Michael Kepler and I sat down before two computers on his work table in the living room yesterday afternoon: he turned on the news — and told me 3 things I had already read in the morning paper, while I turned on Netflix and found a movie biography, made in Russia, of Genghis Khan where everybody speaks in Mongolian.
So I got the primary source down from the shelf, The Secret History of the Mongols [ i.e. Paul Kahn, ed., The Secret History of the Mongols: The Origin of Genghis Khan. An Adaptation of the Yuan Ch’ao Pi Shih, Based Primarily on the English Translation by Francis Woodman Cleaves, San Francisco, North Point Press, 1984] — and found it much more legible than I remembered, but quite different from the movie (which repeatedly required magical thinking from the audience).
What struck me in this Mongolian account was the pre-eminence of if you will domestic affairs, a political universe in which conflicts with the civilized world of Khwarezm or of Sung China come to mind almost parenthetically, in comparison to the sustained, predominant theme of intertribal rivalries within the world of Mongolian clans.
The Mogols much more than the British acquired a world-girdling empire “in a fit of absence of mind” [as J. R. Seeley put it]. It was surprising, it was almost immediate, it was nothing they had to adapt themselves in order to accomplish, but just seemed to flow naturally from what they’d already been doing.
The Secret History unlike the movie made no attempt to address the question of Genghis Khan’s supernatural, or if not quite supernatural certainly beyond extraordinary, success. I would guess that at the time it did not seem something worth celebrating for ages and ages; one has reasonably to conclude that the conquest of the known world by the Mongols in the years 1196-1240 was more or less the last irruption of lean, mean cavalry upon civilization, rather than due to any unique military brilliance on the part of the Mongol leader. It is only to be attributed to chance. By contrast, the movie has to find a cause proportional to the effect: that means, that God wanted it.
[How do we conquer Jerusalem, Crusaders? Deus vult!]