Mind you, I saw an advert for the sequel that was nothing short of shocking: a list of numbers for the types of killing you’ll find in the book. Come read this: there’s immense amounts of blood. I’ll contrast the Malta novel with another one of Cornwell’s, Agincourt, where I only got through 60 pages because they were wall-to-wall violence, without the seriousness. To me, it was obscene. Malta was obscene too, but consciously so, with a purpose. Agincourt was as bloody as possible (as Jamuqa says of himself) for entertainment.

I have always been over-serious, and mistrust the word ‘entertainment’. Along with Gardner, I am likely to ask ‘the humanistic questions: who will this work of art help? what baby is it squashing?’ Fictions that claim only to be entertainment, like literature, can squash kittens and debase responses in the reader. No writer is exempt from responsibility.

Gardner would laugh, who discounts genre from his inquiry. But—just as I demand nonconservative, nonconformist genre fiction—I can’t kick back with books that are immoral about violence. Do I want genre that qualifies as Gardner’s ‘true art’? Of course I do:

‘We recognize true art by its careful, thoroughly honest search for and analysis of values… moral art tests values and rouses trustworthy feelings about the better and the worse in human action.’ The writer doesn’t know what’s trustworthy before the process of writing. She has her values but the writing puts these to the test. If the act of writing hasn’t changed her ideas, her commitments, she isn’t finished yet.

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Women and art in the ARB

I’ve reviewed two titles for the Asian Review of Books, with more in the works. These are two terrific titles to start out on. Please read and share the reviews.

“Women and the Making of the Mongol Empire” by Anne F Broadbridge

“Sudden Appearances: The Mongol Turn in Commerce, Belief, and Art” by Roxann Prazniak

 

 

I offered to review Mongol history titles for them after they took my novel for review, the results of which are here:

against-walls-by-bryn-hammond

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Mongols, Rape and Popular Culture

If most places in the world of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire have a rape culture, still Dothraki are different; Dothraki have a society based on rape. Others rape in war, but only Dothraki rape at wedding celebrations – in the open, ‘like animals’, as the norm. Dothraki are meant to be reminiscent of Mongols and other steppe peoples. Why Mongols? Why rape? Our popular culture (I’ll use ‘ours’ in this post about largely English-language fiction, to own it, being a white woman, British-Australian. I don’t need to address PoC with a post like this.) – our popular culture equates Mongols with rape. It goes unquestioned. The Mongols raped their way through China, Iran and Europe, is the common wisdom, and the common material for fiction on or inspired by the Mongols. But how historical is this? In this post I look at the evidence, and at our habit of stigmatising the Mongols with rape, above other peoples – such as ourselves – in fiction.

Dothraki are animalised sexually: they have sex in public like their horses; the Dothraki sexual position is ‘dog-style’, from behind; the bestial sexual customs of Dothraki are kept front and centre in the story.

The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or shame as we do.

She was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skin and not true men at all.

Yet every night… Drogo would come to her tent… to ride her as relentlessly as he rode his stallion. He always took her from behind, Dothraki fashion…

Daenerys teaches her husband Khal Drogo to couple face to face – like human beings.

It is instructive to look at Martin’s first novel Game of Thrones (1996) alongside a novel of the same vintage, the 90s, Pamela Sargent’s historical fiction about Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Sky (1993). Possibly Martin read Sargent, both being in the American science fiction crowd, but I won’t hang an argument on that. Though dated to the 90s, of course, Martin’s fiction is still very much active in our culture, while Sargent’s has become a lesser-known. But Martin conceived of the Dothraki in the same decade that Sargent used the Mongols to tell a story about rape. Sargent has more frequent rape in her novel, and more violent, than Martin manages in his sections on Dothraki. Yet she comes from a very different place. I knew her as a feminist SF writer and editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies. Her reason to write about rape was a feminist one. Her choice of setting was the same as Martin’s: let’s use the Mongols.

To fail to ask why is racist. On racist stereotypes bell hooks says: ‘the sexual stereotype of black men [is] as overly sexual, manly, as “rapists”.’ Jeff Yang talks of American ‘stereotypes of Asian males as emasculated and nonsexual.’ When Black means hyper-sexual, while Asian means emasculated, where do the Mongols sit? They are Asian, but they are everybody’s rapists. They have been fantasized as a threat to white women. An old scare about the Mongol stain emerging in Europeans down the centuries has been replaced by a DNA meme – ‘1 in 200 men alive today descended from Genghis Khan’ – which on investigation (you can do this on the internet) is pseudo-scientific tripe.[1] The assumption behind both memes is a lot of rape. Never mind that when a similar percentage of modern European populations are attributed to Charlemagne, the case of the white Christian king is not immediately explained by the proposal that he had intercourse with every woman in sight.

Evidence?

Evidence for the early thirteenth century – Chinggis Khan’s conquests – is simply insufficient to say much about rape. Did Mongol armies rape in war more than other armies, so that they are justifiably associated with such stories? Did they rape at home, more than other societies? Was rape more prevalent among them than we call the baseline, so that we choose them to be the protagonists of such stories? The answer is: not to our knowledge. It can’t be proved either way.

Here’s a transcript of Jack Weatherford when questioned at a talk:

I know of no documented case where [rape in war] happened… The whole Mongol masculinity is so different than ours… Steppe culture in general – rape was not a part of it… To my knowledge, [rape in war] did not happen. I cannot prove this, but no-one can prove to me it did happen.[2]

Weatherford goes out on a limb, not for the first time, since we can scarcely imagine war without rape. Most obviously, he discounts the ‘horrid acts to women’ in Ibn al-Athir. Weatherford is not alone in this judgement. To Ibn al-Athir, who watched from Mosul out of the Mongols’ reach, as to Juzjani who escaped and wrote from Delhi, Mongols were evil and prone to every evil act. There is no possibility of scrutiny of what they heard and wrote down. How are we to distinguish rumour, news, and horror tales from the thirteenth century, when we can’t today? We can assess historians.

Juvaini is the most detailed source for the sack of cities in Chinggis Khan’s war against the Khwarazm Shah in Turkestan and Iran – for the worst of the massacres. In his description of sack and massacre, a city to be plundered has its residents ordered outside and kept under watch, ‘men and women’ the same. Where the population is to be punished with massacre, they are killed without distinction. Indiscriminately – but indiscriminately does not mean an unleashed slaughter. Massacres weren’t messy but done with discipline and efficiency, each soldier allocated an equal number to kill. Juvaini’s usual ‘men and women’ might be thought a pat phrase, if not for a single city where the procedure changes. At Merv, under Tolui’s command, Mongols put the men and women into separate groups. Juvaini takes the opportunity to sentimentalise the women’s situation:

The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out onto the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women from the men. Alas! how many peri-like ones [peris are fairies] did they drag from the bosoms of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

If he had reason to write like this at other sites, he would. At Merv, both groups were massacred just the same, without mention of a sexual motive for splitting them up. Splitting them caused upset, however – we see from Juvaini’s sentiments. It would not be efficient to split them. Treatment of women was a flashpoint, likely to cause trouble. Juvaini and Ibn al-Athir have two different stories about the death of a well-known religious scholar at Bukhara. In Ibn al-Athir, the Mongols commit ‘horrid acts with women’ while people look on and weep; some, the scholar and his son among them, cannot accept the sight and choose rather to protest, fight and be inevitably killed. Juvaini has this same religious scholar give the local imam a speech of quiescence. It’s possible both have the right of it: pious resignation until he challenged Mongols on women. Protest did not have to be about sexual assault; it was enough that Mongols killed women just like men – they did not make the distinctions a chivalrous society was used to.

It is not that we don’t hear about women, it is not that they are ignored. The explicitness or vagueness of language is a problem. For example, the word ‘ravishment’ in the quote above at Merv. ‘Ravish’ means ‘to seize away’, like Juvaini’s other escalating sentences; it can also mean ‘to rape’. The word is an ambiguous translation of an imprecise original. Juvaini makes some use of the stock phrase ‘rapine and pillage’. Rape and pillage go together (‘like a horse and carriage’, Sinatra might sing) in our speech habits too. The Mongol army was alien to most of our witnesses. It behaved in ways unfamiliar to them. A stock phrase cannot be conclusive. Juvaini records a sentence from an eyewitness at Bukhara, circulated by survivors for its ‘succinct Persian’: ‘They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’ Absent is ‘they raped.’

Silence is not evidence that a thing did not occur, but my aim here is to prove our lack of evidence. In a lack of evidence, our assumptions rush into the breach, with those auxiliaries our fantasies.

I’m going to attempt a general comment. In my view, industrial-scale rape alongside industrial-scale massacre can be ruled out. Silence is not evidence. Even so, Juvaini, who does not stint on description of the massacres, and who sentimentalises women victims, does not have rape as an official practice, and that is weighty. And if it wasn’t ordered, it wasn’t done, large-scale – not in an army whose discipline was inexplicable to witnesses from other societies. Mongols laid enormous stress on communal action. You did it in a group or you didn’t do it. This was the grounds of their efficiency. To exceed orders – to do violence where he had specified no violence – was severely punished by Chinggis. Rape, I think, at sacks or at the scene of massacres, was either ordered or frowned upon. No in between is likely.

What about captured women?

In the sacks I dealt with above, it is wives and daughters of the (Qangli Turk) garrisons who are taken into captivity, while women of the main city populations (Iranian) are not. Those led into captivity are lost sight of, even queens. The Khwarzm Shah’s mother eked out a ‘miserable existence’ (no details) among the Mongols for twelve years; Chinggis Khan gave other royal women of Khwarazm to Muslims in his service.

We should not think of captive women as necessarily in the custody of men. Often they were distributed to royal and noble Mongol women, who ran households (these may seem to us more like caravan convoys) staffed and well-populated by women.  Pascha, who by luck has her story told in the sources, is one of these.[3] Friar William of Rubruck is in the Mongol capital Karakorum:

We were discovered by a woman from Metz in Lorraine, named Pascha, who had been captured in Hungary… She belonged to the household of the lady who had been a Christian and whom I mentioned above, and told us about the unheard-of destitution she had suffered prior to her arrival at the camp. But now she was well enough off: she had a young Russian husband, by whom she had three very fine little boys, and he knew how to construct dwellings, which they regard as a worthy craft.

After a journey on foot from Europe – a journey the friar himself, on horseback with Mongol companions, found a harsh trial – she was given to an Oirat wife of Mongke Khan. Intriguingly, she has been wed to another captive. Did her mistress marry them, to make the useful household unit they are when the friar finds them? Friar William makes no inquiry or comment about sexual abuse of this young woman.

A more extraordinary captive’s story is that of Fatima. A Muslim woman captured in the Khwarazm campaign, she became a companion to Queen Toregene, who, once in charge of the state as a khan’s widow, made Fatima de facto prime minister.

Ordinary stories do not get preserved.

One thing we can say with certainty is that ‘miscegenation’, which disgusts Dothraki, did not bother Mongols in the least. They were exogamous to begin with, and Chinggis’s sons and grandsons had wives from the royal families of defeated enemies. Also, adoption of enemy children was common practice: Temujin does this with steppe enemies, and then with a Tangut boy too. When Dothraki after a victory are raping women over piles of corpses, Daenerys again tries to civilize them: ‘If your warriors would mount these women, let them take them gently and keep them for wives… let them bear you sons.’ Qotho, a cruel Dothraki, laughs: ‘Does the horse breed with the sheep?’ But Mongols did not need to have such a conversation.

And Chinggis Khan himself? Now I have words with Rashid al-Din. The more gaudy tales about Chinggis Khan often come from Rashid, whose account of Chinggis has a legendary flavour, in distinction from his coverage of the grandchildren’s times, where he is in sharp focus. It is Rashid who tells us Chinggis had ‘nearly five hundred wives and concubines, each taken from a different tribe. Some he requested after the Mongol fashion of marriage, but most he took as booty when he conquered a territory or tribe.’ Hundreds of wives and hundreds of children is not gospel, although it is an internet fact. Rashid al-Din, prime minister, ex-Jewish Muslim who wrote the first world history, was nothing if not representative of the new cultural mash-up of the Mongols in government in Iran and China. When he writes, Mongol rulers have harems and concubines, but these are not Mongol words, and Chinggis kept to a frugal Mongol lifestyle. True, Chinggis’ wives after Borte were political signals; he took one from each steppe people who joined him, and then demanded a princess in treaty with Tangut and China, this being a clause that signified he had the better of them in the treaty. Further than that we are in guesswork, and Rashid’s five hundred looks like an exaggerated brag that he conquered five hundred tribes and peoples. In addition to Borte’s nine children, Rashid names four others, from women of the steppe. He doesn’t claim there were more offspring, in spite of the number of wives. To lose track of offspring would be suspicious, what with the prestige of the Chinggis line. Children from a casual rape were not thought nothing of: twice in his genealogies of Chinggisids, Rashid tells us that a certain child – a named Chinggis descendent – was begotten when his father had sex, once, with a slave’s wife. In each case the father isolated the woman in a tent away from her husband to see whether a pregnancy resulted, afterwards returned her to her family, and brought up the child. Rashid al-Din doesn’t leave out of his Chinggis count two who died in infancy, and his practice is to include daughters as well as sons. Thirteen children looks like a complete list.

Most general histories of the Mongols repeat Rashid’s five hundred wives figure and repeat the DNA meme. They do not offer a specific discussion of rape. It isn’t for the sake of Chinggis’ reputation that I want more scrutiny, more caution; it’s because these claims foster a connection between ‘Mongols’ and ‘rape’. Wives acquired in conquest are not the same as later institutionalised harems. Historians who write jocularly – one recent history book has Chinggis ‘go forth and multiply’ – need to remember they are writing about rape. What ends up on the internet is that Genghis ‘f___d every woman in sight’.

Rashid, too, is responsible for a quote that has grown to be ubiquitous; you can scarcely read about Genghis Khan without it. Because it’s so perfect – too perfect, we ought to suspect.

A man’s greatest pleasure is to defeat his enemies, to exterminate them and seize everything they have; to watch their wives weep, to ride their smooth steeds, to treat their lovely queens and concubines as pyjamas and pillows, to gaze on and kiss their rose-tinted faces, to suck their sweet lips berry-tinted like their nipples.

This quote is very often put into plainer language, so as to sound more like a thing Genghis Khan might say and less like a Persian historian. You’ve met the flowery language of Persian historians with Juvaini and his peris, above. To fiddle with the quote may seem like a fair way to do history. It is not a fair way to do history. You can’t change the words into more believable ones and then present them as what Genghis is known to have said. I’m afraid that’s cheating with the evidence. Did Chinggis talk about pyjamas and pillows? No. Did he say this at all, in his own language? His own language can be found solely in the Secret History of the Mongols, the only extant primary source. It is where to hear how the early Mongols thought and spoke, what stories they told themselves, what figures of speech they used; where to study their imaginations. I can only answer that similar talk of the use of women’s bodies, or of war as a pleasure (rather than a condition of life) does not occur in the Secret History.

So what about that Mongol lifestyle, what about abduction of women in steppe society? On this our source is the Secret History and we know so much because both Temujin’s mother and his wife were abducted. Since it is Temujin’s family we tell the story, and what we do is add violence. Value-add is violence-add, to us. Almost always, we have Borte, Temujin’s chief wife, raped violently by the man she is given to in an enemy tribe. Both Pamela Sargent and Stephanie Thornton in her novel The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan (2014) make him rape her in public, for humiliation or as normal treatment of a captured wife. None of this is from the Secret History. The text only says that this man ‘cared for’ or ‘kept’ her, and he is given a conscience in the story. He is her husband by coercion, but he is not a violent type and does not insult her. Mongol society had its rules around abducted women, had its expectations. In our fictions, we imagine violence instead.

Two incidents of mass sexual violence

Note: These two stories, post-Chinggis, are not told in the Secret History either. Again I have to say they are not gospel.

The Oirat had flouted Ogodei’s instructions as to where to give away their daughters. His new instructions were to assemble the girls of Oirat, four thousand by report, and whoever was present had to rape them. For once – and I mean once – we have in our sources a scene out of Game of Thrones; this is the kind of thing that happened at the celebrations when ‘Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendour’. Now let’s notice the differences. The Mongols thought this a tyrannical act and a disgrace to Ogodei. It was an enormity and a one-off. Ogodei included it in his four misdeeds when near the end of his life he gave in public his own verdict on his khanship, with a list of four things he did right and four things he did wrong. For Dothraki, on the other hand, this is perfectly normal behaviour.

Tolui on campaign in China is being pursued by an army much bigger than his own.

Because of their own multitude and superiority and the fewness of the Mongols, pride and vanity had taken root in their brains and they looked with the glance of contempt upon the Mongol army and spoke big words, saying: ‘We shall encircle these Mongols and their king, and take them prisoner, and do this and that to their womenfolk.’ And they gave expression to shameful ideas and unworthy desires.

After a fraught few days the Mongols defeat the Chinese army.

And because they had jeered at the Mongols, speaking big words and expressing evil thoughts, it was commanded that they should commit the act of the people of Lot with all the Chinese who had been taken prisoner.

‘The act of the people of Lot’ — for Rashid al-Din, with reference to the Sodom story in the Quran — is anal intercourse. Tolui takes revenge for the enemy’s obscene threats to Mongol women, and he takes it on the bodies of those who threatened. He seems to have invented this revenge for the situation. We don’t know what he might have heard of as a precedent. By this time the Mongols have fought halfway around the known world, and been exposed to much in foreign practices in warfare. Although this campaign is in North China, the enemy threats had teeth because Mongol women operated near front lines, involved in the baggage and in custody and transportation of loot. We think ‘camp followers’, but this is Mongol wives and daughters in official function.[4] It is worth noting too that obscenity has not been found a Mongol speech habit, in times when we can attest such things; foreign obscenities might have been upsetting.

You notice these are both cases of ordered rape – not licensed abandonment. They were ordered to rape and they did, whether tribal comrades or Chinese men. Mongols’ obedience to orders astonishes outsiders. Obedience is a dangerous weapon, as we know.

Tales of our own masculinity

Where I have dots in my transcript of Jack Weatherford, he explains to the questioner that Mongolians do not have the ‘macho’ culture of the West. It’s typical that Temujin is younger than his wife, the other way round from the West. Weatherford briefly sketches out a masculinity his audience doesn’t recognise. Mongolia is having its Me Too moment, but the terms won’t be exactly the same. Masculinity is not a constant across cultures, although the ‘young men’ bracket towards which much Mongol fiction is aimed, aren’t asked to consider this. They want to see themselves. In the first of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, Wolf of the Plains about young Genghis, masculinity is written as emotional lock-down and an absent father. Everything womanly is devalued and thought weak, down to the wives’ tribe Olqunot. There is no honour in this tribe living off giving wives to other tribes — unlike what’s in the Secret History, where the wife-giving tribes have prestige and boast of their peaceful relations to others. Instead, in Iggulden, they are debased, despised, and they bash their wives and daughters. Temujin’s father Yesugei cannot express his feelings, and his sons have to work very hard for a slight word of approval from him. It is a script of use to boys who have a difficult relationship with their fathers, and who see that men around them have trouble to emote. This isn’t criticism: it is right that our fiction be written for us. The bad thing is the ‘feedback loop’ whereby we believe this about Mongols – and disbelieve pictures that don’t resemble this.

Helen Young says that readers are caught in a ‘feedback loop’ in which George R.R. Martin’s work helps to create a neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages, which becomes their idea of what the Middle Ages ‘really’ looked like, which is then used to defend Martin’s work as ‘realistic’ because it matches their idea of the Middle Ages.[5]

If we come to acknowledge the simple truth that there is no reason to pin rape culture on the Mongols ahead of other medieval societies, that would be a great step forward. But at this point in the feedback loop, to disassociate Mongols and rape in the public mind frankly looks impossible. When we choose to portray Mongol men (against the evidence) as ultra-masculine, non-emotional and anti-weak, with a contempt for women, we prime them to be rapists. We prime ourselves to think of them as rapists.

Hyper-masculinity and its ills is Sargent’s main subject in her novel on Genghis Khan. Like Iggulden, she addresses a Western readership to say what she wants to say about men to them. She has a poignant story of a son, the consolation of the women’s quarters while he is a child, who at adolescence learns a shame of the womanly, acts from then on as if he despises his mother-figures, and takes his place in the ranks of men for whom rape is normal sex. This is a terribly sad story and told for a purpose. But whether we want to teach boys how to be men, or whether we want to spotlight toxic masculinity, in either case we write about Western culture. We displace Asian masculinities, we project ours into a Mongol setting. In a funny way this means we do examine our own rape culture when we write about the Mongols (or Dothraki). But we avoid admitting it’s ourselves. The distance of the Mongol setting lets us look at hyper-masculinity, emotional inability, and rape culture – our problems. Sargent was either aware that the masculinity she wrote about was Western or else she universalised. In her feminist fiction it is half-acknowledged that our toxic masculinity is the subject. She still badmouths the Mongols in order to do this, so I’m conflicted about her fiction.

You can see the difference if you watch English-subtitled films made in Mongolia about Chinggis Khan and his times. To grow up and be a man does not need that rejection of the mother, of the woman, seen in our fiction. The way Mongolian films portray grown men and their mothers – through the story of Chinggis Khan – would get a laugh, or an embarrassed titter, in Hollywood. These films are also far less violent than would float in Hollywood.

Jochi’s paternity makes a case study. Jochi is the child conceived around the time of Borte’s abduction and which man fathered him, Temujin or the enemy husband, was uncertain. The story we like to tell is about disputed paternity, and very often we have Temujin reject Jochi or hold his origins against him. The Japanese movie Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (directed by Shinichiro Sawai, 2007) makes disputed paternity the crux of the plot. Temujin’s mother and wife were both abducted; in the film first Temujin has to prove he is a true son, and then Jochi has to prove the same to Temujin. Both were in danger of infanticide at the hands of their fathers. Infanticide, as far as I know, is not attested in Mongol life. We hear a great deal about adoption of children, which suggests the steppe’s problem was underpopulation, not an excess of mouths to feed.

A scene in the Secret History tells us differently. Chagatai, the next son, is disgruntled to be number two and calls Jochi a bastard. Chinggis and one of his oldest friends react with shock and dismay. Jochi answers Chagatai, ‘Our father has always treated me the same as his other sons, and now you…’ The Secret History, I say again, is the only extant primary source. But audiences (in Japan this time) want a tale about the importance to men of paternity. So Temujin’s generosity to Jochi becomes a grudge in the great majority of our fiction. An honourable exception is Sergei Bodrov’s movie Mongol (2007), which has Temujin cheerfully adopt not one but two children of Borte’s by other men.

The Stallion Who Mounts the World

Dothraki await ‘the stallion who mounts the world.’

The stallion is the khal of khals promised in ancient prophecy, child. He will unite the Dothraki into a single khalasar and ride to the ends of the earth, or so it was promised. All the people of the world will be his herd.

Clearly the Stallion references Genghis Khan, whom Juvaini calls ‘the world-conqueror’. Perhaps I have said enough to make you see how unMongol this imagery is. It is a sexualised image that certainly the Mongols did not use in any official capacity, such as this Dothraki prophecy and public acclamation. It is fantasy. It is of the same stuff as the DNA meme. I have seen newspapers tell us that the DNA study means Genghis Khan was the alpha male of rapists in world history. I have seen history books say almost as much. But this is our sexualisation of conquest. The Mongols, to my knowledge, never spoke in these terms, or inclined towards such images. This is us.

image at WikiCommons
Description from the Commons: ‘The Bulgarian Martyresses, 1877 painting by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky, depicting the rape of Bulgarian women by Africanised Ottoman bashi-bazouks during the suppression of the April Uprising a year earlier, served to mobilise public support for the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) waged with the proclaimed aim of liberating the Bulgarians.’

I use this piece of propaganda because a writer whose work has been important to me, Dostoyevsky, fired up into one of his worst phases of ethnonationalism and issued racialised propaganda for this war himself, due to how newspapers wrote up the rape of Bulgarian women by Turks.

[1] You can begin here: http://nautil.us/issue/56/perspective/youre-descended-from-royalty-and-so-is-everybody-else

[2] ‘Jack Weatherford speaks about Genghis Khan at Embry-Riddle Honors Series’ on YouTube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=v81_hm8T92c. Weatherford on rape begins at 1:06:24.

[3] Carolyne Larrington in Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (I.B. Taurus 2016) says that Pascha’s circle were voluntary visitors, ‘Europeans who had come to trade or work there’. No, this is a community of captives.

[4] Some primary sources on women here, translated by Paul D. Buell: http://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/7.1/buell.html

[5] Shiloh Carroll, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Boydell & Brewer 2018), 6%.

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

Invent No Evil: hopepunk history

“The opposite of grimdark is hopepunk. Pass it on.”  

 

For me, the above short message (sent on Tumblr) is self-explanatory. I had for years pulled faces, quietly, at grimdark, and ‘hopepunk’ is a fabulous name for its antidote. If you need more, the originator of the word wrote a blog post: One atom of justice by fantasy novelist Alexandra Rowland.

Grimdark has no room for human improvement. Hopepunk, by Rowland’s explainer, scarcely believes in improvement – it isn’t ‘noblebright’ where the world can be set right, but in spite of that, it’s activist.

My fiction practice is activist. An example that I care about: execution.

Mongols have a reputation for a cut-his-head-off approach to justice. They even had back then, when ‘to punish in the way of Chinggis Khan’s Jasaq’ meant a capital punishment. At once I have to tell you two items of information to mitigate this impression. One is, over the course of Mongol history punishments inclined towards fines. Another is, when in government in China the Mongols greatly reduced (or simplified) the preexistent list of capital crimes. [1]  Even so, execution was a visible feature of life and in my story of the rise of Tchingis Khan I had frequent close encounters with execution to write about. How does a grimdark author write about executions, and how does a hopepunk?

A hopepunk author who hates capital punishment today (me) won’t let go to waste those ‘mitigations’ I mentioned. Behind a trend towards fines, there must have been sentiments, attitudes, people who didn’t like execution altogether. A hopepunk author notices an extraordinary reluctance to execute known individuals in the Secret History of the Mongols. A hopepunk author is fascinated by the information that Mongols considered it a cruelty to let a sentenced person wait for death.

Unlike Texas today, where you can wait on death row for years. Are you astonished to hear that 13th century Mongols have a critique of present-day execution in Texas on grounds of inhumanity? You shouldn’t be. Medieval Europe also offers critiques of modern indifference, if you look for them, if you want to write about them. Grimdark doesn’t want to: grimdark paints it black, and Grimdark Genghis is ‘ruthless’, ‘merciless’ – adjectives demonstrably untrue, but nailed onto his name in grimdark history. Grimdark fiction (and I have a certain fiction in mind), makes up execution practices, as hideous as possible, and presents them as ‘steppe culture’.

Aside from the demonisation of steppe culture, what does this do, what does this contribute to? It lowers our expectations for humans; it leads us to think, when our ‘civilizations’ are stripped away, this is what we are. Dystopian SF or barbarian HF: the grimdarks of both teach this lesson.

In the hopepunk camp myself, I think the lesson is untrue. Both camps can dig up evidence, of course, and frankly, I’m persuaded it’s a matter of temperament, where you sit. I won’t convert a grimdarker with my little pieces of evidence about the humanity of Mongols, or Vikings, or us after the breakdown of society in the imminent apocalypse.

I use execution as an example because no author has been more influential on me than Dostoyevsky, and his own close call with execution often turns up in his fiction. He describes the psychological cruelty of a wait for execution. His descriptions are what Mongols saw and knew, when execution was so near at hand and not removed from public view. In Europe at the same time, we probably think of public spectacle and ghoulish crowds. In the midst of this, though, I am only the more struck by accounts of times when a crowd decided to be sorry for the criminal instead, and made a great emotional event of their grief and sympathy. In an incident recorded by Beyhaqi, an ex-vizier is executed in the streets of Balkh, 1059. ‘The order was shouted out for people to stone him, but no-one touched a stone and everyone was weeping uncontrollably.’ Silver coins were given out to bribe ‘the rabble’ into picking up stones, but they didn’t fancy it, and the executioner had to strangle him. Perhaps it’s because I’m hopepunk that I find this a rare insight, and deeply indicative.

Hopepunk doesn’t paint it black; hopepunk searches out those chiaroscuro shafts of light. To let readers know, a crowd once in 11th century Balkh didn’t want to throw stones on instructions from the state. For a hopepunker, this is important. You’d better believe I’m going to seize on these nuggets and feature them in my fiction. When they are true.

And that’s the thing. When they are true. I have a rule, hard and fast (unusual for my rules): Invent No Evil. It feels like slander to say a person who was once alive committed a bad act I know he didn’t, or one he might be accused of in the gossip of his enemies, but can’t be convicted of. He may not have recourse to a court but I can feel his ghost, reading over my shoulder. Why would I trash the reputation of a person, even if he’s centuries dead?

To make a good story? Good for who? Not for Mongols. Not for Mongol image. I won’t make up evils so that you can think the worse of Mongols. Yes, you know it’s fiction, but fiction sticks. Fiction affects your views, and the majority of people think Mongols were pretty much as they appear in popular fiction. You know this is true.

But it’s not just about the Mongols, is it, about my chosen subject? It’s hopepunk. It’s the question: Are you hopepunk? Or are you grimdark? If you’re grimdark, pile on the evils, revel in them, invent them freely – since to you they are the truth. They are fair invention. Details are made up for the story, but the bottom line is accurate, this is the base of how humans behave.

If you’re hopepunk, it isn’t.

Invent no evil. The grimdarks do. It’s rude to quote actual examples, but you can imagine the kind of thing: cannibalisation of live enemies, etc. I’ll include every piece of evil that is well-documented in the sources, but I’ll never make evils up. I feel I have a duty to the historical people I write about, but behind that, deeper than that, in my hopepunk bones… you just wouldn’t catch me adding unnecessarily to the world’s evils, telling people this is how it is. There is evil enough in my tale without inventions. It does a disservice to the evils that took place: how can you look real evil in the face when you’ve confused the real with inventions? Hopepunk isn’t about avoidance.

Take Dostoyevsky in the House of the Dead. After his sentence to hang was commuted at the place of execution, he was sent to hang out in Siberia. A few political prisoners, gentry class, in with the serf class who were criminals. You can read about what happened to him in The House of the Dead, his documentary-novel. This is what he thought going in:

‘There are bad people everywhere, but among the bad there are always some good ones,’ I hastened to console myself. ‘Who knows? Perhaps these people are in no way worse than those outsiders, those who are outside the prison.’ I thought this and shook my head at the notion; but – God in Heaven – if only I had known then to what extent it was true!

Dostoyevsky wasn’t hopepunk when he went in. He was liberal-minded, idealistic, and ‘perhaps the convicts are as human as my outside acquaintances’ was a piety that he felt he ought to believe. It fell away quickly, once inside, and he experienced the prisoners as monsters – for years. Nearer to the end of his prison term than to its beginning, he underwent a change. He came out with a deep conviction, a kind of conversion that stuck with him for his life: that frail liberal piety he had in his head when he went in, turned out to be the actual truth. Nobody else had grasped it, he thought – none of his old acquaintance who would have mouthed the same piety, but didn’t have his lived experience of individual convicts – murderers and worse – whom at last he perceived as fully human.

Dostoyevsky is my guiding light in writing people who do evil. From the redemption of the criminal on the last page of Crime and Punishment to the round of cheers that finishes off his last book, he is unabashedly hopepunk. I’ve had several conversations with people who assume he’s grimdark, because they have heard of his dark material. No, he’s one of ours. Let me link you to a piece on his radical empathy, written by a novelist: Dostoyevsky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck.

I haven’t always had faith. I went through grimdark years fed by evolutionary psychology which I took to be the science of the day. The darkness was total, and in my anguish of spirit I reached out for Dostoyevsky, who fought tooth and nail against the unfreedoms of the science of his day. I don’t feel free in grimdark fiction; I feel trapped in a dark cell, otherwise known as its vision of humanity. Let the light in. There’s a window. Go hopepunk.

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1. see the section on ‘Law’ in Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer, Mongolia’s Culture and Society, Westview Press, 1979, pp. 353-63.

images:
red door © CaoChunhai/istock
snow leopard © Rixipix/istock

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series: https://books2read.com/b/AgainstWalls

sale and news

My ebooks are 50% off in the Smashwords Read an Ebook Sale, March 3-9.
Find them here: https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/232290

In other news, I had meant to finish several posts for this blog over Jan-Feb — ‘A Bastard Art’, the other three parts of which await me in draft. But I have plunged into full-time work on Amgalant Three. I have ambitions to publish 3.1 in ebook this year or early next — if I throw side projects to the wolves.

Where side projects belong, frankly.