By Dr. Frank Mclynn
Trying to write a comprehensive biography of someone like Genghis Khan may not be the very definition of “doomed to failure” but it's likely as close a metaphor as any. While the Great Khan's life isn't in the dimly lit ancient past from which few contemporary works survive, he grew up on the bloody steppes surrounded by people who in some cases were unaware that learning to read or write was even an option! The Mongols and their various related peoples were in face so lacking when it came to written works that when they started their imperial enterprise... they adopted Uighur script and just paid a bunch of Uighur scribes to do the actual writing (well, until they had a bunch of conquered Chinese scribes to do it). What this boils down to is a lot of Genghis' early life and the life of his parents is based on oral tradition, an oral tradition that is frankly going to be geared towards the glorification of the most powerful and important Mongol man to have ever existed. Some might argue that I'm overstating things when I say important or that I am granting some type of approval. Let me state for the record that being important doesn't make you good or righteous. It just means that you have an undeniable impact on many lives around you and it's undeniable that Genghis Khan did. A note for the review, Genghis is not the guy's name. I am aware of that. I know his real name is Temujin, but the majority of my readers are way more familiar with the title Genghis then they are with the given name. So I will be referring to the Great Khan by his title and not his given name for this review.
All of that said, Frank Mclynn while openly admitting to the difficulties of the project jumps into it with both feet. Dr. Mclynn is a British professional writer and you would be correct in guessing that this isn't his first time at bat. He has been writing biographies and histories since 1981. So, longer than most of the people I know (and a number of you reading this I would guess) have been alive, basically. Among the biographies he's written are ones of Napoleon, Marcus Aurelius, and Carl Jung so he's had a lot of practice at this. Dr. Mclynn is also an academic, having been educated at Wadham College, Oxford, and the University of London. He's also been a research fellow (this is basically a position where they pay you to research things, independently or under the supervision of a Professor for a specific subject, often called a post doc) at St. Anthony's college, Oxford from 1987 to 1988. From 1996 to 2000 he was a visiting professor in the department of literature at the University of Strathclyde. His last academic post was at Goldsmith College of London when he served as professorial fellow from 2000 to 2002. Afterward he retired from academic life to write full time. This is his latest book having been released in 2015.
Dr. Mclynn starts by focusing on Genghis' father, who was a mongol chieftain, but not a conventional one. Instead of leading a group bound by family and clan ties, Genghis' father led a group of freebooters who were bound to him by personal loyalty, his own charisma and shares of loot given to them. While Genghis was very young when his father was killed by his enemies, I think it's pretty clear that his father's style of leadership was deeply imprinted on him. I'll come back to this, but the first point the book makes that isn't often bandied about is that Genghis not only defied the conventional mores of his society but was the son of a man who made a career doing so. The book also spends time with Genghis' mother, who was the person who did the most to raise him. Now we don't have a lot of information on this time period. Although Dr. Mclynn does draw from a source I didn't even know existed, the “secret history” of the Mongol court, written at the behest of the Mongol Khans after their conquests had brought them into the big leagues. This is an interesting thing to find out that the Mongol elites commissioned their own written history and suggests that the sons and grandsons of the Great Khan were trying very hard to ensure their and their people's place in history. However for the most part the secret history appeared to be the writing down of oral traditions and it very much has a political bias in making the Mongol ruling class look good, and Genghis specifically look amazing. Dr. Mclynn will point that out repeatedly in the book and show where there are holes in the narrative and where different accounts don't match up. Which is a point in the book's favor, as Dr. Mclynn does help the reader grasp the idea that the sources, even those written over 600 years ago often have their own agenda's and axes to grind and you need to keep that in mind and double check things when you can and yes, that includes this review series. These reviews after all are nothing more then my opinion.
One thing that every source does agree on is that Genghis was hard to control, even at a young age. An example given in this book (and every other bloody word I've read about Genghis) is Ghengis’ murder of his older brother over a fish. One thing that sets Dr. Mclynn apart from other authors is his providing context to the story. The first thing is that Mongols did not typically fish in those days, in fact it seems that Mongols had a large number of hang ups over water. This would be illustrated later in the laws made by the Mongols (such as never bathing in running water... this could not have helped their smell). Next, we learn that Genghis' brother at this point had made a habit of poaching food that Genghis had caught and eating it himself. Another tid bit is that we learn this was his eldest half brother, his father's son from another wife and a political competitor for what little inherence they could get. With this information, the act of Genghis killing his older brother over a fish becomes less a berserk act of rage and more a calculated act to remove a competitor who had repeatedly tormented him. A calculated murder that Genghis carried out at the age of about thirteen.
It's the providing of context for Genghis' actions and showing the culture that Genghis was operating in that allows Dr. Mclynn to paint a full picture of Genghis Khan: a man who emerged from the margins of his culture and through the use of charisma, political horse trading (sometimes literally), and loyalty bonds as much as through the use of military power and cold blooded ruthlessness, to unite his culture. It's clear that Genghis was driven by ambition, greed and rage but there is also a man who is concerned about his people and wanting to elevate them from a pack of barbarians on the edge of the civilized world to the rulers of all who live. I don't suggest that Genghis was soft hearted or nice; his method of elevating his people did involve the killing, enslavement, and maiming of millions of others to the point of near genocide in some nations after all. What's also interesting is that instead of a thoughtless barbarian who was lucky (this was the characterization of Genghis in some parts of my childhood) we actually see a thoughtful man who carefully and prudently plans his wars. Genghis paid close attention to logistics (a number of would be conquerors could have stood to learn that lesson) and to casualties. After uniting the Mongols for example, he spent years gathering information about Jin China, the empire that ruled the northern half of that nation, and embarked on a number of lesser campaigns to secure his flanks and rear before committing to that titanic struggle. Dr. Mclynn takes us through these campaigns and the logic behind them and shows us the long build up and information gathering that took place before any major efforts. So it becomes clear that Genghis while woefully uneducated was not a man who disdained education or careful thinking before action. This honestly helps explains a great deal of his success, as there are dozens if not hundreds of would be steppe conquers who came before and after Genghis and did not achieve a tenth of what he did. This book really does carry the idea that Genghis was something different even compared to other nomadic warlords.
We also take a good long look at Genghis' sons and at Genghis' favorite generals. Another aspect that's overlooked is the fact that Genghis may have assembled the best team of cavalry generals in history. Some of these guys I think even merit their own books, such as Jebe or Subutai. The story of Jebe alone is like something out of a fantasy novel. Jebe was a warrior in a rival tribe during Genghis' war to unite the steppes, in fact Jebe was one of the guys who came the closest to killing Genghis by shooting him in the neck with an arrow. When Genghis recovered and won the war, he asked who had shot him, and showing the kind of bravery that thrills storytellers, Jebe stepped forward and admitted to it. Genghis took the guy into his household and later made him a general. Jebe would make history by leading one of the longest and most massive cavalry raids in history; leading a force all the way around the Caspian Sea and into the Kievan Rus. Subutai ran away from home at the age of 14 to join Genghis' army. A commoner, he was able to rise to the rank of general. During his service he would command over 20 campaigns, conquer over 32 different nations and fight and win 65 battles. For those of you without a military background, that's pretty much like being the Michael Phelps of warfare. Among those campaigns were the Mongol attacks into Poland and Hungary, events which traumatized those nations for over a century.
The book is thick at over 500 pages and full of information. If there is one flaw here however, it would be Dr. Mclynn's need to insert French phrases every 20 pages or so. Which frankly smacks of showing off and slows everything down when you need to either plug things into Google translate to figure out what the author is trying to tell you or abandon figuring out the meaning of the sentence entirely. Some might argue that I shouldn't hold this as a flaw but I'm going to be blunt. Dr. Mclynn in his own foreword calls the book a popular history. If you're going to write for us plebeian masses, you should stick to the language we actually speak. I've met enough average Englishmen to know that they're not all fluent in French so this really feels like Dr. Mclynn is trying to show off how educated he is, which is a redundant effort when he has written books like this. This also seems to be recurring flaw in some sections of academia unfortunately, which in my view has the effect of limiting the spread of knowledge and information which is frankly sad as it should be their goal to do the exact opposite. But that's not the point of this work.
Genghis Khan is a great historical work that gives anyone interested in reading not an understanding of the accomplishments of Genghis Khan but of the people who made those accomplishments possible and the environment in which they took place. If you're interested in Asia or Central Asia, if you're interested in Genghis Khan, or if you want to take a look at one of the most successful campaigns of conquest in history go ahead and pick up this book. Genghis Khan by Dr. Frank Mclynn gets an -A because I really only have one major complaint with it.
On that note, it is time to go on our yearly vacation, I and hopefully my editor will be back January 13th. Until then, be safe, have fun and enjoy the eggnog! See you in 2017!
This review edited by Dr. Ben Allen