I offered to review Mongol history titles for them after they took my novel for review, the results of which are here:
I offered to review Mongol history titles for them after they took my novel for review, the results of which are here:
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. 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 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.
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. 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. 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.
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.
 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.
 Some primary sources on women here, translated by Paul D. Buell: http://worldhistoryconnected.press.uillinois.edu/7.1/buell.html
 Shiloh Carroll, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Boydell & Brewer 2018), 6%.
“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.  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.
1. see the section on ‘Law’ in Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer, Mongolia’s Culture and Society, Westview Press, 1979, pp. 353-63.
red door © CaoChunhai/istock
snow leopard © Rixipix/istock
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.
I owe you a report on what I’m up to.
As you saw, I gave Amgalant Three its cover and its back cover copy when we did second editions of One and Two in April. My wonderful designer Kathleen Lynch at Black Kat Design said she particularly liked the quote used for Scavenger City, so that line’s gotta stay. It was hairy writing a book description before the book is finished, but the plot’s mapped out and I have 200,000+ words raw or in the oven. I was confident to tell you the trajectory:
In the steppes of High Asia, the year 1206…
“You want me to tell His Celestial Majesty that there is a new Celestial of Sheepskins?”
“That is exactly what I want you to tell him.”
Tchingis Khan, a king in sheepskins, has positioned himself as the champion of the People in Felt Tents – of a way of life, which China wishes to abolish. Cities have scavenged on the nomads of the steppe for centuries. The crusade he unleashes turns cities into zones for scavenger birds.
Is this a war without end, the worst war? Spirits of violence drive Tchingis Khan, but a spirit of peace might stop him.
Scavenger City is the third and last in a trilogy that gives voice to the Mongols in their explosive encounter with the great world under Tchingis Khan. Both epic and intimate, Amgalant sees the world through Mongol eyes. It’s different from the world you know.
So when’s it due out?
The brute fact is, I can’t afford to focus entirely on Amgalant but must try to attract readers and gain sales through other work. I have been slow to face this fact. To support Amgalant with more accessible work on the side was a strategy Libbie Hawker — who has made such a success of independent publishing since — advised me to try in 2012 when she reviewed the first edition of One. I should have listened at the time, but I had my consciousness trained to live in Amgalant to the exclusion of the rest of life. The notion of ‘other books to be written’ I repudiated: I was a one-book woman. That state of concentration I achieved let me write One and Two, but didn’t let me extract myself afterwards.
However, inevitably and happily, Amgalant has thrown out lots of ideas for stories and short novels attached to the main work. I have in hand three short novels, two at advanced stages of outline and draft, to be written concurrently with Three. They share its research.
The first, that I expect to write in 2019, is set among the ‘oi irgen’ of the Secret History, the forest peoples. Readers of One and Two are familiar with the Uriangqot and the Merqot, and we meet others in Three. This first new novel is the most distant of the three from Amgalant. It’s set in the 1500s, and it’s fantasy. It’s fantasy because it’s constructed from the oral poetry of the forest peoples, whose narratives themselves are ‘fantasy’ to us, with spirits and monsters and inhuman humans. Jamuqa became a fan of the Uriangqot ‘quest’ songs when visiting Temujin in the Sacred Mountains [Against Walls, chapter 8].
Next is a historical, set in China shortly after Amgalant ends. This is about a figure whose career was only possible in the chaos of the Mongol invasion of Jin China: its working title is Sister Chaos. She became a governor for the Mongols – not the only woman governor they appointed. But she began as a commoner, a rebel against the Jin government, and the captain of a rebel army. She is historical, and spectacular, but her behaviour – including her sexual behaviour – violated basic standards, which, her chief scholar says, is why she never caught on as a popular tale, a fighting-girl hero like the fictional Mulan.
In both these short novels (short at least by Amgalant’s standards), I can explore things that are present in Amgalant but that do not belong there in-depth. My main challenge with Amgalant has always been to keep my shaggy beast shapely and not stuff too much in. To ‘stuff in’ is a property of epic but shape is crucial to any work of art or craft whatsoever. It’s actively useful to me to draw off material from Three, which is far too huge in draft. So the historical, for instance, watches the beginnings of zaju, the popular opera which exploded in the conditions of Mongol China, as a cultural fusion. The fantasy has as the main event matters of stories and spirits – and how these two are interchangeable terms – that Temujin is aware of, but that he doesn’t have time to go into as he’d like.
Three, if not lean, is more healthy for these excisions. And as a strategy, we’ll have short novels that we hope lead readers back to Amgalant. I think of them as Amgalant off-cuts. I have more lined up.
Now I’ll do a highlights of 2018. That’s easy. There were three. Three reviews.
To go with our launch of second editions, Dmitry Kosyrev, who wrote The Pet Hawk of the House of Abbas and its sequels — translated into English, but better known in Russian — was kind enough to review Against Walls in the Asian Review of Books. Immense thanks to the ARB for accepting an obscure independently-published novel for review in the first place. I have since reviewed myself for the ARB (a Mongol history title; I hope to do more), and editor Peter Gordon has said he likes to bring to attention lesser-knowns; sometimes an Asian Review of Books review is the only one a book gets.
It was a thrill to have Rohase Piercy pick up a book of mine. 2018 is the year her 30th Anniversary Edition of My Dearest Holmes came out. Thirty years ago, this was a formative influence on my sister Julie and me. We were fangirling when Rohase Piercy spoke to us on our three Goodreads blogs; and then she read our work!! Again, mine — not my sister’s, who does better — is very small-time, with (let’s face the grim statistics) tiny numbers of reviews; to have bigger-fish authors validate it is a thing, and I cannot thank them enough.
Lastly, on Christmas Eve a visitor to this blog, Chris, cheered me with a review of Against Walls and Imaginary Kings. Because Chris has often left comments on my site I am allowed to feature him (Author Ethics 101: interact with readers only when they initiate). I’d like to tell him, what he ‘wishes for’ in Three is exactly what he’s getting. It is reassurance to me to have a reader ask for more, and not less, of the Temujin and Jamuqa story. I have the same view as Chris: their story is the core and the soul of my trilogy.
I have to mention too a story I had published this year in the Manifold Press anthology No Holds Bard: Modern Modern LGBTQ+ fiction inspired by the works of William Shakespeare. I seized my opportunity to write about Shakespeare’s Sonnets and what they might have meant to him. The story has an Amazon from his late play The Two Noble Kinsmen – and no doubt she was Scythian, so there is a steppe connection.
Before I go, I have a New Year’s resolution. It is: not to leave half-finished blog posts in my documents. I’ll post more often than I did last year. I have a lot sitting around.
One day — and I aim to be still alive for the event — there’ll be published a Brill’s Companion to the Reception of Chinggis Khan, to match the Reception of Alexander the Great I just saw announced (Table of Contents).
It must have 800 pages, like the Alexander. I was disappointed enough when Cambridge’s History of Inner Asia: The Chinggisid Age came out at half the spine-width of one of its History of China volumes. Obviously my sin is envy.
I have slowly become as interested in Chinggis reception as in the history itself. Not only our reception today — his portrayal in popular and academic mediums; the study of that portrayal, its whys and wherefores, its habits and its tropes — but the history of reception. His portrayal, say, in 18th-century France and England, which is a high point (I dipped into this in my post Genghis Englishhed in the Eighteenth Century). His reception by Roger Bacon in the English 13th century, and in turn the use of Bacon and Mongols in John Cowper Powys’s 1956 novel The Brazen Head. His reception in biographies, like the one by Ralph Fox which I collected to see how a British communist in 1936 explains the Mongol conquests. (What for? Believe it or not, it sheds light on how we do. We are positioned too.) A year or two ago I outlined a vast research project on the reception of Turks and Mongols in Byzantine and Persian historians of the 11th to 13th centuries, and how the shapes they made of history might persist in centuries afterwards. And I’d love to fulfil that project, as far as I am equipped to… except my first task is the piece of reception I am writing myself: my novel.
One part of Chinggis reception that does attract attention is in modern-day China. The ‘Who owns Chinggis’ thing would be a controversial chapter in this prospective book.
No history is told straight. It is always received. And what Chinggis has been made to represent in different times and places, fascinates me. Reception history fascinates me: I collect those I find analogous, such as Emma Bridges on ‘imagining’ Xerxes and the Persian Wars. Because again, I want to see a similar for Chinggis and Mongols.
A comedy in one act
by Bryn Hammond
Like trucks the Scythian wagons pull to a stop in a circle, and women climb down from the driver’s seats.
The trader said:
On my business trips into Scythia I deal exclusively with women. Cash transactions, foreign commerce: these are in the wives’ charge. Classified as household, by extension, I think, from spoils – which, if not on four feet, go straight into the women’s hands. They drive the only repositories, you see. Because of this – at least if you ask a trader, or ordinary folk who know them through exchange, and not important men of politics and war – Scythian women have always been the interface of contact. Towns don’t scare them. The women look much more outward than the men. They are more conversable.
To my frank exasperation, Greeks not on the ground describe society in terms of what the men do. That’s a habit that ignores both my needs and the average marketgoer’s. I have listened to scrolls by experts who briefly treat the Scythians’ home wagons as if they follow the basic principles of Greek houses, and pay them no further attention, which means they can give no adequate account of the Scythian economy. I am a humble trader, no great shakes in my city, and often feel myself inside a cloak of invisibility. But my advice to you, friend, is don’t look past the women as if they were not there. We Greeks have a blind spot. Unless we fantasise of Amazons…
The home wagons, in most months of the year, you’ll find a women’s town. Imagine you leave your wife to run the household and go off for a three-months’ jaunt – to catch wild horses in the mountains, or join the king’s great hunt, or on campaign. Except the household is on wheels, and she can trundle for a thousand miles uninterrupted, unimpeded. That way stretch the steppes of Asia, and none of us know where they end. Nomads do: they have laughed heartily when I tell our geographers’ tales about the monster races whom we say live just beyond the Scythians – those with anatomy of humankind and beasts, or body parts dislocated and distorted. In exchange for my tales I try to elicit from them report of what lies beyond. A great-grandmother answered me succinctly. She said, ‘more of us, and more of you.’ No monsters, then. But other Greeks.
When I am in a town of women, with no Scythian man to talk to, I simply forget they are of the wrong sex, and behave with the courtesy I would towards a foreign citizen. In Scythian terms, women have participatory citizen status; just accept it. I cannot transact with the men, and I became accustomed to them years ago. It isn’t hard to forget what sex they are. Women’s work? To make and maintain those wagons, for a start. As well as business.
Look, here are the husbands, here are the Scythian men, come afterwards on horse. Cautious and suspicious. They hang back in a circle of uncertain hooves, while already the women swing towards our gates. Unarmed. Let not your fellow citizens be afraid of Amazons. These are prosperous ladies come for commerce and amusement. Offer your hospitality, in turn, as I have found the women’s wagons jolly and hospitable places for a guest. And entirely decent, to save you the inevitable inquiry. We are neighbours about this Black Sea, and Zeus loves the hospitable, as does the Scythians’ great Sky Father. – I must not mention him without our Mother Earth: it is unholy to acknowledge one, omit the other.
Chorus of citizens:
What monstrous regiment of women enter at our gates? These cart-makers have physiques fit to hire as labour, but ladies? A lady has some delicacy, some elegance I recognise, although she be not Greek. Hands the size of shovels; her feet sprawl like a camel’s. I have never seen a woman walk like that. I think her hips are the axle of her cart. This is not athleticism, but rather ignorance of human motion – the opposite, in fact, of our sports. They walk rawly, as if never taught. I cannot even describe the way they walk.
Scorched by the sun, scoured by the wind, whatever beauty they once claimed stripped away by weather. These women who have never been indoors – never seen the inside of a house, only their primitive huts on wheels. Not our idea of housewives, or respectability. She drives her own house where she wishes, in company of wives. As our playwright said, ‘Let husbands not allow their wives the company of women: every trouble starts when women natter.’
Coarse faces, devoid of femininity. Aphrodite does not know these women. The interplay that happens when a woman meets a man – you notice it in its absence. The address of a woman to a man is remembered when a so-called woman talks to you without it. These are not women, certainly, by the standards of civilized men.
The historian wrote:
A barbarian is womanish in that, in common with women, he is a creature of lusts and urges he must gratify, of greed and inability to subdue his desires or to temper his emotions. Both possess the spontaneity of beasts. Rational self-control, the virtue of a man – an individual man’s self-government which enables men in co-operation to construct a civilized society, is unknown to barbarians, impossible to women.
A nomad is the ultimate barbarian. With no fixed address, with no habit of hard work, he finds easy to extort from others what he fails to produce himself. Restlessly he prowls his wastelands, stares across our frontier, forever envious of luxuries we have and he has not. He lives in hives like bees, unseen until he swarms, and then he cuts a swathe through us like locusts. His horde as quickly come and gone as a flock of birds, he is impossible to catch but swoops out of the blue and vanishes. His steppe is as vast as sea or sky, one is lost in it. His instinct is the wolves’, and while he has a human face, his heart is animal. He has been a pest in every age of history, and every society likens him unto destructive insects.
Chorus of citizens:
See the Scythian women at the market. We have fishwives of our own, but these are worse. They laugh to each other harshly with the voice of crows and gulls. Their fingers ruin everything they touch. Watch them eat: she tears the flesh like a bacchant. No-one taught her table manners. I would rather sit down with my slaves than dine with them.
These milk-drinkers desire our food, since culinary skill is quite beyond them. They have no patience to grow things slowly and with toil, but scavenge from the civilized with threats and violence. Nomads do nothing to earn their keep. They have no valid place in the world but are sent to plague us.
Where does the fur end and the fat begin? They swathe themselves in hides and hair, in felt and skins, until I can’t distinguish what is animal about them and what human. Greeks dress with a pride in human limbs, but these hide their bodies as if to disguise their sex or species.
I cannot eat beside them. The pungency of body odour puts me off my food. Now garlic and fish sauce, the usual offence, seem mild next to these women’s reek. If my wife stank like that I’d ask my goat into the room to perfume her.
I hear they let the clothes disintegrate upon them, as if they were holy garments that mustn’t be removed.
I hear they cannot wash, because of superstitions. I’d say we have olfactory evidence.
The sight of them disgusts, the smell revolts our better class of patron. Our good Greeks leave them to it, and desert the market.
The poet wrote:
Harpies – the name means Spoilers, Snatchers – are half-woman and half-bird. They have a human countenance, but clawed hands and vulture’s wings, and wasted, famished faces, ever hungry. They shriek and emit a fetid odour, such that no man can stand to let them close but must retreat. Storm Wind and Swift Flier, sisters foul, swoop in upon a feast laid out, despoil the tables. Now the whole horrid flock join in and rip apart the joints of meat. They attack the food like vultures, and what they do not seize they leave defiled with an obscene discharge from their under-vents. Everything they touch is left in filth. They persecute pious men with these visitations. Sometimes they steal people and fly off with them, into what evil fate none knows.
The trader said:
Yes, they accost citizens in the street. Scythian women do not wait to be spoken to. They laugh, yes, if laughter is a crime. I find the women merry to a fault. Whose fault, might be a matter of whose humour first runs short. In this case, it is the gentleman. Well, they mean no harm.
And now – they are tired of gentlemen only in the streets. I hear them wonder where the women are. Apart from public women, for if one thing strikes them silent, I have noticed, it is the painted faces of town pornai. I cannot tell whether they are scandalised or puzzled. It’s not a question I can ask. – Oh, my friend, that is an insult to them, although a common story. Trust me, I have myself smeared my face with fats, in the weather that they have; and found it most emollient, and saved my skin. I do not mean ‘saved my skin’ as a woman says it, I mean I saved my skin from falling off my face. I did not ape our pornai when I resorted to it, nor mistook sheep’s grease for a cosmetic. Apology accepted.
But what? They have broken into a residence, while we converse. Up goes the cry. They assume a hospitality, if they receive it not.
The proprietor complained:
They tried to steal my women. They tried to tempt my wife outdoors. My daughters, in a flutter, have forgotten how to hear their father’s voice. It is intoxication to them, this visit from the Scythians: I say we shut the gates next time.
Citizens: Sooth yourself, patriarch, for the women have withdrawn, almost with an apologetic air. They have ceased to disturb your peace.
The proprietor: That’s very well, but I warn you, they’d have kidnapped my females had I not chased them from the premises.
The trader said:
To be fair, there is frequently a tiny leak of population after the Scythians have been. Not necessarily debtors, either. I have seen where they end up. There are more ex-Greeks in Scythian clothes than Greeks care to believe. One does not defect from civilization, obviously. A Greek does not change his skin for a barbarian’s – that would be monstrous. Well, well, we never mention it.
Ah, see, they have called a cross-sexed shaman to make peace. The shaman comes among them and the women settle down like startled birds or like wild animals at music. A shaman means harmony to them. They act as the diplomats of daily life. Not an arbiter in office, much more familiar, everybody’s friend, and they heal the ordinary hurts. I suppose it is a simple logical extension to think one who is both sexes can see both sides to a dispute. I’m not assured this person is best chosen to calm the master of the house.
No, its organs are concealed. You can identify a cross-sexed shaman by the way they ornament themselves. Distinctively, yet each one different, as if they start from scratch. There are not enough of them to set a fashion. They are rare birds, feted like the arrival of a phoenix. There are never enough of them. And then the kings want their services, which the community resents.
You are uneasy? You might see them in a better light if you were close. Few who spend the time with them, I think, reject that these beings have a grace. My, the citizens sound upset – this is an unexpected guest. Citizens screech.
They cross sexes, that is the point. Shamans – to explain to you as has been explained to me – leap the gaps in the world: between human and animal, between the living and the dead, between the sexes too. In Scythia, what you take for a freak is likely to be sacred. A sacred communication across species, sexes, states. How far these concepts are from our own cults of physical perfection and the body. The steppe is a spiritual landscape and its people so, and in their ideas fixity is an evil, although the fate of most, while to change one’s shape makes visible the unity of spirit underneath. Physical anomaly becomes a wonder and a sign. They worship monstrosity? It is a charge I have heard before. Perhaps they are the opposite of Spartans, who weed out imperfect infants and destroy them.
Look into your own heart. Do you not, yourself, feel a sense of escape in the presence of this creature? She-he lifts the veil from our falsities.
I laugh – I’m sorry. I just heard a woman call out the shaman’s name. Conjunction of the Stars. It isn’t as pretty in my Greek. Conjunction of the Stars. A name for a living divinity. It can’t be easy to live and function in the exalted space they allot to the self-same creatures we throw sticks and stones at or make limericks about.
Yes, I take the Scythians’ side. Zeus loves the stranger, but his example never seems to be enough to convince us on the earth.
The historian wrote:
This odd tribe of men-women, whom Scythians revere, drink potions of the urine of pregnant mares to feminise themselves. They have a counterpart in women-men who take concoctions from certain liquids stallions secrete.
The trader said:
I never heard talk of potions, or what type. There is much slander in historians.
Here’s a lucky interruption: the Scythian husbands pluck up courage to enter town. Of course, on horses. The shaggy horses stand so low, they are scarcely a nuisance in the streets and can’t possibly intimidate. Yet they have a legendary energy.
Why are the men timorous? I do not think timid is the word, but their behaviour is not ours. Consider the effect of marriage customs. Your Greek ideal is to marry when he is thirty, she thirteen. Whereas a Scythian, if he is upper crust, seeks to marry up: to a wife up a rank, up a notch in nobility, and he expects to marry up in age. They can turn us on our heads: a youth might be wooed by his aunt’s friend and coeval, while a girl can wrest permission to be single until thirty, because her eligibility accumulates. I suspect this is where your myths arise, tribes where a maid must slay an enemy before she weds. Who can say? Scythia is a vast place, as differentiated as the cities of the Greeks.
The historian wrote:
A popular tale, agreed to by Scythians themselves, is that they did disservice to a goddess once, who in her vengeance struck their race with the female affliction. Our medical writers have attributed their constitution to the air and water, cold and heavy, so that in Scythia men have a sluggish sex urge and a flabby body. But I believe the explanation is a simpler one, still physiological rather than religious: that their testes suffer damage from being every day on horseback since childhood. Injury is exacerbated by the constriction of trousers, which keep the male parts musty and enclosed. Whichever is the true cause, sexual organs in a Scythian man seldom achieve healthy growth, and cannot flourish like a Greek’s in his sensible loose skirt. A Greek does not grind his testes against a horse’s back from dawn to dusk. This is why we keep our manhood, and the Scythians lose theirs.
Chorus of citizens:
These unfeminine women, these effeminate men. The Scythians have crushed their testicles, clinging to their animals like shabby Centaurs. They rarely have intercourse. They are not real men.
A Scythian is not frightening close-to. A Scythian in the wild is no different than our Scythian slaves at home, slow-witted and easily bamboozled. We laugh at him in our comedies. If you are not afraid of your slave, gentlemen, I exhort you to scorn these Scythians too.
These unfeminine women, these effeminate men. I miss the theatre in my home town, I miss the climate. Here I live next door to savages and look out on a waste. These unfeminine women, these effeminate men.
The trader said:
Scythian women seem content with the performance of their men. They don’t display a particular interest in stray Greeks.
The blogger typed:
Contemporary man lives an emasculated life. He has forgotten what he used to be. The modern West, sad to say, makes war on masculinity, and we are in the front lines of a fight for male existence. Our enemy pretends biology doesn’t matter, but you can tell they don’t believe this, because their stealth attack is biological. Female hormones infiltrate food on the shelves, leak into the water. Hormones have reduced the modern man to mock-women, tame and brainwashed by feminism’s lies.
Real men are under siege. Look back for strength – back to Ancient Greece when men were men. The three hundred Spartans who beat off an effeminate slave army from Asia. Take heart from the past – red-blooded barbarians who didn’t apologise for the instincts of a man. Cultural Marxism obliterates this from the record, in cooperation with the academic arm of modern feminism. The Greeks invented everything of worth, but ‘Western Civ’ is near-despised in universities today. Don’t be put off: take Classics classes. Occupy the university, and insist they teach the truth. Not every professor is a leftist; we have committed men.
Feminists and their allies try to neuter us. Unless you nurse your testosterone, you’ll become a monster too. Nothing is not monstrous in the future that they want. There is estrogen in the water. Beware.
I am honoured to be reviewed by novelist Dmitry Kosyrev in the Asian Review of Books.
‘I happen to know this world: I’ve been to Mongolia three times and, recently, in Russia’s Altai, which is about the same. I know that Bryn Hammond did a miracle of transporting the reader there, but I’ve no idea how she did it (that’s a real compliment from one writer to another). That’s a wolf’s world, whatever it means, a world of strange talk in strange places; it’s in fact another planet.’
A Bastard Art, part 1 of 4
‘Based on’ is a debased tag, signifying nothing. ‘Based on a true story’, etc. When I had my first inklings of a novel taken from the Secret History of the Mongols, I rejected the phrase ‘based on’. But what was I doing instead, what words can I use instead? Maybe a ‘version’: that sounds as if it is the same material cast into a different format, from 13th-century ‘epic chronicle’ to 21st-century novel. I searched for the right words, and I searched for examples, to help me articulate that which I desired to do. I didn’t want to write a ‘based on’, and for a while was at a loss for examples to follow. I needed those that re-tell a text, not just (and not necessarily) those that tell history in fiction.
My ideal was to imitate the Secret History’s features: not simply its events but its interests, its sensibilities, its storytelling tactics; to have the Secret History an artistic presence in my work. To this end, I’d treat it as true and sacrosanct in spite of its truth values being contested. In this ‘epic chronicle’ I see resistance to epic even as it draws on epic’s methods. Oral epic was prevalent when and where it was composed, straight history less so, although not unknown. It still tries to tell the truth, outrageously at times. But I found just as valuable its information on the way Mongols imagined their own story, what they told themselves, true or not. I cared about history, but I cared about the Secret History more. I was devoted to a text.
On the other hand, I didn’t feel prepared to forgo the freedoms I was used to in fiction of ‘pure imagination’. I didn’t know whether I belonged in historical fiction; its main template was at once too loose and too strict. Too strict, because I wanted to be in the equation. The Secret History spoke to me, and my need to hear wasn’t merely historical inquiry. It had things of great moment to tell me. In chase of these truths, I didn’t mean to describe only the past, nor renounce a writer’s right to talk about what matters most to me. I want elbow room, in fact I want to be a king of infinite space. The point was that I would interact with the Secret History, not efface myself. If these aims were contradictory, I didn’t worry too much: I believe in contradiction as a machine that can grind up incompatibles and make them work together.
To think about originality and inherited story, I turned to medieval romance. The Matter of Britain or the Arthur cycle, as popular now as ever in Arthurian novels; also, before they were swamped by Arthur, the Matter of Thebes, the Matter of Troy, from antiquity. The Carolingian cycle joined them, and these were the great story resources for romancers. People took up the Matter, retold old tales. But they were not afraid to be original about it. Back when I was in discovery of them (I hope this is behind us) I heard the line that medievals ‘did not prize originality as we do’. To say Chrétien de Troyes, Wolfram von Eschenbach, Gottfried von Strassburg were unoriginal in what they did with the Matter is a horribly modern mistake. We have lost the art of that common ‘Matter’; it’s make up your own plot, nowadays, and keep your hands off other people’s. Medievals held the story in common, and interpretation, exegesis, gloss were the order of the day. They wrote by their own lights, although they recycled plot. When you have a pool of writers dabbling in the Matter, perhaps you don’t feel a pressure to write the definitive version. You feel free to write your version. Isn’t idiosyncrasy encouraged? I liked the enrichment of the soil on these commons where everybody grew their own thing. I liked the knowledge of a world beyond your contribution, maintained by dead hands before you and left to future hands after you are gone. A great confused garden, joint work, where you can wander and never be bored. That sense of a commons which I found in medieval story gave me permission, somehow, to create my own patch and not be anxious about its idiosyncrasies. There was no one way to tell a story, there was no right and wrong. How unlike himself Lancelot was, yet I followed him from text to text, saintly Lancelot, bad Lancelot, indifferent Lancelot – I didn’t tire of Lancelots, when young. I know I don’t want ownership: I want to read six hundred novels about Temujin, Jamuqa and Borte, as I can on Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere. None of them remotely the same. Yay individuality.
An heir, in my mind, to medieval romance is the world of fanfiction. Here too is a Matter in common, known as canon. As Chrétien, Gottfried and Wolfram wrote in the ‘universe’ of Arthur, science fiction fans write in the universe of Star Trek or Blake’s 7. I was acquainted with fanfiction that won’t change a word of canon but goes places the base material never went. Like medieval story, fanfiction is accused of unoriginality – still today, this time. But unoriginality is what I searched for at this stage, to put in opposition to a ‘based on’. That idea of canon: that nothing in the text can be altered, It Happened as on screen, and you have to find ways to write around it – to write with and not against. This is very much stricter than a typical ‘based on’ historical novel. Yet the inventiveness in fanfiction is a lesson to the original creators, cramped by their television screens. I need not fear for invention when I say the Secret History is to be my canon. I am in the position of a fan, with commitment to a text. I didn’t want to change things ‘to make a good story’. If it’s in the Secret History, it happened as the Secret History says, whether convenient for me or not.
Neither of my models were historical in the first place. Medieval ‘Matters’ had a semblance of history or were pretend histories; fanfiction grew from another fiction. That suited. I’m writing a version of the Secret History, not questioning which portions are historical and which are not. Mine was a text-to-text affair. Like fans with canon, I had a story already told, and this was unusual for historical fiction. Even if a historical novel won’t step outside the record, the record isn’t told at story-level, whereas my source (and this is why it isn’t accepted as ‘the record’) does storify, if not in the detail of science fiction television. History, by other hands, has been made into a story (in case you wonder, there is very little record outside the Secret History for the bulk of its contents). Even in periods when you have letters and diaries to work from, I don’t suppose you have a story already told. I felt nearest to those who rewrite the Iliad, with two ‘except’ clauses: that the Secret History is a set of sketches next to Homer; and that it does align itself more with history than with epic – eyewitness history, events the tellers have lived through.
What else did fanfiction teach me? Love. Unashamed love: there is not enough love for one’s material. A critical eye? Yes, but we have scarcely begun to understand the Secret History, and to understand you have to love. Criticise afterwards. Love first. I didn’t want to rip events out of the Secret History like edibles from a carcass but to hear its music, in the parts and in the whole. Perhaps I learnt to listen to my material, to listen as if my life were at stake (because fiction has that effect), desperate to catch nuance, to see the possibilities in what is said, from that ultra-close examination of what happened on the television screen. Source criticism? It starts with the ability to look and listen with the devout attention of a fan. I believe in love as a first step. Scepticism as a first step is fatal. I learnt to love my text through fanfiction. Then there is the love directed at your work. I’ll forever be inspired by fans who write for love and not for profit – by the deep conviction found in that freedom from the profit motive. Fans write because they care, and this ethos encourages original work, bold work that doesn’t have to answer to a market. They have been the unacknowledged legislators, because some fan innovations have gone mainstream.
Originality was such a fetish with me, I’d never have given up the free invention of SFF for historical with its restrictions, if not for two things. First, the Secret History was better than a story of my own invention. It’s a story novelists want to sink their teeth into, a classic story: Temujin’s conflicts with those he most loved or trusted; the ins and outs of these friendships/rivalries over time – twenty years of saga on the steppe, before he stood with its united peoples as Tchingis Khan at forty (-odd; there is a range of dates for his birth). Yes, the Secret History is short, but it is the psychological conflicts and not the physical combats that are lavishly told. Obviously the story was appreciated in its own day for the same reasons that make it dream material for a novelist. A people’s memory of unification has its idealism of high-minded common effort, and this contrasts with the off-steppe conquests that came of unity: here is scope for a tragedy. I’d never met a story that shoved the Arthur cycle aside, to claim equivalence with that love-and-conflict classic, with its tragic trajectory. I grew up on Arthur, as you can tell, and to me, the Secret History’s story was similar, different, and equal – but not so often told in English. Why invent?
Second, I saw a unique chance, a piece of luck, one that doesn’t come twice in a writer’s life. Every writer has her territory: those concerns and questions that preoccupy her as a writer, that she tackles again and again. The story in the Secret History leant itself to mine. Since at this time I was in my thirties, mine had been existent for upwards of fifteen years – I knew what I write about, but I knew restlessly, because I hadn’t managed to say it well. The Secret History came along to help me. Wolfram and Gottfried mapped their preoccupations onto the Matter, to make it ‘about’ what they were urged to write. In them I took comfort, for they did not efface themselves; indeed romance authors were known to walk into the story and account for what they did with it in first person (or fake third). I mapped onto this matter. Me, entire with my writer’s territory, onto the text as it stood. We were a match. We were a marriage made in heaven. At every point I spotted opportunities to write what I had been eager to write, to explore where I had explored before, but with its help this time. It was half-familiar and half-strange, it was a lucky chance and a challenge, it was everything I always wanted to write, it was above and beyond my ability. The week I met this story was the most exciting of my life. I felt I had only lived to offer it my services. A cooperative venture came into view.
There is an alchemy when fans give of themselves to a canon. They call them ‘transformative works’ these days; that is right, because both are transformed. There is an originality that comes from devotion, and fan writers understood this: if you put in your heart and soul, and marry them to the material, inevitably you are both changed in the result. From my time in science fiction fandom I was not afraid to be ‘unoriginal’. I did not think a waste of time to write in a universe not of my own invention. I’m aware fan work – transformative work – attracts scorn from those unacquainted with its originality, or who underestimate the derivativeness of most art. But from my time in science fiction fandom I knew there is an alchemy in interaction. Alchemy means the output is unlike either ingredient, a thing of a different order, a quality achieved that neither ingredient seems to promise. Temujin met an alchemist, Perpetual Spring, whose Taoist sect practiced an ‘internal alchemy’, transmutation within the body, that once had been an operation with chemicals and crucibles outside. That’s a nice metaphor for what I have attempted to say about fiction, and failed. Metaphors are better, because they are interactional: you can finish them off for me.
With these encouragements I took up the Matter of the Steppe, and commenced my fanfiction on the Secret History.
Next: The happy accident. A Bastard Art, part 2 of 4
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