History - Better Served By Fiction
   
 

A Review of "Genghis Khan" by James Chambers

Reviewed by Guy Rubin

"Seven hundred years ago a man almost conquered the earth. He made himself master of half the known world, and inspired mankind with a fear that lasted for generations. In the course of his life he was given many names - Mighty Manslayer, Scourge of God, Perfect Warrior. He is better known to us as Genghis Khan."

So begins Harold Lamb's 1928 "Genghis Khan" which, more than seventy years after its publication, remains the best-selling history on the Great Khan. James Chambers' new text is unlikely to unseat Lamb's for the top spot. Not that his "Genghis Khan" is anything but a lucidly written and intelligently organised work: It, like Leo De Hartog's new history ("Genghis Khan: Conqueror of the World", 1999, IB Tauris and Company), vies for a legitimate niche in the book market. For, with the exception of JJ Saunders' 1971 monograph, "The History of the Mongol Conquests", there is no concise account of the rise to world mastery of this nomadic shepherd. Most modern histories of the Mongol Horde are every page as exhaustive as the first Persian chronicles.

And yet one cannot help feeling that with this publication, the marketers have missed their mark. For readers are drawn to the history of Genghis Khan more by a spirit for romance than a dry thirst for fact - witness the enduring popularity of Harold Lamb's out of date but evocative text. Though academic probity inevitably harnessed Lamb's imaginative foray into twelfth century Mongolia, this well-respected British historian clearly sought to identify with Genghis Khan rather than judge him. Lamb's preference for empathy over analysis has maintained the popularity of his history. In so doing, he raised his work to the mythological stature of its demanding subject matter.

It is next to impossible for any short, popular history, whether by James Chambers or Leo De Hartog, to come to terms with the complexities of the tale of Temujin, Genghis Khan - Prince of all Conquerors. Without extensive background information, galloping the reader onto the hostile, Mongolian steppes, any biographical work - historical or fictive - is doomed to be as revealing about Genghis Khan as an arrow is of war. It will do no justice to this Nietzchean figure, who by force of personality united the internecine Mongolian tribes, transformed them into a disciplined fighting force, and built - step by step - the largest ever land-based empire, with a legacy lasting in Moghul India into the eighteenth century.

It is only in approaching the myth of Genghis Khan, that one may glimpse the wounded and sometimes savage human being beneath. Picture this for example: You are a child; your father has been murdered; your bereaved mother and brothers are scratching the barren steppes for food. And tomorrow? Your captors have scheduled it for your execution.

Few people have the misfortune to suffer such tribulations. Fewer still possess the character to defy them. It is a quality of Temujin's greatness that he not only overcame them, but that he learnt from them. It took such a man to raise a disorganised rabble to the heights of the Caesars. That man, understandably, has been mythologised; to some he is a God; to others, His curse.

Either way, you'll not risk meeting him in James Chamber's 128 page history. All you'll find here is a tidy introduction to the consensus history. And like most histories, it does not address the enigmas at the root of Temujin's life: Why, for example, did King Toghril first lend this indigent nomad a 20,000-strong army? Or what happened in the relationship between Jamuga and Temujin to turn them from blood brothers - and perhaps lovers - to mortal enemies?

"The Secret History of the Mongols" - the ultimate reference for such matters - offers elliptic and unconvincing explanations. Ironically, we must turn to fiction for a compelling, if unsubstantiated, alternative. "The Earth is the Lord's" Taylor Caldwell's 1940 novel, though emonizing its hero, makes a fascinating contribution to such imponderables. By tracing Temujin's journey from the terrible crucible of his childhood to his glorious unification of the Mongol tribes, Caldwell provides an intellectually refreshing and unsettlingly credible insight into the figures and issues at the center of this historical drama.

Thus, as readers, we are left with the embarrassing admission that the most popular history and historical novel on Genghis Khan, were both written more than fifty years ago. Though this bears no reflection on scholars of the calibre of Central Asianists like Morgan or Ratchnevsky, popularizing writers such as James Chambers should take note. By limiting their scope to one pre-defined by a marketing guru, they are unlikely to win readers' hearts - especially for so romantic a figure as Temujin, "Mighty Manslayer, Scourge of God, Perfect Warrior. better known to us as Genghis Khan."

June 2000, Chinanow.com

 

 

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