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

‘Based on’

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 Daoist 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

Humani Nihil

The moral of my story, and/or the method of my writing – it is both – from the start has been, that the 13th-century Mongols were ordinary human beings. People like you and me, in spite of my dedication to writing cultural difference. It’s rude even to say so in blunt terms: of course they were human beings, of course they were people. However, when it comes to the famous massacres, this axiom is not often the way we operate. The massacres, with the off-steppe conquests, I didn’t have to face as a writer until book Three, now underway. They were always ahead of me, and my preparation was to bring these people as close as possible to us (to me the writer and to you, the reader) – with a blind faith in the dictum of Terence:

Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto.
I am human, and think nothing human alien to me.

I was not going to ‘other’ them before the conquests that we know of. I was going to do the contrary, and test out that Terence adage, in which I have believed devoutly.

That Terence adage is beloved of humanists and those who study the humanities: I see blog posts on it in these difficult times, by the above. I remember the English/History teacher who instilled it in me. Around the same time, Dostoyevsky was teaching me the same precept (Dostoyevsky? I’ll explain with this piece on his ‘radical empathy’, a phrase rather similar: Dostoyevky’s Empathy by Laurie Sheck, in the Paris Review). My teenage writing consisted of extravagant statements of this position – I tried to write great criminals from the inside (Dostoyevsky did).

And I end up, ripened as a writer and thirty years away from teenaged, with Genghis Khan. Who, before I researched greatly, was a big bogeyman, wasn’t he? And after research, he still committed those massacres. I have made you like and admire him, if you are with me thus far. We feel close to him. We’re in it together.

Over my life I have established rules for fiction. Or, I had them as teenager and they haven’t changed a jot; I can hope they have matured. Here’s a rule – probably The rule, I don’t have a big collection.

Rule One: Never write down. You can write up (still involve yourself, or risk unrealism). Never write a figure you feel is beneath you. Involve yourself, and if you can’t… your figure on the page isn’t a human being. Don’t decide to exhibit what you dislike in the world, in rationalist fashion, with tweezers and a scalpel. To be fair, in fiction, you have to be your victim; you can vivisect yourself, but nobody else, nobody whom you push to a distance. You can’t be fair that way, you can’t be true, you can’t write human beings.

That is my writing creed: there is no excuse for half-sympathy. If you have a villain, you must be that villain. It’s my (personal: I don’t say every other writer has to apply it) philosophy – no, I’d better stick with ‘creed’. Which is better than ‘rule’ too, since it’s mine and I allow that others think differently.

What if I’m writing about the worst person on the planet?

I don’t know. I’d say you need gigantic skills for that. Because your task remains the same. It sounds traumatic to me, who am not up to this. I have bitten off enough, haven’t I?

I have chosen Temujin, whom I like and admire and who committed massacres.

If you read a few heavyweight dudes on war such as John Keegan (A History of Warfare) and Azar Gat (War in Human Civilization), they are left sprawling about steppe warfare and make cultural explanations from a distance – speculating about why aliens do what they do. I am dissatisfied with these books, where I am not annoyed. Culture is important – too important for non-experts to offer general statements without in-depth cultural exploration. From memory (I need to refresh my memory on Gat) both hang an understanding on what is a popular ‘explanation’: the Mongols massacred the way they butchered animals. Inured to blood because they lived by heavy livestock and the hunt. This line, wherever I read it, assumes that the anthropology is the same as for a butcher in Yorkshire. It isn’t: if you say this, you must study Mongols and animals. Exhibit: Natasha Fijn, Living With Herds: Human-Animal Coexistence in Mongolia [Cambridge UP, 2011]:

‘Mongolian herders have a different perspective and attitude towards their herd animals compared with most views espoused in Western discourse… Mongolian herders’ attitude towards their herd animals is based on an animist perspective of the world, in which other beings are considered as persons… These belief practices are quite different from monotheistic beliefs that are based on the Old Testament.’ [19, 35, 47]

Everything about interaction with animals is unJudeo-Christian, Fijn explains.

Christopher Beckwith in Empires of the Silk Road [Princeton UP, 2009] has done much to un-other the steppe ‘barbarian’ on war. To him, the notion that the steppe way of life fitted them for war is a nonsense (why aren’t travelers’, anthropologists’ steppe populations bellicose, more bloody than the settled?). As a matter of fact I don’t go along with him altogether, but it is still a bravura performance of un-Othering.

One clarification. Genocide, a 20th-century word, has been applied to Mongol massacres, but (I thank God) in error or loose language, for genocide means to try to extinguish an ethnicity, a religious group or a race, and Mongol wars were never about ethnic cleansing. I don’t know how I’d have the heart to write about them if they were, but I have set myself sufficient challenges.

It is perhaps enough that I take Bo’orchu to the massacres in Turkestan.

My Bo’orchu, if you’ve met him, exemplifies the adjective ‘decent’. He has already, in emergency, practised a style of warfare that shocks a reverend old war chief, versed in traditional methods.

Because Tchingis Khan was an innovator in war. He was not a cultural machine who behaved as a steppe nomad is wont to do, when confronted with a city. He thought outside the square, and shocked his own.

My Bo’orchu has already reeled in horror at the sight of the Naiman army, then his enemy, in a corpse-pit on a scale he has never seen. We’ll have to find out how he feels when the corpses are more strange to him, in Turkestan.

I have spent my first two books, quite deliberately, making 13th-century Mongols as familiar as possible, Mongols ‘at home’, without insertion of escape factors for later on in the story (such as, ‘steppe culture was cruel. Life was cheap to them’). These excuses do not reconcile with views of the Mongols at home. And so they are every bit Terence’s homo sum: there is no way for you or I to think of them as Other, not by now. They have ethics, faith, humanity and everything we have. We can’t be let off the hook, I the writer or any readers out there.

I still have no idea how Bo’orchu is going to travel in Turkestan, to be honest in this blog. We’re not there yet. I have drafted in Temujin’s psychology, until the end. It might change. But Bo’orchu I suppose is my every-person, likeable and well-intentioned, not overly religious for his times and no great genius. I love him dearly, and, well, I’ll be there.


Image: an illustration to Juvaini, who recorded the massacres.

Give an indie a go

I’m not a shameless advertiser, but I am desperate.

Simon J. Cook (independent scholar – on Tolkien among other subjects) has written a short post, Awesome Amgalant, where he calls the start of the book at least ‘up there with Mary Renault, which is to say damn near perfect.’ I hope to God he likes the rest, but then again, after that I scarcely care if he doesn’t.

While you’re there – seriously – play the music vid. It’s Altan Urag, Mongolian folk rock band, and they are beyond fantastic. In fact, visit just for this wild instrumental…

… which I sort of identify with. Maybe I’m doing Mongol folk rock. It’s what I like in Mongolian music: fusions of traditional and contemporary. I’m told it’s how I write my prose. If I can in future create sentence-equivalents to pieces of this track I’ll be, in an artistic sense, happy ever after.

Of course, I look forward to Simon J. Cook’s discussion on what makes the perfect historical novel. As a practitioner, fairly obviously, I’ve become more and more interested in the writing of history, fact and fiction. So much so, I’m going back to uni next year to study it.

Meanwhile here I am, plugging or begging: Be adventurous – try an unknown indie, who’s trying adventurous things herself. If you need a paperback, contact me. I haven’t done huge giveaways, so I’d think of individual asks as a better way to giveaway. We’re still fighting for traction at Amgalant.

Publishing is a dispiriting business for perhaps the majority of writers (trad or indie, dead or alive). I won’t be throwing in the towel, because I have things to say. But of course, one wants those things to be heard. I don’t write ‘for me’, no more than I write for an audience.

I write for Them. I write because no-one has said these things about them. In part I’m stitching together ideas and interpretations from disparate books – that tend to be less mainstream Mongol history, or else that aren’t Mongol history but shed light. In part – as happens when you begin to do this – I have come to conclusions/speculations/inferences unwritten as yet in book. My job isn’t as simple as to turn into a story what the history books have to tell me. Mongol history is ever more contested, including by me. If you’re interested in Mongols, there’s much in my novels I can pretty much guarantee you won’t have met. And that you may think dodgy, but the point is, I try to write an interpretative historical fiction.

It isn’t that I think my Tchingis is the true one. That’s why I spelt him Tchingis, instead of the common transcriptions. But he’s a possible one, I believe, and my mission is to express these possibilities. [1]

With Three – that is, with the Conquests – even more so. I have my material for Three and my main lines. I want to add factors that aren’t usually considered in work on the conquests. They’re not mine: as I say above, stitching together disparate books. Leads to leaps… there’s a thing about novelising history, about the demands of fiction, the cogency and the psychology required, that can result in another, valid way to write history. Or so I fully believe, but I don’t have my thoughts sorted, and that’s why I’m going off to study next year…

Today T. Greer was kind enough to write, when asked for non-fiction recs, ‘For what it is worth, [Bryn Hammond’s] novels on Chinggis’ early life are possibly a better introduction to the period, its characters, and the timeline than anything else in print.’ That’s much appreciated, since T. Greer isn’t a big fiction reader, but has a website, The Scholar’s Stage, on matters strategical, geopolitical, etceterical. If you look under entries tagged ‘Steppe and Sown’, you’ll find Greer’s independent work on steppe subjects (I’m happy to say, my Goodreads shelves were found useful as a kind of annotated bibliography).

  1. One HF I’ve been excited by this year is Shan Sa’s Empress, on China’s woman emperor Wu. It excited me because I felt she was doing a similar ‘possible interpretation’ (out of a hostile historiographical tradition) – that might be seen as whitewash of a shady character, but I think is more than that.

thoughts of Three

blake_death_pale_horse__Best copy














This won’t be my horse for Three, but as you can see I have my eye out already. Here’s a William Blake rendition of ‘Death on a Pale Horse’ — after the Turner of that name we have on the cover of Two. It’s fairly perfect, at least to think about Three with. Is that a History scroll above? Is that, beneath, a black horse and a driving spirit whose name might be he of the Black Tuq… my Jamuqa drives my Temujin in these wars — psychic presence though he is. Imagined? Is Temujin mad these days? In our terms, no doubt, but what about his own? Whatever the case, he leans on Jamuqa for the work he has to do in Three. Like the face in the Blake, he’s committed but freaked out, and you notice the wild spirit’s ahead of him. He feels he has a mission in/from history, yes. History accumulates in Three (a weight on his shoulders, and a struggle for me: how to make that history digestible). There was a quote I liked very early on, from a Joachim Barckhausen, L’Empire jaune de Gengis Khan, Paris 1935:

Genghis Khan was certainly one of those men — perhaps the greatest — who made history. But he could only become it because History created him. He acknowledged this role by trying to understand it and play it, by subordinating himself to it, by serving it...

I’ve always thought there’s something in this, and Ile Ahai has been ruminating on it ever since (he owes at least one speech to Joachim Barckhausen).

This morning I thought I might need a nightmare horse, Fuseli-style, or a war horse done in horror fashion. Or else, the one-horned beast leapt to mind too. The unicorn vision they have in India has become significant in my telling — maybe he’ll belong on the cover, for the Wonder side of my draft, to-be-ditched title, Wonders and Horrors. Can I fuse both?

Meanwhile I like this Blake, to think by. Temujin an old king (hey, he’s only sixty at the end, but let’s exaggerate in picture) and believes he’s on a white horse, doesn’t he? In China white is for a funeral, white is death & ghosts, whereas on the steppe white is blessed and the holy ride white horses. Chinggis has a white tuq for his days of peace, a black tuq when at war. When he gives the reins to Jamuqa (unaged, dead at 39, in scale armour or just scales), lets the black horse loose… Jamuqa being, at this point, a figment of his mind, his attempt to be Jamuqa may end up worse than Jamuqa. “Nobody stopped me,” Jamuqa said once.

The unicorn stops him. We may yet have a unicorn.

Good cop/bad cop: Chinggis/Genghis

On the very split personality of our most famous Mongol. For years past I have believed that there can’t be another historical figure with such opposite images… can there? Since I only know bits & pieces of history I haven’t claimed this to be so, but a few pages by Timothy May on ‘Mongol Image’, in his book The Mongol Conquests in World History, have kicked off this post. May’s pages display plainly his split image.

He divides them on the names: after running through “the most innocuous forms of popular entertainment, from movies to comic books,” to see the sheerly casual use of the Mongols to stand for evils and worst-case events, he concludes, “the G-Word or Genghis Khan appears to be the avatar of this image, while Chinggis Khan is the historical figure.” [102]  Let’s footnote that ‘Genghis’ can be insisted upon by publishers, on the grounds that the general public doesn’t know who Chinggis is (John Man says his did, and John Man’s book falls on the Chinggis side).

It’s not a matter of popular culture versus scholarly history – not in the least. But I’ll linger for a moment on the popular culture. The Mongols, and Genghis in particular, are at saturation-level on the internet, television, in casual talk. Last week on QI the honourable Stephen Fry gave us twaddle about Chinggis – a little barb in my thin skin, as it always is. For a Mongol researcher like me, it’s dangerous to turn on the internet. The amount of off-the-cuff, casual – I’m going to use that word a few times – use & abuse of Mongol history, and Chinggis in particular, has got to be beneath the internet’s usual standards… hasn’t it?

Timothy May’s book, just yesterday, told me that yes, the Mongols (and Chinggis in particular) are a stand-out case. It has told me that the stigma and infamy are, indeed, unexampled. “Certainly the Vandals garnered some recognition,” but they don’t have the Mongols Motorcycle Club, rival to Hells Angels. [103]  As a teacher of world history, he ought to know, and he has told me this much in a scholarly book, and I am going to try to explain the effect on me. However weird this post turns out. You see, historians rarely look at the popular culture – as if there is a partition and they needn’t be concerned – and so, I haven’t seen this situation described in an (ahem) legitimate source. And you know what? I feel legitimated – in the emotions I have had, as a Mongol researcher. I feel like I’ve been a secret alcoholic and now I’m standing up and talking about it, because a person has given me permission. I have been given permission to feel what I felt. Therefore, you’re going to hear about it. I promise not to be too splashy-emotional, and Timothy May is in no way to blame for the content of this post. He only wrote a few pages on ‘Mongol Image’.

As I said above, it isn’t only popular culture. If it were, we’d fix it in no time, for there isn’t a partition, there’s a… zone… and I live in that zone. It isn’t as simple, either, as that old scholarship = negative towards Mongols, new scholarship = more enlightened. Rene Grousset (1939), Michael Prawdin (1935), even Henry Hoyle Howorth (1876–1888), can give you more sympathy towards Chinggis and his Mongols than you might find in a recent biography. In fact without Rene Grousset… this post is a sort of sequel to one on Grousset’s tragic Jenghiz Khan, where I talk about the inception of my novel and complain about scholarly portraits of Chinggis, so I needn’t do that here. Today I just want to describe my experience.

The bad cop Genghis input – not only when I ventured onto the internet, but in the privacy of my library of academic books – barraged me for years. I felt mentally battered and besieged, by my own books. That good cop/bad cop routine is meant to discombobulate you, right? It did me. I’m not natively thick-skinned… I tried to grow elephant hide on the Mongols’ behalf, and not be a wuss or make a fuss. I used to feel sorry for myself, in a quiet, hangdog, hunched-up way, and I had to wonder, do other researchers cop this flak? Flak’s the word for it: random, violent, senseless, everywhere. Misery wants company, and I sniffed about for others with misunderstood pet subjects… there were the Richard III Rehabilitation Society people, perhaps they suffered a bit too? But not like me. This was in the days before Jack Weatherford published. When his Genghis came out, in 2004, I reacted like a starved prisoner dragged suddenly in front of a banquet: you can’t eat it, you can’t digest it, you half-hate the sight of it. I went into a strange mental reel, because I was in an unhealthy state, head huddled in my arms against the blows of my library books. Things have climbed from there, I stride the world with confidence, I don’t cringe at the mention of Genghis…

See, Timothy May told me yesterday that the Mongols — and Chinggis in particular — are an exceptional case, that the casual, saturation-level vilifications go beyond what researchers on other subjects have to face. I had a reason for my self-pity. It feels good, I feel liberated to talk about it.

Dashi_Genghis_Khan_gallery page
Of course, his other image lives in Mongolia, largely. Very largely – have you seen the size of the statues? As May says, as has been said before, at home he’s a King Arthur equivalent, but elsewhere he’s a Hitler. These two collided with the installation of Dashi Namdakov’s sculpture at Marble Arch in London (pictured). You can see this is an inspirational, spiritual image, Genghis as “thinker” as Dashi said to the papers. Quote a councillor: “To erect a statue of Genghis Khan at Marble Arch is a bizarre decision… Who’s next? Stalin? Pol Pot? Saddam Hussein?” Here’s the story in the London Evening Standard. If that comment were unusual… but it isn’t, it’s absolutely standard. Genghis is so often bracketed with Hitler that a phrase has come into use, ‘to the right of Genghis Khan’. I can only explain the etymology of this by assimilation: Genghis & Hitler = killed a lot of people: Hitler & Genghis = extreme right-wing. The senselessness. Timothy May has an online post about that phrase: To the Left of Chinggis Khan. Hey, I used that title… I hadn’t met his when I did. Irritated minds think alike.

I wish May’s discussion of image had covered fiction. He talks film, from John Wayne to Sergei Bodrov’s Mongol. That latter was a healing event for me: Genghis in the cinemas, and the most sympathetic fictional portrait in existence… outside of Mongolia. I have seen three or four Mongolian-made historical films on/with Chinggis, and of course they have far more of King Arthur than of Hitler. Hitler doesn’t enter. It helps to understand – as Timothy May iterates – that Mongolians remember him for his internal activities, not so much his external wars. It’s like the Secret History, where the off-steppe conquests are the least important thing he did. I’d kill (oops) to have Mongolian fiction on Chinggis translated and widely disseminated. Novels are better than movies. I believe it’s fair to say that our novel-reading public expects and wants bad-Genghis, and that’s almost always what they get. Historical fiction is allowed to fictionalise. It isn’t written to salvage his reputation. It does affect the view of him in the streets. Example: in nine out of ten Genghis novels (I have a little collection) he rejects or is estranged from his son Jochi because of Jochi’s bastardy. For the sake of a story, although we have Jochi’s own word for it that Chinggis accepted him as a son. When we rob him of documented good deeds, he hasn’t got a hope. I cheered when Bodrov’s Mongol has him embrace two bastard kids (he adopted several enemy children — they have an excuse to make it two). A Japanese novel, The Blue Wolf, hangs its theme and story on his rejection of the bastard, and has him psychotic at the age of eight. A French Blue Wolf tells the story this way: “But soon, his hunger for power becomes increasingly violent and leads him to experience overwhelming paranoia and a growing mistrust of old friends and allies…” (perilously, I quote the blurb – never believe a blurb, but I have the book for back-up). As I say in my Grousset post, see above, what I admire Temujin for is exactly that this didn’t happen. However, the negative image in fiction is changing too: Chinggis isn’t bad cop in Tom Shanley’s, while Elizabeth Bear has historical fantasy where Mongols are simply human beings.

I’m going to wind up this post, that has been a catharsis for me. Thanks for listening.

Did Jamuqa shoot in the wrong direction?

OttomanHorseArcherMine does, “incorrigibly”. How radical is this in the field of Jamuqa studies? Who else has him so?

A couple of biographies at least contemplate the idea. Michel Hoang is convinced in his Genghis Khan, and if you forgive the archness of his presentation I’ll quote him.

From a section he titles ‘A Strange Friendship’: “Rarely has the chronicler of The Secret History spoken so effusively or at such length about love… Jamuqa was suspected by Temujin’s wife and mother of having ignored ‘proper manners and customs’. Is this to be understood as an allusion to the private habits of Jamuqa…? Did the ‘sworn brotherhood’ conceal some other intimacy? Like the Sinologue Arthur Waley, the Mongolist Paul Pelliot claims not to know the significance of the line, ‘they slept together under the same blanket.’ However, the clause ‘they loved each other’ repeated four times in just a few lines, lends weight to the theory that this was a special kind of friendship taken to its conclusion. One cannot speak with any certainty on this point… however, there is only one inference to be drawn.”

Qorchi’s dream, after Temujin and Jamuqa have quarrelled, “adds to the ambiguity surrounding the anti-hero, Jamuqa.” Hoang relates the dream, in which Jamuqa is symbolised by a cow who knocks her horn off and Temujin by a hornless bull, and asserts that it “does little to dispel the equivocal character of Jamuqa.” [pp.100-1]

I have to quote one other thing from Hoang. In a section titled ‘The Tragedy of Jamuqa’ he puts forth the opinion, “The story of this strange pair and its disturbing denouement might have inspired Shakespeare.” Amen. If only Shakespeare had got his hands on the Secret History of the Mongols. Hoang gets his teeth into it, the Jamuqa and Temujin bits, like an incipient novelist – and he even attributes to Jamuqa “incontrovertibly a greatness of soul”. [pp. 140-1] But this is a tangent, isn’t it, Jamuqa?

Go on, then. Tell them I’m gay.

You just made sense that way, Jamuqa.

I never did.

I do have a note on this, at the end of Imaginary Kings. Wherein I don’t offer much grounds but my gut feelings or a novelist’s logic (… ‘It’s just that he’s fascinated by Temujin his whole life and his life hung together that way, he came across that way to me, and he’s such an outsider, too.’…).  Another novelist, Pamela Sargent in Ruler of the Sky, has him in love with Temujin, although he’s Bad Jamuqa.

A second biography I want to quote has a more sensible tone. Doeke Eisma in Chinggis Qan and the Conquest of Eurasia concludes that Jamuqa was the major emotional involvement of Temujin’s life: “Jamuqa seems to have been the only person for whom Chinggis had strong personal feelings, much more intense than for his wives, or he may have kept them more private, so that they are hardly recorded. He clearly fell in love with Qulan and the only record of an intimate gesture is when he was glad to find Borte again after she was kidnapped by the Merkit. With Jamuqa things were different… There was in Jamuqa a mixture of love, jealousy and hatred… It is not clear to what extent homosexual love was also involved, but their relation certainly was tragic.”  [p.53]

Qulan I’ve named Ulun, Brown Usun’s daughter near the end of Imaginary Kings. Later he takes her with him on the Turkestan campaign, when Borte has to mind the home camp. Then, to be equal, he takes Yisui on his last campaign in Tangut.

On his wives, the above is better than what I’ve seen in several places: that he evinces no particular affection toward any one woman. How the heck would we know, is the first thing to ask. I’d say – against the above – the evidence is there for Borte. However, “with Jamuqa things were different,” in that the Secret History is drenched in emotional description. Most biographers take this with more or less of your cynical salt. But what the Secret History tries to tell you is, whether love or friendship, Jamuqa was the big emotion of his life. I think the cynical lenses lead us astray too often with old cultures, but… that’s getting into deep water. This is a short post.

The second biography quoted was self-published at Lulu and seems to have lost its availability. No ebook. It began as an annotated translation of Rene Grousset’s old Conqueror of the World, until the annotations took over. Rene Grousset certainly gives us a highly charged Temujin and Jamuqa (where both are great-hearted, quite often) – no mention of sexuality, but he too puts Jamuqa at the centre of Temujin’s life, and enters into the spirit of the text. I love his book.

Jamuqa, if I may invite you to comment? The last word is yours.

Can you do a post about my military genius?



Jamuqa’s goat

Jamuqa just wants to pop up today with his goat.
I don’t know what his goat meant to the Scyths (it’s Scythian gold) but it’s spooky, isn’t it? Fit adumbration of his madness.


I have no other excuse to post. Have a goat, people. — It’s a great goat, Jamuqa, and any time you want to guest-post… you know, when you feel talkative. He doesn’t talk much, folks, in public, so I’ll give him his goat and see if that’s a first step.

If I were to write over, the one thing I’d do that I didn’t do (I guess I’m lucky to have a single regret — at this stage) is treat Jamuqa’s mental illness with more realism. As it is, it’s story and not science. I’ve only gone a touch mad twice and I’ve never hallucinated goats, and I’ve dabbled in serious material on the subject, over my life. One comment I have: from my researches on shamanism I’ve come to the view that mental problems were more acknowledged as the common things they are, in these societies than in our own. In descriptions of Mongolian and neighbour shamanism I have seen said that shamans work with mental ills even more often than they do with physical. Anthropologist Caroline Humphrey lists the tasks of a Daur Mongol shaman and finishes, “Daur shamans were above all invited to cure mental illness and depression.” [Shamans and Elders, Oxford, 1996]. There are a few areas where I think ‘they did better than us’ and mental illness is among them. Our Jamuqa didn’t let a shaman help him, but even so, he might agree.

While we’re here, why don’t we link to the State Hermitage Museum St Petersburg, its collection of Scythian antiquities. They have the goat.

Solitary writers (are you out there?)

Writers have different habits, different ways to write, and I hope we can politely leave each to our own. It is an exercise in politeness, as I know from myself, because when I hear a friend say, ‘I’m sending out to my beta-readers,’ I want to howl at her, No no no no no. Of course I do no such thing.

Obviously, I don’t use beta-readers. I am the alpha to omega reader of my work, until it’s in a state fit to print. This makes for slow publishing: you need years of perspective on a work, to be an omega reader yourself. So I had my first book in my hands for nine years; I only had beta eyes – or new eyes as I call them – after I’d finished the second and come back. To ask another person for new eyes… no, I cannot contemplate it. They see differently. Only I can see the true road for my book, even if I can’t see yet, even if not for years. Foreign eyes (as I think of them) I fear must hopelessly confuse. Muddy the waters. When I can’t see clearly, the last thing I need is advice in my ears. I have to stare until I see. Or take a hike, come back in a few years’ time with the eyes of a stranger. But my eyes.

One hand writes a novel, that’s my creed. It’s no use to try to shift a belief like that, so I hope we writers can rub along together with our different habits and beliefs.

One hand, one eye to see the right words (did you hear Tolkien creep in? Bugger off, Tolkien. If I’m as crazy as Sauron, let it be so. I can tell you I’ll never change). Where was I? Only the creator’s eye can spot the right word. Other people’s words must be inserts, intrusions, and wrong. Wrong in ways you won’t notice, but you’ve been shifted, if ever so slightly, off your tracks. So if you’ve lost the sense of those tracks, wait. Wait. Wait for years. Others’ input, foreign influence – is your greatest danger.

Now, I can scarcely understate how out of fashion this writing philosophy is. Here I’m in the privacy of my blog; if I essayed to defend this argument in a writers’ public square, I’d be shot down or locked up. But I know I’m not the only one who writes this way – are you out there, solitary writers?

To express my puzzled feelings, crudely, I have a made-up tale of Picasso and the paintbrush. That’s when a bystander looks over his shoulder and says, ‘I don’t think people are going to understand that smudge in the corner. How about you turn that into a cabbage?’ He got a paintbrush through the eye, didn’t he?

It seems to me that written arts are singled out, for the art-by-committee strategy. And I don’t understand why that should be so. Writers have always fought to keep creative control, of course – and lost in general. ‘Go indie’ we urge writers of the past, safely in their graves. Except I’ve met on indie review sites the admittance question, ‘Have you been professionally edited?’ And I can’t tick yes to that box. I can tick, ‘No, piss off. But give me credence. Every word is mine. Every judgement call, my judgement – because no-one else knows what I’m doing with the book, do they? Try it. Call it single malt and have a swig.’

Two months to go

Come January I’m not allowed to read fiction. Two months to wallow.

It isn’t that I’m not allowed, but I’ve had a year off – quite unintentional; publishing proved a fatal interruption/disruption to my hermit-writer’s existence, close-closeted with the book. I haven’t written since January, but I’ve shovelled into the abyss that is my life without the book, a record amount of fiction. Because I can’t read fiction while I write. While I write, the whole goal is never to exit the world of my novel; other fictional worlds are too violent a yank. I didn’t read fiction for years. It’s an unfortunate side-effect and one of the prices you pay, happily. Maybe I won’t go back to that extreme closetedness (now I’m online…) and if I can keep up a feed of fiction, I want to. But I have a fixed date when I have to take up work again, no matter what state my head’s in: no excuses from January 19, a year after I published.

In short, I’ve started to think, two months, what novels can I cram in, which can be left out?