Define “civilization” however you want, but there’s always going to be some amount of barbarism mixed in to whatever definition you can come up with.
Only a truly technically advanced civilization could produce things like 50-inch high-definition plasma televisions with picture-in-picture and remote control, but only a truly uncivilized barbaric horde could make sure that the only things worth watching at any given time are celebrity dating shows, Rachael Ray cooking programs, and baseball games on the West Coast that don’t even start until after my bedtime. Civilization gives you email, barbarism gives you spam. Civilization gives you iPods, barbarism gives you “American Idol.” Civilization gives you luxury sedans with satellite radio and heated leather seats, barbarism gives you traffic jams to sit in. It’s all intertwined.
Conn Iggulden has completed his second book focusing on Genghis Khan’s life story. Large wedges of it are about the conflict of barbarism and civilization, and a lot of that has to do with water, of all things. Genghis leads his united Mongol tribes off the steppes of Central Asia into the hinterlands of China, but is balked by the tall walls that surround the Chinese cities. His soldiers are superb cavalrymen and bowmen — savage, ruthless and skilled — but they stare at fortifications in vain. The first city they encounter is served by irrigation canals, so Genghis sends his men out to break them. This ends up flooding a significant part of the Mongol camp, which is a minus, but leads to the eventual capitulation of the city.
Iggulden makes the contrast between the uncivilized Mongol horde and the civilized Chinese empire even starker in two other scenes involving water. Genghis sends two of his brothers to infiltrate a Chinese city, and they find themselves enjoying the pleasures of hot running water for the first time. At the same time, Genghis leads his young sons to a far-off river in winter, making them immerse themselves in the near-freezing water to make them the kind of tough-minded conquerors who could overthrow the great cities of China.
Iggulden — co-author of THE DANGEROUS BOOK FOR BOYS — is trying to make the point that the Mongols were able to challenge the more civilized, more educated, more sophisticated Chinese Empire because they inculcated the warrior virtues (which Genghis summarizes as “the cold face”) of stoicism, courage and martial skills. (Iggulden never draws the contrast between our television-addled, PlayStation-wielding boys of today with Genghis’s sons, though it seems to be a preoccupation.) But as Genghis imposes his will on the Chinese, civilization imposes its will on him. Not only is his youngest brother Temuge seduced by the lure of hot baths, he becomes the Mongol Empire’s first official bureaucrat.
All of this sounds as though GENGHIS: LORDS OF THE BOW is little more than social commentary merged with horse opera. Gladly, there is much more to it. There is an incredible amount of wanton destruction and cruelty, enough to delight the heart of the most bloodthirsty armchair Mongol. Early on, there is a scene where Genghis discusses the mob of peasant refugees who have been kicked off their farms by his rampaging horde. He decides that there is nothing left for the peasants to do but die, and they are killed, making a mountain of the dead — and this is just an aside in one paragraph. (Later on, even worse things happen to the next set of peasants.) This is a fighting book, filled with scenes of battles, melees, sieges and military exploits of every kind.
And at the head of the river of blood stands Genghis Khan, imagined by Iggulden as implacable, honest and forthrightly determined to make the world safe for Mongols to do what Mongols do. Genghis is a bit less likable here than he was in Iggulden’s first book about him, GENGHIS: BIRTH OF AN EMPIRE, where he was an abandoned child struggling to survive. But here he leads his incomparable cavalrymen into a conflict with civilization itself, one that he can win, and one where civilized modern readers (safe in their armchair, with their satellite radio and laptop close at hand) can cheer his victories.