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

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