Monday, October 20, 2008

Great Tales and Genghis Khan

CONN IGGULDEN talks about a common story of an uncommon man

IT’S BEEN SAID many times that there are only seven different kinds of story, though you can always quibble about the exact number. The list below is my take on the subject, but there’s always room for argument in something as basic as this.
  1. A character with secret powers: It could be a prince living as a shepherd, Raymond Feist’s Magician, the ‘fastest gun in the west,’ or Harry Potter himself, but this is a perennial favourite.
  2. Tragedy: Macbeth and Achilles among others. ‘The Fatal Flaw’ is, I suppose, a sub-genre, in which the central character has the key to his own destruction.
  3. Rags to Riches: From Jeffrey Archer’s As the Crow Flies to Charles Dickens’s David Copperfield and any other story of poor beginnings leading to greatness. There’s something strangely compelling about this one.
  4. The Hero Against the Monster: James Bond, Sinbad, Beowulf and Hercules, to name just a few. This may well be the oldest story form of them all.
  5. The Quest: A favourite of fantasy novels, in which a group of characters set off to find a ring, or just to reach Canterbury, getting into all sorts of scrapes on the way.
  6. Love: The endless complications between men, women, tradesmen, vicars and various friends and enemies. From Mills & Boon to Romeo and Juliet.
  7. Comedy: Usually involving embarrassment and pain being caused to someone, which probably says more about us than we’d want anyone to know.
When I’m looking for a good historical story, I certainly don’t apply that list, but I can’t help but notice that my favourite tales are often very clear examples from it.

The story of Genghis Khan is not commonly known, for some reason. Almost anyone can tell you he was a byword for ruthlessness and a dedicated slaughterer of millions, but his actual life is a mystery for most. The strange thing is that Julius Caesar was probably responsible for as many deaths, but he is regarded as a fine, upstanding figure of a man, with hardly a word to be said against him. This of course is what happens when one man writes his own history and the other is famously illiterate. To this day, Genghis Khan is known as ‘The Destroyer’ in some Arabic countries, whereas the name ‘Caesar’ came to mean king. Two thousand years after Caesar, the Germans had a ‘Kaiser’ and the Russians had ‘Csars.’

When I looked at the origins of Genghis, I realised it would be a great tale to tell―if I could do it justice. After all, his father was murdered when Genghis was only eleven. His tribe―the Borjigin or ‘Blue Wolves’ did not want the family of an old khan around so they simply abandoned a mother and six children down to a babe in arms. They left them to die on plains where the temperature drops to -40 degrees celsius, a level of cold that killed Scott and his companions in the Antarctic.

The family almost starved to death and in fact, Genghis was driven to kill an older brother when the boy started stealing food from the rest. Everyone else survived and from those harsh beginnings, a ruthless, driven man emerged. Genghis went on to unite his people, bring the Emperor of northern China to his knees and conquer lands four times the size of those taken by Alexander the Great. His sons went on to conquer southern China and his grandson Kubla became emperor of that ancient nation and possibly the richest and most powerful man on earth. If that isn’t the greatest rags-to-riches in history, I don’t know what is. That’s a life worth telling.

The tragedy of modern Mongolia is that it only exists because Russia and China would prefer not to share a border. The capital city is a grim place of extreme poverty, while outside it, herders live just as they did a thousand years ago. There aren’t many places like it left in the world. They live in ger tents made of felt and wicker, ride incredibly hardy ponies and if they don’t have a rifle, still hunt with a bow. I found them welcoming and astonishingly tough―I still remember the incredible cold that seeped through my layers, sleeping bags and tiny tent, while my guide slept in a lightly padded robe with his hands tucked in. In the morning, his hair had frozen to the ground.

In other countries, Genghis may be a destroyer, but to Mongolians, he is the princely father of a nation and their one great hero. His personal story was written only once, in a document that was lost in Mongolian and had to be translated back from Chinese. In that small book, The Secret History of the Mongols, we have a few details of the early life of Genghis that would otherwise be unknown. There is brutality, of course, but it must always be set against the wider society and the world of the 13th century. If Genghis had written as prolifically as Julius Caesar, I think he would be as well known, and perhaps even as admired. He came from humbler beginnings, after all and achieved much more than simple conquest. He made a people and gave them an identity that lasts to this day.

Reproduced from the April-June 2008 issue of MPH Quill magazine


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