On Change

A hymn to Change, god of novels: and nowhere more so than when you write about the Mongols.

“A big step, in sixty years, from hard times on the Onon Gol to triumphs on the Danube: Liegnitz, Wiener Neustadt might have been the moon to Yesugei’s nokod, the moon Dei Sechen dreamt of.”  – I think I connected steps and the moon in echo of Neil Armstrong. And why not? The Mongols didn’t fly to the moon but they did near enough, in the age. This sentence intrudes when things are at their worst (Yesugei’s dead) – the sudden look ahead, a technique from the Secret History. Here we have Temujin’s family in their lowest circumstances:

Hoelun Ujin, with her native courage,
Tightened down the high hat on her head,
Tied up her skirts in her sash.
Up and down the Onon Gol she ran
Picking sour pear and cedar cones,
Day and night scoured for nourishment for her sons.

Mother Hoelun, with her innate gall,
Took up sharpened sticks of juniper,
Dug the ground for roots and tubers,
Nourished her sons on mountain leek and onion,
On lily bulbs, white rush bottoms, silverweed.
She fed the clutch of upturned gullets in her nest,
Her hungry young, who grew to be kings and legislators.

That’s a sudden zoom – that gives you vertigo. Now, I believe in the artistry of the Secret History. It’s art, right? I don’t think it does this to claim the inevitability of Temujin’s rise to world fame. No, crap. It does this with the opposite intention: so you scratch your head and go, ‘Eh? From here to there? Crazy.’

Because it is crazy. Let’s get that straight: history is crazy, none more than Mongol history. There’s no inevitability about it. Juvaini, 13th-century Persian historian, muses on these questions:

“How contingent are human affairs, often how inexplicable. In the face of fate and fortune our exertions go for nought. Powers overthrown in their strength, their affluence, their high civilization, while we search for the logic in vain. Such an instance (was there ever such an instance?) are the Mongol people, when one casts an eye to their circumstances before they began to beat the drum of Tchingis Khan, when one sees with what extravagance fortune has sped them: on the head of the slave a crown to his glory, on the foot of the prince a fetter to his shame. And that was easy unto God.”

Easy unto God, but baffles the historian. As he says, the Mongols’ climb is unexampled. The only analogue I have found is the Arab conquests. Nobody expected, conceived of, imagined what happened in Mongol history. It was unimaginable. So, firstly, the novelist (historians too) must keep in mind that her people can have no conception of what’s ahead.

Obvious, but tricky to do – to honestly forget your hindsight on their behalf. And there are traps in the next one: she mustn’t attribute to them things out of the future. This is often transgressed – by historians, yes. Most of our data is from the Empire Period. For lack of material, historians have been known to assume the data goes for Mongols before they left the steppe. This underestimates the change factor. And the change factor – my creed is – cannot possibly be overestimated. What people’s circumstances changed so much in sixty years? And the changes to them? In thought, practices, behaviour? Nothing can be transported straight from later times to earlier. No assumptions, except for the assumption that changes were massive, or that for anything to be unchanged is near-impossible.

Of course Chinggis didn’t set out to conquer the world – unless you believe the heavens told him what’s ahead. The first intimations that success led the Mongols on to think in terms of world-conquest, date from late in his career or after his death. And no wonder, with success like that. The bizarreness of history has to be kept, conserved, by novelist or historian. Mongol history was never inevitable. It’s bizarre.

Would the Empire Period Mongols have recognised themselves from the obscure days on the steppe? Maybe, but not the other way around. Not the other way around.

“Eljigidei who forty years on, in the strange new world Tchingis left them, was agent for negotiations with Saint Louis of France and the Pope towards a scheme for Mongols and Crusaders to concert and win the Kingdom of Jerusalem.”

I pop this in, when Tchingis is in his lowest circumstances – for the bizarreness, as I believe the Secret History teaches me: startle them with a glance ahead. I don’t argue with my original’s artistic effects, I shut up and copy. But Eljigidei, down-and-out with Tchingis at Baljuna Lake, would only reel to see his future self. Recognise him? No way. No more than the Pope.

It might have happened differently. Change goes along with uncertainty: there’s the change principle, there’s the uncertainty principle: two yak’s tails to hang on your standard, whether you want to write fiction or fact. Put in the accidental. Put in the trivia that swung history, the unfair illogical stupid little thing that swung a battle. The accident factor, there’s a third yak tail, to end on a holy number: I’ll have to think up nine, for my writer’s tuq.

oh yeah


about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

If I go quiet…

512px-Joseph_Mallord_William_Turner_-_Death_on_a_pale_horse_-_Google_Art_ProjectI can feel Three upon me. For a few months I’ve lived a life such as I dreamt of ‘when the book is finished’ – in once upon a future, if I live to see the day. And it’s been great. I’ve kicked up my heels, been ushuttable-up on Goodreads, I’ve read fiction – which I cannot do while writing (years and years wiped out for fiction, an unfortunate side-effect). I’ve dwelt on old loves, I’ve pulled my past together: into a focus. Maybe I can’t go back to the hermit life, now I’m online. I wasn’t online while writing One and Two. Can you do both? We’ll see. The most fun I’ve had is group reads in Shakespeare Fans and I can’t stop that. But here’s Jamuqa, dead on his white horse and calling to me. And life starts to feel purposeless without him, who has been my purpose for nine years now. Back to the slave pits. Not this week, but next, I almost dare to say.

Two isn’t histfic; and Three?

Why did God give writers blogs? He didn’t; we invented them; it’s obviously a bad idea, but I’m going to sally out in the happy knowledge that nobody reads mine. Don’t start now.

I’m in the thinking-about-the-next stage. But not deliberately thinking; on the contrary, I’m distracted by a dozen tangents; but in this phase of conception, everything feeds in. Nothing is not relevant. Even if I try: I thought I was whiling away the empty time between books by putting up on my Goodreads shelves my early history, influential books I’ve half-forgotten. But no, and I’m even tempted to read them again, to gather the threads together, into this that is my culmination – at least the biggest canvas I’ll ever get, if not my last chance at a book. It has to go in Three, if it didn’t get into One or Two.

Much of the old stuff that meant a lot to me is sf. Science fiction I believe excellent for historical; both are world-building; there’s the alien thought to undo your mental stuckness-in-now; and sf, like nothing else, enlargens the imagination, yes? I need a dose of space opera in my past to write the kind of wars that… had not been seen in the world, although in retrospect we’re used to them. (On retrospect and war, see Peter C. Perdue, who hammers into your head, people did not know, as we do, the next event. To be conscious of this, he teaches, ‘to recapture the sense of uncertainty’, is crucial for an historian; hey, only more so for a novelist. It makes him exciting to read, and you see that most historians do not operate this way).

When the cauldron’s bubbling, nothing is not relevant. However farfetched. In the empty space between books I took up Joseph Frank’s five-set on Dostoyevsky: the writer in his time, a portrait of the Russian 19th century, its world of ideas. That crazy Russian 19th century, with every species of leftist, under a Tsar, anarchists and aristocrats and the gamut of religious opinion, all in collision (yes, no wonder Dostoyevsky wrote the books he did). So what do I think of? Thirteenth-century China. Either that’s an absurd application of the principle ‘everything is (seems) relevant (to a one-track-mind)’ or it’s an opening of the imagination to potentials. Ideas in conflict… I don’t want to waste my opportunities in 13thC China. First off we have a society in collapse, a society (use the Perdue principle) that thought – I kid you not – what they saw around them was the Fall of Civilization. Or that was one strand of thought. There was a school of poetry that came out of the Mongol conquest, called the Death and Chaos school. I have always been fascinated by ruin, and by the barbarians over the gates. I can’t wait to get my teeth stuck into this – to give a story account of those Death and Chaos poems.

There was also ‘intellectual ferment’ in Jurchen China, before the Mongols descended. A wide choice of philosophies with political implications. I’m not a China expert. Frankly, I don’t even want to become one; besides you can’t come late to a study like that. For years I’ve thought, isn’t it mission impossible for me to write in China? The first comfort I found (comfort, not solution) is that China, often, stands for Us, in my novel. I believe no other society on earth, in the 13th century, can so conveniently stand for us – at least on the issues I pursue. War: you find attitudes to war that are not foreign to yours and mine – that are exactly mine. Where else? And then there’s the civil service government, that’s familiar. In the second book, already, China has been us (example: Ile Ahai on the ‘great man’ theory of history). As a side-effect this salves my conscience, since I have to take sides. I’m afraid I haven’t had a good word to say about China yet; when I feel awkward about that I remind myself China is us.

Nor is this – I argue – invalid in the times. They thought this way. China identified itself as Civilization: so I make China stand for civilization, and that works. The worst of them, if you like, similarly to ourselves, thought in terms of Civilization (them) and the other, which I’ll just call the uncivilized for now. So when my book makes a case for the uncivilized and critiques civilization, I am doing nowise other than what they did in centuries past. Am I justified yet?

Where was I? Ah yes. I’ve never been into Chinese history, but I discovered my other solution – this one claims the name of solution – that Jurchen China fascinates me. It’s far under-studied, too, and precisely because of what fascinates me: it’s an intersection-culture of civilized and uncivilized; very traditional China scholars discount it – they simply don’t care. But intersections are what I explore on every path. Tchingis never met undiluted Civilization: he never went to South China or to Europe or to Russia. He found himself in intersections, cross-overs, melting pots, frontiers, where nomad cultures have seeped into settled cultures or the other way around, and he sees the results thereof. Well, that does capture me, that’s up my street, and I feel confidant to write about that.

There are only 2-3 books on Jurchen China in English, but they are rich in hints. Of course the reason I never studied China… I shouldn’t crudely put this into words, but obviously, pit the nomads against China and you know whose side I’m on. I can be said to be a dead-cert anti-Confucian. I study what I am in sympathy with, and that was never traditional China (again I’ll use my phrase, China is us). But Jurchen China, ah… Right before they conquered north China the Jurchen were a ‘primitive’ forest people. Their trials and tribulations in China – intellectual, philosophical, religious – can you see why the Russian 19th century is not so far afield, for a sense of ideas in conflict? And in resolution, attempted resolutions. Jurchen China has unique features, under-studied. A movement began to weld or meld the Three Doctrines – Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism – into a universal, and this happened just at the time that universalism was the big new idea on the steppe. The Chinese guy (in fact he’s Qatat) Tchingis became tight with, Ile Jutzai, was a believer in this unity of doctrines, and he can be my champion of what is unique to Jurchen China. That’s why my Tchingis gets along with him.

Onto the title of this post. Book One seems to me to be histfic, Two scarcely, and Three is going to stretch the definition. It’s T.H. White who taught me to put in my vital interests. What the hell else are you meant to write about but your vital interests? He did Nazi ants, and I promise you I won’t; he began with legend-fic, not histfic, and I won’t take his whole license. But in One, that might pass as conventional histfic, early human politics rears its head, because I care. Because I found two wonderful books and I want to tell you what they say. What is the default politics of our species? Can we even do liberty? Hey, I have determined to my satisfaction a part of an answer – that is, I have decided which books to put my trust or vest my faith in – and sorry, you’ve got to know about that. It fits into the story. It’s why I chose the story. To me, this remains how to write, and I bet that early scifi wears a little of the blame.

I hope nobody has read this far, and I mean that. A blog is a dangerous thing, in a writer’s hands. I did not do my post on the wobbles I had about Book Two. This is just as bad, though.

I blog

me-head-try-thisHere I am, the proud squire of a website. I feel squirely, as in, ‘she’s got great tracts…’ of website of her own.

Meet me. The brains of the outfit. Hah – that was merely to elicit comment from Jamuqa (it’s his tag). In fact I’m more like Temujin, the ox in yoke: an ox isn’t called on to have ideas but to obey. Of course in other moods he claims to be blown by wind of God.

In short, I wrote Amgalant. But don’t blame me.