Book Review: Genghis: Birth of an Empire

An important moment arrives in Temujin’s life when he spots three riders coming towards his ger. While he is sure that they are enemies, he is unsure if they belong to an advance raid party or if they are just three independent raiders who have come to burn, rape and kill. The 17 year old turns to his mother, Hoelun, for advice. “You have prepared for this Temujin”, she says. “The choice is all yours.”

Temujin decides to fight. But first he sends off his mother and younger siblings to hide while he and his older siblings wait for the men. This is a battle between three  kids against experienced fighters. Few years back Temujin’s father, the khan of the Wolves tribe, was killed by a Tartar raiding party. Following this murder, the khan’s bondsman took over the tribe and expelled Hoelun and the children, leaving them to die in the unforgiving harsh winter of the steppes. 

Surviving without a tribe or the protection of a khan is hard. If the winter did not kill them, a herder would. But they survive by catching birds, animals and fish for food. They also practice with the bow and sword for such a day. But that didn’t help eventually. Temujin was captured and taken to the Wolves camp, humiliated and marked for death. But the man would not die. He escapes, makes it back to his family and starts building a tribe by collecting the wanderers and offering them a family. According to Malcom Gladwell’s Outliers, to be proficient in a skill, you need to put at least 10,000 hours of work. By that measure Temujin had put more than that.

Con Iggulden’s novel — the first part of a trilogy — is about the rise of Genghis Khan and how he unites the tribes of the steppes. One question that is of interest for anyone who has read about Genghis Khan is this: what motivated him to unite the tribes which had been at war with each other for millennia?  There is no direct answer, but a partial one. He sees the Chin envoy using the tribes to cater to their needs. In this specific case, the envoy requests Temujin to join forces with another tribe to take care of the Tartars. A foreigner meddling in the affairs of the tribes, rattles him. Genghis Khan unites the tribes, initially to fight the Tartars and later the Chin. As Iggulden writes in the epilogue, “If Temujin had not come to see the Chin as the puppet-masters of his people for a thousand years, he may well have remained a local phenomena.”

Besides the vision, another important issue was survival. First, he survived the winter, which eliminated the weak. Second important point was luck:  his father’s bondsman could have killed him, but he did not. Even towards the end of the book, there is a scene where the bondsman of another tribe walks into Temujin’s ger to kill him. The khan is drunk and asleep and he could have been easily killed. But the man who came to assassinate was once pardoned by the Temujin and he felt that the debt should be repaid. So he wakes the khan and confesses.

Iggluden’s novel draws a great verbal picture of the life of the steppes where everything belonged to whoever had the strength to take and retain it. Even though they fought each other, relations were cemented through marriage.There were customs — like guest rights — which were followed by all. The horse was man’s best friend: during a battle, the Mongol would nick the vein, drink the blood and patch it with dust and water. Thus during war, no supply lines were required.

From a structural perspective, it would have been boring if the novel only had Temujin’s point of view. Instead, whenever possible, multiple threads are introduced. When Temujin is expelled from the tribe, there is a thread that follows the life of the bondsman who expelled him. There is another thread which follows Wen Chao, the Chin ambassador who is out to manipulate the tribes. When Temujin is taken as captive, we also get to see how his siblings survived. This keeps the excitement flowing, as well adds depth.

Iggluden masterly narrates huge battles. First Temujin starts with simple raids and then expands to capturing various tribes in his ruthless quest for power and revenge.There is a final battle which involves at least four major tribes against the Tartars involving thousands. The archery and maneuverability of his troops as well as their fast riding ability is what won his his battles; a picture well painted in the book.

Segei Borodov’s 2008 movie, Mongol, too dealt with the same span of Temujin’s life. Both these works claim to be based on the The Secret History of the Mongols, an anonymous Mongolian account of Genghis Khan’s life, but they differ vastly. In Bodorov’s movie, the love between Borte and Temujin was the main thread.  Iggulden’s novel is about Temujin’s survival and execution of the vision of uniting the tribes. They differ even on minor points. In the movie, Temujin’s father is poisoned; in the novel he is attacked by Tartars. In the movie, Borte is kidnapped by a rival gang and she spends some time with them before she is rescued; in the novel, she is rescued within a few days. In the movie there is a whole story of Jamukha, his blood-brother which is absent from the novel. Basically both of them have taken creative liberties. We probably need to use Richard Feynman’s concept of multiple histories to figure out what really happened. Or we could read the primary source.

Genghis: Birth of an Empire: A Novel by Con Iggulden, Paperback: 416 pages, Publisher: Bantam (July 13, 2010)