Mongols, Rape and Popular Culture

If most places in the world of George R.R. Martin’s series A Song of Ice and Fire have a rape culture, still Dothraki are different; Dothraki have a society based on rape. Others rape in war, but only Dothraki rape at wedding celebrations – in the open, ‘like animals’, as the norm. Dothraki are meant to be reminiscent of Mongols and other steppe peoples. Why Mongols? Why rape? Our popular culture (I’ll use ‘ours’ in this post about largely English-language fiction, to own it, being a white woman, British-Australian. I don’t need to address PoC with a post like this.) – our popular culture equates Mongols with rape. It goes unquestioned. The Mongols raped their way through China, Iran and Europe, is the common wisdom, and the common material for fiction on or inspired by the Mongols. But how historical is this? In this post I look at the evidence, and at our habit of stigmatising the Mongols with rape, above other peoples – such as ourselves – in fiction.

Dothraki are animalised sexually: they have sex in public like their horses; the Dothraki sexual position is ‘dog-style’, from behind; the bestial sexual customs of Dothraki are kept front and centre in the story.

The Dothraki mate like the animals in their herds. There is no privacy in a khalasar, and they do not understand sin or shame as we do.

She was afraid of the Dothraki, whose ways seemed alien and monstrous, as if they were beasts in human skin and not true men at all.

Yet every night… Drogo would come to her tent… to ride her as relentlessly as he rode his stallion. He always took her from behind, Dothraki fashion…

Daenerys teaches her husband Khal Drogo to couple face to face – like human beings.

It is instructive to look at Martin’s first novel Game of Thrones (1996) alongside a novel of the same vintage, the 90s, Pamela Sargent’s historical fiction about Genghis Khan, Ruler of the Sky (1993). Possibly Martin read Sargent, both being in the American science fiction crowd, but I won’t hang an argument on that. Though dated to the 90s, of course, Martin’s fiction is still very much active in our culture, while Sargent’s has become a lesser-known. But Martin conceived of the Dothraki in the same decade that Sargent used the Mongols to tell a story about rape. Sargent has more frequent rape in her novel, and more violent, than Martin manages in his sections on Dothraki. Yet she comes from a very different place. I knew her as a feminist SF writer and editor of the Women of Wonder anthologies. Her reason to write about rape was a feminist one. Her choice of setting was the same as Martin’s: let’s use the Mongols.

To fail to ask why is racist. On racist stereotypes bell hooks says: ‘the sexual stereotype of black men [is] as overly sexual, manly, as “rapists”.’ Jeff Yang talks of American ‘stereotypes of Asian males as emasculated and nonsexual.’ When Black means hyper-sexual, while Asian means emasculated, where do the Mongols sit? They are Asian, but they are everybody’s rapists. They have been fantasized as a threat to white women. An old scare about the Mongol stain emerging in Europeans down the centuries has been replaced by a DNA meme – ‘1 in 200 men alive today descended from Genghis Khan’ – which on investigation (you can do this on the internet) is pseudo-scientific tripe.[1] The assumption behind both memes is a lot of rape. Never mind that when a similar percentage of modern European populations are attributed to Charlemagne, the case of the white Christian king is not immediately explained by the proposal that he had intercourse with every woman in sight.


Evidence for the early thirteenth century – Chinggis Khan’s conquests – is simply insufficient to say much about rape. Did Mongol armies rape in war more than other armies, so that they are justifiably associated with such stories? Did they rape at home, more than other societies? Was rape more prevalent among them than we call the baseline, so that we choose them to be the protagonists of such stories? The answer is: not to our knowledge. It can’t be proved either way.

Here’s a transcript of Jack Weatherford when questioned at a talk:

I know of no documented case where [rape in war] happened… The whole Mongol masculinity is so different than ours… Steppe culture in general – rape was not a part of it… To my knowledge, [rape in war] did not happen. I cannot prove this, but no-one can prove to me it did happen.[2]

Weatherford goes out on a limb, not for the first time, since we can scarcely imagine war without rape. Most obviously, he discounts the ‘horrid acts to women’ in Ibn al-Athir. Weatherford is not alone in this judgement. To Ibn al-Athir, who watched from Mosul out of the Mongols’ reach, as to Juzjani who escaped and wrote from Delhi, Mongols were evil and prone to every evil act. There is no possibility of scrutiny of what they heard and wrote down. How are we to distinguish rumour, news, and horror tales from the thirteenth century, when we can’t today? We can assess historians.

Juvaini is the most detailed source for the sack of cities in Chinggis Khan’s war against the Khwarazm Shah in Turkestan and Iran – for the worst of the massacres. In his description of sack and massacre, a city to be plundered has its residents ordered outside and kept under watch, ‘men and women’ the same. Where the population is to be punished with massacre, they are killed without distinction. Indiscriminately – but indiscriminately does not mean an unleashed slaughter. Massacres weren’t messy but done with discipline and efficiency, each soldier allocated an equal number to kill. Juvaini’s usual ‘men and women’ might be thought a pat phrase, if not for a single city where the procedure changes. At Merv, under Tolui’s command, Mongols put the men and women into separate groups. Juvaini takes the opportunity to sentimentalise the women’s situation:

The Mongols now entered the town and drove all the inhabitants, nobles and commoners, out onto the plain. For four days and nights the people continued to come out of the town; the Mongols detained them all, separating the women from the men. Alas! how many peri-like ones [peris are fairies] did they drag from the bosoms of their husbands! How many sisters did they separate from their brothers! How many parents were distraught at the ravishment of their virgin daughters!

If he had reason to write like this at other sites, he would. At Merv, both groups were massacred just the same, without mention of a sexual motive for splitting them up. Splitting them caused upset, however – we see from Juvaini’s sentiments. It would not be efficient to split them. Treatment of women was a flashpoint, likely to cause trouble. Juvaini and Ibn al-Athir have two different stories about the death of a well-known religious scholar at Bukhara. In Ibn al-Athir, the Mongols commit ‘horrid acts with women’ while people look on and weep; some, the scholar and his son among them, cannot accept the sight and choose rather to protest, fight and be inevitably killed. Juvaini has this same religious scholar give the local imam a speech of quiescence. It’s possible both have the right of it: pious resignation until he challenged Mongols on women. Protest did not have to be about sexual assault; it was enough that Mongols killed women just like men – they did not make the distinctions a chivalrous society was used to.

It is not that we don’t hear about women, it is not that they are ignored. The explicitness or vagueness of language is a problem. For example, the word ‘ravishment’ in the quote above at Merv. ‘Ravish’ means ‘to seize away’, like Juvaini’s other escalating sentences; it can also mean ‘to rape’. The word is an ambiguous translation of an imprecise original. Juvaini makes some use of the stock phrase ‘rapine and pillage’. Rape and pillage go together (‘like a horse and carriage’, Sinatra might sing) in our speech habits too. The Mongol army was alien to most of our witnesses. It behaved in ways unfamiliar to them. A stock phrase cannot be conclusive. Juvaini records a sentence from an eyewitness at Bukhara, circulated by survivors for its ‘succinct Persian’: ‘They came, they sapped, they burnt, they slew, they plundered and they departed.’ Absent is ‘they raped.’

Silence is not evidence that a thing did not occur, but my aim here is to prove our lack of evidence. In a lack of evidence, our assumptions rush into the breach, with those auxiliaries our fantasies.

I’m going to attempt a general comment. In my view, industrial-scale rape alongside industrial-scale massacre can be ruled out. Silence is not evidence. Even so, Juvaini, who does not stint on description of the massacres, and who sentimentalises women victims, does not have rape as an official practice, and that is weighty. And if it wasn’t ordered, it wasn’t done, large-scale – not in an army whose discipline was inexplicable to witnesses from other societies. Mongols laid enormous stress on communal action. You did it in a group or you didn’t do it. This was the grounds of their efficiency. To exceed orders – to do violence where he had specified no violence – was severely punished by Chinggis. Rape, I think, at sacks or at the scene of massacres, was either ordered or frowned upon. No in between is likely.

What about captured women?

In the sacks I dealt with above, it is wives and daughters of the (Qangli Turk) garrisons who are taken into captivity, while women of the main city populations (Iranian) are not. Those led into captivity are lost sight of, even queens. The Khwarzm Shah’s mother eked out a ‘miserable existence’ (no details) among the Mongols for twelve years; Chinggis Khan gave other royal women of Khwarazm to Muslims in his service.

We should not think of captive women as necessarily in the custody of men. Often they were distributed to royal and noble Mongol women, who ran households (these may seem to us more like caravan convoys) staffed and well-populated by women.  Pascha, who by luck has her story told in the sources, is one of these.[3] Friar William of Rubruck is in the Mongol capital Karakorum:

We were discovered by a woman from Metz in Lorraine, named Pascha, who had been captured in Hungary… She belonged to the household of the lady who had been a Christian and whom I mentioned above, and told us about the unheard-of destitution she had suffered prior to her arrival at the camp. But now she was well enough off: she had a young Russian husband, by whom she had three very fine little boys, and he knew how to construct dwellings, which they regard as a worthy craft.

After a journey on foot from Europe – a journey the friar himself, on horseback with Mongol companions, found a harsh trial – she was given to an Oirat wife of Mongke Khan. Intriguingly, she has been wed to another captive. Did her mistress marry them, to make the useful household unit they are when the friar finds them? Friar William makes no inquiry or comment about sexual abuse of this young woman.

A more extraordinary captive’s story is that of Fatima. A Muslim woman captured in the Khwarazm campaign, she became a companion to Queen Toregene, who, once in charge of the state as a khan’s widow, made Fatima de facto prime minister.

Ordinary stories do not get preserved.

One thing we can say with certainty is that ‘miscegenation’, which disgusts Dothraki, did not bother Mongols in the least. They were exogamous to begin with, and Chinggis’s sons and grandsons had wives from the royal families of defeated enemies. Also, adoption of enemy children was common practice: Temujin does this with steppe enemies, and then with a Tangut boy too. When Dothraki after a victory are raping women over piles of corpses, Daenerys again tries to civilize them: ‘If your warriors would mount these women, let them take them gently and keep them for wives… let them bear you sons.’ Qotho, a cruel Dothraki, laughs: ‘Does the horse breed with the sheep?’ But Mongols did not need to have such a conversation.

And Chinggis Khan himself? Now I have words with Rashid al-Din. The more gaudy tales about Chinggis Khan often come from Rashid, whose account of Chinggis has a legendary flavour, in distinction from his coverage of the grandchildren’s times, where he is in sharp focus. It is Rashid who tells us Chinggis had ‘nearly five hundred wives and concubines, each taken from a different tribe. Some he requested after the Mongol fashion of marriage, but most he took as booty when he conquered a territory or tribe.’ Hundreds of wives and hundreds of children is not gospel, although it is an internet fact. Rashid al-Din, prime minister, ex-Jewish Muslim who wrote the first world history, was nothing if not representative of the new cultural mash-up of the Mongols in government in Iran and China. When he writes, Mongol rulers have harems and concubines, but these are not Mongol words, and Chinggis kept to a frugal Mongol lifestyle. True, Chinggis’ wives after Borte were political signals; he took one from each steppe people who joined him, and then demanded a princess in treaty with Tangut and China, this being a clause that signified he had the better of them in the treaty. Further than that we are in guesswork, and Rashid’s five hundred looks like an exaggerated brag that he conquered five hundred tribes and peoples. In addition to Borte’s nine children, Rashid names four others, from women of the steppe. He doesn’t claim there were more offspring, in spite of the number of wives. To lose track of offspring would be suspicious, what with the prestige of the Chinggis line. Children from a casual rape were not thought nothing of: twice in his genealogies of Chinggisids, Rashid tells us that a certain child – a named Chinggis descendent – was begotten when his father had sex, once, with a slave’s wife. In each case the father isolated the woman in a tent away from her husband to see whether a pregnancy resulted, afterwards returned her to her family, and brought up the child. Rashid al-Din doesn’t leave out of his Chinggis count two who died in infancy, and his practice is to include daughters as well as sons. Thirteen children looks like a complete list.

Most general histories of the Mongols repeat Rashid’s five hundred wives figure and repeat the DNA meme. They do not offer a specific discussion of rape. It isn’t for the sake of Chinggis’ reputation that I want more scrutiny, more caution; it’s because these claims foster a connection between ‘Mongols’ and ‘rape’. Wives acquired in conquest are not the same as later institutionalised harems. Historians who write jocularly – one recent history book has Chinggis ‘go forth and multiply’ – need to remember they are writing about rape. What ends up on the internet is that Genghis ‘f___d every woman in sight’.

Rashid, too, is responsible for a quote that has grown to be ubiquitous; you can scarcely read about Genghis Khan without it. Because it’s so perfect – too perfect, we ought to suspect.

A man’s greatest pleasure is to defeat his enemies, to exterminate them and seize everything they have; to watch their wives weep, to ride their smooth steeds, to treat their lovely queens and concubines as pyjamas and pillows, to gaze on and kiss their rose-tinted faces, to suck their sweet lips berry-tinted like their nipples.

This quote is very often put into plainer language, so as to sound more like a thing Genghis Khan might say and less like a Persian historian. You’ve met the flowery language of Persian historians with Juvaini and his peris, above. To fiddle with the quote may seem like a fair way to do history. It is not a fair way to do history. You can’t change the words into more believable ones and then present them as what Genghis is known to have said. I’m afraid that’s cheating with the evidence. Did Chinggis talk about pyjamas and pillows? No. Did he say this at all, in his own language? His own language can be found solely in the Secret History of the Mongols, the only extant primary source. It is where to hear how the early Mongols thought and spoke, what stories they told themselves, what figures of speech they used; where to study their imaginations. I can only answer that similar talk of the use of women’s bodies, or of war as a pleasure (rather than a condition of life) does not occur in the Secret History.

So what about that Mongol lifestyle, what about abduction of women in steppe society? On this our source is the Secret History and we know so much because both Temujin’s mother and his wife were abducted. Since it is Temujin’s family we tell the story, and what we do is add violence. Value-add is violence-add, to us. Almost always, we have Borte, Temujin’s chief wife, raped violently by the man she is given to in an enemy tribe. Both Pamela Sargent and Stephanie Thornton in her novel The Tiger Queens: The Women of Genghis Khan (2014) make him rape her in public, for humiliation or as normal treatment of a captured wife. None of this is from the Secret History. The text only says that this man ‘cared for’ or ‘kept’ her, and he is given a conscience in the story. He is her husband by coercion, but he is not a violent type and does not insult her. Mongol society had its rules around abducted women, had its expectations. In our fictions, we imagine violence instead.

Two incidents of mass sexual violence

Note: These two stories, post-Chinggis, are not told in the Secret History either. Again I have to say they are not gospel.

The Oirat had flouted Ogodei’s instructions as to where to give away their daughters. His new instructions were to assemble the girls of Oirat, four thousand by report, and whoever was present had to rape them. For once – and I mean once – we have in our sources a scene out of Game of Thrones; this is the kind of thing that happened at the celebrations when ‘Daenerys Targaryen wed Khal Drogo with fear and barbaric splendour’. Now let’s notice the differences. The Mongols thought this a tyrannical act and a disgrace to Ogodei. It was an enormity and a one-off. Ogodei included it in his four misdeeds when near the end of his life he gave in public his own verdict on his khanship, with a list of four things he did right and four things he did wrong. For Dothraki, on the other hand, this is perfectly normal behaviour.

Tolui on campaign in China is being pursued by an army much bigger than his own.

Because of their own multitude and superiority and the fewness of the Mongols, pride and vanity had taken root in their brains and they looked with the glance of contempt upon the Mongol army and spoke big words, saying: ‘We shall encircle these Mongols and their king, and take them prisoner, and do this and that to their womenfolk.’ And they gave expression to shameful ideas and unworthy desires.

After a fraught few days the Mongols defeat the Chinese army.

And because they had jeered at the Mongols, speaking big words and expressing evil thoughts, it was commanded that they should commit the act of the people of Lot with all the Chinese who had been taken prisoner.

‘The act of the people of Lot’ — for Rashid al-Din, with reference to the Sodom story in the Quran — is anal intercourse. Tolui takes revenge for the enemy’s obscene threats to Mongol women, and he takes it on the bodies of those who threatened. He seems to have invented this revenge for the situation. We don’t know what he might have heard of as a precedent. By this time the Mongols have fought halfway around the known world, and been exposed to much in foreign practices in warfare. Although this campaign is in North China, the enemy threats had teeth because Mongol women operated near front lines, involved in the baggage and in custody and transportation of loot. We think ‘camp followers’, but this is Mongol wives and daughters in official function.[4] It is worth noting too that obscenity has not been found a Mongol speech habit, in times when we can attest such things; foreign obscenities might have been upsetting.

You notice these are both cases of ordered rape – not licensed abandonment. They were ordered to rape and they did, whether tribal comrades or Chinese men. Mongols’ obedience to orders astonishes outsiders. Obedience is a dangerous weapon, as we know.

Tales of our own masculinity

Where I have dots in my transcript of Jack Weatherford, he explains to the questioner that Mongolians do not have the ‘macho’ culture of the West. It’s typical that Temujin is younger than his wife, the other way round from the West. Weatherford briefly sketches out a masculinity his audience doesn’t recognise. Mongolia is having its Me Too moment, but the terms won’t be exactly the same. Masculinity is not a constant across cultures, although the ‘young men’ bracket towards which much Mongol fiction is aimed, aren’t asked to consider this. They want to see themselves. In the first of Conn Iggulden’s Conqueror series, Wolf of the Plains about young Genghis, masculinity is written as emotional lock-down and an absent father. Everything womanly is devalued and thought weak, down to the wives’ tribe Olqunot. There is no honour in this tribe living off giving wives to other tribes — unlike what’s in the Secret History, where the wife-giving tribes have prestige and boast of their peaceful relations to others. Instead, in Iggulden, they are debased, despised, and they bash their wives and daughters. Temujin’s father Yesugei cannot express his feelings, and his sons have to work very hard for a slight word of approval from him. It is a script of use to boys who have a difficult relationship with their fathers, and who see that men around them have trouble to emote. This isn’t criticism: it is right that our fiction be written for us. The bad thing is the ‘feedback loop’ whereby we believe this about Mongols – and disbelieve pictures that don’t resemble this.

Helen Young says that readers are caught in a ‘feedback loop’ in which George R.R. Martin’s work helps to create a neomedieval idea of the Middle Ages, which becomes their idea of what the Middle Ages ‘really’ looked like, which is then used to defend Martin’s work as ‘realistic’ because it matches their idea of the Middle Ages.[5]

If we come to acknowledge the simple truth that there is no reason to pin rape culture on the Mongols ahead of other medieval societies, that would be a great step forward. But at this point in the feedback loop, to disassociate Mongols and rape in the public mind frankly looks impossible. When we choose to portray Mongol men (against the evidence) as ultra-masculine, non-emotional and anti-weak, with a contempt for women, we prime them to be rapists. We prime ourselves to think of them as rapists.

Hyper-masculinity and its ills is Sargent’s main subject in her novel on Genghis Khan. Like Iggulden, she addresses a Western readership to say what she wants to say about men to them. She has a poignant story of a son, the consolation of the women’s quarters while he is a child, who at adolescence learns a shame of the womanly, acts from then on as if he despises his mother-figures, and takes his place in the ranks of men for whom rape is normal sex. This is a terribly sad story and told for a purpose. But whether we want to teach boys how to be men, or whether we want to spotlight toxic masculinity, in either case we write about Western culture. We displace Asian masculinities, we project ours into a Mongol setting. In a funny way this means we do examine our own rape culture when we write about the Mongols (or Dothraki). But we avoid admitting it’s ourselves. The distance of the Mongol setting lets us look at hyper-masculinity, emotional inability, and rape culture – our problems. Sargent was either aware that the masculinity she wrote about was Western or else she universalised. In her feminist fiction it is half-acknowledged that our toxic masculinity is the subject. She still badmouths the Mongols in order to do this, so I’m conflicted about her fiction.

You can see the difference if you watch English-subtitled films made in Mongolia about Chinggis Khan and his times. To grow up and be a man does not need that rejection of the mother, of the woman, seen in our fiction. The way Mongolian films portray grown men and their mothers – through the story of Chinggis Khan – would get a laugh, or an embarrassed titter, in Hollywood. These films are also far less violent than would float in Hollywood.

Jochi’s paternity makes a case study. Jochi is the child conceived around the time of Borte’s abduction and which man fathered him, Temujin or the enemy husband, was uncertain. The story we like to tell is about disputed paternity, and very often we have Temujin reject Jochi or hold his origins against him. The Japanese movie Genghis Khan: To the Ends of the Earth and Sea (directed by Shinichiro Sawai, 2007) makes disputed paternity the crux of the plot. Temujin’s mother and wife were both abducted; in the film first Temujin has to prove he is a true son, and then Jochi has to prove the same to Temujin. Both were in danger of infanticide at the hands of their fathers. Infanticide, as far as I know, is not attested in Mongol life. We hear a great deal about adoption of children, which suggests the steppe’s problem was underpopulation, not an excess of mouths to feed.

A scene in the Secret History tells us differently. Chagatai, the next son, is disgruntled to be number two and calls Jochi a bastard. Chinggis and one of his oldest friends react with shock and dismay. Jochi answers Chagatai, ‘Our father has always treated me the same as his other sons, and now you…’ The Secret History, I say again, is the only extant primary source. But audiences (in Japan this time) want a tale about the importance to men of paternity. So Temujin’s generosity to Jochi becomes a grudge in the great majority of our fiction. An honourable exception is Sergei Bodrov’s movie Mongol (2007), which has Temujin cheerfully adopt not one but two children of Borte’s by other men.

The Stallion Who Mounts the World

Dothraki await ‘the stallion who mounts the world.’

The stallion is the khal of khals promised in ancient prophecy, child. He will unite the Dothraki into a single khalasar and ride to the ends of the earth, or so it was promised. All the people of the world will be his herd.

Clearly the Stallion references Genghis Khan, whom Juvaini calls ‘the world-conqueror’. Perhaps I have said enough to make you see how unMongol this imagery is. It is a sexualised image that certainly the Mongols did not use in any official capacity, such as this Dothraki prophecy and public acclamation. It is fantasy. It is of the same stuff as the DNA meme. I have seen newspapers tell us that the DNA study means Genghis Khan was the alpha male of rapists in world history. I have seen history books say almost as much. But this is our sexualisation of conquest. The Mongols, to my knowledge, never spoke in these terms, or inclined towards such images. This is us.


Interested in a different view of the Mongols? Try my fiction.

Buy Amgalant One

image at WikiCommons
Description from the Commons: ‘The Bulgarian Martyresses, 1877 painting by the Russian painter Konstantin Makovsky, depicting the rape of Bulgarian women by Africanised Ottoman bashi-bazouks during the suppression of the April Uprising a year earlier, served to mobilise public support for the Russo-Turkish War (1877–1878) waged with the proclaimed aim of liberating the Bulgarians.’

I use this piece of propaganda because a writer whose work has been important to me, Dostoyevsky, fired up into one of his worst phases of ethnonationalism and issued racialised propaganda for this war himself, due to how newspapers wrote up the rape of Bulgarian women by Turks.

[1] You can begin here:

Prof Christopher Atwood gives a summary at 47:40 of this talk:
The Basics of the Mongol Empire

[2] ‘Jack Weatherford speaks about Genghis Khan at Embry-Riddle Honors Series’ on YouTube Weatherford on rape begins at 1:06:24.

[3] Carolyne Larrington in Winter Is Coming: The Medieval World of Game of Thrones (I.B. Taurus 2016) says that Pascha’s circle were voluntary visitors, ‘Europeans who had come to trade or work there’. No, this is a community of captives.

[4] Some primary sources on women here, translated by Paul D. Buell:

[5] Shiloh Carroll, Medievalism in A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones (Boydell & Brewer 2018), 6%.

Universal buy link for my Amgalant series:

Misogyny is a Greek Word

I wrote a comedy. It has Scythians, and lots of mashed-up quotes. Beware: political topicality.


Misogyny is a Greek Word


A comedy in one act
by Bryn Hammond

Like trucks the Scythian wagons pull to a stop in a circle, and women climb down from the driver’s seats.

The trader said:

On my business trips into Scythia I deal exclusively with women. Cash transactions, foreign commerce: these are in the wives’ charge. Classified as household, by extension, I think, from spoils – which, if not on four feet, go straight into the women’s hands. They drive the only repositories, you see. Because of this – at least if you ask a trader, or ordinary folk who know them through exchange, and not important men of politics and war – Scythian women have always been the interface of contact. Towns don’t scare them. The women look much more outward than the men. They are more conversable.

To my frank exasperation, Greeks not on the ground describe society in terms of what the men do. That’s a habit that ignores both my needs and the average marketgoer’s. I have listened to scrolls by experts who briefly treat the Scythians’ home wagons as if they follow the basic principles of Greek houses, and pay them no further attention, which means they can give no adequate account of the Scythian economy. I am a humble trader, no great shakes in my city, and often feel myself inside a cloak of invisibility. But my advice to you, friend, is don’t look past the women as if they were not there. We Greeks have a blind spot. Unless we fantasise of Amazons…

The home wagons, in most months of the year, you’ll find a women’s town. Imagine you leave your wife to run the household and go off for a three-months’ jaunt – to catch wild horses in the mountains, or join the king’s great hunt, or on campaign. Except the household is on wheels, and she can trundle for a thousand miles uninterrupted, unimpeded. That way stretch the steppes of Asia, and none of us know where they end. Nomads do: they have laughed heartily when I tell our geographers’ tales about the monster races whom we say live just beyond the Scythians – those with anatomy of humankind and beasts, or body parts dislocated and distorted. In exchange for my tales I try to elicit from them report of what lies beyond. A great-grandmother answered me succinctly. She said, ‘more of us, and more of you.’ No monsters, then. But other Greeks.

When I am in a town of women, with no Scythian man to talk to, I simply forget they are of the wrong sex, and behave with the courtesy I would towards a foreign citizen. In Scythian terms, women have participatory citizen status; just accept it. I cannot transact with the men, and I became accustomed to them years ago. It isn’t hard to forget what sex they are. Women’s work? To make and maintain those wagons, for a start. As well as business.

Look, here are the husbands, here are the Scythian men, come afterwards on horse. Cautious and suspicious. They hang back in a circle of uncertain hooves, while already the women swing towards our gates. Unarmed. Let not your fellow citizens be afraid of Amazons. These are prosperous ladies come for commerce and amusement. Offer your hospitality, in turn, as I have found the women’s wagons jolly and hospitable places for a guest. And entirely decent, to save you the inevitable inquiry. We are neighbours about this Black Sea, and Zeus loves the hospitable, as does the Scythians’ great Sky Father. – I must not mention him without our Mother Earth: it is unholy to acknowledge one, omit the other.

Chorus of citizens:

What monstrous regiment of women enter at our gates? These cart-makers have physiques fit to hire as labour, but ladies? A lady has some delicacy, some elegance I recognise, although she be not Greek. Hands the size of shovels; her feet sprawl like a camel’s. I have never seen a woman walk like that. I think her hips are the axle of her cart. This is not athleticism, but rather ignorance of human motion – the opposite, in fact, of our sports. They walk rawly, as if never taught. I cannot even describe the way they walk.

Scorched by the sun, scoured by the wind, whatever beauty they once claimed stripped away by weather. These women who have never been indoors – never seen the inside of a house, only their primitive huts on wheels. Not our idea of housewives, or respectability. She drives her own house where she wishes, in company of wives. As our playwright said, ‘Let husbands not allow their wives the company of women: every trouble starts when women natter.’

Coarse faces, devoid of femininity. Aphrodite does not know these women. The interplay that happens when a woman meets a man – you notice it in its absence. The address of a woman to a man is remembered when a so-called woman talks to you without it. These are not women, certainly, by the standards of civilized men.

The historian wrote:

A barbarian is womanish in that, in common with women, he is a creature of lusts and urges he must gratify, of greed and inability to subdue his desires or to temper his emotions. Both possess the spontaneity of beasts. Rational self-control, the virtue of a man – an individual man’s self-government which enables men in co-operation to construct a civilized society, is unknown to barbarians, impossible to women.

A nomad is the ultimate barbarian. With no fixed address, with no habit of hard work, he finds easy to extort from others what he fails to produce himself. Restlessly he prowls his wastelands, stares across our frontier, forever envious of luxuries we have and he has not. He lives in hives like bees, unseen until he swarms, and then he cuts a swathe through us like locusts. His horde as quickly come and gone as a flock of birds, he is impossible to catch but swoops out of the blue and vanishes. His steppe is as vast as sea or sky, one is lost in it. His instinct is the wolves’, and while he has a human face, his heart is animal. He has been a pest in every age of history, and every society likens him unto destructive insects.

Chorus of citizens:

See the Scythian women at the market. We have fishwives of our own, but these are worse. They laugh to each other harshly with the voice of crows and gulls. Their fingers ruin everything they touch. Watch them eat: she tears the flesh like a bacchant. No-one taught her table manners. I would rather sit down with my slaves than dine with them.

These milk-drinkers desire our food, since culinary skill is quite beyond them. They have no patience to grow things slowly and with toil, but scavenge from the civilized with threats and violence. Nomads do nothing to earn their keep. They have no valid place in the world but are sent to plague us.

Where does the fur end and the fat begin? They swathe themselves in hides and hair, in felt and skins, until I can’t distinguish what is animal about them and what human. Greeks dress with a pride in human limbs, but these hide their bodies as if to disguise their sex or species.

I cannot eat beside them. The pungency of body odour puts me off my food. Now garlic and fish sauce, the usual offence, seem mild next to these women’s reek. If my wife stank like that I’d ask my goat into the room to perfume her.

I hear they let the clothes disintegrate upon them, as if they were holy garments that mustn’t be removed.

I hear they cannot wash, because of superstitions. I’d say we have olfactory evidence.

The sight of them disgusts, the smell revolts our better class of patron. Our good Greeks leave them to it, and desert the market.

The poet wrote:

Harpies – the name means Spoilers, Snatchers – are half-woman and half-bird. They have a human countenance, but clawed hands and vulture’s wings, and wasted, famished faces, ever hungry. They shriek and emit a fetid odour, such that no man can stand to let them close but must retreat. Storm Wind and Swift Flier, sisters foul, swoop in upon a feast laid out, despoil the tables. Now the whole horrid flock join in and rip apart the joints of meat. They attack the food like vultures, and what they do not seize they leave defiled with an obscene discharge from their under-vents. Everything they touch is left in filth. They persecute pious men with these visitations. Sometimes they steal people and fly off with them, into what evil fate none knows.

The trader said:

Yes, they accost citizens in the street. Scythian women do not wait to be spoken to. They laugh, yes, if laughter is a crime. I find the women merry to a fault. Whose fault, might be a matter of whose humour first runs short. In this case, it is the gentleman. Well, they mean no harm.

And now – they are tired of gentlemen only in the streets. I hear them wonder where the women are. Apart from public women, for if one thing strikes them silent, I have noticed, it is the painted faces of town pornai. I cannot tell whether they are scandalised or puzzled. It’s not a question I can ask. – Oh, my friend, that is an insult to them, although a common story. Trust me, I have myself smeared my face with fats, in the weather that they have; and found it most emollient, and saved my skin. I do not mean ‘saved my skin’ as a woman says it, I mean I saved my skin from falling off my face. I did not ape our pornai when I resorted to it, nor mistook sheep’s grease for a cosmetic. Apology accepted.

But what? They have broken into a residence, while we converse. Up goes the cry. They assume a hospitality, if they receive it not.

The proprietor complained:

They tried to steal my women. They tried to tempt my wife outdoors. My daughters, in a flutter, have forgotten how to hear their father’s voice. It is intoxication to them, this visit from the Scythians: I say we shut the gates next time.

Citizens: Sooth yourself, patriarch, for the women have withdrawn, almost with an apologetic air. They have ceased to disturb your peace.

The proprietor: That’s very well, but I warn you, they’d have kidnapped my females had I not chased them from the premises.

The trader said:

To be fair, there is frequently a tiny leak of population after the Scythians have been. Not necessarily debtors, either. I have seen where they end up. There are more ex-Greeks in Scythian clothes than Greeks care to believe. One does not defect from civilization, obviously. A Greek does not change his skin for a barbarian’s – that would be monstrous. Well, well, we never mention it.

Ah, see, they have called a cross-sexed shaman to make peace. The shaman comes among them and the women settle down like startled birds or like wild animals at music. A shaman means harmony to them. They act as the diplomats of daily life. Not an arbiter in office, much more familiar, everybody’s friend, and they heal the ordinary hurts. I suppose it is a simple logical extension to think one who is both sexes can see both sides to a dispute. I’m not assured this person is best chosen to calm the master of the house.

No, its organs are concealed. You can identify a cross-sexed shaman by the way they ornament themselves. Distinctively, yet each one different, as if they start from scratch. There are not enough of them to set a fashion. They are rare birds, feted like the arrival of a phoenix. There are never enough of them. And then the kings want their services, which the community resents.

You are uneasy? You might see them in a better light if you were close. Few who spend the time with them, I think, reject that these beings have a grace. My, the citizens sound upset – this is an unexpected guest. Citizens screech.

They cross sexes, that is the point. Shamans – to explain to you as has been explained to me – leap the gaps in the world: between human and animal, between the living and the dead, between the sexes too. In Scythia, what you take for a freak is likely to be sacred. A sacred communication across species, sexes, states. How far these concepts are from our own cults of physical perfection and the body. The steppe is a spiritual landscape and its people so, and in their ideas fixity is an evil, although the fate of most, while to change one’s shape makes visible the unity of spirit underneath. Physical anomaly becomes a wonder and a sign. They worship monstrosity? It is a charge I have heard before. Perhaps they are the opposite of Spartans, who weed out imperfect infants and destroy them.

Look into your own heart. Do you not, yourself, feel a sense of escape in the presence of this creature? She-he lifts the veil from our falsities.

I laugh – I’m sorry. I just heard a woman call out the shaman’s name. Conjunction of the Stars. It isn’t as pretty in my Greek. Conjunction of the Stars. A name for a living divinity. It can’t be easy to live and function in the exalted space they allot to the self-same creatures we throw sticks and stones at or make limericks about.

Yes, I take the Scythians’ side. Zeus loves the stranger, but his example never seems to be enough to convince us on the earth.

The historian wrote:

This odd tribe of men-women, whom Scythians revere, drink potions of the urine of pregnant mares to feminise themselves. They have a counterpart in women-men who take concoctions from certain liquids stallions secrete.

The trader said:

I never heard talk of potions, or what type. There is much slander in historians.

Here’s a lucky interruption: the Scythian husbands pluck up courage to enter town. Of course, on horses. The shaggy horses stand so low, they are scarcely a nuisance in the streets and can’t possibly intimidate. Yet they have a legendary energy.

Why are the men timorous? I do not think timid is the word, but their behaviour is not ours. Consider the effect of marriage customs. Your Greek ideal is to marry when he is thirty, she thirteen. Whereas a Scythian, if he is upper crust, seeks to marry up: to a wife up a rank, up a notch in nobility, and he expects to marry up in age. They can turn us on our heads: a youth might be wooed by his aunt’s friend and coeval, while a girl can wrest permission to be single until thirty, because her eligibility accumulates. I suspect this is where your myths arise, tribes where a maid must slay an enemy before she weds. Who can say? Scythia is a vast place, as differentiated as the cities of the Greeks.

The historian wrote:

A popular tale, agreed to by Scythians themselves, is that they did disservice to a goddess once, who in her vengeance struck their race with the female affliction. Our medical writers have attributed their constitution to the air and water, cold and heavy, so that in Scythia men have a sluggish sex urge and a flabby body. But I believe the explanation is a simpler one, still physiological rather than religious: that their testes suffer damage from being every day on horseback since childhood. Injury is exacerbated by the constriction of trousers, which keep the male parts musty and enclosed. Whichever is the true cause, sexual organs in a Scythian man seldom achieve healthy growth, and cannot flourish like a Greek’s in his sensible loose skirt. A Greek does not grind his testes against a horse’s back from dawn to dusk. This is why we keep our manhood, and the Scythians lose theirs.

Chorus of citizens:

These unfeminine women, these effeminate men. The Scythians have crushed their testicles, clinging to their animals like shabby Centaurs. They rarely have intercourse. They are not real men.

A Scythian is not frightening close-to. A Scythian in the wild is no different than our Scythian slaves at home, slow-witted and easily bamboozled. We laugh at him in our comedies. If you are not afraid of your slave, gentlemen, I exhort you to scorn these Scythians too.

These unfeminine women, these effeminate men. I miss the theatre in my home town, I miss the climate. Here I live next door to savages and look out on a waste. These unfeminine women, these effeminate men.

The trader said:

Scythian women seem content with the performance of their men. They don’t display a particular interest in stray Greeks.

The blogger typed:

Contemporary man lives an emasculated life. He has forgotten what he used to be. The modern West, sad to say, makes war on masculinity, and we are in the front lines of a fight for male existence. Our enemy pretends biology doesn’t matter, but you can tell they don’t believe this, because their stealth attack is biological. Female hormones infiltrate food on the shelves, leak into the water. Hormones have reduced the modern man to mock-women, tame and brainwashed by feminism’s lies.

Real men are under siege. Look back for strength – back to Ancient Greece when men were men. The three hundred Spartans who beat off an effeminate slave army from Asia. Take heart from the past – red-blooded barbarians who didn’t apologise for the instincts of a man. Cultural Marxism obliterates this from the record, in cooperation with the academic arm of modern feminism. The Greeks invented everything of worth, but ‘Western Civ’ is near-despised in universities today. Don’t be put off: take Classics classes. Occupy the university, and insist they teach the truth. Not every professor is a leftist; we have committed men.

Feminists and their allies try to neuter us. Unless you nurse your testosterone, you’ll become a monster too. Nothing is not monstrous in the future that they want. There is estrogen in the water. Beware.


Watch Mongolian — watch Chinese

It isn’t always easy, to catch up with films made in Mongolia or China or Kazakhstan, on the subject of Mongols. A few of them struggle into international distribution. Let’s support them.

They are different. In this quick post I won’t try to list or express how, why and where they are different, but from the bottom up, in a dozen ways, every second on screen, on a fundamental level, they are different.

Got that? You’ll see when you see them.

They struggle for popularity, too, because they don’t have Hollywood conventions of violence and action. They have to be retitled for international, to make them sound like the violent action we require, but that strategy can lead to reviewer disappointment. Still, if you enjoy more thought than gore in your films, you’re better off with Mongolian or Chinese made.

So maybe try what’s available in historicals, and encourage distribution.

An End to Killing 
China, 2012. Directed by Wang Ping.
North American title: Kingdom of Conquerors

An End to Killing - title on posterKoConqs

Genghis: The Legend of the Ten
Mongolia, 2012. Directed by D. Jolbayar and U. Shagdarsuren.

Legend of the Ten - better








Queen Ahno

Mongolia, 2014. Directed by Shuudertsetseg Baatarsuren
International title: Warrior Princess

Warrior Princess

Myn Bala: Warriors of the Steppe
Kazakhstan, 2012. Directed by Aqan Sataev. 

Myn Bala

Marco Polo: the women

Chabi with a sword at Mei Lin(thoughts on John Fusco’s Marco Polo, post 1)

This interview with Marco Polo actors Joan Chen and Zhu Zhu asks how they present the women — whom the interviewer finds ‘the most fascinating people we meet’ in the show, with surprising lives for the thirteenth century. As usual, people aren’t so acquainted with the Mongol thirteenth century when they say this; though as he goes on to say, truly, women remain underwritten in the history books.

Song empressI too thought the women were a strength, and interestingly treated. Late Song was notable for strong empresses, and our empress dowager is one of those, as she and Khubilai try to negotiate a peace against the war parties at each court. Khubilai’s empress Chabi (Joan Chen) had a strong political involvement, and that is also done justice to. The personal interactions of Khubilai and Chabi were a highlight, and the makers take the opportunity to explore their marriage situation, this well-loved wife alongside Khubilai’s total self-indulgence in concubines. Then the concubines: two whores, as they are frequently called and self-called, friends, at the Song court. These two, who live on sexuality, are heroic in their victimization; it’s them and the empress we see in Song, active against the chancellor. I thought their exploitation well-explored. Jing_FeiI can’t forget the scene when the Song chancellor paints on her rosebud lips and turns her into a doll-face, with tragic eyes. Having her wide mouth suddenly made toy-size by the brush, was telling. Then, when the chancellor breaks the child’s feet – footbinding – that was equal-horrific with the scene of atrocity in war. The sexualization of women is not just on-screen for your enjoyment, but is explored.

Chabi and the Blue Princess (Zhu Zhu) grew up with a Mongol lifestyle, and now live in a semi-Chinese environment; at unexpected moments such women can whip out a bow and remind you they still are Mongols. Qutulun – you know her; the wrestler – is everything you want (‘I love that girl,’ says Khubilai when she swaggers in in war gear), including a freedom of sexuality that isn’t unhistorical. The second season is nicely set up for more of her, with her father and Khubilai now in conflict. Khutulun









Research through enemy eyes

Attila ceiling _Delacroix_You cannot research through enemy eyes. Self-evident? I don’t know…

I’m resolved to name no names in this post. It isn’t fair to – the problem seems so common. Later I might single out one very famous author, since what I have to say can’t leave a scratch on him. I think I need one example.

What I have to say is self-explanatory, and self-evident too, and yet the urge to write this post has grown upon me, as I see what I think are examples of this one-sidedness in historical fiction. Books that are one-eyed on a conflict of the past.

You’re writing about a people in the past. When you come to write about that people’s enemies, you can’t take your people’s view of them as the truth. You have to understand your people’s impressions of them as the usual half-truths, lies and distortions in circulation about a foreign, hostile culture.

Further, you can’t read only the history books focused on your people – in order to research that enemy people. Why can’t you do this? Let me quote Thomas Barfield on the case of China:

“Scholars who devoted their lives to exploring the history of imperial China, for example, so immersed themselves in the classical literature of that culture that they often unconsciously absorbed and accepted its values and worldview. Careful and critical about interpretations within the Chinese cultural sphere, when they wrote of those other people, ‘barbarians’, who threatened their civilization, it was usually from the Chinese perspective, with all the sympathy of a report by court scholars recounting the reception of a smelly envoy from the steppe come to insult the empire with an outrageous demand.”
[The Perilous Frontier, p. 4]

This is an acknowledged problem in Chinese scholarship – Barfield puts nicely what I’ve seen said a number of times. My interests are with China’s northern neighbours, where the problem – one-sided history, one-sided historical fiction – I’m convinced, is encountered at its worst. I think other histories haven’t had the problem as acutely as the China case (or else I just feel sorry for myself and my area of history). It’s an inevitable problem. These societies were so alien to one another they were in hostilities for thousands of years – nobody’s likely to have an equal interest in them both. China aficionados won’t love the steppe, which is so different. Steppe freaks – like me – won’t feel at home in China.

I face this problem, right now, as my guy goes to China, so I’m aware of it. It’s a big problem, because through my whole life I’ve been drawn to steppe-type cultures, but have not had that innate sympathy for all the societies Chinggis fights. Can I write about China fairly?

It is more usual for me to see the opposite: China fiction that has a visit from the steppes. And you might imagine that I’m hyper-aware of the unfairness I see. Yes I am. I try to shut up most of the time. I’m letting off steam in this general post of complaint.

Now I’ll drag in my example. It’s Guy Gavriel Kay. In fact he’s safe from criticism because his Under Heaven is historical fantasy. However, what he does, I pretty much see in historical fiction – so he’ll do for my example, and I’m not even bagging him out – because he has the fantasy clause and he’s allowed. How’s that for tact in these matters?

He’s obviously in love with Tang history, to which he pays scrupulous attention, even if he changes names. That’s why it’s a shock to travel beyond the Wall and meet – troglodytes. Troglodytes on the steppe, whom he uses for a Heart-of-Darkness journey into the primitive evils. Like I say, he’s allowed, it’s fantasy. But his Tang China is almost what it was, while at this time on the steppe stood the In which he happens not to have an interest. That’s fine.

It might irritate me… More irritating of course is the syndrome in historical fiction. Wherever you are in the world. You can’t take at face value what your people thought of their enemy. You can’t even trust the historians – not the old-fashioned ones – you can’t have uncritical faith in them, you have to subject the history to discrimination and scepticism, too. It helps if you go to books written about that enemy. Because it’s hard to get away from the skew: have you absorbed skewed history, in your research concentrated on – the enemy of your enemy? You need to learn to recognise the Schafers.

Let’s blame the historian, since novelists depend on historians. Edward H. Schafer is a perfect case of what Barfield described, above: he himself, as an historian, is entirely uncritical as he transmits Chinese views of the Uighurs. The Chinese records insult and scoff at Uighurs – so does he. His book is offensive. It’s also a classic on Tang, and cited by Guy Gavriel Kay. Whereas if Kay were to write historical fiction on Tang – which he isn’t, so never mind – he’d want to read several books upon the Uighurs that give you very different ideas.

Even if they are bit players – your people’s enemies – I believe it’s our duty, as the unprejudiced lot we aspire to be these days, to research them on their own terms, in their own right, and never perpetuate an old prejudice. Amen.

#   #   #

Thomas J. Barfield, The Perilous Frontier: Nomadic Empires and China, 221 BC to AD 1757, Blackwell, 1989

Edward H. Schafer, The Golden Peaches of Samarkand: A Study of T’ang Exotics, University of California, 1963

Image: Stereotype by Delacroix. Oops, I think he called this ‘Attila and his Hordes Overrun Italy and the Arts’. Sorry, Delacroix, I used your steppe art on my 1st book.



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William Napier’s Attila trilogy

Attila ceiling _Delacroix_I was interested enough to read these three books in a month, and they deserve a spot here as steppe fiction. On my blog I can be more personal than I am on Goodreads.

To start off: I mostly avoid the more commercial fiction on steppe topics. I come with an inbuilt distrust of bestsellers, and when the subject is dear to me, I expect to be dismayed and upset. Right, that’s honest.

But I read William Napier. I’ll be terribly honest about him: I thought his trilogy an opportunity lost.

He’s an uneasy cross between action/adventure bestseller-style, and a fiction that I see as more ambitious, and that takes artistic licence such as removes him from the mainstream. He does weird things. Beyond what I’d do, although I defend him in my reviews (the ‘right to write’). He’s an old Yeats PhD and he can’t keep Yeats out of his fiction – or other 19thC poets, or Shakespeare. I understand this. It’s the language he talks in. If he excised that – the phrases spontaneous to his lips – then what’s he doing? Writing from a front, a censored front. Not from his self. – I just thought up that argument, on his behalf. I’m wary of fiction that… is self-limited, is from a part of the writer. “I can’t do this because action/adventure doesn’t let me. Maybe I’ll write another book freestyle.” In his trilogy William Napier oscillates between freestyle and conventional. Guess which I liked. I’ll live with him giving Attila quotes from William Blake, if that’s what the author needs to do to say what he has to say, spontaneously. If that’s how the words come to him, and sound to his ear true.

It’s radical, and again I’ll mention, my Tchingis doesn’t express himself in Percy Bysshe Shelley, much as I like the old poets. My narrator has been known to, because I do zoom out to an ‘I’ that’s me, now and then. But I’m not here to talk about my techniques, that’ll only get me into trouble.

I didn’t grow up on historical fiction. I grew up on speculative fiction and great books of the past. If that’s left me with a pref for the unconventional in hf, or an attitude of ‘rules? what rules?’ then, fine. Neither sf nor the greats are known for rules. Mine is, whatever works.

Napier’s other sin is against history and occurs in book Two. Two is the steppiest book, by far, thus guaranteed my fave. I defend his historical stretches, too:

“It draws on history before and after. I think he has drawn on Attila’s later distant cousin, Genghis – both for Attila’s life story, and for this grand conception of conquest east and west. These Huns can sing the Mongols’ origin legends, and the Turkic epic Manas. Of this I’m going to say, Napier widens history. He fits more history in. He has a time period, but he draws into that strands from before and after, because he wants to talk about historical issues – large ones. He wants to talk about the settled and the steppe, and to that end Attila, steppe spokesman, knows things he can’t have known, travels further than in any likelihood he did. As I say, this is fine by me, and makes for a fiction that comments on history.”

In Three he abandons both poets and ahistoricism. I hated Three. It was so average.

Even his style, I felt, lurched from cliché to originality, from ordinary to art. These books had the potential to cut loose from action/adventure, to contemplate history, with a prose he might have learnt from Yeats – and sell atrociously, no doubt. I regret them.

# # #

Painting of Attila by Delacroix

My reviews on Goodreads:

One Attila

Two Attila: The Gathering of the Storm

Three Attila: The Judgement


I like
about me and my novels on the Mongols –

see my page Amgalant and me

A batch of fiction

A batch of fiction with a foot, or both feet or heart on the steppe. Links are to my reviews on Goodreads. My reviews can go on a bit, and I don’t like to post content twice.

The Blue Sky

by Galsan Tschinag

Boyhood in the Altai Mountains

“A little tragedy, a child’s tragedy.”
My review


The Gray Earth
by Galsan Tschinag

2nd of three on his youth, between nomad life and Communist indoctrination

“The boy, at 8 and 9 years, knows he wants to be a shaman. Shamans are persecuted and liable to be sent to prison…”
My review


Last of the Amazons
by Steven Pressfield

Speculative historical fiction: Amazons and Greeks

“I had no idea Steven Pressfield had written such a serious contribution to savage/civil arguments.”
My review


The Golden Lynx
by C. P. Lesley

Adventure in Russia, 1534: the infancy of Ivan the Terrible

“…our girl hero whose heart is on the steppe though she’s plunked into Moscow to patch up a feud with a marriage…”
My review

The Day Lasts More than a Hundred Years

by Chingiz Aitmatov

A spaceport on the steppes of Kazakhstan

“A fable.”
My review


Now we’ll go north of the steppe, but stick with shamans.

The Chukchi Bible
by Yuri Rytkheu

Native cultures of Siberia under siege

“The author’s grandfather, whose story is two-thirds of the book, was ‘the last shaman of Uelen’.”
My review


And I’ll throw this in. Far from the steppe, but about the messy intersection of cultures.

Fathers and Crows
by William T. Vollmann

Jesuits in Canada, 1600s. One of his ‘Seven Dreams’ set of novels on the clash of Indians and Europeans in the New World

“In spite of the culture clashes, the Black Crows and the Savages are often strikingly alike.”
My review

Sergei Bodrov’s film Mongol

I walked into a cinema for this. I’m not a cinema-goer; in ‘recent’ years I’ve made the trip for Lord of the Rings, for The Weeping Camel, and for Mongol.

Perhaps that’s why – although I was thrilled to see Temudgin splattered on posters, although I enthused over the results – now I watch again, after a few years’ interval, I see I managed to underrate this film. I don’t have eyes for film.

Jamukha’s tremendous and steals the stage. I remember that’s what reviews said: Jamukha’s a scene-stealer and almost hauls the film out from under Temudgin. Which, of course, is just what he does in the Secret History: almost takes over the story, almost takes over the steppe. I can’t tear my eyes off him when he’s on screen, and that’s only right. Go Jamukha. He wears such a different face to my Jamuqa that at first I was thrown. But that’s the beauty of him: he’s a gift to any fictionalist, a great anti-hero, and what you do with that potential is up to you. I only hate to see that potential wasted and him narrowed into a villain.

Borte. When I’m not transfixed by her face – and I am, so I miss what else is going on – she was a hit with the public too. Poor Temudgin, in between these two. He does great. That the film-maker spins his plot around the three of them is the strength, and exactly why the Secret History enchants a story-teller.

This film is the one fiction on Genghis that I like with a whole heart.

Onto Temudgin. Truth to tell, back then, his portrayal was why I was thrilled with the film. Now… I haven’t written for a year, perhaps I have objective eyes for these my characters with different faces. Now I see more and more Genghis in him. It isn’t just that Bodrov stitches his film together from phrases out of the Secret History and elsewhere (game with the subtitles: how infrequently the talk is mere invention). His Temudgin, to me, is a true portrait, exudes the right scent – I can believe in him. What I saw back then is how his sufferings and his simple fortitude under them – his child’s face in the plank-contraption, his man’s face in the cage – lends him a little of the saint. I think he needs an air of saintliness. Call to mind what a ferocious creature a saint is, before you get me wrong. Bodrov ends his childhood on a miracle: his imprisonment-planks falls off, in the open temple to Tengri, under the eye of the blue-grey wolf. The Secret History tells of miracles at this point, that the man himself believed in.

Captivity in Tangut? It’s one theory, and it’s film shorthand for the manner of wrongs the Mongols feel have been done them. It says well, in that expressive shorthand, what you might write a lot of pages on. I’d bet Bodrov has read his fellow Russian Lev Gumilev, who has a passionate page on these affronts, on the causes of war. He quotes a Chinese witness, Meng Hong, who wrote in 1221:

The head of the Jin exclaimed with alarm, ‘The Tatars will unfailingly be a cause of disturbance to our kingdom!’ Therefore, he gave orders for an immediate attack to be mounted against their remote and desert country. Every three years troops were sent to the north to exterminate and plunder; this was called ‘the reduction of slaves and extermination of people’. Even now they remember in China that for twenty years before this, in Shandong and Hebei, what home had not bought Tatar boys and girls into slavery? These had all been captured by the troops. Those who at the present time are grandees among the Tatars were then for the most part led off into captivity… the Tatars fled into the desert and vengeance entered their blood and brain.

Gumilev comments on this account: “It were better unsaid! What the Chinese scholar described recalls the hunt for Indian scalps organised by the Puritans of New England and the Baptists of Massachusetts, the slave trade of the French and English merchant venturers, the slaughter of the Patagonians undertaken by the Argentine government, i.e. pages of history branded as those most shameful for mankind.”

My guess is, Bodrov draws his history from this page. I thought Temudgin’s dialogue with Tangut, with that governor, with the monk, efficiently sums up much that you can say about his interactions with the settled states.

Bodrov’s only large invention is Borte’s rescue of him from Tangut, and I have excuses to make. It isn’t such a large invention: there were rescues from Tangut – Jaqa Gambu and/or Jaqa Gambu’s daughter. She can be a hero: women were very active participants in Tangut history for a century or two, with the nomad background and the example set by Liao. That she has a daughter unfathered by him, along with Jochi? Why not? He adopted several children from the enemy, a Tangut boy among them. Novelists, none of whom I’ll name, tend to decide it’s a better story if Genghis rejects Jochi. Maybe Bodrov felt the urge to state twice, ‘except he didn’t’.

By now, I know our luck to have this film. Think Genghis cinema, think what you’d expect. Instead we have this.

Mongol, a film by Sergei Bodrov, 2007

Lev Gumilev, Searches for an Imaginary Kingdom: The Legend of the Kingdom of Prester John, English translation by R.E.F. Smith, Cambridge University Press, 1987

The Demon’s Door Bolt by A.J. Campbell

mehmed+siyah+kalemLeft: more Mehmet Black Pencil (the guy who did my banner) – he liked to draw monster-demons, often in daily human affairs, sitting about chatting, whacking a donkey. What’s Mehmet telling us? I’ve heard they called him Black Pencil for his mordant sense of humour.

But onto the book: The Demon’s Door Bolt by A.J. Campbell. Here’s my comments at Goodreads. Science fiction on the fifth-century steppe, with humour.

800px-Siyah_Qalem._Conversation._XV_cent_TopkapiIt’s my idea of an indie book: straight out of the writer’s brain to you; cherished in his hands for years; written with commitment, since he tries to squeeze into a book his heart, his soul and what he’s learnt in life.

Right, that’s my definition of an indie. Toss those that don’t fit aside. While you’re at it, toss aside the output of career novelists. Find a writer.

I’m strident today. I get like that. Sorry. Back to subject.

It’s those unique books I am on the lookout for, above the herd of others. This one may not be your cup of black milk, folks; besides, it’s his comedy and I believe he has another up his sleeve. But I’m excited by it, as you’ll see if you follow that link.