This is the first in a blog series, the purpose of which is not only to spotlight an author’s work, but, in a dialogue between myself and the author, to illustrate the variety of ways the techniques of writing can be used, and how styles differ. My first guest is Bryn Hammond, author of Amgalant, historical fiction based on the Secret History of the Mongols, which is is the oldest surviving literary work in the Mongolian language. It was written for the Mongol royal family some time after the 1227 death of Tchingis Khan (Temujin). Bryn has chosen to discuss how she used poetic speech, homely metaphor, and lively conversation in her work.
This is going to be about Amgalant, my main work – my life’s work, though I potter with other things.
I call my historical fiction a ‘close reading’ of the Secret History of the Mongols. More than a source, the Secret History is my original, and I want to imitate its features – not merely its content. Early on, I confronted the fact that I had one major difference from most historical fiction: that I am text-based, text-to-text, not trying to re-create history as such but to give a version of a story already told. In search of a model or template, I looked to T.H. White and Malory. White’s Once and Future King riffs on Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, quotes Malory, talks to him and about him. That was me and my text. I was after a deep fidelity, and yet room to be myself – as T.H. White does not shy from idiosyncrasy of style or interpretations that are meaningful to him. My aims often felt like a contradiction, but as my Temujin says once, ‘Contradictions, when they work, generate much heat and light, or else they blow up in your face.’
Topic: poetic speech
In my first excerpt, young Temujin composes a message to his anda – a friend with whom he has exchanged blood, where resides the soul. His anda too has suffered at the hands of the king who has stolen Temujin’s wife. This is Temujin’s request for Jamuqa to join him in a war of rescue.
Simplest leaves least to go wrong, he thought, and he stitched together a few simple verses. Verses, for formal wear. And when underway he found that verses gave him a truer language, truer to his emotion, that was only flagrant in daily felts and furs.
They have cut the liver from my side.
How our fates, my anda, coincide.
Can we right the wrong?
We feel each other’s injury:
Your wound bleeds my blood and mine bleeds yours.
My other self, can I avenge you?
Can you comfort me?
It was his first draft, but he didn’t fiddle.
I feel strongly that I have to use as much poetic speech as does the Secret History, or else I belie the rich oral culture of the Mongols as well as the techniques of my original. The Secret History itself gives much weight and space to the spoken word. I am dialogue-heavy, but only in equivalence to my original. The Secret History marks significance by turning a speech into poetry, but it also reports people’s own poetic speech. People use this particularly when they need to be ceremonious, or courteous, or emphatic, or heartfelt.
Now, Temujin grows into a great ability with words. Here he is young and gauche and not used to formal communications. It is his first go at a message in verse. I had to make him heartfelt, I had to make him sound first-drafty, spontaneous, yet suggest he has a knack for this.
I took the opportunity to explain, through his experience, the value of talking in verse from time to time. Of course, the challenge is not to be off-putting to a readership who doesn’t burst out into verse, who might tend to see verse as stilted, as the opposite of spontaneous and heartfelt. I have to convince readers that the Mongols, in a culture of oral poetry, could slip into poetic speech with facility and no loss of genuine feeling.
“No loss of genuine feeling.” – or maybe a way to express deeper feelings, or perhaps more subtle ones? The use of ‘flagrant’ in verses gave him a truer language, truer to his emotion, that was only flagrant in daily felts and furs is an interesting choice – I think of ‘flagrant’ as meaning ‘blatant’, or even ‘over-the-top’, so I read this as an indication that verse allows him to convey a more nuanced, truer emotion.
The use of avenge/comfort in juxtaposition – I think Western perceptions of Mongol culture (as a warrior society) would expect ‘avenge’ but not ‘comfort’. The cognitive dissonance for the Western reader here speaks to our own preconceptions, but what does it reveal about Mongol society?
My last comment on this section is that the use of verse here in formal (courteous, ceremonial) context is reminiscent of Shakespeare, where nobles speak in verse but commoners do not. Did you consider that at all?
With ‘flagrant’ I wanted to suggest an extravagance of emotion, that might have seemed too much to talk about. Verse gives him permission to feel as much as he feels, and say so. ‘Comfort’ I chose with great care, aware that it subtly undercuts preconceptions about the Mongols. I can say the same of hundreds of other choices I made.
There’s a word, ‘hachi’, important to the story from the start, because a khan before Tchingis, captured and tortured by China, sends a message back to his people in which he asks for ‘hachi’ – a message Tchingis cites as motivation when he strikes at China over thirty years later. If you’ve read a history on the Mongols you’ve probably seen ‘give me my hachi’ translated simply as ‘avenge me’. Now, my interest in revenge as a motive, whether I’m reading or writing, hovers around zero. So I’m going to look closely at that word, and I’m going to give you more shades to its meaning. I have Temujin’s grandfather think about the word when he hears the captured khan’s message:
Hachi means that which is owed, or felt due. It can mean an act of humanity. It can mean vengeance. It meant justice.
The word occurs in the Secret History for both gratitude and revenge. That’s nothing if not juxtaposition. ‘Hachi’ became one of my most beloved words to use – one I leave untranslated, because my reader has grown familiar with its cluster of meanings.
There is a strong tendency to translate things, understand things, believe things as per our preconceptions. When I began to write about the 13th-century Mongols, back in 2003, I had to dismantle the preconceptions in my own head. That wasn’t a short or easy process – it took real vigilance, self-examination, again and again stepping back to question.
On Shakespeare – I am a Shakespeare-head. I am certain he helped teach me how one talks in verse, or how verse can be a cadence in more ordinary speech, when the culture is steeped in it. The noble/commoner split doesn’t map onto the Mongol situation, at least in my telling (everything about the Mongols is contested, everything).
Topic: homely metaphor
My next excerpt is Temujin as Tchingis Khan, a king, fifteen years later. He has been caught listening to what his companions are saying about him.
Laughingly he called across to him, “Ile Ahai, you have your hare by the ears. I listen to learn, to learn what you make of me, for you are one of my principal makers. You make very much, but I shan’t be cowed, neither embarrassed. For my task is a joint labour and whereas Temujin is me, Tchingis is us. Mine is the sack, yours is the milk poured in; Tchingis is stood by the door with the churn in his neck and together we try to beat him a thousand times a day, and whenever we step in or out we lend a hand.”
To help write Temujin’s turn for homely metaphor, I admit I thought of Jesus’ parables in the Bible, that use a humble subject matter. Temujin’s style as a king is humble and common, but a gift for speech is among his greatest assets. So this is one of Temujin’s little parables, based on a homely subject: the process of churning milk into the fermented drink ayrag. It is spoken to his inner circle, and involves them in the Tchingis project, in his kingship.
Metaphor is much used in speech acts recorded by the Secret History – and other Mongol histories. Sometimes, at a critical moment, people have expressed themselves by a metaphor whose context is lost to us, and we can’t make sense of what they say. My challenge is to keep my English-language readers familiar enough with Mongol daily life that I can use those metaphors drawn from humble things, without the clunk of an explanation in (figurative) brackets. To work, this piece of speech has to have the casual references to ayrag-making and -drinking through the few hundred pages before it.
The concept of the separation of Temujin from Tchingis – the individual vs. the role really struck me (perhaps because I am writing a character in a similar situation.) The ‘homely metaphor’ works really well here to delineate this separation of person from position, and using the Mongol analogy brings it into its context beautifully. Which came first, the references to ayrag-making and -drinking in the previous pages, or the metaphor?
The lost metaphors: I couldn’t help but be reminded of the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode Darnok, where Picard is trapped on a planet with an alien captain who speaks a metaphorical language (from his own culture) incompatible with the universal translator. I don’t know if that means anything to you, but while (of course) it was easily solved, there are other examples in the Scandinavian sagas and perhaps even in Old English where we don’t understand the metaphors, concepts lost to time and change. It also brings to mind Robert MacFarlane’s book The Lost Words, which came about because of the loss of words related to nature in the 2007 edition of The Oxford Junior Dictionary. How much, do you think, are the lost metaphors due to cultural change separate from the evolution of language?
Which came first? Daily life, always. Then it is there when you need it – waiting to be picked up in a metaphor.
I loved that Star Trek episode – particularly because those metaphors were drawn from a body of epic story. And then Picard recites from Gilgamesh to the alien! – my heart.
So yes, I think a lot of the loss is down to lost story, lost anecdotes. Most unfortunately, the only survivals of the oral story-world that Temujin lived in, pre-writing, are snippets extracted for use in other contexts. We know there was a wealth because of the Secret History’s ease of reference, as well as by analogy to the vast and wondrous world of Turkic epic, that began to be recorded from medieval times on because of its proximity to writing cultures.
Topic: lively conversation
Back to young Temujin for my third excerpt. He faces a circle of experienced companions-in-arms, who laugh – or try not to laugh – at Temujin’s naivety over the size of armies mentioned by his patron the khan of Hirai.
Grey-tailed Jungso of Noyojin started to effervesce silently and couldn’t stop. Others, two or three of them, told him, “Jungso. Jungso, don’t be uncouth.”
“I’m not,” he effervesced. Then he claimed, “I’m laughing at the khan of Hirai.”
“Fair enough, too,” declared Jirqoan of Oronar. “It helps when people are precise in military matters. Tumens,” he addressed to Temujin, “you can bet your bottom goat, is here imprecisely used.”
Temujin turned student-like to him. “A tumen doesn’t mean ten thousand?”
Bisugat, next to Jirqoan, answered. “In a fat year, like a cheese. Cheeses shrink in a lean year, but we still call them a cheese.”
It is an often-acknowledged truth that the real hero of the Secret History of the Mongols isn’t Tchingis Khan but his companions. I do a lot of group conversations to convey the input of the group. This means I have cast members who have one line, but I still want them to feel alive, like individuals.
One reason I chose the Secret History of the Mongols is its wonderful exchanges of speech. That suited the writer that I am. In historical fiction, the danger is that speech becomes stiff and stilted, in part because our slang isn’t theirs, in part because we often hear them through paperwork and not everyday speech at all.
The group conversations convey the richness of the oral culture and the importance of individuals within it.
I loved ‘bet your bottom goat’ because I as an English-speaker of a certain age and time expected ‘bet your bottom dollar’ and that it wasn’t that familiar phrase reminded me very sharply that this was a different time/place/culture. Was that your intent?
The flexibility of the measure of a tumen is superb, so easily understood. Is this your invention, or something shown in the Secret History of the Mongols?
I do like to merge English-language slang with Mongol slang. This one was an easy example. I use whatever Mongol slang and figures of speech I can convey sense in, but where I need to amalgamate them with English idiom for explanatory value, I don’t scruple to do that.
Sometimes there’s a clash that’s fun to work with. Milk is a substance for infinite idioms in Mongol, which often come straight across in English. But if Westerners hear ‘he has milk in his veins’, they might well assume that’s an insult. In Mongol idiom, milk is pretty much always positive, and this isn’t said negatively, although it does tie in nicely with the English – and Shakespearean – ‘milk of human kindness’.
Tumens: This explainer was me.
You can find more information on Bryn and her books at
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Would you like to be part of this series? Authors published or unpublished are welcome – leave a comment and I’ll get back to you.