Wolf of the Plains – Vol 1, ISBN: 978-0007201747
Lords of the Bow – Vol 2, ISBN: 978-0007201778
Bones of the Hills – Vol 3, ISBN: 978-0007201792
Reviewed by David Buchbinder, June 2010
I began reading this series with the second volume, Lords of the Bow, because this was the first book I received and was asked to review. I find it awkward, of course, to enter a narrative series in the middle—I feel as though I have arrived very belatedly at a party, long after friendships have been made, bonds affirmed, confidences and knowledges exchanged. I hang about uncomfortably at the edges of the narrative, trying to look as though I were part of the conversation, but feeling a little mystified and often quite shut out of the sharing of memories, ideas and, above all, stories. Often my engagement in the conversation is based on guesswork about what happened at the party while I wasn’t there.
In a sense, however, it was entirely appropriate that I begin with the middle volume: the series is described on the front covers of each book as “The Epic Story of the Great Conqueror,” and one of the rules of epic narrative, as these came to be formulated in antiquity and codified later, was that such narratives should begin in medias res, that is, literally, “in the middle of things.” The Conqueror series lives up to its description as an epic narrative, though its author, Conn Iggulden, has chosen to begin his story at the beginning, rather than in the middle.
As a literary genre, the epic traditionally sweeps grandly through time and space, covering a period of many years and a vast geography. Traditionally, too, it unfolds the story of a nation’s birth and coming to maturity. Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (eighth or ninth century BC), and Virgil’s Aeneid (first century BC) provided the models for later epic narratives in the West, though epic poetry, in particular, was to be found in many cultures across Europe and Asia. Indeed, Homer’s two epic poems were originally recited by bards; it was only later that these were transcribed for posterity’s sake. Virgil’s account of the founding of Rome out of the ashes of Troy is a much more self-conscious, deliberately literary imitation of the Homeric works, which detail the Trojan War (Iliad) and the return home to Ithaca of King Odysseus and his men, though in the end Odysseus is the only one to survive the journey (Odyssey). Such epics often focused on the identities and deeds of great men and heroes, lesser figures (including women) playing only supporting roles.
Later epic works in verse include the Italian poet Dante Alighieri’s allegorical Divine Comedy (written 1308-1321, and originally bearing the title Commedia, or “Comedy”); and the English John Milton’s poem Paradise Lost (first published in 1667): both were concerned with questions of Christian belief and behaviour. John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress from This World to That Which Is to Come (1678) is also a Christian epic, but written in prose.
The nineteenth century rediscovered the epic form, this time largely in prose: for instance, George Eliot’s Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life (published in serial form 1871-1872, it appeared in a single volume in 1874) is arguably an epic narrative about English village life, and thus departs from the generic tradition of epic narrative as recounting the great deeds of great personages. The Russian writer Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace (serialised from 1865-1867, and published in a single volume in 1869) uses the epic form in prose to tell a detailed story about the invasion of Russia by the French under Napoleon, and the effects of the war on Russian society, especially on the aristocracy.
In the twentieth century, the epic began to appear in film form, most notably with D. W. Griffith’s silent film The Birth of a Nation (1915), whose very title marks it as an epic. It was severely criticised for its positive representation of the Ku Klux Klan—indeed, its alternate title is The Clansman); and Intolerance (1916), which sought to correct the charge of racism levelled at both The Birth of a Nation and Griffith himself, is another film work in the epic style. Some epic narratives, of course, appeared both in novel and film form, Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind (1936) being a prime example. Her account of the Civil War and its effect on the South, focusing on the O’Hara family, particularly Scarlett , and the family plantation and house, Tara, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1937, and was made into an Academy Award-winning film in 1939. Nor should we forget the appropriation by fantasy fiction of the epic narrative form, for which J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings provides the model (published 1954-55); nowadays, it is rare that a fantasy narrative appears in fewer than three volumes, as authors vie to produce large epic works that will hit the bestseller lists.
Iggulden’s The Conqueror series, then, belongs to a venerable tradition. However, it is an epic that focuses, not on a national figure, like Homer’s Odysseus or Virgil’s Aeneas, nor on an archetypal figure (“Man”), as in Milton or Bunyan, or even Dante (though Dante’s archetype is called “Dante” in the poem), but rather follows the life of Genghis Khan and his phenomenal conquest of much of Eurasia. Genghis’ date of birth is uncertain—Wikipedia gives it as c. 1162—while we know that he died in 1227. He succeeded in uniting the various independent Mongol peoples under a single supreme Khanate, and led this group (or horde) to victory against a number of countries and peoples, including the powerful Xia and Jin (“Xi Xia” and “Chin,” in the Lords of the Bow) kingdoms, as well as the increasingly dominant Muslim principalities farther west. Had Genghis not died when he did, it is quite likely that both the history and culture of central Europe and possibly also of western Europe might have looked quite different.
Wolf of the Plains recounts the earlier part of the life of Genghis, at this stage known as Temujin, a son of Yesugei, the Khan or leader of the Wolf clan on the Mongol steppes. It details Temujin’s resentment of his older brother Bekter, arrogant, quick to anger and hasty of judgement, yet destined to succeed to Yesugei as Khan of the clan. Partly through his father’s lack of judgement and partly through Bekter’s attempts to oust his younger brothers as of any account in their father’s eye, upon Yesugei’s death, through his betrayal by his wife’s clan, Yesugei’s family are cast out of the Wolf clan by Eeluk, the old Khan’s ambitious and self-seeking adviser and right-hand man. Struggling to survive with his family in the harsh northern plains of Mongolia, Temujin, having killed Bekter because the latter proves more a liability than an asset, gradually welds together a new clan from the various outcasts, exiles and wanderers they encounter. In time, the young warrior imposes his will on the other clans, bringing them together as a united force against the Tartar threat. By the end of the first instalment of this narrative, Temujin, who will take the name of Genghis, is set to become supreme Khan over the unified clans, each of which has its own interests and alliances.
Lords of the Bow follows Genghis’ welding together into a single horde the many different groups, with their differing political, military and economic ambitions, as well as their variations of culture and attitudes toward such things as philosophy or other intellectual accomplishments. The novel details his destruction of Xi Xia, and his provisional triumph over the Chin empire (provisional, in that the 7-year-old newly ascended Son of Heaven warns Genghis that when he attains his maturity, he may seek revenge for the Mongol’s humiliation of both the Chin empire and its emperor). It also follows the fortunes of Genghis’ three brothers, the politically savvy Khachiun, the born warrior Khasar, and the more scholarly Temuge, who prefers administrative duties to battle. The novel traces also the story of the shaman Kokchu, self-interested and shady in his ambitions. The shaman becomes, for a time at least, tutor to Temuge, who desires above all to learn.
Bones of the Hills brings the story of Genghis Khan to its close, in this volume focusing on Genghis’s westward aspirations of conquest, through Central Asia and the north of India to the Caspian and Black Seas, threatening the Muslim Middle East and coming very close to the Byzantine Empire. Whereas in the first volume it was the other Mongol clans and their Tartar enemy who were to be subdued by Genghis, while in the second it was the Imperial Chinese, in this volume Genghis is concerned to reduce the Muslim threat to his own power, and pursues the Arab Shah Ala-ud-Din (a name that we know from various versions of the 1001 [or Arabian] Nights as “Aladdin”) and his sons, including the eldest, Jelaudin, who succeeds his father on the latter’s death while on the run from the Mongol horde. The earlier antagonism between the brothers Temujin and Bekter is replayed among Genghis’s sons, as the capable Jochi is alienated from his father because the latter is convinced that Jochi is not truly his own son but rather the offspring of a rape suffered by Genghis’s wife, and the arrogant and self-serving Chagatai is promoted as Genghis’s probable successor. However, Chagatai oversteps the mark and Genghis’s youngest son, Ogedai, is the one whom Genghis names to take the oaths of fealty from the Mongol people. The story is left open-ended, with Ogedai eyeing Tsubodai, his father’s trusted general, with a view to avenging the death of his loved and admired brother Jochi, executed on the order of his father Genghis, in order to prevent a possible split in allegiance among the Mongols when the disaffected son decides finally to leave his father’s horde.
The action is fast-paced, and the writing stylish, spare and gripping, carrying the reader along with the turns and twists in the story. Iggulden does not indulge in long, detailed, baroque descriptions of exotic landscapes, peoples or customs: rather, he provides the reader with as much information as is necessary to form an image relevant to the events in that part of the narrative. I have no idea how accurate Iggulden’s descriptions of the mountains of Mongolia, the Gobi Desert or the Chinese landscape of the twelfth to thirteenth century might be; but they are fairly persuasive, as are the cadences and diction of the languages employed by the Mongols and their antagonists. There is a fairly lengthy endnote detailing the information that Iggulden drew upon for the novel, and also where he departed from the researched data for novelistic purposes.
The Conqueror series is, in short, a good read, though more likely to appeal to male readers than female ones. Though women do play a part in this long narrative, it is chiefly a subordinate supporting role, and by and large they are limited to their functions as wives, mothers, objects of sexual desire, and victims of male power. Ideologically unreconstructed male readers, therefore, are likely to view this narrative fairly nostalgically. (I should note, too, that despite the quality of Iggulden’s writing, I found reading all three novels seriatim a bit of a slog; on the other hand, I would not advise leaving to long a gap between readings of each novel, since one is likely then to forget the many and various—and often complex—identities and relationships in this story.)
Iggulden’s website indicates that he plans to write three more volumes in this series, on Genghis’ sons and his grandson Kubla Khan. (Some readers of this review might be reminded that Kubla Khan provides the theme for Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem of the same name. Perhaps the most cryptic of his poems, “Kubla Khan” was based on a dream that Coleridge had, and he was interrupted notoriously in his composition of the poem by “a person from Porlock,” so that—at least as Coleridge tells the story—the poem was never completed.) Whether Iggulden will continue The Conqueror Series into the three projected volumes with the same intensity and aesthetic control remains, of course, to be seen. But I hope he does.