History, I have all the feelings

I recently read Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts. It’s a good book, and I enjoyed it. (I was dismayed to hit the end and realize it’s the first part of a series only because the other books aren’t published yet! I will be quite pleased when they are, and I can read them.)

The novel of course made me think of Jack Weatherford’s non-fiction Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World. This is an excellent biography of Temujin who became Genghis Khan, and the effect his empire had on the planet. (TL;DR — A lot. A lot of effect.)

I had not yet read The Secret History of the Mongol Queens, also by Weatherford. I started it this weekend and fell back in love with this story. With Temujin, his family, the land and the story of his empire. Moreover, Weatherford made me cry in the introduction.

The premise of The Secret History is that Genghis Khan’s daughters were excised from history. Literally — the passage from the Secret History of the Mongols, Genghis Khan’s court record, that described what kingdoms his daughters would receive was cut out of the paper. Sometime in the hundred years after the legacy was recorded, someone cut it away. We were to be denied knowledge of the reigning Mongol queens because the empires that followed did not want queens in their history.

Recently a trove of lost fairy tales was discovered in Germany. These were stories not collected by the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Anderson, narratives not deemed appropriate or worthy of future generations. This would be merely a curiosity save that the tales lost appear to be the ones with active, heroic girls. With passive, quiet boys. The stories of mothers who lived and fathers who were not blind to evil. The stories recently rediscovered hold the genderqueer, the non-conformative, the challenging, the transgressive.

Considering how much of Western culture has fairy tales in its DNA, this loss is not a footnote, it’s a tragedy. Think how possibly different our mythos might be today if those stories had been included in our canon. So much, so very very much (Campbell, Bettelheim, I’m looking at you) has been made of the inevitability of the Hero’s Journey. It’s not inevitable. It never was. It was created, deliberately, by people with a point to make.

I wouldn’t object to that point if it was one view among many. But I can’t help but think that the evisceration of the fairy tale canon hundreds of years ago has led, somehow, to the gender divisions in my household Legos. The fairy tales that survived the cut created a narrative as pervasive as Virginia Creeper. Those tendrils get everywhere.

But the fairy tales once lost have come back to light.

Genghis Khan’s sons were incapable of maintaining his kingdom. Upon his death the Mongol empire fell apart. But it didn’t fall apart as fast as it ought to have, given their errors and general failure. This is because half the empire was in the hands of The Great Khan’s daughters. Under siege from their siblings and outsiders, eventually their kingdoms also fell. But they existed, despite five hundred years of historical erasure.

Weatherford says it thus:

“Words and documents can dimly reflect the truth, like shadows by a night fire or the outline of a mountain through the mist, but alone they are too small and primitive to contain all of it. While worlds may be altered or censored, the truth endures, even when not properly recorded. Truth can be forgotten, misplaced, or lost, but never annihilated. The human hand might erase the words, mutilate the manuscript, or chisel off a name, but that only alters memory. Such vandalism tampers with the evidence without altering the facts. Cutting part of a document still leaves an outline of what was remover, a silhouette of the missing piece.

” … We rarely find what we do not seek. Once we look for information on these great queens, we realize that much of the history was not hidden at all; it was merely ignored.”

In her book How To Suppress Women’s Writing Joanna Russ mentions that a key tactic is to say that the work in question was not really written by a woman, but by her husband or brother or father or son. This erases the woman from the work. History has done that, does that still, with woman in total — not merely erasing their writing, but erasing the existence of women at all. When I find works that break into that void, that historical conspiracy of silence and erasure and looking the other way, I celebrate. I love reading the secret history — history that always was there, as Weatherford reminds us, even though we may not know it.

But, oh, how different our view of the world might be. How different our political discourse, our religious debate, our cultural arguments might be if we held those hidden histories in our minds. How different it might be if we had a press that compared Sarah Palin to Borte Khatun instead of soccer moms or bears.

I want the women of history to be part of my current mythos. I want the women of past fiction to be part of my current mythos. I want women to be part of my current mythos. And I want those women to occupy space in your head the way they do in mine.


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