August 06, 2015


Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy. By Frank McLynn. Da Capo. $32.50.

     The Daesh death cult, which insults the prophet Mohammad and demeans all of Islam by referring to itself as “Islamic State,” is far from the first murderous group of thugs to have embarked on conquest in the name of its stated religious beliefs. For that matter, the thugs themselves – thuggee, who were sometimes Hindu, sometimes Muslim, and who flourished in India from the 14th to the 19th century – were not conquerors at all, but mere highwaymen relying for their livelihood on articles stolen from travelers that they killed after gaining their confidence. Yet the Daesh murderers and thuggee killers combined could scarcely hold the proverbial candle to the conquests and destruction wrought by Genghis Khan (1162-1227), a greater conqueror than Alexander the Great or Napoleon, a greater mass murderer than Hitler or Stalin, described in Frank McLynn’s book as “a ruthless, practical and pragmatic man, obsessed with war and conquest, totally unscrupulous in his pursuit of power, energetic, discerning, shrewd, charismatic, awe-inspiring, just, resolute, intrepid, implacable, sanguinary, a cruel butcher, generous and affable with his trusted friends and chosen ones but peevish, suspicious, jealous and even malevolent to all outside his magic circle. He claimed to be above all conventional religions as he was his own shaman and could converse both with [the primary Mongol god] Tengerri and with demons.” Such a man requires the most substantial possible biography, and McLynn gives him one that resoundingly demonstrates how intricately fascinating history can be.

     Sumptuous, erudite and stylish, careful to rely on often-contradictory primary sources when any such exist from so remote an era, McLynn’s Genghis Khan is a sweeping 650-page trek through times and peoples whose very names sound like the stuff of legend: Karakorum, Khwarezmia, Khorasan, Khitai – and those are just some among the K’s. The times of which McLynn writes were ones of tremendous ferment, little known to or studied by many who think only of the “dark ages” of Europe when contemplating these centuries. Genghis Khan’s empire came within Europe and was in contact with Europeans, but for the most part it was an Asian empire. McLynn is quite comfortable writing of Asia in a way that treats great and long-lasting events in a fraction of a paragraph: “In the eighth century the Tang emperors prohibited Buddhism but allowed the preaching of Christianity, at least until in a change of mind in 845 the Tang decreed Christianity to be illegal, alongside Buddhism and Manicheism. These two survived the onslaught better than Nestorianism, and in places there was a fusion or syncretism of Buddhism and Manicheism. Christianity declined seriously in the Liao and Jin dynasties, only to enjoy a spectacular revival when the Mongols conquered China and established the Yuan dynasty; it proved a fragile flower, however, and wilted rapidly under the Ming dynasty after 1368.”

     Against this sort of backdrop, McLynn vividly tells the story of the life of Temujin, the man who would later be called Genghis Khan: his early years, his early defeats, his “lost years,” his return, his ascent to enormous power, and his unparalleled success in battle after battle against nearly always numerically superior enemies – leading to his eventual establishment of the most far-reaching empire the world has ever known, which gained its fullest extent only after his death, through the efforts of his descendants and heirs. The sheer amount of detail about Genghis’ campaigns is astonishing, the descriptive prowess of McLynn when it comes to battles and geography and personalities of warriors amazing. There are many, many names here, and readers must be prepared to immerse themselves in unfamiliar nomenclature as well as geographical references: “Meanwhile on the upper Irtysh Genghis took stock of his position and reviewed his strategy. In his retinue were Qulan, his favourite wife, his sons Tolui, Chagatai and Ogodei, and all his important generals and advisers except for Jebe and Jochi, already engaged on the western front, and Muqali in China; the most important personality of all may have been Subedei, who acted as Genghis’ chief of staff and is usually credited with the brilliant strategy used against the shah. (The government of Mongolia had been left to Genghis’s brother Temuge.)”  This is a lot to follow and lot to swallow, but McLynn proves a sure and faithful guide, never downplaying the enormous brutality of the Mongols – the pyramids they made of the skulls of their enemies are an enduring image associated with them – but resolutely refusing to judge Genghis and others of his age by modern standards. The result is a feeling of reader participation, from afar both geographically and in time, in an immensely thrilling and terrifying historical movement whose importance, positive and negative, continues to stir debate.

     McLynn does his best to provide levity on occasion, when the context of the events makes it possible: “The two soon exemplified the old adage that the only fun in war is to be had from fighting your own side.” He accepts the difficulties he undertakes in this story: “The history of Genghis Khan and the Mongols can sometimes seem no more than an endless recital of massacres with pyramids of skulls.” And he fully understands how difficult it is to pin down facts relating to Genghis’ time period: “The hottest topic involving Genghis Khan and the Mongols is their responsibility for worldwide fatalities in the forty years or so after 1206. There is the wildest divergence here and although balance is necessary, it is hard to attain.” Yet given all the insurmountable difficulties attendant upon an extensive and detailed account of an age about which accurate information is impossible to come by, McLynn does a first-rate job of assembling what is known, making the best choices possible among various interpretations, and stating forthrightly that matters are confused or unknowable when that is the case. The result is a biography-cum-history that has the feeling of truth – along with its heft – even when elements of the truth are forever unknowable.

     There are a few stylistic irritations in McLynn’s writing that hamper what is otherwise free-flowing prose. He likes to use and reuse certain phrases: “needless to say” in succeeding paragraphs on pages 377 and 378, for example. Or, in another instance, in discussing Genghis’ predecessor Qaidu (ca. 1050-1100), McLynn colorfully writes that Qaidu “bequeathed to the Mongols a poisoned chalice in the shape of bitter feuding between the two principal clans” (page 26) – only to state, 350 pages later, that Genghis’ own decision on his successor, Ogodei, meant that, “If ever there was a poisoned chalice, it was here.” Furthermore, things will scarcely be as obvious to the reader as they are to McLynn after all his research: “The obvious starting point is the twenty-three-year war Genghis waged in Jin China” (page 496) and “The two obvious analogies for the Mongol invasion of 1211-1234…” (page 498) are by no means as obvious to readers, even those who have worked their way carefully all through the book, as they are to the author.

     Setting these relatively minor elements aside, Genghis Khan is a book that, to cite the, ahem, obvious cliché, makes history come alive. Not even Julius Caesar, or for that matter Rome at the height of its power, commanded an empire as great as that of the Mongols, whose utter ruthlessness, combined with their success in creating new forms of warfare, brought them, under Genghis’ leadership, to the command of lands stretching through almost all of Eurasia. It is impossible to read McLynn’s book without stopping at some point, or multiple points, in awe and wonder at the admixture of daring, terror, generosity, viciousness, and overall complexity both of the Mongols’ campaigns and of the man who spearheaded them and became the greatest conqueror of all time.

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