The twelfth-century Steppe brought to life
This week Rounded Globe released Bryn Hammond’s essay on her discipline of historical fiction. Today fellow author John Caviglia discusses Hammond’s historical fiction itself.
Amgalant One: The Old Ideal, and Amgalant Two: Tribal Wars, by Bryn Hammond
These two extraordinary works launch a novelized exegesis of The Sacred History of the Mongols—which recounts the life of Genghis Khan, penned sometime after his death in 1227. Hammond’s initial volumes expand this slender inspiration (fewer than 200 pages in one English edition) to genuinely epic proportions, creating a rich, compulsively readable, immersive work. And as the two novels—totaling about 1300 pages—begin a trilogy, a reader might ask why, and how, Hammond has so amplified the original…
As to the why, it is clear that—Medievalist to the marrow—she is herself enraptured by the Mongols of the time, above all by the fascinating characters in this history of conquest without parallel, rendered “secret” by time and culture, language and abbreviation. Implicit, in the cryptic text she studies, are secrets of the soul embedded in the acts and words, the entwined intricacies of these Mongols’ lives, a tribal psychology she unfolds.
Hammond has exhaustively studied every aspect of her enterprise, and it is upon that ocean of research that her prose effortlessly floats, ensuring that the reader will travel in space and time to the cultural moment. And in that richly elaborated context the Temujin of her text—one day to be known as Genghis Khan—is fashioned into what was prophesied when he was born with a blood clot in his fist. You learn what the Mongols eat (a lot of sheep) and drink (black milk!). You encounter much more about day-to-day tribal life. But, essentially, the novel takes you into the minds of the protagonists…
The reader comes to see Mongols as Mongols saw each other … and the larger world (I got a new take on ancient China, and that wall intended to keep “barbarians” out). And that kind of vision is where much of the action takes place in this essentially psychological work. Interior conflicts…. Interior/exterior conflicts…. Interior monologues…. Interior dialogues…. Plain old dialogues…. And then there are the tribal conferences. Alliance with the Tartars? War? Questions are at the heart of this version of the Mongol enterprise, when the future of much of the world hinged on a shaman’s reading the cracks in a sheep’s scapula. The rise of Genghis Khan was prophesied indeed, but Hammond portrays it as a chancy, supremely complicated and unfolding thing, lived out in the minds of those who—on horseback and in tents—crafted the largest empire known to man.
As the fate of Tchingis Khan continues its extraordinary course in Tribal Wars, the tale expected of a conqueror—his unification of the Mongols (thus the enormous sweep of the steppes) by dint of martial talent, native wit and bloodshed—is well and intricately told. But less expectedly the story of Temujin, conqueror as human being, is brought to the fore. In particular his tortured relationship to his blood brother, lover and erstwhile enemy, Jamuqa, is here deepened, developed, and brought to an ending dramatic, and deeply tragic, as any that I know.
It is not unfair, I think, to state that Hammond’s writing is intimately epic—immense in the necessity of its scope, intimate in the attention devoted to relationships: Tchingis/Temujin and Jamuqa, Tchingis and Borte (first wife and queen), he and his various generals and subordinates, he and his many allies and antagonists…. This, as opposed to the lovingly lingering descriptions of combat stemming from classic epics such as The Iliad, which culminate in modern historical novels depicting medieval war, such as Bernard Cornwell’s. In Tribal Brawls a battle supremely important to Tchingis is depicted in two pages….
Hammond’s portrayal of conquest echoes the intimacy of Elizabethan theater—principal characters on stage, the larger war in the wings revealed by alarums and the tidings of messengers. Not having read The Secret History of the Mongols, I do not know how much of such ‘staging’ she imports. However, she has her own Tchingis say, “Wars are fought in the head, always.” And it seems to me right to have the reader’s attention led to what is personal in this epic, for in the second volume civil war is eponymously depicted, the steppe fighting itself, so to speak (iconically condensed into the lover/enemy relationship of Tchingis and Jamuqa). Such steppe people as Tchingis did not woo, he had to conquer to embrace. Hammond’s Tchingis states: “The whole point of me is freedom for my people.” Tough love, indeed….
As for Hammond’s prose, it is wonderfully her own, rich with word play, sometimes lyrical, at times formal and hieratic, often chortle-out-loud funny, and always dense with resonance. But there’s an aspect to her voice that at first surprised me. Hammond is—could it be gleefully?—anachronistic, both in authorial comments and through her Medieval Mongols, who speak contemporary, sometimes slangy language (British at that … so that I had to look up “ta”). If you are bothered by such anachronism, you will be bothered. As for me—after brief adjustment—I thoroughly enjoyed the read, for Hammond’s writing, nuanced, never usual, is a good in itself. And to me at least, her authorial anachronism suggests a Shakespeare play staged in a radically different time and place, so to convey—bass beat under melodies—that the drama is universally human at its core.
Speaking of surprises, one more thing—I love the strength, depth and wisdom of the women in Amgalant, given a society and a time in which they were a spoil of war.
In sum—as begun—this trilogy is unique and wonderful (though not necessarily easy). Hats off to Hammond for her long, loving and genial discipline.
Header image: ‘The King of Dongdan Goes Forth’. Public Domain.