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.

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

The Wall project

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wall project has a fascinating working hypothesis:

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

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

From the project proposal:

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

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

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

Temujin’s Jesus tribute act at Baljuna

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

On moral fiction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Women and art in the ARB

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

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

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

 

 

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

against-walls-by-bryn-hammond

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