Voices from the Twelfth-Century Steppe


Rounded Globe


1. A view of Chinggis Khan
2. The past: Blue Jos’ reminiscence in verse
3. The succession scene
4. The word ‘black’ in the Secret History
5. Political voices
6. The emotional lives of kings

Tolui’s end: the case for face value
War stories
Emotional lives
Temujin’s memory

7. Concluding remarks: The novelist and the historian
About the Author


In the Mongols’ empire period, the histories they commissioned were written in the traditions of (mainly) Persian and Chinese historiography. Post-empire, Mongolia became largely Buddhist, and history writing then lays claim to a Buddhist tradition. For indigenous history telling, we have only the Secret History of the Mongols, pre-empire and pre-influence. The steppe had its own traditions: oral arts, stone inscriptions left by Turkic states before the Mongols, upon which the Secret History drew.

Its date is in dispute. It says ‘finished in the year of the rat’, which can be the year after Chinggis Khan’s death, 1228, or later rat years in the twelve-year animal cycle. My interpretations stress the element of personal memory, and I am persuaded by the early date – my reasoning being contextual, not textual. Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hürelbaatar, in an essay I use extensively for mine, footnote that ‘most scholars agree on 1228’.1

At the outset we need to be aware that the Secret History’s prose-verse composition is perfectly normal in the world of steppe epic; we should not mistake what transitions from prose to verse mean. Humphrey and Hürelbaatar call verse ‘a Mongolian convention of emphasis’. The verse should not leap out at us as necessarily distinct in content; the peoples who compose in prose-verse on the steppe do not so distinguish, and certainly they do not devalue the verse against the prose. I think we tend to devalue the truth content of the verse, who are not used to verse interspersed in our histories.

An apt short description of the work in front of us – as I see that work – comes courtesy of Paul D. Buell: ‘Not strictly a history, the work is a historical epic in which real events and actual documents are put into an epic-style framework. The way the story is told is as important as what happens.’2 Most of my essay substantiates this last sentence. The epic style is a vehicle for history. Humphrey and Hürelbaatar: ‘It was intended as history, that is, the Mongols’ understanding of what had actually happened and their consciousness of past events as relevant to the present.’ However, the tellers of this history used their skill in the art of epic, and we must use our skills in art interpretation, to understand it.

There are three main translations into English: Francis W. Cleaves (1982), Urgunge Onon (2001), and Igor de Rachewiltz (2004). Where I quote from one translation, I include the name in brackets; where I don’t say, I have used a mash-up of translations.

One of my hopes with this essay, of course, is to excite more people about the Secret History of the Mongols. It is at times called a ‘monument of world literature’ or the like, but it has not enjoyed the world’s study in the way of more familiar monuments. At present the Mongols are profiting greatly from the global middle ages, as they did from the rise of world history. Emotions history, now flourishing, seems very relevant for this emotion-laden source. In a piece titled ‘Que(e)rying Mongols’ Noreen Giffney challenges the field to take up contemporary theory.3 The preserve of Mongol Studies is perhaps soundproofed by its walls of language; Giffney encourages theory-minded scholars to the area with a caution about ‘the linguistic mastery required for navigating Mongol Studies. Sources abound in Latin, Persian, Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic, Japanese, Russian, Turkish, and Armenian among others, and many of them remain untranslated and scattered in diverse locations.’4 To offset this, I cite another challenger, Kevin Stuart, with his book Mongols in Western/American Consciousness (1997) – still witty, and too much true. He says that the old-fashioned definition of a Mongolist was one whose prime time has been chewed up by six to ten languages, with a smattering of military affairs; this left scholars desiccated and fixated on linguistic niceties. To read the Secret History in its original language is not the same as to understand it, and Mongolist philology has often been of the sort that pays little attention to non-linguistic matters: to interpretation. We have had no Tolkien, a philologist in the word’s fullest sense, to write ‘The Monsters and the Critics’. While new students are frightened off by a six-language prerequisite we are unlikely to see interdisciplinary approaches, emotions history, arts study, and simply different views. A wider audience has much to contribute.

1. A view of Chinggis Khan

The khan your father, in his work to found the whole ulus [people or state] –
black head being strapped to his saddle,
black blood being poured into his flask,
black eyes unblinking,
not lying his flat ear to a pillow, making do with his sleeve,
making do with his coat-skirts spread out,
satisfying thirst with his saliva,
eating his gums for meat –
he struggled –
until the sweat from his brow ran down to his soles,
until the sweat from the soles of his feet ran to his brow –
diligently he gave himself to the great work.

The Secret History of the Mongols, §254

I begin with this view of Chinggis Khan because, like much of the Secret History, it may be an unexpected view. The Secret History is the only place where we hear how the early Mongols spoke of themselves to themselves, and in that consideration we should expect the unexpected. In the above verses, an old comrade of Chinggis describes his life in terms of service and of sacrifice. Service: the words chosen are associated with toil, as the sweat of the brow still is for us, and even with toil in a master’s service. Who is the master here? Not Chinggis Khan – he is the servant. He serves the idea of the state, or the people – the ulus, a word of uncertain translation at this stage of the state’s existence. He has undergone privations; he has not spared himself, in this hard work of state-making; and his comrade pins his verses on the descriptor ‘black’ – three times, Chinggis’ head, Chinggis’ blood, Chinggis’ eyes. Black is the province of the common person, whereas white denotes the elite: a head is black without a hat, exposed to the weather; in short, a ‘black head’ can signify a non-aristocrat. Why is this said of Chinggis? It is stranger when ‘black’ is transferred to other body parts, to make his blood black. Then, the body parts are detached: he straps his head to his saddle with his gear, he pours his blood into the flask that a rider takes to drink from. These figures of speech are easy for us to construe as depicting the insecurity of his life: – his precious parts are stowed on his horse for safekeeping. It is an example of the physicality of Mongol poetry, as also the oddness of what it is prepared to do with the body, in the quest for expression. In human and in animal the head is to be honoured; for instance, you do not mistreat a hat or set it low, that is meant to be high. Blood has taboos around it, as it does in other cultures. Here Chinggis Khan treats his own head and blood with a startling casualness – in the verses of his close comrade. The verses, the imagery, are strongly-spoken. Next, his sweat runs to his feet and he is turned upside-down such that his sweaty feet are confused with the perspiration of his brow. This is worse. The head is high, the foot is low: the head is our nearest to the heavens, while the feet get dirty; things that pertain to head and to feet you discriminate between – you do not muddle hat and shoes, but keep them high and low, maintain their status. If these words were not in a comrade’s mouth they might seem to be disrespect. Again, strongly phrased – to emphasise what Chinggis Khan has been through, even to the point of indignity. What he has put himself through, more precisely. It has a smack of saintly martyrdom. Certainly, he is seen as unselfish.5

2. The past: Blue Jos’ reminiscence in verse

The excerpt above is part of an extended speech in verse about the past, a reminiscence, but one passionately spoken in argument, to explain that past to those too young to have been there: this is addressed to Chinggis’ sons by the aged chief Blue Jos. It is a retrospective on lives, like the Secret History itself, which was written down while its main events were in living memory. The addressed, who are out of childhood now, have exhibited a lack of understanding of the lives and times of their mother and father; they have acted as if they have forgotten the circumstances of the past. A complaint is attributed to Chinggis in a later history (I am wary of these attributed quotes, I consider most of them legendary, but this one suits our theme): ‘Our children will eat sweet, rich foods, ride fine horses, wear splendid brocade, but they will forget to whom they owe these things.’ Here is one reason why the Secret History might have been written.

The queen’s own son has treated as an item for common speech her sexual history. It is this which upsets Blue Jos. It is very shocking: Jagatai, in front of the court, in front of his father (not his mother Borte: we are in the court of another queen), has come out with a piece of gossip about the past: that the eldest son Jochi was fathered by an enemy. This rumour or knowledge – we don’t in fact know which it is – about Jochi’s origins has not been mentioned in the Secret History before, even when the story of Borte’s captivity was told: the history does not say rudely outright that her pregnancy was thought or known to be the work of a Merqot. Now, with the sons young adults, we hear this said for the first time, although we saw her rescued from the enemy camp, pregnant. After Jagatai calls his brother a Merqot bastard, Chinggis sits ‘speechless’ while Blue Jos, who helped in Borte’s rescue, makes his impassioned speech about those days: the circumstances, which Jagatai has outrageously ignored. His mother did nothing blameworthy, therefore she does not deserve that this be spoken of. She did not ‘run away’ (or ‘betray’), she was not ‘in love’, to conceive Jochi; these events happened in violent times when – and Blue Jos speaks indirectly, for politeness, now that he speaks himself what should not be spoken – ‘people were forced’, ‘people had no choice’.

It seems, from their response, that neither Blue Jos nor Chinggis has heard talk on this subject. Clearly there has been private speculation; perhaps Jagatai has said this before, but not in public. It has been unspoken, at least in front of the participants and injured parties. Yet, of course, the Secret History has recorded the thing that was not to be spoken. The Secret History has recorded Jagatai’s cruelty towards his mother – for Blue Jos makes him understand he has been cruel. This is ill fame for Jagatai, to have preserved in the history his thoughtless speech about his mother, which amounts to insult of her. The accusation itself is here preserved, even though Chinggis, when he overcomes his silence, after he has listened to Blue Jos, says first, to Jagatai, ‘Never say that of Jochi again.’

Why is the Secret History secret? It documents painful memories, as well as incidents that sully the reputation of people. Jagatai, otherwise, has no bad repute, indeed is known for stringency to Mongol customs and his father’s word and ways – this is his worst recorded moment, by Mongol lights, and unlike him. There is Borte herself. They are shocked that her name be in people’s mouths in this fashion, and yet the gossip is not scrubbed from the record. Borte’s sufferings are not for talk, idle or purposeful. Jagatai had a purpose: it is to do with the succession. In Europe at that time, bastardy might be openly spoken of, when it is a question of a king’s succession (imagine an heir fathered by an enemy, in a European kingdom): these Mongol reactions are quite different. The circumstances of Jochi’s conception are courteously lied about in Rashid ad-Din’s fourteenth-century history from the Il-khanlig, in Persian: he, or his informants, invent a story whereby she never went to the enemy camp and is left inviolate (he can only need to stress that point because they knew she was violated). If later Mongols restricted access to the Secret History – a Chinese historian is refused permission to view it, even though he is engaged in a project for the Mongol government – it is because of such painful memories, which we see already misunderstood, abused, in the text. It is not just because of the light it casts Temujin in, the future Chinggis Khan, but for the sake of other actors in the story, in this case Borte, Jagatai and Jochi. Wrongdoings are recorded (of Temujin, as is well-known), and wrong speakings (Jagatai), but also there is the innocent suffering when things are talked about (Borte, and Jochi too).

We can only conjecture why these matters were written down. To explain the past, as Blue Jos explains to Chinggis’ sons? He describes for them an anarchy, a level of conflict in society that they have not seen themselves. The past must have been distant from those who came shortly afterwards – such enormous changes and so quickly: the Mongols before they left the steppe; the Mongols who have conquered widely in their known world. It is no wonder Chinggis’ own sons fail to understand how it was for those of their father’s age. But this is a gulf between Chinggis and his sons, which must concern a father; and other Mongols can be assumed to have had similar experiences. Do our children understand us? How much do they know about the creation of the state which they enjoy? Firsthand memories, such as Blue Jos’ old memory, were being lost – at a great rate, by the time the Secret History was written down. If the Secret History has a certain concentration on unsavoury things, on things one doesn’t expect in a tale of Mongol glory, perhaps they saw their last chance to record those less spoken-of things, whose importance, that they be rightly understood, is proved to Blue Jos and Chinggis in this incident with the sons. Let us not leave them in such ignorance. When matters are kept secret, even from motives of courtesy, the courteous do not know how others think of them, until they burst out, as in Jagatai’s outburst. Chinggis has had a policy of not talking of Jochi’s conception, for his wife Borte’s comfort, but now he sees where this has led. Then let us make known the past, although not for idle eyes. Chinggis allows Blue Jos to speak upon these matters, without interruption; Blue Jos has every right to speak and be listened to, by the khan. This is his style, probably Mongol style. He would not tell his old comrade what to say and not to say, although at the end he tells Jagatai his son what not to. If his comrades decided to put their memoirs together, he would not stand in their way or even dictate to them what to include, no more than he cuts short Blue Jos or disallows his speech. Chinggis’ style, undictatorial with comrades, is witnessed in the Secret History, where they can correct him and argue him out of actions, even vigorously; courtesy on his part is then to make acknowledgement that they knew better than he did. If memoirs were collected, he would not control them but trust such people as Blue Jos. What if he is asked for his memories? More on that question later.

3. The succession scene

We can acclimatise ourselves to a world of communal memoirs, not necessarily in the hands of Chinggis Khan, with this same scene, which gives us Mongol expectations for joint government, and suggests Chinggis took a hands-off approach to his succession.

First, it is not his idea to name an heir before he sets off to fight in faraway places, Khwarazm, at the age he is, in his fifties. He acquiesces, but does not in fact do exactly as he is asked to do, namely choose among his four sons from Borte, his first and chief wife. Yisui, another wife from a once-enemy people, has volunteered to present the matter to him; but certainly there has been discussion, about the need and his probable decision. Chinggis turns the question over to his eldest son, Jochi. The second son interrupts: a bastard is no way to start a dynasty. This is what Jagatai has said to earn Blue Jos’ speech of admonishment: only that a son begotten in captivity, offspring of an enemy, not fathered by the khan, is unfit to succeed. He believes his father has already indicated he means to name Jochi his heir, and he steps in to protest.

A biography, which abbreviates his life, will often be content with the information that Chinggis decides on Ogodei. But the scene can stand more scrutiny, as to those details that interest a novelist: his hidden intentions, intentions that do not transpire; and how, in fact, he lets other people decide. Clues to the inner life, yes, and to the family life, crucial for a novel, of less concern to a history or biography. Twelfth-century biography, that is, which does not seem to admit the possibility of psychological profile in the manner of persons from the age of letters; nevertheless, my argument is that the Secret History has underutilized material.

When we let the scene make sense in and of itself – when we extend the scene backwards into the real world behind it, real people in real situations, to be deduced and extrapolated from the few remarks and actions that we have – then, for instance, we might conclude that Jagatai is right and Temujin wants to name Jochi. Jagatai knows more about his family than we do, and unless he is given to fantasy suspicions he cannot be alone in his fears – others at the court must be afraid that Temujin wants Jochi. It goes against the empire period evidence, when Jochi’s descendants were not considered for the khanship; besides, it is too conjectural for historians. Since Temujin does not say outright in the text that he intends Jochi, historians do not travel there; whereas a novelist spends much of her time following the sense behind the scenes, like wires and where they lead. A novelist gathers her evidence amongst these conjectures – which at times make unassailable sense to her. We are rude to think Jagatai misjudges his father, and to maintain he does (often silently, by omission – as when historians say Temujin never warmed towards his wife’s bastard) itself requires us to construct a case, to test ourselves against questions: has Jagatai thought this way for fifteen years? In error and in isolation? What personality do we ascribe to him thereby, and does our portrayal tally with what else is known of him? Questions to ask before we discount the few words recorded from Jagatai here.

Post-Chinggis, in the empire period, Mongols end up with the altan urug, the Golden Lineage, which I can translate fairly as royal family, gold being a royal signifier and a stand-in for the actual word, royalty. There is no mention of the altan urug in this scene. If the scene was meant to present the inception of a royal family, strangely – in the unexpected way of the Secret History – the family, with its close associates who make this attempt, strike trouble at once. The trouble is not abstract but human and particular: it is Jochi. For Blue Jos, abstractions such as a dynasty or its principles do not figure; what he sees is the unkindness and unfairness that must result if they are to talk about Jochi’s origins. He expatiates in verse on the kindness, hardships and hard work of Borte; she does not deserve to be held up to public inspection on how she conceived her first son: that means we can’t mention it, that means we accept Jochi. This is the first problem, run into straight away, when they try to start a royal line. Temujin does not have a royal line: after his death Chinggis is plated with royal imagery, he has ‘a golden doorsill, a golden tether (i.e., a government), a golden face, body, corpse, throne, and family/posterity’6 – but in Blue Jos’ speech he has none of these, he has a black head, black blood, black eyes – black, the signifier of common origins.

Do they have hidden agendas, Jagatai and Blue Jos? There is no reason to think so. Perhaps Blue Jos backs Jochi’s candidacy, but it is Jagatai of whom he says, ‘among his sons, your father’s hopes were for you’ or ‘expectations were of you’ [Onon]. It is better to understand him at face value, by what he says, frankly and in emotion, than to suspect him of a tactic in advocacy for a candidate. He does not mean, either, that his father had hoped for Jagatai to succeed him, since Chinggis has not yet told Jagatai he has ruined his own chances: Blue Jos is unlikely to pre-empt Chinggis in that. He simply says that Chinggis thought most of Jagatai – past tense, after Jagatai and Jochi have challenged and grappled each other in front of their father and the court. Jagatai may have selfish motives, but he is the one who proposes the third son Ogodei as a solution. Jagatai is never otherwise a pusher or snatcher for rights and privileges, and we need not think him one here. He refuses to be governed by ‘a chance find, a steppe find’, in the expression he uses that we understand bluntly as ‘bastard’; he argues for his father’s begotten sons.

Chinggis Khan is listening and is sitting speechless’ – as the sons quarrel, are stopped bodily by two of his old comrades, and as another old comrade speaks for him, with the poignancy of verse. In prose, Chinggis then backs up Blue Jos on Jochi: ‘How say ye so concerning Jochi? The eldest of my sons, is it not Jochi? Hereafter say ye not so.’ However, he then lets the sons suggest Ogodei and agree on him. He himself makes no suggestion, after he first asks Jochi to speak on the question: he does not choose his heir. When Jagatai proposes Ogodei, Chinggis asks for the views of his other sons, one by one; they approve Jagatai’s pick; Ogodei accepts; and the heir is chosen.

What Chinggis does do is hold his sons to the agreement they have made. On this, he speaks strongly. ‘Suffer yourselves not to be derided by people. Suffer yourselves not to be laughed to scorn by men.’ Jagatai has offered, ‘Let us cleave asunder whichever of us shirks his duty, let us slash the heels of whichever of us lags behind’ (Onon): he volunteers the pledge, even the violence of it, that his father then seconds. ‘Both Jochi and Jagatai, keep to your word… Formerly both Altan and Quchar pledged their word like this, but, because they did not keep to their word, how were they done unto? How were they made to be?’ These were cousins of Chinggis, and the answer is, they were executed.

This is an extreme statement. More often discussed is a Chinggis ruling whereby clan members can only be sentenced to death by a widely representative clan panel (another fix for in-fighting). But here, in front of the court, he has stated it is right for his sons to suffer the penalty if they revolt against a khan they have agreed on. This is what Chinggis’ cousins did: they elected him, but later rose up against him and caused disturbances for years. Blue Jos has just acquainted the sons with the violence of those times, in his poetry:

The sky with stars was turning on itself,
Everywhere people were in turmoil.
Nobody entered their beds to rest,
Instead they plundered one another.
The earth with its skin was turning and turning,
The entire state was in turmoil.
Nobody lay under their quilts to rest,
Instead went to assault each other.

In light of which, Chinggis tells the court his sons are not exempt from punishment if they fail to keep the peace, no more than were his cousins. Chinggis is quietly spoken in this scene but he cannot be more strong in content. It is not often discussed that he threatened his sons with death for disunity – because statements with consequences are most discussed, and nothing came of this. Statements without consequences teach us as much about the person who said them or the society he said them in, and they can be less-explored leads for a novelist, who has to keep in view, keep open, those possibilities which didn’t happen, so that her people make real choices and her story has tension. The value for which he says his sons can be put to death is the unity they have achieved, out of the state of disorder Blue Jos describes. They achieved government; but Altan, Quchar and others on his list, executed now, perpetuated conflict with rivalry for leadership. To Chinggis here, it is not ‘whoso threatens my sons’ rule…’ but ‘whoso threatens our government, even though they be my sons’. This too is a part of the scene where he chooses his successor. In effect he answers to his queen’s question, ‘Or if they fight each other, none of them.’ Unity is more in his sights than dynasty.

Onto a last oddity in this scene: when the father consults Ogodei for his opinion, Ogodei says he cannot refuse to be chosen, but what if his get turn out no use? What if his get are such that: ‘If you wrap them in green grass, an ox wouldn’t eat them; if you wrap them in fat, a dog wouldn’t eat them? – will they not miss an elk from the side and a rat in its length?’ Chinggis accepts this may well occur: ‘If Ogodei’s issue be born so void of virtue that – [and he repeats the poetry: an ox, a dog] – will there not be born among my issue even one which may be good?’

This is a funny heir-selection scene, that engages in insult of future descendants. At this point Chinggis has declared a couple of his issue unworthy, while Ogodei has seen his elders disgraced; Ogodei’s answers are humble, Chinggis’ speech follows on from what he has witnessed. He has been affected – whether more in sadness than in anger I cannot detect from the text; I can only say affected – by what has gone before, because this is a scene in motion. People are in states of mind and states of mind change through the scene, influenced by its events. Chinggis does not even let the sons promise reconciliation: he has no faith in that outcome, he tells them not to bother but to live apart. Possibly his anger or disappointment are redirected into gruff speech on future descendants. It cannot be easy for him to discuss the succession once his two most eligible sons have made an exhibition of themselves.

This is where Chinggis ends the scene and the discussion: ‘Issue of Khazar, make one of you to govern. Issue of Alchidai [from the family of his dead brother Cachiun], make one of you to govern. Issue of [Temuge] Otchigin, make one of you to govern. Issue of Belgutei, make one of you to govern.’ – That is, issue of his brothers, dead and alive, full and half. ‘So thinking, making one of my issue to govern, not violating my decree, if ye destroy it not, ye will not err and ye will not miss.’ Then his final sentence, that if Ogodei’s issue are rejected by the family animals, selection is to be among his entire descendants.

Discussions conclude in the most traditional manner: Chinggis’ lines are a perfect statement of the joint government known for hundreds of years beforehand on the steppe. The government belongs to the family: his brothers’ issue are themselves to select a representative, even as he (or rather his sons) have just selected a representative. What happens next, he does not say. Either they are to choose a khan, or they are to ‘govern’ jointly. He seems to allow that the representative from his issue is to be at the head of the government – the senior, with the family in joint custody. Nothing can be more traditional.

The rest is speculation. We must not read back from the empire period, post-Chinggis. When Ogodei is instated, two years after Chinggis’ death, a Chinese-acculturated Qitan convinces Jagatai – Jagatai, known for his commitment to Mongol values – to observe princely precedence and Chinese-style ritual towards Ogodei. Nothing after this can be trusted as uncontaminated – even if ‘uncontaminated’ Mongol ways can ever be a concept. Much is left uncertain in this scene of the Secret History. I can speculate that Chinggis may have been afraid of the Jochi problem and thus left the succession question alone until cornered in his fifties by Yisui. I can speculate that he had quite other ideas in mind: in section §206 he grants to Muqali a title and office that by steppe tradition were those of the heir. The scene is often suspected of later interpolation, to serve a side when Tolui’s line took over from Ogodei’s; but in the scene is no idea of exclusivity of lines. Any of this is speculation; the Secret History preserves a lack of fixity in these stages of the creation of the state. What I want to notice is that in its depiction Chinggis himself settles very little.

If we look at the start and the end of the scene, the set-up and its resolution, we notice that more problems have been uncovered than have been solved; that Chinggis Khan is in a worse place – a sadder man – at the end than he was at the beginning; and that, although the scene commences with him being asked to choose one of his four sons to come after him, that is not what he does, and he has not decided much.

Chinggis gives his sons a strong lesson about dissension; but he does not impose a choice on them, he has them settle that themselves. The crime of his cousins Altan and Quchar was to go back on a voluntary oath, to a khan of their own election. Jagatai and Jochi offer an oath, without prompt, and state the punishment – of each other – for infraction. Chinggis’ input is to hold them strictly to their word, in order to avoid the trouble of the bad old days they have forgotten. Chinggis is hands-off, even though these are his sons. He is notable for lack of speech, for not dealing with the question of succession in the first place – in short for inactivity. He does not take upon himself to name an heir, in spite of Yisui’s appeal. Like the Secret History in general, the scene is notable for lack of dogma, for concentration on the human troubles of decision, and for the pain of the scene. It goes poorly for Chinggis Khan. Its strongest lights are his discontent with his sons and his reasons for discontent. The ending is downbeat. The scene works as a whole, and people have emotions, and emotions have effects, and there is change from the beginning to the end: simple lessons, but the Secret History is rarely studied as if it is a drama, even when it is accused of fiction. Its fictive strategies do not attract study if they only serve to cloud with fiction, but my argument is that they serve the history, serve the truth. The scene’s artistry shapes its meaning, although it may be only lightly fictive.

At this stage Mongols do not have a Golden Lineage, and as for what the scholarship calls Chinggisid legitimacy (in effect for hundreds of years, whereby khans, kings, sultans must descend from him): perhaps Jagatai has tried to introduce legitimacy as a criteria, but it means nothing to Blue Jos and it clashes with his values. Because a novelist moves slowly through the material – a historian hastens, next to us – and writes, if not in the present tense, in the perspective of the present, with the future strictly unknown to participants, a novelist is well-placed to eliminate hindsight. Peter Perdue urges upon historians a temporary erasure of our knowledge of the future, in order to make the once-present present, truly, in the minds and therefore in the actions of people then, to counteract the creep of inevitability into our causalities – to restore indeterminacy, contingency, accident, for a seat-of-the-pants history.7 This is the novelist’s creed, and requires the same elimination process. Novelists want you to experience the past as present, as happening, urgently, right now, and they have tricks to that end. Perdue’s call is not gratuitous; our histories have a tendency to project or attribute backwards, because evidence is rich for the empire period and scant for pre-empire. Yet the change factor in Mongol society from pre-empire, an obscure people on the steppe, to empire, most of their known world conquerered, must have been enormous. It can scarcely be overestimated – only underestimated.

Where does the Secret History stand on inevitability versus the contingent? I say, with the contingent. Yes, Chinggis has his destiny from heaven above in section §1, but so do the beasts in §281: as Urgunge Onon points out, every creature has, by the religion; that opening sentence does not make Chinggis unique. The Secret History enjoys a glance ahead, exactly when the future looks most impossible. Mother Hoelun feeds her abandoned family of children on starvation foods: ‘The sons nourished on mountain onion attained unto the khanship; the sons nourished on roots became wise legislators’ [§74]. This might be seen as an assertion of inevitability, fate or God’s intended greatness for Chinggis (of which we hear little in the Secret History: that too is a later idea), but I prefer to see an artistic effect – not comfort in the family’s lowest circumstances but a startling leap to disconcert, or to amaze: from that low, to this high.

It is my exercise, then, to not let the future impinge upon this scene. To dislodge accretions from the empire period, as both the historian and I must do; and beyond that, to hear the speeches as they were. To give Blue Jos’ speech its full value in the moment – to stop the clock, to stop in that moment. When the speech comes out of his mouth, while one listens, as if in the now (unheard before, without what happens next), one begins to ask questions: What does he believe, what is the understructure of his views? – they do not seem the same as later conventions. Avid Temujin supporter as he is, he does not seem to care about a royal family. Why does he assign to Temujin the word ‘black’?

4. The word ‘black’ in the Secret History

The Secret History is often distrusted for its story aspects. For example, in the succession scene, Jagatai and Jochi seize each other by the garment neck in stance to wrestle; Bo’orchu and Muqali catch each an arm of each to stop them; while they are in that pose, Blue Jos comes in with his verses – standing on the left, be it noted. It is too staged: did it happen? We need to be aware that the Secret History likes body language – a liking which can be linked to the physical images of Mongol poetry as well as the physicality of idiom. There is a moment, exquisitely translated by Humphrey and Hürelbaatar, where Temujin is overcome with emotion: ‘He sobbed so much it was as if /He had smoke in his nose’ [§242; ‘Regret’ p.11]. This (in spite of the verse) is an observed scene, not a made-up one – as I hope people can agree, simply by assessment; a moment of emotion caught in memory. The physicality can be disturbing to our fastidiousness: whether people burst out of their mothers’ hot placentas [§78, §254] or swear by their bowels (‘or anus’) [Onon 32-3]. So too they name landscape features after bodily organs: Spleen Hill, because they are familiar with how a spleen is shaped. Mongols work with body portrayal.

In the distrust of story lies a danger: that we strip it from a scene to get at factual content, as if story is not integral to the telling, as if it is a disguise, an encumbrance to the historical meaning. The Secret History is not facts worked up into a story; its story qualities are vehicles of expression in themselves; they are functional and cannot be set aside as ornament when we interpret. The story makes meanings. Our explanations need to work with the story, not treat it as an enemy.

To see how the story makes and changes meanings, consider instances of the word qara, ‘black’, as a desciptor of people in the Secret History. ‘Black’, applied to people – by Turks and others on the steppe before Mongols – has a base definition of ‘common, vulgar; ordinary, low-class’ [de Rachewiltz pp. 265, 455]. In the standard commentary Igor de Rachewiltz says: ‘“Black” refers to the skin through constant exposure to the sun and weather, a characteristic of common, poorer people; “white” by contrast being a sign of wealth, nobility and rank’ [p. 265]. Translator Urgunge Onon explains: ‘Commoners wore no hats to cover their black hair’ [p. 43]. ‘Black people’ are spoken of in the Turks’ stone inscriptions of the seventh century, the non-nobles – although they occur in an active political part, advocates of the restitution of an independent Turk government. What about Blue Jos’ odd usage for Chinggis Khan? Exposure to the weather suits the depiction of his hardships. ‘Black blood’ is strange, striking, even if shorthand for a black person’s blood. In his initial definition of the word de Rachewiltz refers to ‘other parts of the body called black in a derogatory or insulting way in Mongolian,’ [p. 265] but he does not comment on Blue Jos’ use of derogatory imagery for his khan. The only help we have, I think, is companion uses within the Secret History: how else do they apply the word? There are three major instances; and it turns out that none of them adhere to the base definition – not when they are seen in their contexts in the story. Let us look at the three in order.

I have not numbered its use in the legendary matter at the beginning – the Secret History’s prehistory. It too might be interrogated, but instead I take this use as my yardstick, the word’s straightforward meaning. Widow Alan Ghoa makes a prophecy for her sons begotten by a spirit visitant, whom her sons by her dead husband have taken to be fathered by the slave in the tent: ‘How can ye speak, comparing them /Unto the people with black heads? /When they become khans of all, /The common people (qarachu) will then understand’ [Cleaves]. Sons question a mother’s sexual history, as Jagatai does Borte’s; she puts them in their place. We might pause to wonder why a story is made of it: why keep the accusation that she slept with a slave? Her liaison with a spirit might have been told as matter-of-factly as the story of the wolf begetting on the doe in the Secret History’s first lines. Black heads, black people mean to Alan Ghoa low-status people, such as the slave or servant in her tent.

First in historical times is Chilger, §111, with a feast of black imagery in verse – in his case, self-derogatory. He is the one who fathered Jochi, the enemy to whom Borte was given in captivity. The young Temujin (with tribal chief Blue Jos) has retrieved her in an attack, with terrible consequences for Chilger’s Merqot people. In his poem he blames himself for his people’s disaster, and the terms of insult he heaps on his own head include a theme of ‘black’ in contrast to ‘white’ for Borte. Most of his terms are ‘not elsewhere attested’ [Cleaves] so that the meanings are guesswork, but he uses ‘my black head’, and Alan Ghoa’s ‘qarachu’ in a line which translators render: ‘ignoble and bad’ [Onon], ‘commoner and bad’ [Cleaves], ‘lowly, base’ [de Rachewiltz]. Chilger is a brother of the Merqot over-chief or king; another brother had been Hoelun’s first husband – Temujin’s father captured his mother Hoelun from him. The Merqots’ abduction of Borte is retaliation for this old abduction; in justice, Chilger can claim a right to Borte, to compensate his brother’s loss. The point here is that he has no reason to fault himself or repent of his part in the action – except for the disastrous consequences. The other point is that Chilger is not low in status, he is high, the brother of a king, whose other brother was a fit match for Temujin’s mother. There is no reason he is not fit for Borte – no social reason. A king’s brother is unlikely to call himself a commoner, but he can call himself ignoble, unworthy, in a spate of abuse, while he also wishes he had never laid hands on Borte and asserts that obviously she was not for him: fate or the gods, the event has told him as much. His is a poem of trauma. Yet the standard commentary can so forget the circumstances of the story as to say Chilger is a ‘common tribesman’ who has transgressed against status, ‘put on airs’ – a literal reading of the language he uses; in result, the Secret History is understood to share a horror at class transgression. Humphrey and Hürelbaatar have the explanation that Chilger discovers a new notion of heirarchy whereby the future Mongol queen is far above him. That seems airy for Chilger to recognise, but a Mongol can compose a poem for him with those thoughts. Still, I see with Chilger the usage possibility of ‘ignoble’, detached from class, in the way that word works in English, too.

The next use reduces ambiguity: in their oath sworn to Temujin, Altan and others of his clan say: ‘If we violate thine orders… Go thou, forsaking on the earth and ground /Our black heads.’ [§123] Their heads are self-proclaimed black in certain circumstances. They are to be treated ignobly, if they behave ignobly. Again, black is a self-reference, as for Chilger, almost for Temujin – called so by an old comrade. It is about worth, not a nobility of line. They won’t be wearing hats when their heads are cast on the steppe; they will, exactly, be exposed to the weather. They will be stripped of their appurtances, as the oath says, their tents and possessions and marks of esteem. Without these they are black, their cut-off heads are ‘black heads’.

Third is Jamuqa, §200, when he has been seized as a prisoner by erstwhile comrades and delivered up to Temujin, with whom he has been at political odds for two decades by now. As de Rachewiltz notes, his metaphors of birds, high and low species of bird, are the same as those of Chilger, who was a black crow and a buzzard with a prize that didn’t belong to him, a white goose or crane. In Jamuqa’s verses again, ignoble birds have seized upon a noble: black crows and brown buzzards upon a specified – uncertain to us – kind of duck. He follows up with the plain statement that slaves and commoners have seized upon a khan. Jamuqa is upset, as Chilger was, and uses a barrage of language. However, in this passage de Rachewiltz suggests that those who have taken Jamuqa prisoner (identity not given in the text) were his peers, fellow ex-chiefs and failed leaders. If they have fallen low, so too has he: the group of them had been living as ‘robbers’ or ‘bandits’. The distinction between them cannot be one of class. They have betrayed him, and that is the distinction. He talks about the loyalty they owed him; and he seems to allude to an incident when the slaves of Temujin’s enemy Tarqutai took their master prisoner and began to take him to Temujin for reward. Jamuqa’s captors expect reward. But last time, the slaves of Tarqutai thought better of their disloyalty and let Temujin’s enemy go; for these second thoughts he praised them, and has since promoted them. Were this about people remaining in their right station, the slaves would not have been promoted to high office. Temujin responds to Jamuqa with consistency: he executes for treachery those who have turned his enemy in to him.

In none of these, then, is ‘black’ employed as a class word, unless to equate ‘ignoble’ with ‘unworthy’. That exhausts the usage of ‘black’ for a condition of people in the Secret History, and we see that nowhere, past the legends at the beginning, has the word been used in its usual definition. It is the stories that define the word; whereas if we insist on the gloss, no matter what the story, we never reach to the meaning for Mongols. Story interpretation, therefore, is a vital art, even before we can say we know what the words mean.

These do not yet explain Blue Jos on Temujin, whom he is no more calling ignoble than non-aristocratic. It might have more to do with the ‘black’ attached to a people’s name to give what the commentary says is a sense of ‘true’: so the Secret History distinguishes as Qara Qitat, Black Qitat, those Qitat troops the Mongols meet in north China, whom they respect in a fight. These seem to be Qitat who have kept a steppe style, not other ethnicities associated with that name, not Qitat who have assimilated to a settled lifestyle; so they fight similarly to Mongols and are saluted in the Secret History, which is rare for off-steppe troops. We might rather expect the ‘true’ to be white – if we listen too much to the black/white distinction (white symbolises ‘all that is noble, aristocratic and good’) [de Rachewiltz 743]. Black is not a bad quality here, to Mongol eyes, but designates the original Qitat who are ‘like us’. The Qitat who remained independent of Jin China and went west named themselves Qara Qitat, too, a self-description that conceivably expressed their identity as true Qitat, in the new world of Central Asia. If black can mean original, those who maintain a steppe or tribal style, it need not be unattached to the derogatory aspects of ‘common tribesman’. The genuine article. Isenbike Togan has investigated words for ‘folk’ at this time, for she sees the common folk brought to the fore in the Mongol enterprise.8 If ‘black’ can mean ‘folk’, with either a positive or negative connotation, that makes sense of our usages – even the application to Chinggis Khan, who can be ‘of the folk’. We might remember that Mongols, as a people, were stigmatised as ‘dark’ in the sense of dirty, along with smelly, by other peoples on the steppe: the queen of Naiman declares them fit only for servants’ tasks. It is said so in the history, or we wouldn’t be aware.

5. Political voices

I have left Blue Jos’ usage unsolved. These are the uncertainties of the Secret History. It is no wonder I have not solved Blue Jos, when my two most admired secondary works on the Secret History and its world conflict on its politics. One thing we can agree on: ‘Expositions of an overt ideology are altogether absent,’ as Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hürelbaatar say in their wonderful study on regret in Mongol political life, as portrayed by the Secret History. Their essay is one of my most-admired works; the other is a book by Isenbike Togan. Both have been mentioned in the previous section: Humphrey and Hürelbaatar see a change towards a new idea of heirarchy, from equality in the tribal world that went before; Isenbike Togan sees the change rather from an aristocratic, pluralist tribal order to a central government that offered equity to commoners. Diverge from each other though they do, I have found these the Secret History’s most sensitive readers: Humphrey and Hürelbaatar in their close attention to Mongol emotion, imagination and preoccupation with ethics; Togan in her attempt to restore to the steppe world in the late twelfth and early thirteenth centuries the dignity of ideas, ideals and ideologies in rivalry. Neither of these explorations are often undertaken: Togan makes the complaint that we neglect and tend to despise this tribal world as a subject for study, while to study – even to notice – introspection on political acts is likewise a leap forward in allowing the early Mongols the complexity of other, more historically attested peoples. Which of these invaluable works is right on the politics – in the not unimportant matter of Chinggis Khan’s state-making project?

It may be that the word ‘black’ is a lead, the kind of material we have when we do not have ‘overt exposition of ideology’. Let us thank the Secret History for avoidance of the overt, and turn to its stories. Is it that we see the word ‘black’ in flux; do Mongols consciously tweak the word, an ancient word about social status? Is Blue Jos making a statement by its use? Perhaps he wears a derogatory term as a badge of pride – the way we are known to treat a derogatory term.

If the uncertainty proves one thing, it proves that the Secret History was not concerned to explicate politics to its Mongol audience. It is nothing so dull as imperial propaganda; propaganda is not made to be hard to decipher. Still, the study of propaganda in historical documents seems to be at a high tide as I write, and most of us expect a statement, expect an official line. We have watched Chinggis through a scene, the succession scene, where he does not get his way, where even though he is asked to make the decision, other people do so. The steppe’s common tradition was government shared by a clan. When Mongols ruled China, their levels of government became too consultative for efficiency, as they transplanted steppe practices of joint decision-making.9 The Turks of the sixth to eighth centuries had these same joint-government principles; in the stone inscriptions they left – the first voices heard from the steppe – there is history told in the khan’s voice, and then again, told in first person in the name of Tonyuquq, a wise old governmental head not of the royal family. Of course these accounts differ from each other and Tonyuquq is not afraid to criticise his khan.10 Joint government, and communal memoirs: is a one-voiced document to be expected? These conditions encourage plural voices and not conflation into a single ‘king’s voice’. If we wonder how the Turks can set up conflicting histories in stone, or how the Secret History can retain a few lines of lament for Chinggis Khan’s executed cousins, with the accusation that he had one at least unfairly killed, we might consult these traditions whereby the right to govern belonged to a clan, or to another community. Nobody had a prerogative to be the only voice.

Lost political voices are what Isenbike Togan searches for, attempts to reconstruct – ideologies that lost out to the Chinggisid empire. Humphrey and Hürelbaatar, meanwhile, look at how the Secret History captures the transition to that empire, with political ideas in dispute, with people adjusting (or failing to adjust) to new ones from the old. I suggest there is even less fixity at the time of the Secret History than they find: that in the succession scene the Golden Lineage is not yet a fixture; that Blue Jos has one of those lost political voices, for his views or values do not fit with what eventuated. Possibly Chinggis has a lost voice: his intentions, obscure in this scene, nevertheless on close inspection are seen to be divergent from the result – he is not the god of his world, he is not the only agent, even in this process of decision on an heir, let alone wider, future events. What pertains to the empire period is not a given in the Secret History in 1228; there may be more voices, saying different things, than we have yet heard, because we rush too fast into the empire period. This is an argument for complexity and slowness, an unsettled politics. The Secret History does not yet know of the Mongols’ divine right to rule and conquer, as Humphrey and Hürelbaatar observe; I add that Chinggisid descent is not settled on either, in the minds of Chinggis’ comrades or even of Chinggis himself. Let us draw out these processes, for in real time they are drawn out, where history-writing tends to collapse them. It is a mistake of simplification to think Chinggis must have purposed exactly what came to occur in the post-Chinggis phase: it is a collapsing of those layers of lives that Togan investigates, those stages, with consequence or without, those other beliefs. I do not want here to speculate on Chinggis’ politics – the place for speculative reconstruction is my novels; at present I only want to suggest we slow this revolution down.

Togan’s complaint is that our histories skim over pre-empire times as unworthy of historical attention, as if only the steppe empires count; we blur the tribal world beforehand into an undifferentiated primitive condition. She puts the losers of this history centre-stage, and comes up with detail on what was at stake, in the fight for the steppe that Chinggis won. I think she is right to say a prejudice underlies our neglect of the pre-empire world, for instead of Togan’s conflicts of ideas, ideological fights, belief in ideals, our histories too often have a sketch of naked, unsophisticated powerplay. Power, crude, rude and devoid of intellectual content – what else do you need to account for Mongol political life? The answer to that is well-put in the two works I hold in such high estimation.

Why pay attention to stifled voices, lost causes, obsolete ideas and what did not eventuate? Togan advocates the importance of these unfollowed paths, just as Humphrey and Hürelbaatar find most interest in the lack of fixity, in the Secret History’s portraits of transition. Both resound with a novelist. If what they agree on, their common ground, is more about means than end, that suits the Secret History, an unended voyage; it suits a novel, too. Togan makes the transition less smooth, politics less quick. A novelist has to insert a sense of ‘real time’; that is why I am attracted to her work. The antidote to historical skimming is the slowing down. As a novelist I am always slowing down. Historians do not write events in real time, and I think this leads to difference. Things that seemed consecutive or logical when speeded-up fall into inconsistencies when put in real time. That lens of real time is one that frequently makes demands on me to alter interpretations or explain more: the slowing-down is one of the great tests of interpretation of the material.

Togan thinks like a novelist twice: the losing side, and the slowing down. Humphrey and Hürelbaatar think like novelists in their essay on ‘the historical anthropology of the early Mongols’: for I have never seen such attention paid to the psychology present in the text, even when the Secret History is acknowledged to have strong psychological interests. What to them is historical anthropology is very close to what I call an arts criticism of the text, which I have felt the absence of in most straight histories. The discipline of written or oral arts has much to contribute to work on this text; Humphrey and Hürelbaatar were water in a desert with their analysis of moral and emotional content: the inner lives, intellectual, experienced (Mongols, as they note, did not distinguish between thought and feeling). Humphrey and Hürelbaatar appreciate the first principle I began my novel on: that the way Mongols imagine themselves yields us as much information as the historian’s ‘what actually happened’. This is why we do not discard the stories, whether they happened or not: they are our only way to understand what Mongols thought and felt, how they experienced events and what sense they created by telling the stories to themselves. ‘What actually happened’ is the least of it – an impoverished string of facts, if we do not at the same time investigate the attitudes, the tellings, Mongol self-understanding. What does it mean to put your recent history into poetry? We rarely even ask that question. If the Secret History frustrates us by not being a straightforward chronicle, we must try to interrogate it for what it wants to tell.

Which of these invaluable works is right? They are both right on what matters: that Mongols had an inner life, a mental and emotional life we can study in the Secret History, if we try. Let us celebrate the Secret History’s lack of obviousness on politics, and turn to what it does do: ethical questions and the psychology of change, as Humphrey and Hürelbaatar champion; an identity and human width for Togan’s obscure twelfth-century tribes; and the emotional lives of kings.

6. The emotional lives of kings

Tolui’s end: the case for face value

First, I have a case to make for understanding our source material at face value. Usually, face value means the valuation Mongols themselves have assigned to an event. In itself this is precious information; and we are far too quick to dismiss their valuations, before we have spent time on them, spent time with them to allow them to teach us that they may, indeed, be true.

When we search behind face value for ‘what really happened’ we must be wary of our motives. Is it that we like to exercise our cleverness upon a source? – the wrong motive. Are we keen to catch a Mongol at his game, or to catch out a twelfth-century mind in its superstition and self-deception? We had better question the assumptions of a twenty-first century mind; the only way I know to do that is to read old sources, and believe them.

The source we have is as a Mongol wrote it, thought it, remembered it. Before we are so rude as to dispute them we need to query our presumption. We need to exert every effort to accept the text – the way a Mongol wrote it, thought it, remembered it. Again, we need to exert every effort; dismissal is a last step, for when we know we are being presumptuous and rude, but think incumbent on us to go ahead. It is to be pursued reluctantly, not in spirit of triumph; if we feel triumphant, that is probably an indication we have enjoyed being clever, more than we have listened to the text. Even though these are Mongols, and the Secret History their first book, condescension is to be avoided – particularly on matters of religion, as in the case study I take: Tolui’s end [§272].

There is a strong urge to ‘see through’ Tolui’s end for the real story; it is almost universal that histories say he died from alcohol abuse. The Secret History writes his end as a self-sacrificial magic death, whereby he substitutes himself for his sick brother the khan. Ogodei lies gravely ill, and the medicine people determine he is under attack from the local spirits, here in North China where he has waged successful war. The medicine people report: ‘The masters and khans (usual honorary words for spirits) of the land and the waters of the Qitad people, now when their people and folk are spoiled and now when their cities and towns are destroyed, rage violently against the khan.’ When they offer the angry spirits (with divination ‘by bowels’) whatsoever other thing they ask for in his stead – from among ‘animals, food, gold and silver, people’ – Ogodei’s condition only worsens; when they ask whether another member of the royal family might serve in his stead, Ogodei improves enough to talk. Tolui volunteers and drinks ‘the waters of conjuration’; he quickly feels the effects (he says ‘I am drunk’, that being a familiar sensation to him; the phrase has not served him well) and dies, it seems within a few days. Ogodei recovers.

Either Tolui believed himself to death or the waters of conjuration held substances – infection, potion – to help him to that end: both can occur, with such magic deaths. Reading in anthropology or ethnography from around the world can convince us the account is not uncommon and certainly not impossible. Why then do we never admit Tolui may have ended his life as stated? Scepticism began early: non-Mongol histories record the contemporary view that he died of less mysterious drink. Our historians almost always follow them, and not the Mongols. Before we discount the Secret History, it is our duty to read about deaths by sorcery and other deaths brought about by the conviction one must die. Where history cannot help us, anthropology can: we may not find another Mongol death that equates with Tolui’s, but ethnography on sorcery as a living practice observes the operations and educates us on what is possible. If to a twenty-first century student of the text Tolui’s magic death is ‘obviously’ made up, ethnographies – be they on the other side of the world – exist to shake such confidence. Anthropology is a necessary adjunct, because without close observation of practices in a living environment, historians who have before them a brief notice such as here of Tolui, are left to invent its significance, make up context; the incident is left to the mercies of a modern mind. How a fragment of practice might fit into a culture cannot be gleaned alone from historical documents; if Papua New Guinea offers insight on ways a society functions around a piece of described practice, let us travel there to learn about Mongols – more precisely, to practice our eyes in how to read a shard of a strange old religion.

Rashid ad-Din, who tells this tale within a mixed milieu, with Mongol informants and Islamic terms – but tells it astoundingly well, like a short tragic play – has incidental evidence for its truth. At the end of his tale he adds: ‘The story is well known. Tolui’s wife Sorqaqtani Beki used always to say: “He who was my beloved and my darling sacrificed himself for Ogodei Khan.”’11 In another place he records the effects on Ogodei:

When Ogodei Khan had launched his expedition to Cathay and Tolui died, the khan constantly bemoaned his loss, and when he was drunk he wept a great deal and said, ‘I miss my brother so much. That’s why I choose to get drunk. Maybe for an instant my inner burning will be quelled.’ On account of the great sorrow he felt for Tolui’s sons, he ordered the administration of the ulus and the management of military affairs assigned to Tolui’s chief wife Sorqaqtani Beki, who was the most intelligent woman in the world.12

Ogodei indeed shortened his life by alcohol; but I do not see quoted to soften the portrait his excuse for consumption given here. If he and those around him believed Tolui had died this strange death, that seems sufficient to make a permanent impression on Ogodei, who is said to have been extremely close to Tolui. Did it blight his life thereafter, this sacrifice? Rashid is not above embroidery, but his tale of how the brother and the widow behaved as if they believed, had to have been a Mongol tale, commonly told; what grounds have we left to dispute the Mongol version? Certainly, from Rashid, we suspect Sorqaqtani exploited her leverage with Ogodei, but the guilt had to exist, to play on. Humphrey and Hürelbaatar have already pointed out that the episode as told (even though ‘it seems unlikely this drama could have happened exactly as depicted’) needed to make sense to the Secret History’s Mongol audience – needed to be believable to them on a cultural level.13 Surely, also, on a personal level, people who knew the participants, who were well acquainted with the personalities of Tolui, Ogodei and Sorqaqtani, required feasibility of behaviour for the story to float. Our sketches of Tolui’s personality often suggest to us he is not ‘the type’ to engage in a grand self-sacrifice; which boils down to the fact that he ran the worst of the Mongol campaigns, in Khurasan. I can only prescribe novels, Dostoevsky perhaps, or others who deal with evil acts, to explore how personality can stride across this range. Harsh towards the enemy, a beloved brother and husband at home: history, too, is full of them.

There is a similar situation around the death of Babur, who descended from Chinggis on his mother’s side. I am not placed to judge the historicity of the tradition that he offered his life to God in exchange for his sick son Humayan, understood himself accepted and died a few months after his son’s recovery.14 Babur has been more believed: Salman Rushdie grew up under the kind influence of the legend that a father had sacrificed himself, as he tells in an introduction to the Baburnama.15 Young Mongols over the centuries grew up with a brother’s self-sacrificial love, but foreign historians have not been moved. Have we turned to Tolui for a precursor, have we ever asked whether Babur took a leaf out of Tolui’s book – whether that book be the Secret History, Rashid ad-Din’s Gathered Histories, or another? Did at least a family tale influence a family tale? By our lights today, Babur is more sophisticated than a steppe Mongol of three hundred years before, and we possess his autobiography; we are prone to ascribe less feeling to a remote figure we know less about. Clearly this is error, but difficult to resist. Babur gives his own evidence as to his wide behavioural range (Rushdie also picks out this for comment), whereas sacrifice for brotherly love we do not admit into Tolui’s emotional range. By our treatment of the material, unconsciously we do not; at times we declare it outright. Yet this story is the most intimate our sources ever get with Tolui – this story we discount.

It is easy to say the story was cosmetics on another drunken Mongol end. Ease must not direct us; ease leads to stereotype. We have to be slow to discount, not quick: first consider Tolui’s death at face value. Mongols believed in the efficacy of a sacrifice and in its heroic value – which we know by the way the tale is told. Tolui or his near and dear laid claim to these high qualities in his culture. Perhaps he only had to want to be brilliant, admired and fearless: the boast he gives the spirits goes along with this. I am handsome, he says, I am militarily accomplished. In Rashid he extends this brazenly: I am better than my brother. So he convinces the spirits they want him: he is of high value. He was in his prime, and fresh from an extraordinary success – again, in Rashid. It is not about fear of spirits, but Tolui’s fearlessness. Can you imagine it now?

Consider fully the face value, which is the value Mongols placed on it. To discount the Mongols’ valuation is the last step, the reluctant step, after elimination of ways it can be right. Mongols understood Tolui’s death this way: who are we to say this cannot have happened? Exhaust the possibilities by which it may have happened as in the original. Rack your brains for an explanation that leaves the Mongol account intact. Be aware these might not occur to a modern without effort and investigation or a lucky strike in the source material; but even when you do not see a possibility, have faith that one exists. Any explanation, no matter how unobvious the search has been for us, that leaves the Mongol account intact, has more of truth value than our amendments. To decide the Mongols did not mean what they say is a grave measure, fraught with danger. Occam’s razor was never so dangerously followed as in the understanding of old texts; or rather, Occam’s ‘fewest assumptions’ means the strange tangled paths of the twelfth century and not what is simplest to our eyes. A lack of credence in their mental and their cultural lives is our greatest self-defeat in the attempt to understand them. It is thought credulous to take at face value what they say, but I want to shift that and talk instead about credence. When we cannot give them credence we give ourselves no chance to enter into their world.

In my early years spent with the Secret History I found that half my task was self-examination, the other half being examination of the text. Congruently, on an artistic level, the common pattern was for me to think an original Mongol phrase – an idiom, a piece of speech, a figure, a flourish – unusable at first and adjust it or replace it; uncannily often I came later to see that the original phrase was so much better than my tampered-with rendition. It took time to see. So it was with cultural material and behaviours given in the text. Uncannily often, the original turned out to be feasible in a way I had not been aware of, and I restored to my story what the Mongols had told me from the start. Crossing out my own work and writing back in from my source was my path towards authenticity – ever closer and closer (one is never close enough). This process created an ever-greater trust in me, a trust of the Secret History, both of its artistic choices and of its information. I did not learn to distrust the text along the way but very much the opposite. I began in doubt – as taught, I must say, in several of the history books of an older vintage, fifteen years ago – and came to trust. Trust that a more exact rendition is a right one, whether that be a matter of expression or of what they did.

The flip side to that was the process of undoing what I thought – my assumptions. Dismantling my assumptions was a large part of my work in the early stages: I was not called upon to dismantle the text, nearly so often as I was to pick apart the conclusions that my brain had leaped to, and then interrogate myself as to why I had leapt that way. I was always wrong, and Mongols were always right. Apologies were due. Perhaps this is what it is to approach an old text, an old work of art or a history: a slow road to faith. You come to see sense or sequence in what you simply had not known how to believe. In the case of the Mongols, I am sorry to say, there were prejudices to dislodge. I think we can believe more readily in Babur’s self-sacrifice than in Tolui’s – even though to dismiss Tolui’s is to treat the evidence with contempt and instead rest on our assumptions. In my mental exercise to undo assumptions the first challenge was to spot them, for they hide or they disguise themselves; the guesses I had to dismantle were half-conscious or unconscious and had to be ferreted out from underground. This is the work I had to do – not dismantling the Secret History, its telling of events, but my own inbuilt tendency to retell them. If and when you do retell them, you need to be conscious that you are doing so, and clear about your reason. It is instinct, or the next thing to instinct, to retell them, in interpretation; by self-examination one meets the text halfway – it may contain deceit, but that you contain deceit, you can be certain.

Let us grant to other Mongols, not excluding Temujin, the dignity of this process: believed until proven false. It is a courtesy towards the dead, and speechless, who cannot explain themselves in our terms. There is a sweeping disrespect in our stance of disbelief, that we do not inflict upon the living. Dead or alive, from the twelfth century or the twentieth, they were as human as we are and our courteous act is to listen.

War stories

The incident of Tolui’s end throws a sidelight on Mongol attitudes to war. In this area, too, most of the Secret History’s information is indirect: it lies in idioms, in scenes about other things. How do we know (contrary to what foreign sources say of steppe people in general) war was not the default state for a Mongol mentality? Because he does not call it such by habit: he calls the days of peace ‘the many days’, the ordinary days, while the day of war is in the singular, ‘the day men slay and are slain’ – note the mutuality. A Mongol does not stop and tell posterity, ‘We thought the day of war an interruption in our normal lives.’ His speech is not directed at us.

Spirits enter rarely into the Secret History. They have to be occasioned; the history reports on them when people are affected by them, when they motivate action. So at the death of Tolui we hear, as we have not heard before, about a conquered people’s spirits, their activity against the Mongols, even in Mongol victory. It seems a fine understanding of disease: the diseases the army met on campaign in places new to them, which took a toll even after victories. Here the one fallen ill is Ogodei, and his illness is thought to be inflicted by local ‘masters of the land and waters’, in anger at the devastation, disruption, at the human death that accompanied the Mongols’ war. What’s more, it is considered fit and right that a son of Chinggis be sacrificed to assuage these spirits. Whether he was sacrificed in actuality or not, the story considers this a fair, if sad bargain. Tolui does not say ‘I am handsome and accomplished’, he uses metaphor. This is his short poem:

I have cleft the back of the salmon.
I have split the back of the sturgeon.
I have conquered those near,
I have pierced those afar.
Fair of face, long of spine am I.16

Rashid translates this into workaday prose and has him claim he has done great damage in the war: therefore the spirits want him. To imagine that a Chinggis son – one who boasts how fine he is – makes a fitting sacrifice for the spirits of their victims (already dead) is extraordinary, and casts an interesting light on how Mongols thought of war. The devastation they caused did not go unremarked; this is a story about consequences – consequences, first, for the enemy, and next a cost to the victors. It was never safe to kill on this scale: the victims had spirits too. In a shamanist world, spirits of place are everywhere, spirits loyal, in one sense or another, to local humans, and though the humans be defeated and ‘lie in heaps like rotten trees’ (the usual description of a forest of dead after a battle), the spirits can yet avenge them. By the story, by the religious understanding, Mongols make acknowledgement that their acts have upset these presences, who obey their own interests – who have a right, in a world of plural spirits, to exact a price in reparation; we may wonder whether we can put this in psychological terms and see an unease with the havoc they have caused.

There are other stories about war’s consequences. There is a cluster of them, beginning with Chilger whom we met, the Merqot who took Borte and has a mad poem of self-insult and lament after his people suffer the consequences: a poem of trauma, I called it. In the history it is straight away followed by two stories of people on the Mongol side who seem to be in mental states not explicable as rational, brought about by the upheavals of the war.

Chilger speaks his poem as he flees into a ‘dark defile’, alone, with ‘no friend to aid him’. Others of his people are in flight from the Mongols; his self-blame drives him away from his own. A self-blame the Secret History exculpates him from, for just before his poem comes a reminder of the circumstances of the old feud – Chilger did not start it – and his tenure with Borte is reported in neutral terms (he ‘cared for’ her, he ‘looked after’ her, he ‘kept’ her, in alternate translations). The mother of Belgutei, Temujin’s half-brother, was held a captive along with Borte. When Belgutei searches for her in the camp of the defeated Merqot she sees him and evades him, runs into the ‘thick woods’ and is never found. She has suffered from her captivity such that she cannot stand to return to her family; she feels humiliated or ashamed; to a bystander she says she was given to a ‘bad man’ among the Merqot: ‘How can I face my son?’ Yet the history has already told of Borte’s joyous reunion with Temujin – Borte who has also lived with an enemy man perforce. This assures us that Belgutei’s mother need not fear disgrace, and refuses rescue unnecessarily – similar to Chilger, whose guilt is a psychological fact although he has done nothing wrong. Furthermore, her son is so eager to find her that when he does not, he behaves strangely himself: he shoots blunt arrows at Merqot men (they must be prisoners at this stage) and demands they bring him his mother – in intimidation, for blunt arrows do not wound. I think Belgetei makes a third in these portraits of irrationality, because nobody knows what he’s doing, shooting blunts at Merqot. He doesn’t achieve his purpose; they do not bring him his mother. It is a sentence in the history, brief and unexplained – unless its placement helps with explanation. The poem put into Chilger’s mouth, a set piece, quite a formal poem made up for him by a Mongol; then Belgutei’s mother, a tragedy in a few lines, implicitly psychological since her response has no objective grounds – hers need not differ from Borte’s if rational, and Borte has embraced Temujin by the light of the moon. Shorter still, a tail piece with Belgutei irrational. It’s catching.

It is only a sentence, but Belgutei’s irrationality – or not – is a test case; I propose him irrational against the usual explanation, that he here engages in a cultural practice unattested elsewhere: he marks the Merqot for death with his blunt arrows. This is made up, because we do not know what he is doing. It is transmitted from history book to history book with the word ‘presumably’ or ‘probably’. It has a slight precursor in a famous story where a Khunnu son shot whistling arrows at a prize horse, at his father’s wife and at his father, these a signal for his guards to shoot dead the target indicated. But that story from a thousand years before is our only guide for invention of a cultural practice to put behind Belgutei’s blunts. It is not more speculative to say the Mongols knew no reason for his behaviour either, that he loses his head in the moment, when he cannot find his mother or, worse, is told she deliberately ran from him. Belgutei was a human being; he had emotions. Instead of being an exemplification of a piece of culture here (as if the Secret History were written to be artefact for us), I see him in an odd moment of his own – Belgutei the individual, observed. In the standard commentary Belgutei’s ‘Bring me my mother’ whenever he shoots becomes ‘a sort of imprecatory formula’ – not a shout.17 This is not the simplest explanation, nor the one with least guesswork.

If he can be taken as in an irrational state of mind, the scene – the triple scene, placed after the Mongol victory – becomes a little trilogy on the chaos, on mental consequences from the war, three short mad scenes. One has to admit artistic placement as evidence. Why does Belgutei’s mother’s story echo Chilger’s, if not by the Secret History’s artistic placement? Placement once admitted, our eyes are opened to commentary on such matters as women’s humiliation in captivity, and again effects of war on the winners as well as on the losers. Impressionistic sketches, inserted between success in battle and the victory speeches, about psychological damage from this violent time, emotional fallout unattached to who’s done right or wrong, who’s been just or unjust. This is an artist’s hand.

We are quite short on material for Mongol attitudes to war; these are precious scraps, these stories and these ways of speech, these idioms; they can suggest Mongol feelings and perceptions, and replace what we dictate for them from a stark record of facts and figures. Belgutei, temporarily maddened, is a precious addition; the only thing we have to do is accept that the Secret History can make a story about mental and emotional states.

To an English graduate such as I, an individual’s moment of irrational behaviour may be among the first explanations that come to mind; in our written arts, nothing can be more common. To historians, it seems to have been the last explanation to occur or to be found worth discussion. These are the times – not often – I feel we have been trained as aliens to each other. It is only a sentence that we differ over, but a great matter hangs on it. To let people be irrational in our interpretations is necessary if we are to construe the Secret History as a record of thoughts and feelings. If, on the other hand, we over-rationalise everybody’s behaviour in the account, we can have no content on people’s inner lives. We make Belgutei a culture robot if we cannot allow him to shoot blunts at Merqot for no good reason other than exasperation, desperation, anxiety, grief. If we prefer to construct a custom in order to have him engaging in a recognised act, then to us he is a culture robot, he is not a person.

This much is argued with scholarly passion in Humphrey and Hürelbaatar’s essay in ‘historical anthropology’: that the anthropology does not mean people were reduced to a cultural dictation of their decisions and acts.18 They do not see Chilger as maddened in his poem but obedient to a new political order; Belgutei lies outside their subject of regret. But on the presence of the individual in the text (its people ‘act wilfully’, they ‘just do things’), they are kindred minds to me. Against the commentary’s ‘imprecatory formula’ and ‘ceremonial’ shooting of the arrows, I have Humphrey and Hürelbaatar to caution us on ‘the tendency to discuss the people of early or distant cultures as if they were only users of a language, bearers of “the culture” or implementers of a discourse.’ Belgutei can just shoot; he can just shout. For he was alive, like you and me.

Emotional lives

The status of emotion in our text, simply put, is the issue in question.

It is not hard to accept the Secret History’s levels of emotion if we think of it as an oral history, a collection of stories from witnesses, reminiscence, personal experience – a book of memories. As communal memoirs, its plural voices come to seem unexceptional and are heard more easily; as a book of memories, its emotional content does not come amiss.

The Secret History belongs to no genre, but the label ‘epic chronicle’ has stuck as a description of its ambiguities. The trouble is, epics are not trustworthy history, while chronicles are rarely documents about people’s emotions; our distrust and our discomfort are well caught in this label. Distrustful and uncomfortable, we try to scrape away the epic appurtenances from the chronicled facts. But I think the Secret History tells us which is which. It has a clear demarcation: when it goes epic, it goes recognisably epic; and this only occurs when people in speeches engage the epic mode. The history keeps a distinction, and has tactics to distance itself from epic. Oral epic, we cannot doubt, was the common art on the steppe in the age of its composition, as ever since; and a Mongol audience would have been more agile than we are at negotiating the different modes.

One of the Secret History’s puzzles is that it omits to heroise Chinggis Khan, and in places deheroises him. This looks like a concern not to enter the traps of epic. To be sober on its hero is one way for the history to distinguish itself from the kind of steppe epics we know. Extant epics do not date to the thirteenth century; but when the Secret History engages the epic mode, we can recognise its style and tropes from such ancient-rooted oral poems as Dede Korkut and Manas; we notice the distinction between epic mode and the history which quotes it. For people speak in epic mode when they have cause to; the history never uses this style or these tropes on its own behalf. Once and once only is Chinggis seen in epic flight, with the exaggerations typical of a Manas; this is in a bravura speech by Jamuqa to the Naiman king, intended to daunt him as to what he faces in the Mongol army. Extravagance of imagery, boast and fantasy are the marks of this mode: heroes do impossibilities, and they are more than human, they partake of animals and monsters. Let us note that Chinggis is no action hero other than in this scene; he is not known, at least in this source, for personal engagement in his wars. Mongols must have seen the contrast between the epic and the account in which it is inset more clearly than we do. What did it mean to them that Chinggis Khan is never larger than life in the history? That is hard to say. Seemingly gratuitous touches such as his boyhood fear of dogs: were these to humanise him? bring him down a peg? or did they not disturb a Mongol with his different valuations? They may be touches of a deliberate realism, quite congruent with our notions of how to write a realistic history – the way biographers today take pains to point out their subjects’ frailties, lest they be accused of too much admiration. Biographers are on guard about this, and can come across as over-negative: why not a Mongol?

More strangely, his famous Four Hounds, who were actual champions, only live up to their legend in this same speech of Jamuqa’s, and do not even enjoy a combat scene elsewhere. The history’s creators had the ability to compose like this, when they chose to; Jamuqa’s lines on the Hounds make a superb piece of battle poetry – when translated to its potential, not as awkward English prose. Again, this poem offers a glimpse into Mongol attitudes to warfare: the Hounds’ change, from spiritual dogs who feed on dew to eaters of human flesh put together from metal parts, gives an insight into that transition from ordinary days to the day of war. It is easy to forget that this is the only time the Four Hounds are celebrated for battle feats – when Jamuqa tells his epic to the Naiman king. The audience must have been happy to hear these flourishes, after the discipline of the surrounds. Likely the tellers were as happy to indulge their skills; and that they did not for the whole account need not mean that the Secret History is half-baked, of inconsistent quality, but that they made an executive decision to record dull lists and army regulations, and sober history, with extravagance where there was excuse. So they made Jamuqa into a better poet than he may have been in life, but that is a small sin against history.

The case I make is that the Secret History gives us historical lives, observed in their psychological aspects and in their emotional display – none of this being embroidery, frippery on the historical substance, but watched and written down because the makers of the document understood their lives this way. A document of emotions: unusual as that sounds, there is no cause to treat its documentation of emotions as lesser, less careful, less trustworthy. They are not fictive touches by a chronicler to enliven his material; they are people’s speeches, people’s deeds, told in memory. Memory is a sufficient explainer for the emotion in the text, memory rather than a chronicler at work; it need not be the end of the explanation, but stands sufficient in itself. The Secret History’s emotional depiction is outwards: there is no ‘he felt, he thought’ – as in a modern novel – there is only ‘he said, he did.’ Yet it likes to depict emotion – remember Temujin sobbing as if he had smoke in his nose. The sobbing, in its setting of circumstances, was important: thus the record. When and why it was important, tells us about Mongols.

Emotion in a king’s life has its consequences and is fit to be observed. This snuffling or sobbing anecdote, where the operation of emotion on Temujin is described, concerns the execution of his uncle Daritai [§243]. He had determined on a sentence of execution for Daritai’s involvement in a plot, but Bo’orchu, Muqali and Sigi Qutuqtu argue against it (‘he did not understand what he was doing… he is the youngest brother of your good father’) until Temujin yields to them; it is now he sobs, and says Daritai is spared: ‘“Let it be”, he said, and mindful of his good father, he became quiet’.19 His acquiescence, his stepping down from an execution he had announced, is significant – not only to his uncle – and seen as good: a good onset of emotion, that deserves its own verse lines of physical description, uniquely made for the moment as far as we know. The telling moves. Temujin, implicitly, is praised for his change of heart.

That begins us on a soft moment, an emollient moment, in the Secret History. There are others. Toghrul, Temujin’s neighbour khan who has listened to slander about him and started hostilities against him, has a moment like this when a better emotion overcomes his intention to do harm [§178]; again, it is at the urging of another person – Temujin himself, in a message – that he changes his mind or heart (the Mongol does not split these apart but uses one word for ‘thought-feeling’). Again, it takes sustained exhortation to move him, but when he shifts, the moment is celebrated. His exclamations are preserved, the ‘ai’ of sorrow and a word we do not know; he reproaches himself, and – although I said there is no ‘he felt’ in the Secret History – it is narrated that he ‘lost desire’, which translators give as ‘his heart was troubled’ or ‘he despaired’. This phrase is also used when Temujin cries over a son suspected dead, §173; both are watched moments, the upset being plainly visible. Then Toghrul bleeds his little finger into a birchbark cup, to be sent to Temujin, with a vow to think no evil of him in future. But there’s the rub: Toghrul’s moment of compunction, when finer feelings conquer in him, does not save Temujin from future war with Toghrul’s people; it prevents nothing, has no political consequence, for Toghrul’s son ignores it. It is a good moment in vain; yet it is made much of, given space and close description, just as if it had mattered in the strife and conflict; he too is praised, implicitly, and his futile gesture moves. Who does it move? The Mongol audience – who had known the tale for years – by the way it is told: it is told to move, not to belittle his gesture. Although we do not see Temujin when the birchbark and the vow are brought to him, he would have to be at odds with the sentiment of the history, the sentiment expected from its audience, not to be moved himself. We might think that Temujin’s attitude through the years – as these events were transmitted by mouth before they were written down – influenced the telling. Commentators often imagine for him, while he is off-stage, that he scorned Toghrul’s gesture; if so, should not the Secret History have come to reflect his view? How much of a hand Temujin had in the history is entirely speculative, but if not guided by him, we must remember, it was guided by his intimates.

Why is it that historians, on the whole (even in my treasured essay by Humphrey and Hürelbaatar) cannot or do not imagine him moved? This question is more important than it might seem for a trivial incident with a birchbark cup; it comes down to the fundamentals of how we experience the history, how we judge it. It may be the historians are not moved; nevertheless, evidence tells us that the Mongols were. It may be the historians are themselves moved by futile old Toghrul, but do not grant to Chinggis Khan and his ilk these softer feelings.

Mistrust eats away at our perceptions of the text. Consider the difference between the above two incidents: in the first, on his uncle’s execution, Temujin is witnessed with a very physical description of his emotion; in the second, on his reception of Toghrul’s change of heart, he is off stage. We can scarcely discount his emotion in the first, when he himself softens, but we find easy to discount any emotion from him in the second, when Toghrul softens. Temujin tried his utmost to soften Toghrul with messages of protestation, self-defence against accusations and sentiment about their past mutual help and friendship; these long messages he sent are more probably quotation than invention, as near to historical as we can hope for – oral as they were, memorised by the messengers, memorised since by interested Mongols; the history cannot feel it has a free hand to invent the words of Chinggis Khan at political cruxes. But we frankly disbelieve his sentiments in these messages; the great majority of histories portray them as cynical manipulations. Toghrul’s son, who ignores his father’s change of heart, was the first to disbelieve and devalue the heartfelt messages from Temujin that induced it: he says they are humbug, and most historians are with him. It points out our inconsistency to set this beside his own softening moment, since his own escapes our scepticism by dint of its physicality. Whenever we do not have such physical description we revert to our scepticism around emotion: unless he is seen to sob, we do not believe him. It is an inconsistency of ours, for the history cannot always record him in bodily displays; we cannot always insist upon material evidence of emotion. We have to learn to navigate the emotional content of our text without the need for gross signs.

Does the Secret History stand with Toghrul’s son – instigator of a dirty war against Temujin, who has laid plots to assassinate him? That is inconceivable; but, by the words of the son, the history is aware cynicism is possible. It is not in itself cynical, and it cannot be deceived on Chinggis Khan: this is the gist of my argument.

There is a greater difficulty, one that overarches cultures, in our dissonance with the past, our disbelief. This is the fact of these emotions being public – displayed in public, and a part of political life. A few of Temujin’s main emotional relationships are with fellow kings, and the Secret History concentrates on those with Toghrul, with Jamuqa. These relationships are enacted in public, and to our twenty first-century eyes, that at once drains them of possible sincerity. It was not so in the past. If the Secret History alone, by internal evidence, cannot convince, let me enlist the help of C. Stephen Jaeger, who has written to explain public relationships in medieval Europe and address modern distrust of them in the early pages of his book Ennobling Love: In Search of a Lost Sensibility (1999). Jaeger begins with the example of ‘two kings in love’: Richard Lionheart and Philip Augustus of France, who in 1187, while at war with each other, fell into ‘vehement love’, in the chronicler’s unpejorative words, and became inseparables; they ate from the same dish, slept in the same bed. The war was disrupted, they cease the siege between them to feast and sleep together. The chronicler, Roger of Hovedom, continues their story when they meet years later on crusade, and records with admiration their resumption of their old love, their fidelity to it. Roger of Hovedom’s treatment is not far afield from the way the Secret History records the friendship, early and late, between Temujin and Jamuqa. As young men they eat and sleep together and the history sings in ideal terms of their love and union. When they meet for the last time, the history is lavish in its coverage, with pages of speeches to each other where they talk of their love as persistent throughout their political contention; Temujin argues it is still salvageable. To us, this is a ‘lost sensibility’: few modern writers believe a word from Temujin here, or from Jamuqa for that matter; it has become almost unthinkable that Temujin can mean what he says when he offers to resume their friendship on the old terms. Jamuqa likewise has become unthinkable when he asks for his execution instead: we cannot imagine ourselves in this response – it is not in our repertoire; but the very fact of its being told as a feasible story means it was in the Mongol repertoire, just as Tolui’s volunteer death had to be conceivable. We must not judge a Mongol on what we would or would not do. They may be driven by emotions and convictions foreign to us, but this is not an excuse to discount their sincerity. Rather we should humbly study their behaviour and what they say of it. If an emotion is portrayed, let us first attempt to give it credence, particularly when the Mongol audience is meant to give it credence. The withdrawal of credence is a grave step, as I have said, the last, the slow, the reluctant step: it entails the thought that we know better than a Mongol. We probably don’t. When we ignore the emotional lives, when we suspect displays of emotion to be staged, we are on the road to stereotypes: they were Mongols, they were twelfth-century persons; they were less sophisticated, they felt less than us. Let me suggest, when a modern commentator has an ‘aha’ moment, when he boasts he has caught a Mongol out, been smarter than a twelfth-century person, that is the time to exert scepticism – on us now, more aptly than on a Mongol then.

By a happy coincidence these kings in England and France and on the steppes of High Asia are contemporaries; their stories overlap in the late decades of the twelfth century. Jaeger explains the twelfth century to the twenty first, recovers the conditions whereby Richard and Philip’s relationship was possible. Although the history of love is not the same in Europe as in Inner Asia, his explanation of a time when love was public, and political – before an early modern devaluation of emotion in the public sphere and discovery of private life – along with his comments on how this has affected our ability to understand old texts, are directly pertinent to the Secret History’s emotional lives, its relationships between kings, both Jamuqa with Temujin and Toghrul with Temujin. Jaeger alerts us to our dissociation of what was once associated: performances of love in high places we are schooled to think insincere, but this was once not so. Genuine emotional content in these performances was demanded and judged by an audience who detested hypocrisy and false semblance of what were prized emotions, fine emotions, held aloft by society. To claim these without the merit of possessing them is like a soldier who blusters of his courage but is found out a coward: he is despised.

My argument is the same. Mongols placed a high value on honesty: this we know from numerous types of evidence, from remarks of foreign observers, Iranian historians, European spies. Their valuation of honesty is not in dispute; why then can we so easily think that their leadership was insincere, and that their history lies? It does not strike us as a fault in our logic that insincerity in leaders might bother Mongols. If a Mongol leader were found insincere, how would a Mongol follower feel? To be insincere is never valued in the Mongol world of the Secret History: and do we say they would follow an insincere leader? Mongols, important Mongols at least, have to be convinced of Temujin’s sincerity. The scrutiny was close, and they are seen to be strong critics of disapproved behaviour, as when Jamuqa is chastised for his incitement and lies on Temujin, or when kings are insulted by their subjects: Toghrul has a ‘stinking liver’, the Naiman king is abused to his face. They are outspoken. That they detected false displays, in their own cultural context, as well as or better than we do on their behalf, is to be granted them on our part as a common courtesy or as common sense – an acknowledgement that they had intelligence and judgement on matters of near concern to themselves.

For Temujin to ‘pretend’ and offer Jamuqa, instead of execution, a resumption of their old friendship when he does not mean to follow through if he is taken up on the offer, is the sort of catastrophic effect that Jaeger points to when hypocrites exploit the system: to succeed in performance love is a noble art, but to fail, to fake, to perform poorly, to leave the audience unconvinced, is like a bad night at the theatre, and an insincere player is criticised in proportion to the value of the emotion he has claimed. Even if they are kings, they must not ring hollow. For Temujin to pretend would be the kind of bathos, the drop from the sublime, that Jaeger tries to convey. Not only would he have to ‘fool’ his intimate companions, but ‘fool’ the history that has been at its most eloquent and sentimental on his early and late encounters with Jamuqa. Simply put, Mongols would not love him for this. It can still be the case he was a hypocrite, but that should not be our default position, as it is today; we need to understand the system as it functions, in order to know what we say when we deem that he exploits it. Prized emotions, fine emotions, held aloft by society: longevity of friendship, across the obstacles of politics, self-evidently is among these for Mongols; Temujin risks a collapse of faith, a loss of face, if he is putting it on.

Our trouble is, Temujin’s political and personal lives are not to be disentangled. His emotional relationships are with his political allies. This simply does not happen in the modern world, and Jaeger in premodern Europe, in recovery of a ‘lost sensibility’, is closer to the Mongol world than we are when we judge of sincerities and insincerities as they operate for us today. That these emotional lives were enacted in public did not mean they were a publicity stunt. Toghrul and Temujin have a twenty-year relationship, vexed with ups and downs, but to doubt their attachment to each other, to write history as if they spent those twenty years in an emotional void, in a Machiavellian powerplay, in a game of thrones, is to misunderstand old cultures, quite simply. Witnesses to the lives of kings – who stood at close quarters in the Toghrul years, the Jamuqa years, through Temujin’s involved history with these allies and enemies, from a youth to the age of forty – are our judges on whether Temujin meant what he said, unless they liked to conspire with him in a disguise. The story becomes convoluted as we interpret with a cynical eye. To see these relationships between kings, that take up so much of their psychological space – these public/private relationships – to see them as hollow, as empty of emotion, leaves us with actors on a stage who strut and fret, who forgive and embrace, and feel nothing. It leaves us with psychopaths. Now, you may interpret them as psychopaths, that is up to you; perhaps you believe the political leadership of the twelfth-century steppe was a house for psychopaths. It is not impossible. Let us admit the full panoply, however: that they fool their fellow Mongols, that they flout the values of their society. Be aware that you do make a psychopath of them, with these interpretations. I do not believe the above; I believe I see Mongols weed out undesirable leadership, the flouters of values, in the pages of the Secret History; Temujin is left standing because he participates in his society’s values, because he is not caught out in a ‘stinking liver’ (an organ that did much of the metaphorical work of our heart) or in a lie; because he is honest and because he is believed.

When you read about the life of Chinggis in a history book, you have an historian’s abstract of these events. As I say, historians today tend to talk about Toghrul and Temujin as political users of each other, with almost no attention paid to the emotion. But emotion is so prominent in the text we have. The Secret History gives us the lived experience of politics: lived by Temujin, by Toghrul, by Jamuqa. It is not Machiavelli, it is not Game of Thrones; it is a story about friendships, tested, failed, betrayed, but felt sincerely. Readers are better off going straight to the Secret History, ahead of an abstract in a secondary work. They may find themselves with quite a different impression from a firsthand encounter with the text. I urge a read-through before consultation of a commentary, either. However sensitively or insensitively written, an abstract does not replace the lived experience, captured by the original.

Temujin’s memory

From public I turn to private scenes, and the making-public of incidents that nobody witnessed outside of Temujin’s family.

Temujin endangers his family by his slowness to act against the prophet figure Teb Tenggeri [§244-6]. The scene where he is at last persuaded has an intimate setting: early one morning, Temujin and his wife Borte still in bed. His youngest brother Temuge disturbs them before they have risen and weeps out a complaint of maltreatment at the hands of Teb Tenggeri. Borte sits up in bed and draws the cover over her upper body; she too is in tears as she convinces Temujin the prophet is a danger. He accedes to them. The scene’s intimacy is called attention to, when Borte has to cover her nakedness. Present are three of the family and perhaps unmentioned attendants.

Intimate in a different sense is Temujin’s arrest of his brother Khazar, previously, on suspicions laid in his mind by Teb Tenggeri. Temujin does not yet see his trust has been abused. Instead his distrust falls upon Khazar; and this causes their aged mother Hoelun to go into a ‘decline’. The Secret History speaks inexplicitly of deaths; in its discreet way it says that her anger and sorrow hasten her into old age; she is not seen again. Temujin is here blamed, to an extent, for his mother’s death, which is extraordinary. In the event he is proven wrong to have arrested and interrogated Khazar, who was innocent; the damage done to his family must include Khazar’s feelings. In the bed scene he allows Temuge the right to kill Teb Tenggeri (this is the practice of execution by the victim of a crime) and they think up a way to do so – Teb Tenggeri being clairvoyant, with other magical potencies, he is not very safe to execute. The prophet is got rid of. Too late for Temujin’s mother, and emotional havoc within the family.

Early in this essay I spoke of painful stories. How painful is this one, to Temujin himself? Can we even conceive of a reason why he would have written down that his unjust treatment of a brother sent their mother into a fatal decline? It is this sort of thing that leads some to speculate the history is told from an anti-Chinggis position.

The Teb Tenggeri episode takes place after Temujin’s instatement as Chinggis Khan in the year 1206. A story of his youth is uncannily, uncomfortably similar: Khazar and he together kill a half-brother, to the great anger of their mother [§74-80]. This tale is told, too. Let us consider how strange it is that this tale is told.

When the mother intervenes in Temujin’s arrest of Khazar, the khan, aged around forty, is ‘terrified, afraid of his mother’; his mother is ‘wroth, in a fury’; Temujin says ‘I am afraid of my mother, being wroth; I am ashamed.’ He ‘withdraws’, daunted by the performance of her anger; but he is unconvinced at this time, and ‘stealthily, not letting it be known by his mother’, he takes away the larger part of Khazar’s private army. Temujin has faced Hoelun’s fury once before; his adult fear may be the effect of memory of the time she castigated them for the half-brother. Temujin was in the wrong both times. In the telling of the early episode, Hoelun is allowed the last word: her verdict is seen to be right. However, I think the text reserves its notes of dissent, in that she never did grant young Temujin and Khazar their reasons – the half-brother’s theft of food, a behaviour they had appealed to her to punish or prevent, before they took this action. The story does give their grounds to do what they did: the retreat in the face of Hoelun’s anger is not an absolute concession.

My conviction is that Temujin contributed his memories, towards the gathering of stories and the writing-down. Chiefly I feel this in the episode from his early life, the killing of his half-brother, his father’s son from another wife. These I find to be traces of Temujin’s memory because of their emotion and mood, as well as because of their lines of sight or perspective. This is not robust evidence. The most mechanical argument is that no other witnesses were left alive after the campaign in North China, when Khazar drops out of the record, presumed dead. But that is circumstantial evidence; I want to listen to the human content that I know the text can hold.

There is the door they ‘flung aside’, as they leave their mother for the last time, having failed to convince her of their case and having pronounced themselves unaltered by her arguments in turn. The flung door was significant in one person’s memory, significant enough to remember and write down. To exit or enter violently is known to be a rudeness, in the Mongol ger (felt tent); it is a sign of anger, and signs of anger were not lightly indulged (the European friars who visited in the 1300s tell us they did not display interpersonal anger). Given the upshot, too, this is remembered in remorse, for they were wrong – as well as rude.

There are the fishes they catch. A fish is the cause of their quarrel, their final quarrel – the half-brother had stolen food before. Prior to the trouble, in a verse passage, the children learn to fish, with hooks they ‘prepare for one another’ by ‘bending needles’; they catch ‘maimed and misshapen fishes’. Note the cooperation of the children, ‘Saying to one another, Let us feed our mother’, equipping each other. Why mutilated fish, defective fish? It does not seem realistic – were the Onon River’s fishes often in this state? A memory of a fish they caught once, one or two – these inexpert anglers with their needles – which they talked about with a rueful laughter, kept alive as either private memory or a family story: the ‘maimed and misshapen fishes’ seems most likely that to me. They are remembered with an emotion I find hard to describe: nostalgic, with a wry humour, and like a fondness for lost innocence. Because this fond memory or family joke, with wry comment on their fishing ability, is inserted before the murder. Before the quarrels and the murder, and after an innocent portrait of the sincerity of their intentions. The innocence beforehand is palpable: they emerge from childhood and decide to feed their mother who has fed them; the urge is called hachi, a word most simply translated here as gratitude. Hachi – the return of like for like – can be active gratitude as well as retribution. They understand they owe their mother for her efforts to find food, described in the same set of verses. There is no mention they want to feed themselves, or even the younger children: the focus remains on the mother, at the tail of a poem that proves her central to their lives. Of course, after the murder, it is the mother, still the centrepiece, who delivers her verdict which a Mongol – and who on earth, among them? – has put into verse for the history. It is the most violent verse in the history, with imagery of her sons as savage or mad animals.

Its imagery – twelve similes in a row – makes it an epic-style speech, like Jamuqa’s flight of the imagination to the Naiman king, if more unusual. Twelve similes: who wrote these for Hoelun? Epic arises as history morphs into legend, as it is told and becomes story – Manas, Alp Aymish are loosely affixed to history. But that cannot be how Temujin’s mother acquired an epic speech in wild, in extreme condemnation of him. That songs of her speech spontaneously arose does not seem possible – that epic-makers chose this subject matter, in Temujin’s lifetime or shortly afterwards. It is either that, or these verses were commissioned for the history. Obviously, it was a scarifying speech for the sons in its original format. She is dead now. She is dead, and let us remember, Temujin stands accused of unwitting contribution to her decline and death.

Who tells this story if not Temujin? It can only be told in remorse. And he has instructed them to include his mother’s speech, in the perpetual memory of verse. We ask why the Secret History was made secret, was later shut away. These raw memories – firsthand, even from Temujin: its content, as I have said before, is extraordinary.

In the case of his arrest of Khazar, post-1206, there were witnesses whose availability at the time of memory collection need not be ruled out: adopted brothers of Temujin, who alerted Hoelun and brought her to the place to prevent his actions against Khazar – we see her drive through the night in a camel cart to reach the scene. As for officers, it sounds as if Temujin himself tied Khazar’s sleeves in arrest, as Hoelun herself untied them. Notice the detail: Hoelun’s night journey, the stance she finds them in; then her speeches, and better than words, she exposes her old breasts where both of them suckled. So too is the killing of the half-brother told in real detail. The victim sits down with crossed legs (what he means by this we do not know – neither did those who watched); his last words are recorded. Only Khazar and Temujin saw and heard this. Either intimates knew these details, or Temujin newly told them for the record.

People knew these things had happened; his children knew. Like Jochi’s origins, they were not openly discussed; like Jochi’s origins, later histories do not mention his early act of murder. In the succession scene Blue Jos explained to Chinggis’ sons how difficult were those ungoverned times. Without firsthand knowledge people may be unfairly judged; even Borte may acquire a bad name – Blue Jos saw this threat – and that was nobody’s intention. The story of Temujin’s ill act in youth is about the difficulty of the situation; there is an explanation, ‘why I was led to this wrongdoing’. Was it better to write these things down, from the bastardy of Jochi to Temujin’s unjust suspicions of Khazar, to what made him kill his half-brother, that children and grandchildren understand the circumstances, in counter to gossip or the simpler truths that might survive in the absence of witness statements?

The history is neither a trial nor a confessional. But internal evidence offers context for a view of these stories as Temujin’s admissions. In its short sequel on the reign of Ogodei, in its last section indeed, the khan looks back upon his khanship and delivers a judgement on it: he lists four deeds he did in aid of his people, and four deeds that were wrongs. This four-and-four construction gives an impression of a traditional act, although we know of no such tradition. Nor do we hear Chinggis Khan voice such a self-assessment. However, if we have heard his voice in the stories of the times he did wrong, perhaps we have an equivalent. Equivalence: Mongol expression had an absolute love of equal-weighted statements, equivalents in balance (like two wheels, a common metaphor) – seen in parallel lines of poetry and in the structure of Ogodei’s statement, four-and-four. There is an argument from pattern, that Ogodei’s addendum ends with a speech from him which equals what his father has said – the bulk of the history being the positives and the negatives of Chinggis’ performance as khan. There is an argument from content: one of Ogodei’s bad deeds is a murder, a killing he secretly ordered, which he now declares ‘a wrong and an error’. No other mention of this killing exists either within the text or without; we have no reason to think it was not newly made known or made public in Ogodei’s voluntary confession. Did he follow in his father’s footsteps, as he did in so much else, when he admitted to a murder?

If nothing else, Ogodei’s self-judgement on his time in office tells us about Mongol expectations for a king. Crimes and mistakes can be spoken of without repercussions – at least, we do not see Ogodei blamed, denounced or otherwise punished. We only have his speech, not comment upon it or consequences. The value lies in the telling; the value lies in Ogodei’s ability to give a fair and true account of himself, to understand which of his acts were ill and which were aid; to be prepared to speak of these in public. We do not know his audience, but obviously, his words were written down.

Whether or not any of this were conscious imitation of his father, Ogodei’s retrospective eye over his kingship is in the spirit of Temujin’s main part of the history, where episodes critical towards the khan almost equal those he can be proud of. There is nothing unMongol about this, and we moderns are probably more startled than we need to be. If Temujin does tell stories against himself, the only clue we have as to his reasons lies in this addendum on the reign of Ogodei his son, in the last word of the Secret History and Ogodei’s most extended speech. Note the importance of this being a spoken admission, from the king’s own mouth: it is his self-awareness on display, it is not others ranged against him with their criticisms of his reign, the king obliged to listen. He is obliged to speak.

We can begin to understand the inclusion of Temujin’s worst stories. When Temujin tells us of his wrongs, that has a value, that can be admired. If he were accused – by the written history, by people – that is quite a different case. The history need not be anti-Chinggis if he has done his kingly duty and rendered his account. If, in short, Temujin himself has contributed his memories, to his own good or ill report. What I did worst; what I did best. If Temujin can retrospectively name his rights and wrongs, in a less ritualised or institutionalised fashion than Ogodei, we come near to the content of the Secret History. At least we have the spirit of it. In Ogodei we see it is possible for a king to contemplate his wrongs, it is not alien to the culture; that Temujin tells stories against himself becomes believable. Ogodei, close in time and space, is the only equivalent we have, to shed light on Temujin’s contribution.

There is a postscript to the tale of Temujin’s bad act; his adult interpretation of the event does not end with Hoelun’s terrible speech. Attached is a grace note. This is a part of his psychological experience, not to be left out when we attempt to determine how he felt and thought about his act of murder. I mean a set of miraculous occurrences in Tergune Wood, where he hides alone from a chief’s pursuit in the episode told next after the murder [§79-80].

Were miracles made up for him? They stand out against the Secret History’s general lack of fantasy. In contrast to Buddhist history-writing that dates from Mongolia’s conversion in the sixteenth century, the Secret History remains unmagical in its storytelling – except where its people themselves believed in spiritual factors and were swayed to act by them, as was the case with Tolui’s death. Temujin’s encounters in Tergune Wood are also an unusual feature – not embroidery where there is a gap in knowledge, for the Secret History simply does not use that thread to embroider. The only similar incident for Temujin is when (perhaps a few years later, perhaps no more than a year) he hides on the Mongols’ most holy mountain from Merqot pursuit, and afterwards believes the mountain has intervened to protect him. He is still in young adulthood when he hides on the mountain; his prayer of gratitude to its spirit reaches back to a childlikeness of expression, lowly in its self-imagery and with frequent mention of his fear (‘my life was as frail as a flea’s’); as his misshapen fishes were childlike and, in the naivety of its telling, the episode of his miracles in the wood.

Young Temujin’s thanksgiving prayer to the mountain he believes has saved him is not, in my judgement, a matter for invention – to make up and put into the khan’s mouth. That mountain was and is a sacred site to Mongols and a presence; Temujin is known from other histories to have kept his vow to give thank-offerings to it every day of his life thereafter. Religiously significant and a relic of the life of their khan, his prayer – as I argued for his messages to Toghrul – is his own words preserved.

Who then is to make up miracles for him – in a history that eschews miracles? Nobody; they come into the report because he thought they had happened to him, because he told his story this way. These personal encounters, these direct spiritual interventions – two of them – are a feature of his adolescence or early adulthood; he does not make a habit of belief in intervention. One may say his religiosity becomes more conventional when he grows up. When he grows up he has a social position and armed human aid, no matter how down on his luck; he is never helpless and alone as in Tergune Wood. He is never again without a place in the world, without eyes on him, in crises without human means to deal with them.

He is not grown up in the wood after the murder. There is no armed struggle against his enemies; he is given chase scenes, not action roles. When a human family decide to shelter him they too quote a saying that depicts him as helpless in himself: ‘If a sparrow seeks shelter from a hawk in a bush, the bush saves the sparrow.’ The saying itself, conserved for us by inclusion in the story, is a scarce glimpse into pre-Buddhist ideas of compassion, in an animist world. So in Tergune Wood, when Temujin begins to walk out of hiding into the hands of his enemies, his saddle straps unaccountably come undone and the saddle dumps itself on the ground; a white rock the size of a tent is thrown down to block his way. What has the wood to do with Temujin? He is a creature in need of refuge, like the bird.

He is quite young, age unknown; the Secret History only begins to give dates in his later life. He has slain a family member and listened to his mother’s tirade; he is being chased by armed men and faces tribal punishment, either because of this killing or just because of who he is. He imagines miracles. What do the miracles say about him? We can call them legendary but they are his legends, I think. If a part of his memories they are evidence towards his state of mind. The invisible help given to him, after his murder and his mother’s condemnation, can be seen as a saving psychological grace. This spiritual interlude is a valuable clue. Memory converted into story first in Temujin’s own head, as he made sense of his young self and what happened to him – the way people do with memories. He made the story, first for himself. We have no overt statement from him on how he thought about his act of murder. We have the story’s constituent memories. He sees signs and wonders in the wood. Whatever he experienced at the time, people do embroider memories of crisis and sort them into sense. The embroidery is his. Whether Temujin felt excused, vindicated or forgiven by the spiritual aid lent him in the wake of his deed of murder, we have to judge as individuals from what is said in the text, the way we interpret a poem, each differently. I make a case for the recognition of his memories, and the use of them to talk about his psychology.

I have not seen asserted that Temujin told us the tale of the early murder he committed. I offer it as a novelist’s logic, although my boldest, I admit. To me it is a construction from clues in the text, but these clues, of course, have to do with psychology and emotion – a novelist’s job; uncertain areas, by tradition, for the historian.

Concluding remarks: The novelist and the historian

Historical novelists are known for an imaginative putting-in; less acknowledged is our rigorous crossing-out. Novel writing is a discipline whereby you have to think through people’s acts and speech to an extent that conventional history writing does not require. To me it seems as much a matter of logic as of anything that sounds more artistic – insight, empathy. Yes, you have to imagine yourself into that place, but this is done in order to piece together a logic and eliminate the illogical. Another word I use is consecutive: you have to eliminate the non-consecutive, and follow a consecutive psychology. Not consistent, because people’s inconsistency is very important. But you cannot have non sequiturs. Do historians deal in non sequiturs? They do not have the same demands on them, and a novelist can find that yes, they do. They are not drilled daily in consecutive psychology, so that what they say of Temujin on page 67 has made a step by step progress from what they said of him on page 23. In matters of people, their activities and their putative intentions, my task is to detect the contradictory in historians’ work: how can this here be said when that there? Novels have to present a consecutive understanding, in slow time, in unforgiving close-up, and this requires a kind of scrutiny the historian need not practice (he can do, if he wishes).

These remarks come from my personal experience, in one area of history. I scarcely hope to convince historians that a creative art has to offer other ways to study a primary source. When I say of an historian’s assertion ‘no, that can’t be humanly right’, I am conscious that my assertion won’t hold water for the historian. Still, we each practice our craft. Mine trains the practitioner to think through the consequences of a statement: is it possible in this situation, is it explicable? One learns in my discipline to exclude what does not make psychological or situational sense; and this I see as a great demand upon a novelist, which historians are not subject to. Once you cross out, you seek a more feasible story. None of this process is not a part of the novelist’s imaginative exercise.

How does this imaginative exercise work? A novel is a reality-simulator. My job is to ask questions as to whether a scenario is psychologically possible, or begins to contradict itself or look impossible when you build it into a simulation of reality. The weak links show up then, the false leads, but sometimes only after months of examination – of watching, of letting it test itself in a true-to-life, real-time setting, like a practical science: does this work, in situ? You apply the piece of history, and see if it thrives, or fails, in your reality-simulator. It is guaranteed that from one seemingly-innocent interpretation, permutations will reveal themselves that you had not considered, that were impossible to consider first off, without the experiment part, by mere proposition. A novel is a machine to simulate a real environment and place those putative stick figures within, and watch if they can live. Whether you have to adjust them. Whether you have to change their features, change their relations so that they operate together in a world of moving, interacting parts, without logical dissonance. A novel is practical or applied history in that way. Certainly a novelist rejects what she finds in a history book when it fails her simulations.

A novelist has a reality-simulator to try out the models in: a large diorama to see if they function with each other, in an increasingly complex world, and over time. Theories can start to look rattly under such conditions, with sustained testing. Theories can exhibit their weaknesses almost at once, or only after weeks or months or years. Then the novelist sees they are impossible – even though they may be written in a history book. It is a different way to test the data. A novelist has to become independent of her historians, in order to test to her different, yet rigorous standards – to hope to construct a world that does, indeed, simulate reality, in art’s way. If she has a certainty because a history book told her so, she might skew her model around it – she needs detachment. Segments from the minds of several historians are not going to work together straight away; they do spark off each other, change each other, and create unpredictable new formations through their proximity and interaction. Which is what readers of histories do; a novelist, in addition, has to make them active, keep up the activity, and it is the moving model that is her sphere of work: an assemblage from many secondary parts that have to cohere into a world, a world in motion. I am strong on the clockwork metaphors and the scientific experiment, not because I have either a mechanical or a scientific bent, but these capture the process for me. The imagination extrapolates, which means logical extension. ‘Consecutive’ and ‘extrapolation’ are two of my basic words about the craft. She must cast off her anchors, even to historians she loves, at a stage when she is ready for the sea, and travel with a critical attitude towards everything that is not of the world she has constructed. That sounds solipsistic and it is: she constructs that world around her like a bubble, like a sealed capsule or a spaceship, airtight: an ecosystem sufficient unto itself, that must work independently, like a planet.

Novels move in slower time than histories, on the whole, closer to the actual time events had to fit. Novelists are almost as interested in what nearly happened, as what did. They can hang a personality on a psychological clue in the text, as they construct a working personality, with each of its attributes and acts kept in mind to remark upon each other – a personality that hangs together, that changes but does not clash with itself, that is music, as differentiated as a symphony can be, but not noise. This becomes a craft by instinct, which is when novelists start to talk of the people in their books deciding for them. When a novelist has for her raw material such changing psyches as Toghrul’s or Jamuqa’s, in a primary source concerned with the psychology of persons, then she feels she is in ideal circumstances. The Secret History has the fascination of being true, while it possesses much of the sensitivity of art, art’s techniques and ability to express. That the makers of the Secret History had the equipment of oral epic, the tools of a well-known trade, but used them selectively – used them in the service of a historical account, to tell truths without fantasy – explains, to me, the work we have in front of us. No part is more valuable than its speeches, its conversations, its portrayals of mental and emotional states, its poetry when put to this employment. A student of the Secret History needs to work with and not against its artistry. It is no use being uncomfortable when things are couched in verse, given that verse was ‘a Mongolian convention of emphasis’ – that is, the most important moments might be versified.

The way history is written can alienate me; on the other hand, there are three times I have felt in perfect harmony with historians’ methodology (that is in the field of Inner Asian history) – as mentioned within this essay: Isenbike Togan; Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hürelbaatar; Peter Perdue. These three times I have become excited to see a historian state a creed – or a method, in less emotive language – which is exactly mine as a novelist. They coincide on the way one has to go about an understanding of the past. If you put them together, you probably have the novelist’s toolkit: so, for historians in the audience, this set of practices can convey what a novelist does. They so express my creed that I wonder where the footnote is: ‘the way novelists practice’.


1. Caroline Humphrey and Altanhuu Hürelbaatar, ‘Regret as a political intervention: an essay in the historical anthropology of the early Mongols’, Past & Present, no. 186, 2005, pp. 3-45.
2. Paul D. Buell, ‘Mongol secrets’, Calliope, vol. 18, iss. 7, 2008.
3. Noreen Giffney, ‘Que(e)rying Mongols’, Medieval Feminist Forum, no. 28, 2003, pp. 15-21.
4. p. 15.
5. I have consulted the transliteration of John C. Street alongside three translations – Francis W. Cleaves, Igor de Rachewiltz, Urgunge Onon – to try to make an imitation in English. Associations of the words I take from de Rachewiltz’s commentary. On cultural understandings of the head and feet, see Sechin Jagchid and Paul Hyer, Mongolia’s Culture and Society, Westview Press, 1979, pp. 150-1.
6. Thomas T. Allsen, Commodity and Exchange in the Mongol Empire, Cambridge, 1997, p. 61.
7. Peter C. Perdue expresses this thrillingly in ‘Fate and Fortune in Central Eurasian Warfare: Three Qing Emperors and their Mongol Rivals’, in Warfare in Inner Asian History (500-1800), Nicola Di Cosmo (ed.), Brill, 2002, pp. 369-405. His major book has been China Marches West: The Qing Conquest of Central Eurasia, Belknap Press, 2005.
8. Isenbike Togan, Flexibility and Limitation in Steppe Formations: The Kereit Khanate and Chinggis Khan, Brill, 1998, p. 125-6.
9. For the Mongols’ ‘consultative political culture’, see Ruth W. Dunnell, Chinggis Khan: World Conqueror, Longman, 2010, p. 101; for the results when the Mongols governed China, see F. W. Mote, Imperial China, 900-1800, Harvard, 1999, p. 493.
10. The text of these stone inscriptions can be found online here.
11. A mash-up of translations by J. A. Boyle, The Successors of Genghis Khan, Columbia, 1971, p. 39 and Wheeler Thackston, Jami’u’t-Tawarikh by Rashiduddin Fazlullah, I.B. Taurus, 2012, p. 224.
12. Thackston, p. 284.
13. ‘Regret’ pp. 24-5.
14. An article that connects well with this essay is Taymiya R. Zaman, ‘Instructive Memory: An Analysis of Auto/Biographical Writing in Early Mughal India’, Journal of the Economic and Social History of the Orient, no. 54, 2011, pp. 677-700.
15. Salman Rushdie, Introduction, The Baburnama: Memoirs of Babur, Wheeler M. Thackston (trans.), The Modern Library, 2002, p. vii.
16. A mash-up of translations; ‘those near, those afar’ is conjectural.
17. Igor de Rachewiltz, The Secret History of the Mongols: A Mongolian Epic Chronicle of the Thirteenth Century, Brill, 2004, p. 429.
18. ‘Regret’; see p. 22 and their last paragraph on pp. 44-55. I recommend their last paragraph, even if read on its own.
19. I continue with the translation by H&H. 'Regret', p. 11.

About the Author

Bryn Hammond was born in Britain but grew up and now lives in Australia. Her imagination was early captured by Anna Comnena’s Turks and Gibbon’s barbarians. Ten years ago she went part-time in her lowly job in Sydney, in order to work on Amgalant. Last year she found Sydney life unsustainable and downsized to the town of Ulladulla, where the rent is cheap and the seaside walks keep her creative. Hammond's acclaimed Amgalant series, which has brought to life the stirring events of Mongol history on the twelfth-century Steppe, can be purchased (in print or electronic form) from her website.

Amgalant One: The Old Ideal

Temujin comes into the world on the day the Mongols suffer a catastrophic defeat in battle. He isn't the hero type, but he has expectations to live up to, and he has a cause: freedom for his way of life, unity against China, where a nomad is an animal.

‘Through great fear have I lived; Through great grace I have my life’ – from Temujin’s thanksgiving to his Sacred Mountain, which he believes has intervened to save him from an enemy. In The Secret History of the Mongols, committed to paper on the death of the figure we know as Genghis Khan, his own words, his own memories can be found. Those of his youth, that was hand-to-mouth and tooth-and-nail – when by his own lights he was least of a hero, but had to learn fast – are particularly vivid.

Amgalant One follows The Secret History step by step, incident to incident, as an unlikely lad grows into his kingly name, Tchingis.

Amgalant Two: Tribal Brawls

‘Shamans flew outside the self in ecstasy. Other people found love, or causes.’ Temujin has had to choose between love and his cause. As Tchingis Khan, he chose the latter. To his amazement his oath-brother marches to war upon him.

It is just the first move in a game of rivalry across the steppe and twenty years. Temujin thinks he has instructions from God to unite the brother tribes. He doesn't want to do this by wars. But brotherly wars are what his God has scheduled for him, until Temujin cannot see an end that is worth these sacrifices.

Sacrifices are said to earn grace. Has Temujin's God a grace for him, or for Jamuqa his oath-brother, who never believed in divine missions and whose fight has cost him dear? Or can they make their own?

Amgalant means unity. In unity is strength – one way or another.


Text copyright © 2016 Bryn Hammond

Cover image adapted from 'The King of Dongdan Goes Forth'.

This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives licence. This licence allows the content to be downloaded and shared with others, as long as attribution is credited to the original. The content may not be re-used commercially or altered in any way, including re-use of only extracts or parts. To view a copy of this licence, visit here.

First published March 2016.

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