Sunday 29 April 2018

Genghis Khan's Girls by Katherine Roberts

Our April guest is Katherine Roberts. Not only was Katherine one of the first History Girls; the book she talks about here, Bone Music, is published by The Greystones Press, the independent publisher set up by Mary Hoffman and her husband. Here is a photo that Katherine posed for on the occasion of the virtual launch of Bone Music and The Sword of Ice and Fire by John Matthews.

If that doesn't whet your appetite enough, here is a bit more about Katherine:
Katherine Roberts won the inaugural Branford Boase Award for her debut novel Song Quest (Chicken House/Scholastic 2000). Since then she has written many more fantasy and historical books for young readers, including the Seven Fabulous Wonders series based on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, and I am the Great Horse, telling the story of Alexander the Great from the horse's mouth. She lives in Devon and is currently a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Penryn in Cornwall.

A recent study of the genetic legacy of the Mongols suggests that 1 in 200 males alive in the world today are direct descendants of Genghis Khan. If you consider the infamous Mongolian warrior lived well into his sixties and took several wives as was the custom of his people, who between them bore him 11 legitimate children, and that he no doubt sired an unspecified number of illegitimate children as he built an empire four times the size of Alexander the Great's, this is not as surprising as it first seems. So who were the women in Genghis Khans life, and what did they think of the small boy, originally named Temujin, who grew into such a ruthless conqueror?
The quotes below are from my novel Bone Music, which is in turn based on a 13th century Mongolian text known as The Secret History of the Mongols (Chinese: Yuan Ch'ao Pi Shih) that combines legend and history to tell the story of Genghis Khan's early years.

Princess Borta (or Borte) – Genghis Khan’s childhood sweetheart and first wife.
We first meet the Khan's first and most important wife when she is 10 and Temujin is just nine. Temujin's father Yesugei the Brave, leader of the Mongol Alliance, rides with his eldest son across the steppe in search of a suitable girl. They find her in Dei the Wise’s camp, a chief blessed with beautiful daughters and rich herds. At this stage, Temujin and Borta's betrothal has the flavour of a royal wedding, with the camp's shaman joining the young people’s hands and calling on the spirits of their ancestors to bless the match:
 As the two chiefs linked our hands together with a chain of flowers, a strange shiver went through me and I wished they would let me have a drink, too. Our shaman blessed the union with his horsetail staff, which tickled, making me want to giggle. Apart from that idiot Jamukha throwing a stone at Temujin when he tried to kiss me, we got through it without too much embarrassment.” (‘Bone Music’, Borta’s Story)
Jamukha later becomes Temujin's blood brother, or anda. I used artistic licence in having Jamukha here at the start of the story, but historically the two boys became bitter rivals for the leadership of their people and, however their rivalry started, it was never going to end well.
In Bone Music, Borta also has a pet deer called Whisper, which she rescued from the forest and that later becomes her shaman-animal, carrying her spirit in reflection of the Mongol people's ancestors, Blue Wolf and Fallow Doe. Later, she fashions a violin from the skull of her deer and plays it in battle to call down a storm to frighten Jamukha's forces, while the other shamans play an imaginary version of the Mongolian horse-head fiddle known as a morin khur:
Behind the old men, my beautiful wife stood on a rock against the sky, her black hair loose to her waist, holding her delicate deer-bone violin. (Bone Music, Temujins Story.)
Horse head violins are still an important part of Mongolian culture, although these days the sounding box is usually made of wood rather than covered with horse hide, and the traditional horsehair strings have been replaced by nylon, leaving just the carving of a horses head on the neck of the instrument as a reminder of its legendary origin.
Mizu basyo at Japanese Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0
 Lady Hogelun – Genghis Khan’s mother.
Yesugei the Brave originally stole Temujin’s mother from the Merkid tribe when she was travelling to her wedding and made her his first wife, at the same time making bitter enemies of the Merkid people. When Yesugei is poisoned on his way back across the steppe from Temujin and Borta's betrothal ceremony, Hogelun immediately recalls her son from Dei the Wise’s camp and tries to get the Mongol Alliance to accept the boy as their new leader. But an ambitious chief called Kiriltuk takes advantage of Temujin’s youth to seize control of the Alliance, and drives the family out of his camp to die of starvation over the winter. However, Lady Hogelun (who is pregnant with Yesugeis daughter at the time) has no intention of letting her sons die, and orders Yesugei's second wife to help her gather berries and dig for onions, until their boys are strong enough to bend their bows and hunt for meat. She also takes on the unenviable task of raising her sons to be honourable warriors - a job made difficult because Temujin and his eldest half-brother Begter are always at each others throats. When Temujin kills Begter after a violent quarrel that started over some fish their younger brothers had caught, a furious Lady Hogelun gives the boys the old bundle of arrows' lesson:
Snap it! Mother said, handing Khasar one of my arrows. Khasar gave me an apologetic look, but obeyed. The shaft broke at once, and I groaned inwardly at the thought of having to whittle another one. Then Mother took five of my arrows and held them together in a bundle, which she passed to me. Now you, Temujin, she said, knowing very well I wouldnt break them even if I could, because making good arrows to replace them would have taken me ages. After the bundle has been passed around all the boys, who in turn fail to break the arrows, Lady Hogelun presses her lips together and tells them sternly: The broken arrow is Begter. These five are the rest of you, strong only if you stick together. Up here, we have no friends except our own shadows, and no whips except our horses tails, so you ungrateful horde of savages had better stop fighting each other if you want to live to see your children grow up! (Bone Music, Temujins Story)
This is a lesson Temujin takes to heart, and he later makes alliances with the other tribes in order to defeat his enemies.
Old Khoga – Borta’s servant.
When Temujin finally arrives to claim his bride, Borta’s mother (no doubt worried about her daughter in the young khan’s war camp) gives Borta one of her most trusted servants. Khoga is devoted to her young mistress and tries to save her when the Merkid raiding party attacks their camp while Temujin is away, after Borta falls off her horse and breaks her arm:
Old Khoga turned out to have more sense than any of us that morning. She had been following us along the track, seen me fall, and came puffing up the slope to help. She took one look at my arm, bundled me into the yak cart and pulled the sheepskins over me to hide me from the raiders. (Bone Music, Bortas Story).
Khadagan –warrior girl.
Some Mongol girls trained as warriors so they could ride and fight alongside their brothers. When Temujin is captive in Chief Kiriltuk’s camp awaiting punishment for killing his half-brother Begter, he persuades one of the braver girls to help him escape. Her name is Khadagan, and later she joins the rebellion among the Alliance families who defect to join Temujin. Towards the end of the story, Khadagan is entrusted with a message by the increasingly desperate Jamukha:
I needed a messenger who could get into Lady Borta’s yurt alone, someone Anda Temujin would trust.Is that girl still around?” I asked Yegu. “The warrior girl who came to my tent the winter we spent with Kiriltuk’s Alliance? Send her to me.” Jamukha hopes to win Borta's aid by returning the skull of her pet deer, which he rescued from Temujin's camp following her capture by the Merkids but lost to a wolf. Needless to say, this does not go down well with Borta: The gift of the deers skull didnt work out quite as Id planned. Khadagan returned with news that Borta had given birth to a son, together with Bortas threat that if I came anywhere near her or her child, shed tell Temujin that I was the wolf. (Bone Music, Jamukhas story.)
Temulun – Temujin’s little sister, given a boy’s name to protect her from the evil spirits who steal babies from their mothers in the night.
Temulun was born in exile and grows up in a rough camp with her four brothers and remaining half-brother. She thinks she is a boy, but as the Khan’s sister she will be valuable for making alliances with other tribes through marriage when she grows up. Jamukha recognizes this and, in one of his attempts to remain in Temujin’s camp (and close to Borta), he asks his anda for the girl's hand in marriage.
“I was thinking of your sister, actually,” Jamukha said into the silence that had fallen between us and threatened to divide us again. “She’s strong and pretty, rides well too.” Temujin, who is still thinking of which Merkid bastard might have got his wife pregnant during her captivity in their camp, is caught completely unawares: “Be serious!” I said, realizing what he meant. “Temulun’s only nine!” (‘Bone Music’, Temujin’s story).
Upon which, Jamukha points out that Temujin was only nine when he was promised to Borta, rubbing salt into the still-raw wound. It might actually have been a good match when Temulun was old enough to marry, but by then the rivalry between Temujin and Jamukha had escalated beyond repair.
Genghis Khan and three of his four sons

Bone Music ends when Temujin becomes Genghis Khan and ruler of all the people who live in felt tents at a large gathering of the clans in 1206. After that, he goes on to conquer many other people, from the Chinese Kin and Sung people to the east, the ancient Tanghut people of northern Tibet, and the Moslem kingdoms to the west as far as Hungary and the Mediterranean coast. Along the way, he took other wives to cement alliances:
Yesugen and Yesui  - Tartar sisters, who became good friends with Borta.
Ibaka - Kereyid girl, later given to one of Temujin's generals Jurchedei as a reward for service.
Gurbesu - Naiman girl.
Khulan - Merkid girl who accompanied the Khan on his western campaign.
Chaka - Tanghut girl.
Genghis Khan died in 1227 on campaign, possibly of sickness after a hunting accident when he took a fall from his horse. But there is another, more colourful, version of his death involving the wife of a Tanghut chief, whom he seized as spoils of war after killing her husband on his (second) Tanghut campaign.
Gorbeljin the Fair - Queen of the Tanghuts.
Ashamed that she has been violated by her people's enemy, she sends a message by bird to her father vowing to drown herself into the Black River. But first she washes herself until her beauty returns and shares Temujin's furs one last time, thus 'passing a mortal illness into his blood'. When the old Khan eventually falls asleep, Gorbeljin slips away and throws herself into the river as she has promised to do - although, in true legendary fashion, her body is never found.


Sue Bursztynski said...

Yes, I’d heard that about all those descendants of Genghis Khan. It’s not unlikely. There was a girl, Mary Wade, who came here as a convict a couple of centuries ago, married a fellow convict and had lots of kids. Now she has about 10,000 descendants o4 more, including one if our former a Prime amnisters, Kevin Rudd. And that was only a couple of centuries!

The novel sounds like one well worth reading. I assume it’s available in ebook?

Sue Bursztynski said...

Sorry for all the typos!

Katherine Roberts said...

Thanks Sue, that's interesting. I guess if we go back far enough, we might find a lot of us are distantly related.

Yes, 'Bone Music' is available as both paperback and ebook.