Magazine April 20, 2009, Issue

Paleo Khan

Charlotte Allen reviews Conn Iggulden’s trilogy of historical novels about Genghis Khan.

In The Dangerous Book for Boys, the name Genghis Khan appears precisely once. It’s a passing reference, toward the end, in a section on the Great Wall of China. Yet co-author Conn Iggulden thinks Genghis is worth far more than that. When he isn’t writing about how to tie knots or conveying other lessons of boyhood, he’s a historical novelist — and he has just completed a rollicking trilogy of books on the Mongolian conqueror.

He has chosen an excellent subject. During the 13th century, the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan and his sons, grandsons, and generals built the largest (in land mass) empire the world has ever known. By 1227, the year of Genghis’s death at age 65 or thereabouts, the Mongol empire stretched from Korea to the eastern shore of the Caspian Sea, incorporating large swathes of China, northern India, Afghanistan, Persia, Georgia, Armenia, and the present-day Islamic states that were once part of the Soviet Union. Not bad for the illiterate, impoverished son of a murdered tribal chieftain; for a warlord whose military victories outside the freezing Central Asian steppe-lands near today’s Ulaanbaatar where he was born were all achieved during the last 20 years or so of his life.

Genghis spent his late teens, his twenties, and most of his thirties “unifying” — that is, destroying all possible rivals in — the constantly warring tribes of the Mongols, their chief regional enemies, the Tartars, and others, until in 1206 a council of chieftains named him “great khan” of the pan-Mongol confederation he had forged, and he took the name Genghis (his given name had been Temujin). By this time, Genghis’s army had grown from zero to as many as 200,000 men, nearly all of them astride almost unimaginably hardy Mongolian ponies that could cover 140 miles a day if they had to, and armed with double longbows laminated from wood, horn, and sinew whose iron-tipped arrows, leaving the bow at 200 miles per hour while the bowman rode at full gallop, could strike a target half a mile away. Let the conquest of the known world begin!

After Genghis’s death, his exploits were written down by his countrymen in The Secret History of the Mongols, which turned him into a semi-mythological figure. Meanwhile, his son Ogedei (1185–1241), who succeeded him as great khan, and his grandsons Mongke and Kublai (he of the stately pleasure dome) continued Genghis’s work, although their expanded empire became politically fragmented into regional khanates in the absence of Genghis’s single-minded forcefulness. Mongol hordes (the very word is of Mongolian origin) swept into today’s Ukraine (the city of Kiev fell in 1240), Poland, Bulgaria, and Hungary, as well as much of Anatolia, northern Syria, and Mesopotamia (Baghdad fell in 1258). Kublai Khan completed the Mongol conquest of China during the 1270s, just in time to greet Marco Polo on his famous expedition. After Kublai’s death in 1294, the Mongol khanates disintegrated gradually over the next four centuries. The Beijing-based Yuan dynasty in China that Kublai had founded toppled in 1368 to Han Chinese rebels who founded the Ming dynasty.

Marco Polo was not the only Westerner to be fascinated by the Mongols and their extraordinary military achievements. Christians living in Muslim lands invaded by the Mongols tended to regard them as saviors, and during the mid-13th century there were rickety alliances involving Crusaders, Armenian Christians, and Mongol armies. About half of modern-day Mongolians are Buddhists, but during the Middle Ages they (including Genghis himself) mostly practiced animistic shamanism, although they were famously tolerant of other religions, as long as their adherents made no trouble and paid the required tribute. Indeed, a significant minority of Mongols were Nestorian Christians (Kublai’s mother was one), which contributed to the Mongols’ relatively high repute in the West. Chaucer set one of his Canterbury Tales, the unfinished Squire’s Tale, in the “court” of Genghis Khan, although Genghis himself, raised in the rough herdsman culture of the steppes, would not have recognized the fanciful refinements with which Chaucer adorned his story. It was not until the reign of Kublai, who immersed himself in Chinese culture, that Mongol rulers began to live in palaces instead of felt tents and developed sophisticated systems of administration and manners.

The spirit of the Squire’s Tale lived on in the 1956 movie The Conqueror, loosely borrowed from the Secret History and starring John Wayne as Genghis and Susan Hayward as his wife Borte, the latter performing an alluring scarves-and-swords dance unknown to the medieval Mongols. The year 1965 saw the release of Genghis Khan, starring Omar Sharif, with Catherine Deneuve’s sister, Françoise Dorléac, playing Borte. There have also been novels aplenty fictionalizing the great khan, his rise to power, and his love life. Conn Iggulden’s trilogy — Genghis: Birth of an Empire (2007), Genghis: Lords of the Bow (2008), and the just-published Genghis: Bones of the Hills (Delacorte, 416 pp., $25) — marks the latest effort to treat the exploits of the Mongol strongman in novelistic form.

The Mongols were able to forge together their huge territories at high speed partly because they could move swiftly (their warriors could survive for two weeks, if need be, on pouches of dried milk-curds and blood from their own horses, so they did not need supply lines) and possessed excellent weaponry, often adopted from the peoples they conquered; and partly because they were utterly ruthless. It was never a good idea to cross, much less double-cross, a Mongol, and to show mercy was to show weakness. Those who surrendered to Genghis Khan bloodlessly merely had to pay tribute; those who did not might at best be enslaved (after their armies were put to the sword), and at worst slaughtered down to the last man, woman, and child, as an example to other conquered subjects of Genghis who might get ideas about skipping next year’s tribute.

I remember reading with horrified fascination when I was a teenager about the fate that befell a city that defied Genghis: His men piled all the residents young and old into a mound, covered the living human heap with plaster, and rode off while the victims suffocated. I don’t know whether that story is true, but it is certainly consonant with other well-attested stories of the Mongol proclivity for mass reprisals, their proclivity for amassing the skulls of their enemies, and the imaginatively cruel deaths they devised for those they especially disliked. The Muslim governor of the Silk Road city of Otrar had molten silver poured into his ears and eyes on Genghis’s order as a prelude to the razing of Otrar to the ground and the annihilation of its inhabitants. Genghis’s leisurely sieges, designed to produce maximum suffering, were especially nasty. The Mongol modus operandi — employed when Genghis conquered Beijing in 1215 — was to burn the surrounding grain fields, divert the rivers, and then mass troops outside the walls feasting for months off their herds and practicing archery while the doomed residents inside the walls, who could see the merriment outside, slowly starved to death (Beijing finally surrendered, but Genghis’s troops burned it down and obliterated its inhabitants anyway).

The one thing to be said for that aspect of Genghis’s regime was that the crime rate was exceedingly low, the way it was when the Gambino family ruled the Brooklyn waterfront. “To the right of Genghis Khan” is the way the political cliché goes, but in fact Genghis’s tactics for gaining and wielding power — mass killings, deliberate starvation, indifference to the suffering of innocents, and wholesale reprisals against not only those who offended him but their entire families — more closely resembled those of that other steppe-based master of ruthlessness, Joseph Stalin. (The shape and scope of the Mongol empire, stretching across all of Asia into Eastern Europe, also bore an eerie resemblance to the holdings of the Soviets and their East Asian Communist allies at the height of the Cold War.)

Lately, perhaps in the interests of the Third World-friendliness on which academics pride themselves these days, there has been an effort to rehabilitate Genghis Khan’s image. Revisionist histories such as Jack Weatherford’s Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (2004) and John Man’s Genghis Khan: Life, Death, Resurrection (2005) tend to downplay Genghis’s reported brutalities as exaggerations by hostile chroniclers and encourage readers to think of him as an enlightened leader who merely did what he had to do to make his people rise above their tribal squabbles, and whose swordpoint-enforced Pax Mongoliana in Central Asia paved the way for Western Europeans to enjoy such fruits of Eastern civilization as paper and the abacus. Genghis has been turned into an early feminist (even though he and the rest of the Mongol warriors practiced polygamy and considered the rape of captive women to be one of their job perks) and a promoter of equality before the law and religious freedom. 

Mongolians these days regard Genghis (“Chinggis” in modern pronunciation) as their George Washington, with a giant statue of him in Ulaanbaatar. The beautifully filmed 2007 movie Mongol was very much in this spirit of the softer side of Genghis, with the Christlike Japanese actor Tadanobu Asano playing a khan more sinned against than sinning, a family man who dotes on Borte (the exquisite Khulan Chuluun) and frolics with his children on the grasslands.

Iggulden’s trilogy, a feat of rousing, adventure-packed storytelling, is a welcome antidote to such romanticizing. Iggulden tries to have his readers understand Genghis as a military and organizational genius who was nonetheless emotionally stunted and morally flawed. Iggulden makes his fictional Genghis a complex and almost sympathetic character by placing his ruthlessness and unrelenting ambition in the context of the unforgiving Mongolian landscape and a tribal culture in which brutality to rivals was routine and death was the penalty for the most minor infractions.

Iggulden’s books are novels, not histories; as he freely admits in his afterwords, he bends the facts narrated in the Secret History and elsewhere, and even invents characters, in order to suit his novelistic purposes. In Iggulden’s telling, young Temujin’s soul is forged at age 13, when his father is poisoned by Tartars and he, his mother, his four brothers, and his infant sister are abandoned on a windswept plain to die by a rival of his father’s who takes over the boy’s tribe and seizes the family’s property. Within days, as the boys scramble to hunt down food, Temujin learns — or teaches himself — that killing without mercy is the way to survive in a murderous world that is as indifferent to the suffering of women and children as his own tribe was to his fatherless family. His first act in exile is to slay his older brother, like Cain, and become leader of his family after he discovers that the brother, Bektar, is secretly eating the small animals he shoots instead of sharing them with his starving mother and siblings (in the histories Bektar is only a half-brother and the hunting murder is more ambiguous).

Revenge, along with a desire to smash the tribal rivalries that led to his family’s brush with death on the plains, is the chief motivating factor for Iggulden’s Temujin as he grows to manhood, shrewdly picks out loyal generals and creates an army out of fellow outcasts, and maneuvers himself by intelligence and brute force to become head of the Mongols. When a band of Tartars abducts and rapes a pregnant Borte, Temujin personally tracks the men down, cuts out the beating heart of the chief assailant, and roasts and eats it. As Genghis Khan he becomes a master of the “cold face,” the submerging of emotion so as to provoke mortal fear, and hence, respect and obedience.

Genghis, in Iggulden’s telling, is a man of courage and honor who despises the trappings of wealth, rewards loyalty among his men, and fiercely protects his family. He is also, however, a man whose craving to obliterate every living thing that asserts itself against him cannot be controlled. He insists on believing, for example, that his eldest son, Jochi, is the offspring of a Tartar rapist, and so cannot bring himself to love the boy, who is in fact his father’s true heir in brains, bravery, and innate nobility. When a fed-up Jochi, yearning for a father’s affection that never comes, finally leaves his father’s camp with a cadre of warriors, Genghis, in Iggulden’s telling, has him tracked down and killed. In the end, as the skillfully narrated Mongol battles become ever larger in scale and more numerous, the bloodbaths (because the Mongols almost always win) get more bloody, and the numbers of innocent women and children massacred rise to genocidal levels, Genghis’s propensities ultimately prove to be his mortal undoing. The Genghis Khan that Iggulden creates is, finally, a tragic figure.

The Dangerous Book for Boys became a No. 1 bestseller in 2007 because it offered, in an increasingly feminized world in which girls are supposed to be role models for both sexes, a chance for boys to be boys. On its pages they could learn how to do things that boys like to do — grow crystals, build fires, make paper airplanes, design a working bow and arrow, learn about dinosaurs and the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World — things designed to build their competence and self-confidence and help them grow into men. Iggulden’s Genghis novels are a kind of fictionalized Dangerous Book, loaded with the lore of warfare, horsemanship, strategy, and exotic geography and history, along with the perils as well as the virtues of an unrelenting ethos of manliness. (Warning note to parents: Although there is no explicit sex in the books, Iggulden’s Mongol warriors, like their historical counterparts, have hearty carnal appetites, and that, along with the violence, makes them unsuitable for young children. I suspect that older teens would love them.) 

Iggulden’s take on Genghis Khan could be all wrong, and the real Genghis might have been simply a power-hungry 13th-century thug. After reading Iggulden’s trilogy, I hope not. He is now said to be working on a similar set of novels about Kublai Khan, and I can’t wait for their publication.

– Charlotte Allen is author of The Human Christ: The Search for the Historical Jesus.

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