Review of Genghis Khan by Frank McLynn and Commentary on Mongols in Fantasy

Genghis Khan cover

Genghis Khan was the greatest conqueror the world has ever known. He consolidated the disparate clans and tribes of Mongolia. He conquered the Jin (northern China) and Kwarezmian (Persia) empires. “The Mongol empire covered twelve million contiguous square miles—an area as large as Africa and bigger than North America; by contrast the extent of the Roman empire was about half that of the continental U.S.A. . . . The modern population of the countries ruled by the empire at its greatest extent [today] contain three billion of the world’s seven billion population.” He also totally ravaged Oshman’s Sporting Goods.


In Genghis Khan: His Conquests, His Empire, His Legacy, Frank MyLynn seeks to provide a “synthesis of all the scholarship done in the major European languages in the past forty years relating to Genghis and his sons.” (McLynn covers not only Genghis but the three great khans between Genghis and the break-up of the empire—Ogodei, Guyuk, and Mongke—with Ogodei being the most substantial, taking up multiple chapters.) And indeed one of McLynn’s strengths is discussing the varying scholarly views. His other strength is providing social history. He stumbles when forced to relay events and battles, and it “can sometimes seem no more than an endless recital of massacres with pyramids of skulls.” The other weakness is his writing, which is heavy on $4 words in $2 sentences and tortured metaphors and figures of speech.

From Sea to Shining Sea

McLynn’s book covers much more than you might expect from an ostensible biography of Genghis Khan. He attempts to give a history of the Mongols and the steppe to Genghis. In addition to Genghis’s exploits, McLynn frequently provides contextual information, not only about the later Mongol empire(s) but also about other societies (notably the birth of the Jin Empire). He covers the three great khans to follow Genghis as well as other major Mongol figures, such as Subedei, “who came to Temujin’s camp when he was ten years old, a starry-eyed boy who had spent all his life among the reindeer in the taiga and had never seen the steppe before” before going on to become one of the greatest generals in Genghis’ military meritocracy.


Considerable space is devoted to Genghis’ consolidation of the steppe tribes, his 23 year war against the Jin Empire (only 5 of which Genghis was present for), his conquest of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the invasion of Europe. This is truly history writ large. After vanquishing the Khwarezmian Empire, “Genghis Khan . . . ruled an empire that stretched from the Pacific to the Caspian, from Korea to the Caucasus, and from Siberia to the Yellow River.”

Mongol Empire Map

During the invasion of Europe “[i]n three years the two captains and their men rode 5,500 miles—history’s longest cavalry raid—won seven major battles (always against superior numbers) and several minor engagements and skirmishes, sacked scores of cities and revealed the world of Russia and eastern Europe to Genghis.”

Mongols Invasion Europe

Home on the Steppe

Mongol herdsmen handled five different types of domestic animal: sheep, goats, cattle, horses, and Bactrian camels (sheep were the most valuable, but horses the most valued).  They also really loved yaks, but presumably hated yak-men.

yak folk

Unlike many horses, the Mongolian horses could “subsist wholly on grazing.” Mongols kept three remounts on campaign and rotated mounts every two hours. This allowed marches as long and fast as 600 miles in 9 days (a record not matched until the era of Napoleon). The Mongols had so many horses they could specialize, using geldings for ambushes instead of stallions or mares, for instance.

Nomads had great advantages over pastoral peoples at war. They could provide twice as many soldiers per capita as pastoralists. Their military speed was a product of the nomadic life. Not only were their soldiers horsemen accustomed to long days in the saddle, camp followers and even families could keep up, and they brought giant herds of cattle and sheep.

A Limited Brilliance

As mentioned above, the Mongols were well adapted to wars of conquest. Their mounted archers provided a distinct advantage of the usual infantry of the day, their archery and horsemanship skills were bar none, and they could move fast and they could maintain the pace. They mastered coordinating large armies both on the hoof and in battle, and they mastered light cavalry tactics, the feigned retreat most of all. They were quick to learn siege warfare and incorporate explosives and firearms, and they were artists at subterfuge, especially tactics to inflate their perceived numbers (the Mongols were almost always outnumbered and had “something of a fetish about keeping casualties to a minimum”).

Note the archer shooting backwards and at the moment his horse has all four feet off the ground.

Note the archer shooting backwards and at the moment his horse has all four feet off the ground.

They were an uncivilized people but open to change. They cauterized a wound for the first time in recorded history. They learned siege warfare and incorporated explosives and firearms from the Jin. Genghis was illiterate, but “[w]hen the importance of writing was explained to him, Temujin was impressed . . . with the consequence that Uighur writing became the official script of the Mongol empire.”

But it was a limited brilliance. The empire was never sustainable. It was the pyramid scheme of empires, relying on ever more conquest and tribute. Moreover, subjugated peoples couldn’t be controlled indefinitely when there were one hundred to every single Mongol.

McLynn mentions the aphorism that “you could travel from Palestine to Mongolia with a gold plate on your head and not be molested” without critical examination. Based on his own narrative it seems implausible. Draconian legal code notwithstanding, the Mongols lacked the numbers to effectively police an empire of that scale, and the populations displaced by wholesale slaughter surely led to widespread banditry. (There is also quite a bit on the Yasa, the secret written code of law created by Genghis. But it isn’t very interesting, even to a legal history nerd like me, but it didn’t appear to have much effect at the time let alone long-term.)


As mentioned above, the narrative is consistently bogged down by what I refuse to call turgid prose:

“([T]he sources are anything but pellucid.)”

“Muhammed came within an ace of being captured.”

”It took another month for the Mongols to winkle them out.”

“Genghis identified 280 such persons . . . and mulcted them accordingly.”

“[T]he fall of Bukhara had made manifest the manifold latent fissiparous weaknesses in the Khwarezmian empire.”

“This was the moment when the Mongols most clearly impacted on the world of Islam, complicating also the already turbid bouillabaisse that was the Fifth Crusade.”

“Genghis departed this life much as he had lived in it, in a tourbillon of death and bloodshed.”

“When someone else approached him with the begging bowl, his financial advisors tried to kill the request stone dead by pointing out that the man already had massive debts.”

“[W]ithin a week of Ogodei’s death . . . Batu knew of it. This meant that everything in the Mongol empire was now in the melting pot.”

Let Me Explain. No, There Is Too Much. Let Me Sum Up.

So how did Genghis do it? McLynn points to his mounted archers as a great leap forward in military technology, but surely that alone cannot be it. After all, Julius Caesar’s contemporary Crassus was mashed by Parthian mounted archers long, long before Genghis’ time. More important seems their use of horses and incredible mobility, described above, their use of long-distance relay riders and ability to coordinate large armies on the move over long distances, endless adaptability, detailed planning buttressed by war gaming and intelligence from spies, and Genghis’ radical reorganization of Mongol military forces along a decimal system. After Genghis’ death, Mongols were responsible for the first clear use of firearms in a major engagement in 1232 (including a bamboo cannon, which doesn’t sound terribly durable).

McLynn doesn’t attempt to canonize Genghis, but neither is he unfair. His final conclusion, though, is harsh: “While the Mongols’ military achievements were stupendous, they were otherwise totally parasitic. They were unoriginal, founded no new religions, produced no worthwhile cultural artefacts, developed no new crops or technologies (though they transmitted existing ones), created no worthwhile painting, pottery, architecture or literature and did not even bake bread; they essentially relied on the captive craftsmen and experts for everything.”

Mongols: The Original Yellow Peril in Fantasy

Mongols have long served as inspiration for fantasy writers, but the Mongols have also been poorly served, from the Dothraki in A Song of Ice and Fire to the Tuigan from the Forgotten Realms in the Empire trilogy and tie-in Horde Campaign sourcebook to the Horde in Warcraft to, most importantly, the orcs in The Lord of the Rings.


The Dothraki are fearsome warriors, but they show none of the organizational skills that allowed the Mongols to swallow a large chunk of the known world. The Dothraki are a pale imitation, in the end. (They also sort of look like they wandered off the set of 2 Pac’s California Love music video.)

California Love

The Horde from Warcraft is probably a direct call out to the Golden Horde (the northwest portion of the Mongol empire post-Balkanization) as well as the generic trope (largely inspired by the Mongols, and the word itself with Mongolian roots). The Tuigan, the Forgotten Realms Mongol analog, much like the Dorthraki, get shortchanged in the Empire trilogy and Horde Campaign (Horde again…) sourcebook. The Tuigan are stopped in the east due to in part an unwillingness to utilize magic. But the Mongols were comfortable with the practice of what they perceived as magic, and they were quick to adopt explosives and firearms. And the Tuigan are stopped in the west by a grand coalition. But the European powers at the time of the Mongol invasion of Europe were happy to watch their rivals burn, and the invasion was stopped not by European armies but by Mongol politics.


The treatment of Mongol analogs in fantasy has roots that long precede modern fantasy though. “For Matthew Paris [of thirteenth-century England] the Mongols were Gog and Magog aroused from their slumber, they were the demons of Tartarus, the myrmidons of Satan himself” (but keep in mind that the English earlier spoke of the Vikings in much the same terms). When Tolkien renamed his goblins orcs, he chose an Old English word that meant something like “demon-corpse” (Shippey, Author of the Century, 88).

And Tolkien certainly had the Mongols in mind. In one of his letters Tolkien described orcs as “squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes; in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types.” They were only later given a more stylized and inhuman look by artists and other authors.

To my knowledge, Mongols wore pants.

To my knowledge, Mongols wore pants.

In fact, Tolkien’s orcs were so human in appearance that the “Squint-eyed Southerner” with a “sallow face” who “look[ed] more than half like a goblin” (note again the mongoloid imagery) that Frodo et al. encountered in Bree was both heavily implied to be half-orc and able to “pass” as human  (The Lord of the Rings (Fellowship of the Ring), 50th Anniversary Ed., 180-81). Later in the scouring of the Shire they encounter “large ill-favoured Men” who are “squint-eyed and sallow-faced” (The Lord of the Rings (Return of the King), 50th Anniversary Ed., 1004).

In The Two Towers and The Return of the King, Sauron and Saruman throw hordes (that word again…) of orcs against the Rohan and Gondor without concern for casualties and always outnumbering the defenders by large margins. But “[f]ar from the cliché of Oriental hordes throwing manpower at an enemy with no regard for human life, the Mongols had something of a fetish about keeping casualties to a minimum, and became slaughterously angry if too many of their men fell in achieving victory.” And every major battle the Mongols fought during their invasion of Europe was against superior numbers. Nomads don’t conquer huge pastoral nations by numbers.

Siege of Gondor

Orc society itself compares a little more favorably with Mongol society, even if again it bears a limited resemblance. “The Mongols founded no new religions, produced no worthwhile cultural artefacts, developed no new crops or technologies (though they transmitted existing ones), created no worthwhile painting, pottery, architecture or literature and did not even bake bread; they essentially relied on the captive craftsmen and experts for everything.” I think the same can fairly be said of Tolkien’s orcs, with one exception. As for technology, at least, the Mongols fell short of Tolkien’s orcs, who “make no beautiful things, but . . . make many clever ones” and “not unlikely . . . invented some of the machines that have since troubled the world, especially the ingenious devices for killing large numbers of people at once, for wheels and engines and explosions always delighted them” (note again though that the Mongols pioneered the use of explosives and firearms). (The Hobbit, 73.)

Eternal Sky cover

It is perhaps not fair, though, to say that the Mongols have served as a major inspiration for fantasy. It would be more accurate to say that the European perception of Mongols has served as a major inspiration. Which is in and of itself ok—speculative fiction after all is highly concerned with the examination of our fears—but hardly complete. Fantasy has moved away from looking to the Mongols for inspiration as Tolkien’s imitators imitated his work rather than deriving from his source material, as orcs have become overdone and out of fashion, and due to concerns of Unfortunate Implications, but with the trend toward Silk Road Fantasy authors would be wise to give Mongols another look (the obvious example is Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy, which I am ashamed to admit I haven’t read).

About H.P.

Blogs on books at Every Day Should Be Tuesday (speculative fiction) and Hillbilly Highways (country noir and nonfiction).
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