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I just wrote a memory, ugly, ugly however true, purge it, get rid of it, alas the truth won’t let it go away. Ah, but now a supreme memory floats up, I come up under it like a fish, patient, and slurp it in.
I put myself in harms way in this war-dependent society by claiming to be a pacifist, a Christian pacifist, never mind the truth of those complex concepts, the war machine took me at my word and made sure I didn’t prosper. So: I paid dues. Imagine my surprise when I discovered in the mid-1950s, thanks to Akira Kurosawa, that I loved macho supremo myths, loved them: became addicted, wrote a bit myself. I became such a gourmet that ‘Coop and High Noon lost ground. I was all Mifune.
Never mind, get to the present point. Parents, neighbors, church and school dump “classics” on us, by the time we’re eighteen we think we know a bit of literature, have reliable taste. No, no, now I’ve read a great deal, no longer tolerate terrariums labeled nature. Past fifty, past sixty I’ve read stuff that really pushes the envelope: Wilbur Smith, Conn Iggulden, Bernard Cornwell. (And I know no better than you how many great books never got printed, promoted, never reached a bookstore: or only slightly better than you: ’cause I know my own books!)
Fer instance: Conn Iggulden, Wolf of the Plains, the first of a series on Genghis Khan.
I offer one quick example: the young Mongul who became Genghis was the eldest son of a chief. What Mongul isn’t the son of a chief? or the grandson of a chief? Every other Mongul was a chief, or had been. Every other human, or every third first, second, or third-born male, was the heir of a chief: people used to group in dozens or twenties; not tens of thousands … millions. Today we’re remote from kings, once upon a time kings crowded the landscape.
OK, Genghis was a chief’s son, but the son of a weak chief, fallen on hard times. The father is murdered. By another chief, one who wants to keep the weakened weak.
Every culture has a self-flattering mythology of courage, athleticism, nobility: every group has an actual history of hypocrisy, cheating, kleptocracy; true cultures get forgotten, taken over by straight-faced liars, leave hardly a single fingerprint.
So, a group of bullies, Nazis without the German, Nazis for whom any weak puppy will do as a Jew, smash a weak family, leave it crippled. But they made a mistake, they picked on the wrong weak puppy. The puppy lives, matures: insanely focused, like any tormented prince, on revenge.
The myth shows the hero being reckless; history shows actual warriors being mostly cautious. But not young Genghis. He and his brothers, now mature, wrangle an invitation to the tent of the chief who murdered their father, they go through a ritual of pretending obeisance. Maybe all but Genghis mean it, he doesn’t share his plans with anyone, maybe he didn’t have any plans: kept them secred even from himself, trust no one. Genghis gets close to the chief, the lusted for object of his revenge. He’s in the enemy tent, surrounded by the chief’s warriors, all armed to the teeth. Aggression would be instant suicide: obviously.
But Genghis wasn’t looking for an escape route, he was looking to get at his enemy’s throat, damn the torpedoes. Close, he grabs a weapon, strikes; goes totally calm to receive his own death. Never mind the price, it’s cheap, you get the revenge.
Seconds pass, he’s still alive. A minute passes. The tribe is struck dumb. Never … They never expected … And now Genghis is the chief! The king is dead, long live the king.
Jeez, the Monguls have seen the Christ of their macho: a truly insane killer, a torpedo with no fins and no brakes.
I’m reminded of another favorite accomplishment in fiction: Piers Anthony wrote of a guy, a no good sadistic son of a bitch, who travels to a planet to offer a trade agreement. This planet has a history of torturing ambassadors from the federation. The aliens torture our guy: they poke out his eyes, pull off his fingernails, slice away a molecule of his testes at a time. Finally, he’s left with no sight, no hearing, no taste, no touch, nothing, except maybe he can nod a Morse code. He asks, for the nth time, “Do you accept our terms?” Till now they’ve kept saying “No”. But this time they answer, “we don’t know, that’s up to our grand leader, that’s up to you“!
It turns out that the federation in the past had always tortured the aliens’ rulers: “Trade!” (Cut off a finger). The aliens changed their political system, leaders were chosen from who could withstand the most torture. Our guy is now their pontiff because no one had ever withstood as much torture as he has.
Genghis is chief among chiefs because he at last is a real Mongul.
PS I was poking around the other day and saw that John Milius, a film guy I’d fairly well ignored, had a hand in Conan: a favorite. What I hadn’t realized when Conan came out is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is almost quoting Genghis when he praises hearing the lamentations of the vanquisheds’ women.