About Bryn

Writer, Australia, ex-UK. I've been quietly at work on my historical fiction about 12th and 13th-century Mongols since 2003. It's my main occupation/obsession. Before that, I spent years on a creative translation of Beowulf (unfinished) and wrote science fiction. Keen on: walks by the sea, where I live. Baroque opera, Shostakovich, David Bowie. Books, old and a few new. Doctor Who and Star Trek: Discovery.

On Laury Silver’s list

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s a real honour to make Laury Silvers’ list of five ‘Seriously Historical’ historical novels. By this she means novels that ‘do history’ — do historian’s work, within the practical format of the novel.

Laury Silvers is the author of The Sufi Mysteries — exemplary of novels that do history, since Silvers not only draws on her previous scholarly work but pushes it further with the help of fiction. Fiction as a way to explore historical questions, fiction as a tool in itself.

Seriously Historical Historical Fiction

While you’re at Shepherd, you can catch up with my own list of five ‘Seriously Epic’ historical novels: Seriously Epic Historical Fiction. Or see Laury and I discuss our process in this joint interview by Julie Bozza: Interview with Bryn Hammond and Laury Silvers

I interview Sarah Tolmie


 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I had the fortune to interview Sarah Tolmie, medievalist, poet and novelist, about her novella with Tor.com, All the Horses of Iceland. We were hosted on The Great Raven, a blog owned by Sue Bursztynski.

I’m proud of this interview, which roves, like the novella, from Iceland to the steppe: The Secret History of the Mongols and Icelandic sagas; magic, priests, and shamans; historical fantasy and history; women, disability, and ghosts. If I can boast (and on my own blog who’s to stop me?), Sarah said, ‘These were the best questions about a book I have ever answered’ — and her answers are fire. Please visit The Great Raven and read.

An interview with Sarah Tolmie

 

status January 2022

I owe you a status report on Amgalant and related matters.

Amgalant Three, Scavenger City, sits in a doc of 490,000 words. This includes some of its notes, although most of that is draft. I had the cover for Scavenger City made at the same time as those for Against Walls and Imaginary Kings. The cover’s no secret — it’s better that you see I have serious intention to finish, than wait for a cover reveal.

My doc has less word count than it did a year ago, because I extracted a standalone, but Amgalant-adjacent novel, which I’ve titled An Ingratitude of Goats. It’s told from the perspective of three Tanguts — two captives of the Mongols, and one volunteer. This novel has an arts focus: one of my three is a musician from Temujin’s (historical) Tangut orchestra, and one is involved in the early flourishing of zaju, or popular opera. Extracting these storylines left Scavenger City more workable, and with a concentration on Temujin that continues from Against Walls and Imaginary Kings. But I’d love to write Goats.

The world being in the state it is, I need to add a note in case I am incapacitated. If worst comes to worst and I never finish Three, I’d like you to think of Amgalant not as an incomplete trilogy. I have treated each book as a novel in itself. They have ends, and I have allowed them to have their own stylistic features, as suited the individual work. Aside from that, Against Walls and Imaginary Kings together run through the chief content of the Secret History of the Mongols. In the Secret History, the post-1206 off-steppe conquests are almost addendums, written in much more cursory fashion than Temujin’s life on the steppe. In a way, my re-telling of the Secret History is done. The creators of that history, too, weren’t cut off, but wrote to the interests of their audience. If I fail to finish — which has been my nightmare — I’ll comfort myself that the original creators knew what was important, and their work has a sense of conclusion. Maybe I’m unwise to be writing Three at all, without the Secret History to rest on.

Nevertheless, that is my goal this year.

Epic HF: my five picks

For a site called Shepherd, I have chosen a list of five Seriously epic historical fiction.

In introducing each of them, I tried to discuss what makes a novel epic in my eyes. It isn’t just about size…

Have a look at my picks. They are five fabulous books.

 

 

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Image: Delacroix, Tiger Attacking a Wild Horse, from the Commons. I had this on my first edition cover, to express an epic conflict.

Shaman story in Bell Press anthology

I am happy to have a story in an anthology from Bell Press.

Bell Press publishes literary anthologies and operates on the unceded Coast Salish Territories of the Musqueam, Tsleil Waututh, and Squamish people.

The Knot Wound Round Your Finger is an anthology on the theme of memory. Memories lost, memories made. What to discard and what to keep? How do we form them and how do they form us? From speculative and historical fiction to memoir and creative non-fiction, each piece explores these fragments of the past and how they trouble us or offer comfort.

Edited by Devon Field

Contributors: Deborah Bean, Mark Blickley, Helen Bowie, Heather Diamond, Benjamin Gardner, Heidi Greco, Bryn Hammond, Geoff Hart, NC Hernandez, Joanna Michal Hoyt, Shereen Hussain, Ibrahim Babátúndé Ibrahim, Vandana Nair, Stephen O’Donnell, Emma Prior, Karen Rollins, Lorraine Schein, Carsten Schmitt, Shanon Sinn

My short story, ‘Ill Spirits’, concerns the memory work a shaman does in a community.

“The stitching Taliat said to Paliap perplexed, ‘A shaman works in grief and love as I work in skin and sinew.’”

I wrote this story because I hadn’t found room in Amgalant, yet, to say enough about shamans, emotions, and spirits as a memory of harm, suffered and inflicted. Late in Two, Temujin comes close:

“Our sane spirits sit at the hearths of their fathers and cause us no disquiet. We don’t have a justice court of God, we have the ghosts of our injustices and they haunt us, and they aren’t just, Borte. They are hurt creatures… Ill spirits are another sort of history, the history of our ill acts. If our spirits can’t be escaped, why, our victims can’t escape. Justice is an artifice. What is actual is emotions.”

I stole a line from him to write ‘Ill Spirits’. I stole the title, with its play on ill as in malign and ill as in sick. In my draft my shaman in the story said after him, ‘Justice is an artifice. What is actual is emotions’, but I gave him his own lines, to press the same point.

The story — as does Amgalant on the belief system of the Mongols — owes heavily to the wonderfully rich study Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon (Oxford UP 1996). For an explanation of Mongols’ understanding of spirit attacks as caused by social harm, often to the most vulnerable, see my post on Mongols and the plague, where I quote extensively from Humphrey and Onon.

While writing, I was aware that shamans have been ill-served by fiction. Zen Cho, in a Roundtable on Faith Depiction in SFF transcribed at Strange Horizons, says this is still the case. So I am out to undo a few misconceptions on the way.

For soft stags and hard does, see Bruce Bagemihl, Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity (St. Martin’s Press 2000).

The Knot Wound Round Your Finger is now available in ebook and paperback.
Order at Bell Press.

New Historical Note

I have a new Historical Note in my Amgalant four-set, which I post beneath.

The original series (Against Walls & Imaginary Kings) have several appendices, while the four-set I kept slimline. As I prepare them for paperback, however, I’ve written an updated historical note for the four-set.

I find the readers’ site Goodreads a useful place to watch what general readers are thinking about Mongols. I pick up the state of play from readers’ reviews of Mongol-subject books, whether scholarly, popular history, or fiction. My overview is addressed to such readers, a response to the kind of questions they express about Mongol history and its historians.

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Historical Note

If you’ve read the novel first, you’ll know that I refer closely to a text, the Secret History of the Mongols, written in the thirteenth century. This primary source stands to my fiction as canon stands to a transformative or fan work: it can’t be changed, and I have to allow for everything in it. A report on my historical accuracy starts there. As for how historical the Secret History is or tries to be, I believe its creators had serious aims to record what was true. Even when the history uses the style of oral epic, this is reserved for people’s speeches; and speeches were committed to memory with the help of poetic techniques. So I do not cut out any details as unlikely, or as too like a story. No history-telling method escapes the effects of transmission. Besides, I am at least as interested in ways the Mongols told their history to each other, in how they imagined their immediate past, as I am in ‘what happened’.

What about my novelist’s imagination? From the Secret History, I give you ‘the truth’ and ‘the whole truth’: meaning, if it’s in there, it’s in mine, and nothing that is in there I leave out of mine. But on the third clause, ‘and nothing but the truth’ – no, a novelist can’t do that with such a puzzle of a thirteenth-century text. I give you much else that isn’t in the original, to extrapolate from its brief glances and explain its shifts in action and in character, so concisely told as to be often enigmatic. The text leaves motives unstated, except as people report them – in its conscientious historicity. Although rich in subjectivities as self-presented or as seen by others, the narrative does not guess at people’s insides. Whereas I am a novelist, and love to construct motive out of an odd sequence of conduct and a few riddles of quotes.

For more on the Secret History, my interpretations of it, and my accounts of how a novelist works with primary source material, see posts on my website amgalant.com, or my craft essay Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe.

Onto secondary works. For a bibliography, again, my website can lead you to where I keep my virtual steppe shelves. I like to review Mongol books both scholarly and popular. It’s hard to pick a few works to list here, but I can’t resist the opportunity to mention İsenbike Togan. Togan has chosen often to publish in Central Asian journals in order to support them, and this means her scholarship can be less well known. A specific debt I owe is to archaeologist Gideon Shelach-Lavi for Hoelun’s ‘Great-Antlered Stag’ lesson to her children. But if there is one book I could not have written without, it is Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge and Power among the Daur Mongols by Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon. In these pages is found the lion’s share of my research on Mongols’ belief system. The book is anthropology on the twentieth century, but Urgunge constantly refers back to the thirteenth century as the classic age in Mongols’ memory. In any case, history is well fleshed out with anthropology when sources are skimpy.

Let me make a general comment. When I began to research for these novels in 2003, the state of Mongol history was fairly dire. I felt assaulted by my own library. Since then there has been an opening-up of Mongol studies, sometimes called ‘the cultural turn’, that takes into account material history, art history, intellectual history. A sense for culture was exactly what the old standard history, David Morgan’s, lacked: it came across as Eurocentric because it had no idea of interpreting the Mongols through their own culture. The advent of Jack Weatherford in 2004 was a shock, not least to me. What he did invaluably was inject a big dose of anthropology into our historical understanding. Straight historians were hostile at first, but by now there is far more acceptance of Weatherford. As for me, I’m glad I conceived my novels – their gist, and the character of Tchingis – before Weatherford published, or I’d have had an anxiety of influence. The reason I spell him ‘Tchingis’ was to distinguish him in my head as my character in my fiction – to develop him out of, but away from, that library of mine (he is nobody else’s Chinggis: but he is possible, from the evidence). The ‘cultural turn’ is not only about the Mongol Exchange – an update of the Pax Mongolica idea, that looks at exchanges between cultures in the joined-up world under Mongol governance. It is also about cultural awareness in our history-writing. 

Things aren’t as simple as that old work is Mongol-negative and new work is Mongol-positive. Individual historians still differ greatly. In the prehistory of Mongol historiography, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries saw amazingly positive takes, while a couple of early twentieth-century writers are among my champions. Igor de Rachewiltz in his last interview spoke of his resistance to the new trend, and he remains influential through his Secret History translation for Brill, where his negative views are evident in his translation choices as well as in his commentary. In the popular arena, one of the most negative assessments of Chinggis I have ever anguished over is Frank McLynn’s 2015 biography. I can only say, be aware. Read widely.

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Paperbacks of 1.1 and 1.2 are already available, at least on Amazon. Elsewhere, I hope, soon.

 

Mongols and the plague

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Was plague present in Mongol armies from the beginning of the conquests? New research by Dr Monica Green in the ‘biological archives’ has put the date of the Black Death back by a century. You can read a write-up in the Smithsonian. Dr Green’s original article The Four Black Deaths may need institutional access, but she summarises her findings in a Twitter thread.

It’s going to be a plague year on my blog. I want to look closely at the historical evidence for bubonic plague in the wars I am writing about in Amgalant. It is not too late to change plague’s status in my fiction, from an ominous mention to a big player. Then, I have been sitting on a before-and-after post about what was lost in the Great Plague: an easy connection between Asia and Europe that people forgot in the post-plague recession, but which we can see reminiscences of in art and romance. For that I am re-reading Boiardo, whose Orlando Innamorato features a wonderful Mongol khan.

Today’s post is a compilation of material I have on Mongols and disease – as I start to re-think my material in light of the new research. It’s immediately applicable to Amgalant, since Three treats the off-steppe conquests. My drafting is currently in Tangut, North China, and the Central Asian campaigns into Black Qatat and Hwarazm.

It is in the territory of Black Qatat [Qara Khitai], timed to Chinggis Khan’s first excursions there before 1218, Dr Green locates the polytomy, or ‘Big Bang’, that dislodged a reservoir of virulent Y. pestis strain – a strain associated with the Black Death – and sent it in several directions. East, back to Mongol sieges in China in the 1220s. West to the siege of Baghdad, 1258. Elsewhere with the Mongol armies in their unprecedented mobility. Previously, Hymes [see bibliography] had placed this reservoir in marmot populations in Tangut, but Dr Green argues for Issyk Kul. Either way, Chinggis’ first off-steppe activity is now thought to have kicked up a marmots’ nest of plague.

Was plague pre-existent on the Mongols’ steppe? I had assumed yes, and meant to write in Amgalant of plague management at home, becoming much less safe when Mongols inhabited other environments. I took management strategies from far more modern accounts. In contemporary Mongolia,

Mongolians hunt marmots for fur and meat, which leads to a high risk of plague infection. As a result, human plague cases have been identified almost every year in Mongolia beginning in 1940 and the mortality rate is approximately five times higher than the world average… From 1940 to 2008, there were 521 human plague cases registered in Mongolia, of which 69.9% resulted in death. Bubonic plague accounted for 68.4% of all human cases registered from 1989 to 2008, the pneumonic form accounted for 29.3% of cases, and the septic form accounted for the remaining 2.3% of the cases. The majority of human cases were infected by marmots (75.2%), 20.3% were infected by other people, and 4.5% were infected from fleas… People contracted plague through direct contact while handling and skinning infected marmots. [‘Plague in Mongolia’: see bibliography]

But Dr Green finds the Black Death strain of Y. pestis only present in Mongolia post-polytomy – brought back from the conquests. So perhaps the pre-Chinggis Mongols only had to deal with milder strains, which are traceable to ancient times. In Against Walls I have a passage on containment at home, before they left the steppe:

Sweat dribbled from him like a distillery. Violent nausea, splitting headache, listlessness, sleeplessness, sweats: adds up to marmots’ plague. There were contagions now with people dependent on marmot meat. You always test a marmot first; an unsafe animal is dopey, incurious, slow. When plague comes to a ger the people of the ger, the dead, the early-symptomed and the outwardly untouched, hang black felt over the door and shut themselves in, for the plague demon to do his worst with them, whom he has in his claws; to keep his rampage within the circle of their ger. Greater love hath no-one, greater courage. Yesugei was moved every time he thought of that. Ordinary people. The plague demon – what sin created him? The shamans can tell you: a neglect here, a cruelty there. Can he ever be tamed? Of course; every demon is a victim too; once he was human, once animal, once like you and me. We make our own demons, we can unmake them. Only the circle is vicious, quipped a shaman. A circle is holy. The Tartar with the wife who drew a circle in the air and put his head into his hands. Yesugei poked at his armpits, his groin, where the black bulbs grow; no tumour, no tenderness; and he ought to be giddy.

This is Yesugei, father of the future Chinggis Khan – poisoned; he only suspects plague. As the Persian historian Juvaini wrote, in the years before Chinggis Khan Mongols were impoverished and ate crisis foods. Explorer Tim Severin, In Search of Genghis Khan (1991) has a chapter on ‘The Black Death’: he met pestes live in the countryside and interviews a Minister for Public Health. Severin is told, ‘the Mongol name for plague was “marmot sickness” and it had been known by this description since the time of Genghis Khan.’ The 13th-century traveller John of Plano Carpini mentions black felt, although not plague:

When anyone is sick past cure, they put a spear there and wind black felt round it and from then onwards no outsider dares to enter within the bounds of his dwellings.

If Mongols experienced the Black Death’s type of plague not as homegrown and familiar but new and from a strange environment, how they felt about unknown infections becomes highly relevant. Humphrey and Onon in Elders and Shamans look at cases in ethnography from the beginning of the 20th century:

More important was the disturbance of hitherto relatively closed communities as a result of war, migration and banditry and the emergence of new spirits. Alien shamans roamed abroad. The Tungus especially mistrusted Daur shamans, if only because they were suspected of bringing the Bushku spirit with them… The experience of new pervasive misfortunes and pestilence was constructed by ‘shamanism’ as being the result of the activity of new spirits, almost always from the outside. [325-6]

Do we see, in early Mongol sources, any notion that new, dangerous spirits have been introduced among them as a result of new environments and movement? Yes, we have exactly this in the tale of Ogodei’s sickness while on campaign in China. Next are excerpts from Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe, where I examine this story for Mongol attitudes to war. In Hymes’ study of Chinese sources for the Mongol wars, plague sites are locations of major war events, largely city sieges. Plague might have been associated with war, by Mongols too.

In the story, Tolui offers himself as a sacrifice to save his brother Ogodei the khan, who lies sick from a spirit-attack. The story is told in two places: the Secret History of the Mongols and Rashid al-Din’s Jami al-Tawarikh. In my post Two Sacrificial Deaths I have given both tellings almost complete.

There is a strong urge to ‘see through’ Tolui’s end for the real story; it is almost universal that histories say he died from alcohol abuse. The Secret History writes his end as a self-sacrificial magic death, whereby he substitutes himself for his sick brother the khan. Ogodei lies gravely ill, and the medicine people determine he is under attack from the local spirits, here in North China where he has waged successful war. The medicine people report: ‘The masters and khans (usual honorary words for spirits) of the land and the waters of the Qitad people, now when their people and folk are spoiled and now when their cities and towns are destroyed, rage violently against the khan.’ When they offer the angry spirits (with divination ‘by bowels’) whatsoever other thing they ask for in his stead – from among ‘animals, food, gold and silver, people’ – Ogodei’s condition only worsens; when they ask whether another member of the royal family might serve in his stead, Ogodei improves enough to talk. Tolui volunteers and drinks ‘the waters of conjuration’; he quickly feels the effects (he says ‘I am drunk’, that being a familiar sensation to him; the phrase has not served him well) and dies, it seems within a few days. Ogodei recovers.

 Either Tolui believed himself to death or the waters of conjuration held substances – infection, potion – to help him to that end: both can occur, with such magic deaths… Mongols believed in the efficacy of a sacrifice and in its heroic value – which we know by the way the tale is told. Tolui or his near and dear laid claim to these high qualities in his culture. Perhaps he only had to want to be brilliant, admired and fearless: the boast he gives the spirits goes along with this. I am handsome, he says, I am militarily accomplished. In Rashid he extends this brazenly: I am better than my brother. So he convinces the spirits they want him: he is of high value. He was in his prime, and fresh from an extraordinary success – again, in Rashid. It is not about fear of spirits, but Tolui’s fearlessness…

Spirits enter rarely into the Secret History. They have to be occasioned; the history reports on them when people are affected by them, when they motivate action. So at the death of Tolui we hear, as we have not heard before, about a conquered people’s spirits, their activity against the Mongols, even in Mongol victory. It seems a fine understanding of disease: the diseases the army met on campaign in places new to them, which took a toll even after victories. Here the one fallen ill is Ogodei, and his illness is thought to be inflicted by local ‘masters of the land and waters’, in anger at the devastation, disruption, at the human death that accompanied the Mongols’ war. What’s more, it is considered fit and right that a son of Chinggis be sacrificed to assuage these spirits. Whether he was sacrificed in actuality or not, the story considers this a fair, if sad bargain. Tolui does not say ‘I am handsome and accomplished’, he uses metaphor. This is his short poem:

I have cleft the back of the salmon.
I have split the back of the sturgeon.
I have conquered those near,
I have pierced those afar.
Fair of face, long of spine am I
.[16]

Rashid translates this into workaday prose and has him claim he has done great damage in the war: therefore the spirits want him. To imagine that a Chinggis son – one who boasts how fine he is – makes a fitting sacrifice for the spirits of their victims (already dead) is extraordinary, and casts an interesting light on how Mongols thought of war. The devastation they caused did not go unremarked; this is a story about consequences – consequences, first, for the enemy, and next a cost to the victors. It was never safe to kill on this scale: the victims had spirits too. In a shamanist world, spirits of place are everywhere, spirits loyal, in one sense or another, to local humans, and though the humans be defeated and ‘lie in heaps like rotten trees’ (the usual description of a forest of dead after a battle), the spirits can yet avenge them. By the story, by the religious understanding, Mongols make acknowledgement that their acts have upset these presences, who obey their own interests – who have a right, in a world of plural spirits, to exact a price in reparation; we may wonder whether we can put this in psychological terms and see an unease with the havoc they have caused.

I’d particularly note this is a lashing-out, a fightback by victims – by casualties, even when these are already dead. Briefly in my passage from Against Walls, Yesugei thinks that the first cause of a disease such as plague is one person’s past mistreatment of another person. To explain this conception of disease as a result of social ills, here are quotes from Humphrey and Onon on spirits – harm-causing spirits – as ‘discursive interpretations of relationships’. Roles: the spirit is the Victim, the Aggressor the one who hurt them; the Sufferer whomever the spirit takes it out on…

It might seem that vengeance should be taken on the one who did the harm, in other words that the Aggressor and Sufferer would be the same person; but this was usually not the case. There are several ‘reasons’ for this. The initial hurt to someone who became a barkan spirit almost always happened in the distant and mythicized past, whereas the vengeance was taken on someone living now who just happened to be the innocent sufferer. Secondly, the initial hurt was often caused by the way things are in society, such as the structure of male dominance, social neglect, or war, and therefore the Aggressor in these cases was a general category such as ‘our ancestors’ or ‘powerful officials’. Thirdly, as Urgunge explained to me, ‘If in life you were afraid of someone, in death you would be too,’ meaning that the initial victim, a young woman spirit for example, would not always dare to take revenge on a powerful man. This was the case even if it had been just such a man who had tormented her and caused her to die and become a vengeful spirit… All we need to remember here is that although the Aggressor harmed the Victim-spirit, the Victim-spirit would then haunt a different Sufferer (or an unbounded set of Sufferers). This not only created a possibly endless cycle, but it rendered the initial injustice relevant to all the potential ‘innocent’ victims of a revenge attack, revealing this situation of hurt to be a matter of a more general intersubjectivity. [262]

With an eye to war casualties’ enlistment of spirits in Tolui’s story, note that it is vulnerable or low-power members of society who gain efficacy as spirits. Also consider how open-ended the harm and its effects are understood to be, and how the innocent suffer.

Only the involvement of a further crucial person, the Redressor, could halt the vengeance by atoning for the wrong. Now it might be imagined that it was the present Sufferer who would redress the hurt to the Victim, for example by making a propitiation, thus freeing themselves from the haunting spirit. However, this seems to have hardly ever happened. Rather, another person was involved, this being someone who cared for the patient and was therefore willing to make an offering (or anything else demanded) on their behalf. The Sufferer from vengeance was essentially passive, except that suffering itself evoked the love of the Redressor. There could be nothing worse, Urgunge said, than being left to bear the haunting of a spirit unaided. Indeed this was virtually unimaginable. The loving relative had to bear the cost of redressing the ancient wrong, however ruinously expensive were the propitiations demanded by the Victim-spirit. [263]

It is fascinating to read Tolui’s story against this template. Spirits might be afraid to strike powerful men who did the harm? But these spirits attack the centre of power, Chinggis Khan’s family. True, Ogodei is ascribed a complaisant personality and attracted a lot of anecdotes about his excesses in his wish to please people. Tolui, on the other hand, ran the harshest of the Mongol campaigns, in Khurasan. If you had to choose a soft target among Chinggis’ sons, you’d try your luck with Ogodei. Tolui fits the Redressor role well: he is the ‘loving relative’, being famous for his love of his brother. Ogodei is passive in the story, except that his suffering ‘evokes’ a sacrifical love.

Other societies connect spirit-inflicted illness to different emotions, their most negatively-coded.

The Daur sensitivity was… to hard-hearted neglect and its corollary, revenge, which moved inescapably through social life, from past hurts through the present and into the future. The cure of a patient by a shaman was thus never simply a cure but more like a drama-in-history, a revival of ‘memories’ which spread their tentacles into the present, giving the hue of ancient emotions to the present suffering… The shaman provided the public explanation. He could rearrange the jagged parts, sending back the spirit, ‘turning’ (nairuula—) the multiplicity of twisted human relationships, but everyone knew that this was only a brief respite, as the past had its momentum, caused by the endless activity, the blundering and the cruelties of people in the past.

Shifting the causes for misfortune to the mythicized past had one notable effect. It meant that human relations at the present could be envisaged as harmonious, as if they really corresponded to the clan ideal. The relations of aggression were with the spirits. Urgunge said, ‘No one quarrelled in Daur (i.e. in his childhood). You don’t want to believe it, but you have a Western point of view. They dared not quarrel…’ [A]nger was repressed and cast backwards to archetypal scenes. [Shamans and Elders, p. 270-1]

Those other ethnographers from the West, friars who visited the Mongols at home in the 13th century, noted the smooth relations in Mongol society. Nobody displayed interpersonal anger. John of Plano Carpini in a section ‘Of their character’ wrote,

They rarely or never contend with each other in word, and in action, never. Fights, brawls, wounding, murder are never met with among them.

Homegrown spirits, I extrapolate, have the anger displaced onto them as with Urgunge’s Daur Mongols of the 20th century; so that home-known diseases, even plague, become a theatre for social conflicts. But what happens when a new plague is met away from home, a more vicious plague?

I think my conclusion here is, we can’t do better than to read historical anthropology like Humphrey & Onon’s, to try to see how Mongols thought about the causes, the course and the cure of infectious disease. Urgunge constantly refers back to the 13th-century Mongols as a classic age, and relates his 20th-century lived experience to what he knows of them. The early 20th century was a disturbed time, and ethnography on how war, spirits and new diseases interacted then, can help us imagine the situation for 13th-century Mongols.

Such mental landscapes of disease-understanding are essential background for study of the Mongols and plague.

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Image: Turner, Death on a Pale Horse, from the Commons.
This is the picture I had on my first cover for Amgalant Two. It didn’t signify plague, it signified Jamuqa. I still love it.

 

Bibliography

Bolormaa Galdan, Undraa Baatar, Baigalmaa Molotov, and Otgonbaatar Dashdavaa, Plague in Mongolia, Vector-Borne and Zoonotic Diseases, Volume 10, Number 1, 2010,  pp. 69-75. https://www.liebertpub.com/doi/10.1089/vbz.2009.0047

Monica H. Green, The Four Black Deaths, The American Historical Review, Volume 125, Issue 5, December 2020, Pages 1601–1631, https://doi.org/10.1093/ahr/rhaa511

Hymes, Robert (2014) “Epilogue: A Hypothesis on the East Asian Beginnings of the Yersinia pestis Polytomy,” The Medieval Globe: Vol. 1 : No. 1 , Article 12.
Available at: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/tmg/vol1/iss1/12

Caroline Humphrey with Urgunge Onon, Shamans and Elders: Experience, Knowledge, and Power among the Daur Mongols (Oxford UP 1996).  

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