Amgalant One: The Old Ideal

by Bryn Hammond

Published 2012, 540 pages,

Reviewer: Dai Davies

Once a great grey wolf, his fur touched by blue like a cloudy sky, 

wooed a doe, ochre like a steppe horizon.

So starts this epic tale of the Mongols' quest for freedom and unity – amgalant – and the life of Temujin who was to become Genghis Khan. Hammond's story is a fictional rendering and interpolation of the Mongols' own version of their origins, The Secret History of the Mongols, written in the early thirteenth century shortly after the Khan's death. 

Cleaves's English translation of the Secret History starts: ‘There was a bluish wolf which was born having [his] destiny from Heaven above. His spouse was a fallow doe.’ The comparison gives an insight into Hammond's style that adds a fluid and engaging complement to her detailed research into Mongol life. These opening lines also frame the journey of the Mongols from wild brawling tribes to a unified herd.

This work, still incomplete at four books in two volumes, expands the two hundred plus pages of Cleaves's translation to over a thousand pages and rising. The narrative voice is modern which to my mind, perhaps paradoxically, adds an authenticity that would have been undermined by any attempt at faux-native. So far I have completed the first volume, The Old Ideal, stopping only for food and sleep. The beginning was a bit like parachuting into a Mongol camp with an interpreter – a big jump. It took a while to adjust and I never really managed to keep track of all the names of people, things, and places – but I'm used to that.

As might be expected, there is plenty of action and adventure in this story along with heroism and treachery, love and hate, abysmal suffering and good times, but what captivated me was the apparent realism of the depiction of Mongol society, of daily life and the characters themselves. We see a society that once upheld principles of honour and the rules of the steppe now disrupted, taxed, brutalised and enslaved by its neighbours, growing desperate for freedom and independence – a common plight in human history. 

The Secret History projects the realism and objectivity of its authors who, it seems, felt no particular need to embellish or boast. Bryn (a reclusive house-mate many years ago when she was writing Space Opera for the pre-internet Zine scene – mechanical typewriters etc. – real Indie cred here!) – as I was saying, Bryn maintains this objectivity leaving aside the controversial nature of her subjects and keeping to the spirit of the original text which has been used for centuries as a textbook of Mongol culture. 

We see a culture built on the pragmatism of survival but proud of a deep tradition that recognised the need for peace, freedom, and care for the natural world that supported them: ‘We don’t clog and cumber ourselves with baggage and belongings, neither do we rifle the flesh and bones of the earth, rip her up and scar her’, but their grip on the Old Ideal had become tenuous. This is illustrated early on with the story of a man, exiled and alone but for a bird of prey as companion and hunting partner who, adapting the world-view of the Falcon, has no compunction about creating conflict by stealing horses. This represents a low from which we move, eventually, to unity and peace. 

It's a long journey. Temujin's father is murdered at a travellers' rest site – traditionally a safe haven. His mother is exiled to the fringe of Mongol society and lands to bring her children up alone under the harshest conditions – a skilled survivor. He kills his brother in a dispute and later ends up going to war with his childhood friend and blood brother Jamuqa who tries to use fear to unite the tribes. In contrast, Temujin shows clemency even to Jamuqa, demonstrates religious and cultural tolerance and insists on appointment by merit rather than traditional hierarchy. 

The final pages of The Secret History detail the establishment of the institutions of state, such as a postal system and social welfare: ‘to bring forth one [sheep] of one year old from a hundred sheep and to give [it] unto the poor and needy is good’. He well understood what it was to be poor and needy. By rejecting fear as a cohesive force he set a gold standard for civilisation. How many modern societies can claim to have achieved this? 

It seems to me that The Secret History has been widely accepted as an authentic biography of Temujin with detail and intimacy that demand that it be viewed, in part, as autobiographical. The ‘secret’ in the title is understandable when you contrast its contents with the successful and enduring public image he created for himself as Khan: submit to me and be spared – resist me and die. He understood the destructive nature of fear and wasn't averse to instilling it in his enemies.  

Hammond avoids political analysis and judgements but I feel no such constraint. From the little I previously knew of this character and his life the phrase ‘to the right of Genghis Khan’ stood out. Knowing a little more about this flawed, torn and reluctant hero and his world I now find that statement quite odd. He was a socialist by any definition. To place him within the modern political landscape would have him as New Left in the sense of Saul Alinsky and others who rejected the quasi-religious dogmas, hymns and tracts of Marxism and replaced them with one word: ‘organise’. 

Mongol legends had prepared them: 

From her quiver Ulun Ghoa drew five arrows and gave one each to her sons. ‘Can you snap them?’

They arched their brows, snapped the shafts like twigs and waited puzzled with the pieces in their fists. 

She drew another batch of five, and this time tied them into a truss. ‘Now can you snap them?’

In order of age they tried, and strained. Badger-armed Bol gave up with a grunt. ‘That is beyond our strength, mother.’

Her pot had boiled while they wrestled with the arrows”

The problem, as ever, was that taking the lid off a pressure cooker too quickly can have explosive results – the ‘reign of terror’ in France through to the ‘killing fields’ of Kampuchea. But there may have been more to the subsequent story of the Mongols. They might have fitted another category of the modern political lexicon: climate refugees. The fecundity of the Medieval Warming Period was ending and the north was starting its slide towards the Little Ice Age. They did as northern nomads had always done – followed the sun and deer south, trekking into the history books and mythology of my own culture. Many died, but the degree of carnage is exaggerated. The high figures – tens of millions – are inferred from population estimates spanning a time when historical records describe repeated crop failures, famine, and plague in a cooling climate.

If Hammond can complete this epic as she has started, it should earn a place among our great literary works either as a detailed and entertaining insight into the boundary between nomadic and sedentary societies – our common human heritage – or as a cautionary tale of repression, freedom and amgalant.