The Water Margin by Shi Naian: Introduction and Prologue (WM 1)

Most Fridays in 2017 I hope to post a brief mention of the latest chapter(s) I’ve read in my 2017 classics read: The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh) by Shi Naian, translation by J.H. Jackson and with an introduction by Edwin Lowe (Tuttle Publishing, 2010). I will use each chapter’s own synopsis as the synopsis.

Today: Foreword and Prologue

The brief Foreword, ostensibly by Shi Naian (but perhaps by the redactor, Jin Shengtan), introduces the author’s quiet life, briefly mentions some details of his household, and explains why he wrote the novel.

Why would anyone living such a quiet, isolated life need TEN messenger boys? I imagine them as local village boys who come and go, not all there at once, but always several convenient for running messages on command. And that’s besides the brooms and mats they make.

Prologue:  Heavenly Teacher Zhang Prays for Cessation of a Pestilence; Marshal Hon Makes a Blunder in Releasing Demons.

Probably the main reason it’s taken me so long to dive into these Chinese classics (I only read Dream of the Red Chamber about 6 years ago) is the bizarre and unfounded belief I had that, being classics, they were inevitably turgid affairs as long-winded as your average Victorian novel, something one read to be well read rather than because they were enjoyable. Where did my preconceptions come from, I wonder?

In fact, The Water Margin is paced like a modern novel (I can’t judge how much that may be a factor of the translation, which was itself done in 1937 (and “rejuvenated” in 2009)). Your average 1990s fantasy novel is less fast-paced than this with its brief introduction to the later emperors of the Song dynasty and then the adventures of Marshal Hong, which are completely delightful. Marshal Hong does not strike me as sincere or adequate to the task. Besides being responsible for the release of the demons he conceals the foolish, arrogant deed from the Emperor.

As with Dream of the Red Chamber I can see I will learn a lot from this work about the effective use of cliff-hanging chapter endings. In fact, I have already almost finished Chapter One, and I’ll briefly discuss it in the January 13 post.

Next Friday (Jan 13, 2017): Chapter One.

The Water Margin (Outlaws of the North) by Shi Naian: A 2017 Readalong

In 2016 Tessa Gratton and I read the Shahnameh (The Persian Book of Kings) by Abdolqasem Ferdowsi. It’s a long epic poem, often called the national epic of the Persian civilization, and by dividing it into weekly sections we were able to complete it in 41 sessions (with some missed weeks due to other commitments). It was definitely epic and well worth reading, as you can discover in our posts about each section.

Completing a massive project in this way emboldened me to tackle another classic of world literature in 2017 by plotting a reading schedule that will allow for an entire year to finish an otherwise daunting 798 page novel. [Stop laughing: Black Wolves is only 780 pages.]

So: Join me and a motley crew of volunteers from Twitter in reading The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh) by Shi Naian (c. 1296 – 1372 C.E.).


Originating in the transitional phase between the end of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty and the early Ming Dynasty it is based on the story of an historical bandit named Song Jiang who lived during the reign of the Huizong Emperor during the Song Dynasty (1100 – 1126 C.E.), the one the Mongols conquered. I haven’t read it yet but it appealed to me because it is the story of virtuous people from every level of society who, forced into banditry, are fighting against a corrupt and unjust government.

The novel is ascribed to Shi Naian but scholarship doesn’t seem agreed that we can know definitively that he wrote the entire thing alone. What is known is that over the period of the Ming Dynasty the novels was edited until, in circa 1592 a man named Li Zhi produced a “definitive” 120 chapter version. Then, in 1641, Jin Shengtan published a version that lops off the last 50 chapters to produce a more unified thematic whole. I don’t know; I’m just repeating what I read. Regardless, this 70 chapter version is the one I’m using. I may well seek out the last 50 chapters because the Jin Shengtan version is itself a product of the times HE was living in and he evidently subverts the original ending. How interesting is THAT!

Here’s how the project will go:

I’m reading the Tuttle Publishing 2010 edition, with a translation by J H Jackson and an introduction and editing by Edwin Lowe. Lowe gives the credit for the translation entirely to Jackson but in his introduction discusses how he addressed what he calls the shortcomings of Jackson’s translation (mostly to do with Jackson’s sanitizing of some of the more vulgar and barbaric passages). This version is available both in a trade paperback edition and in Kindle form.

Each week I’ll try to read 15 – 20 pages or so, and I will announce at the end of each week’s portion whether we will be reading one longer chapter or two shorter ones for the next week. I may miss weeks occasionally. I’ll post a brief synopsis and some thoughts every Friday, and the comments will be open for discussion.

The entire project will be linked here. Here’s the opening plan of action:

Week 1: January 6: Foreward and Prologue

Week 2: January 13: Chapter 1

Week 3: January 20: Chapter 2 (short because I’ll be traveling)

Week 4: January 27: Chapter 3 (still short, because I’ll be traveling)

Week 5: February 3: Chapters 4 & 5

Week 6: February 10: Chapters 6 & 7

Writing, World-Building, Idea Development: Final Thoughts on the Shahnameh Readalong (42)

The Shahnameh 2016 Readalong had its genesis in a fortuitous exchange on Twitter. Tessa Gratton and I decided to divide the book up as one would in a college course and read the entire epic by Abdolqasem Ferdowsi across the year, blogging our reactions along the way. And so here we here, having read the entire Dick Davis translation although, because Davis abridged elements, not the entire epic. Herewith our thoughts, which end up focusing both on reading and on how a process of idea and writing development work.

Tessa: I bought my copy of the Shahnameh a little over two years ago. I’d just finished the final book in my United States of Asgard series, and planned to write some stand alone novels over the next few years, while reading, learning, investigating the background for whatever my new (next) (eventual) giant fantasy series would be. I only had the core idea, and because I’ve been writing for over a decade I know my imagination needs a lot of time and layers to start the soup that will become a vibrant, complicated secondary world culture big enough for a series. So even though I wasn’t planning to write that series yet (I’m still today probably two years away from writing the thing), I needed to begin the process of feeding the specific location in my imagination that would chew on the idea.

Stack of books, all non fiction titles.

Stack of books, all non fiction titles, from Tessa’s research library.

Most of my research materials for this project are nonfiction. Histories of the culture and locations, from ancient to modern, written by people from within and without the culture itself, with a focus on architecture and clothing/tools. Some biographies. And a very small number of fiction and mythology sources—as close to primary sources as I can find. I bought Shahnameh knowing only that it’s a chronicle of kings, rather like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle meets Beowulf, but more important and influential to Persian culture than either of those aforementioned works. I also knew it was long. Very long.

When Kate mentioned on Twitter that she was thinking of making a project out of reading it, my copy had been sitting about 10 inches away from my computer for over a year, and I knew I had to jump on the opportunity if I wanted the best chance of reading every word.

I’m so glad we made this project. Not only because it’s given me an opportunity to work with an author I’ve admired for years, but breaking the Shahnameh down in weekly installments and writing up my thoughts forced me to focus on engaging carefully with the text as a reader as well as a writer, instead of trying to blaze through on my own energy, gathering only what I knew I needed instead of allowing time and space to discover what I did not know.

Discovering what I don’t know about a culture and place and time is what matters most to me when I want to be true to the rhythm and sensations of a world, not just the surface.

With regards to my writing, reading the Shahnameh has been an invaluable research experience because of how fiction breathes life into ancient peoples, especially fiction created so long ago—the Shahnameh brings me halfway to Ancient Persia in ways no recently written history or novel can. It transports me into the mindset of people fifteen hundred years ago, to what they thought was important to highlight about the Persian kings from a thousand years before that. The layers of prioritizing and purpose matter so much when analyzing and embracing a work like this, not only to my understanding of the story, but my understanding of how I myself will rework and translate the ideas and culture into what I eventually write. This version we read has a translator (Dick Davis) who chose what words/ideas/sections to highlight (and which to erase), and the original poet Ferdowsi who himself chose what kings/ideas/episodes to highlight for his very specific audience. Then we have the stories themselves, and how and why they survived in order to reach Ferdowsi’s imagination in the first place. Beyond even that, there’s the layer of my POV, my situation as a Western woman long interested in the conflicts in the Middle East for both personal and political reasons. In addition to how it directly affects my writing, the Shahnameh has helped me think through current war and politics, reshaping my understanding. Every work of fiction has layers like this, layers of perspective, expectation, prejudice, and I need to remember that at every stage of my writing process.

All this was constantly on my mind as I read, but what will stick with me longest, I suspect, is the very gripping sensation of inexorable despair that I felt several times while immersed in the stories. I’m thinking most specifically of Seyavash, of course, and secondarily of Rostam’s doomed son, of Zal surviving all his children and grand children until he goes off to a mountain alone, in some ways the first and the last of his wise-wizard archetype in the Shahnameh. It’s amazing that Seyavash’s story could resonate so strongly for so many hundreds of years, beginning in this conflict between the Persians and Arabs thousands of years ago, with what they revered and feared, and eventually finding a home in my heart, too. That kind of emotional resonance is what literature is for.

Thank you, everyone who tagged along, keeping us honest, and thank you especially to Kate for making it happen.


Abdolqasem Ferdowsi

Kate: After Tessa sent me her comments I felt she had basically covered what I would say, especially with respect to world building and research: I start by figuring out what I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t know. This is why the structure and approach toward research feels important to me as a writer. The more I assume I know, the less I can actually learn.

For decades I’ve had an intense interest in the history and mythology of the Silk Road, I think in part because an aspect of me loves the resonance of long distance travel as a theme or anchor, if you will, for narrative. The ways that cultures rise and fade across centuries, the ways cultures connect and conflict, absorb and reject, transform or remain static: As a writer this is thematic content that never gets old for me. A million million stories rise out of the endless back and forth of cultural contact in all its best and worst aspects, and everything in between. Weave that within a story of adventure or empire or a journey into unknown spaces and I’m in writer and reader hog heaven.

So my early interest in the Silk Road led me to an interest in the history of Iran, and my interest in the Hellenistic Period led me to its intersections with ancient Persia. In late 2014 I read Frederick Starr’s book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age. It’s a non fiction work about the rich scientific and literary landscape of Central Asia during what was also the early Middle Ages of Europe and how much of that Central Asian scientific work was brought into a less advanced European system. It’s specifically written for Western readers; that’s fine because it’s a good introduction that contextualizes the material for a readership assumed to be looking in from the outside. A work like this can be a starting point but should not, to my mind, be an end point. Although I was aware of the Shahnameh, of course, Starr’s book did make me start thinking more seriously about reading Ferdowsi’s epic, but it’s a long work and therefore rather daunting.

That’s why it worked out so amazingly well when Tessa said she’d be interested in reading it along with me. Positioning it as a year long project split into discrete and manageable sections made it . . . manageable.

Reading the Shahnameh gave me a glimpse from the inside (via a translation) into the incredibly rich heritage of one of the world’s most profound and complex civilizations, that of Persia. Now when I see references to characters or events I have a connection, however frail, that links me to that cultural heritage. We all live within shared heritages, and sometimes we live within overlapping ones, so that my shared cultural heritage as a person born and raised in the USA overlaps with my shared knowledge of 20th century rural Willamette Valley Oregon, with the Danish American experience, with being Jewish in America, with having parents who lived through World War 2, and with the larger cultural “regions” each of these attach to. What I’ve listed above is not the sum of my experience, just some examples, but the point is that having read the Shahnameh I now have a few touch points that connect me to a culture and history I was taught so little about and that mostly in simplistic terms.

One of the things education and experience can do is expand our touch points, those places in which we recognize and acknowledge and at times share the experiences of people who may be separated from us along other vectors of experience. So for example, Ferdowsi and I are separated by a gulf of time and culture (I don’t speak Persian so I can’t read his work in the original), and yet we are both writers so when he complains about not getting paid for his work I feel a sense of solidarity. How dare we not get paid for the work we do! *shakes tiny fist at world*

The lives and destinies of his characters now offer me a window through which I can communicate with people who also know these stories. We can enjoy the story’s fascinating take on Alexander the Great as trickster and seeker-of-wisdom, cheer on confident Rudabeh as she invites the handsome Zal to her chambers, and weep together over Seyavash’s tragic fate. It means something important when these connections are made and bridges are built. As human beings we talk to each other so much through shared understanding of stories.

Tessa and I also often remarked on what Davis left out of his translation (she covers this discussion, above, in much the same terms I would), and that too is a fruitful space to think about how people understand the world and how the world gets “translated” (or mis-translated) for different people in different spaces and places. We have to keep pushing at the closed gates and narrowly-framed windows that limit our access of vision.

What an amazing epic story the Shahnameh is, both as the national epic of Persia and as a vital vehicle in sustaining the Persian language. It is also fascinating in terms of its own history and tradition, not just in terms of Ferdowsi’s life and work but because the existence of a “Book of Kings” in the Persian cultural zone goes all the way back at the very least into the Achaemenid period.

Strangely enough I have a project in the early stages of development and writing that is partly inspired by a period of ancient history in which the Achaemenid Empire was a major player. But that’s another story built on the edifice of Story that surrounds us and creates us, because humans are pattern makers and story tellers. It’s hardwired into us to build our lives as narratives.

So if you haven’t read the Shahnameh, I recommend it. Go forth and read. Or at the very least search out the gorgeous artwork commissioned over the centuries to illustrate the many characters and iconic events.

This is still perhaps my favorite illustration that I’ve shared in this readalong for its gorgeous composition, colors, detail, and beautifully delineated human figures:

Shirin and Khosrow Parviz

Shirin and Khosrow Parviz seated on a divan or large pillow, with three ladies in waiting.

Thanks to Tessa for the shared journey because I could not have done it without her, to Paul and Rachel our most consistent comrades on the march, and to all who read along for part or all or some of the way.

And yes, I’m doing another readalong in 2017, this time of the Chinese classic The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh).

Happy New Year!

2016 Writing Retrospective & 2017 Looking Forward

My Writing Year of 2016 & Looking Ahead to 2017: This post is only about writing/publishing.


Cover of Poisoned Blade, featuring a dagger superimposed over a golden circle and the tagline “To win the game, she must fight a war.”

What did I publish in 2016?

In 2016 POISONED BLADE: Book Two of Court of Fives came out in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook  (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, USA, should be available worldwide). Court of Fives was published in a trade paperback edition (ebook and audiobook still available). Both audiobooks are narrated by Georgia Dolenz, who I think does a wonderful job making Jes sound determined rather than perky!

COURT OF FIVES has been named to the Tayshas and Lone Star 2017 lists of the Texas Library Association. It’s also on the South Dakota State Library Teen Choice list for 2016-2017 (Middle School). I mention these because library and school support for MG and YA novels is so important.

If you’re a librarian or educator, or have a book club, my publisher has made this Educator’s Guide available (they asked me questions and I answered).

Besides Poisoned Blade my most widely read piece published in 2016 has probably been the 9000 word essay, Writing Women into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas, which appeared on in March. The title describes the content.

In a related post, Ken Liu and I published a dialogue at Lit Hub on the related subject of why the idea that it is unrealistic to show women in positions of power in epic fantasy still pops up with sad regularity. We don’t deal with the related claims that no one ever says this, even though examples can be found easily and often in the very threads in which people are claiming that no one ever says this.

Tessa Gratton and I read the Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, by Abdulqasem Ferdowsi, and we wrote each week about the chapter we’d read. We were delighted and enthralled, at times appalled, and occasionally bored by this classic of world literature, and we will never get over the tragic fate of Prince Seyavash. It was such a fantastic project that in 2017 I’m going to do a readalong of the Chinese classic The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), although Tessa won’t be participating in this one. Charles A Tan and Ken Liu have signed on though, so this is an official thing now. I’ll be posting information on that on December 30.

I started a world-building Wednesday series, which I hope to continue as I have time.

You can find the Poisoned Blade blog tour list here if you’re interested in the posts I wrote surrounding the release of the book or want to revisit them.

2016 Appearances:

RT Convention, Las Vegas, where Black Wolves won the RT Award for Best Epic Fantasy of 2015.

Nebula Weekend (Chicago, IL), where Court of Fives was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (Updraft by Fran Wilde won the award this year–huge congrats to Fran!)

San Diego Comic Con (big)

MidAmericon (fun)

HawaiiCon (an enjoyable relaxacon)

What did I write in 2016?

BURIED HEART (Court of Fives 3, and the final volume of the trilogy) is complete and due for publication on July 25 2017. It is already up for pre-order. Don’t wait!

I wrote a novelette for THE BOOK OF SWORDS, an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. No publication date set yet. The story is titled “I am a handsome man,” said Apollo Crow and it is set in the Spiritwalker universe.

I wrote a 100 drabble (it was actually 1120 words) as part of a fundraiser for Reading For Pixels, a short piece set in the Jaran universe. I hope to share this in 2017; I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s me looking forward into 2017:

Dead Empire (Black Wolves 2): Yes, I’m working on it. I apologize that it is going so slowly. It’s a large and complicated plot, and I’ve added one more point of view character for a total of six. That is, there are two pov characters in each of the three plot-thread locations. The new pov character has been planned all along so this isn’t me changing my mind about things or going off on a tangent. Not that I can promise that will never happen but be reassured that this isn’t it!

YA proposal, TBA: Working on this and thus can’t announce yet. It’s space opera, not fantasy, and is intended as my YA follow-up to the Court of Fives trilogy. Not a literal narrative follow-up, that is, but a new series in the YA genre.

A 2nd Court of Fives novella: Working on this and can’t announce yet although I can tell you it will be about Bettany. But if you haven’t read Night Flower yet, please do so (if you’re so inclined). Since it functions as a prequel to the Court of Fives series you can read Night Flower with or without having read Court of Fives and/or Poisoned Blade. It works either way. And I’m particularly proud of how I sketched in the world-building in this shorter piece, trying to strike a balance between enough detail to give a strong sense of place and brisk pacing to keep the pages turning.

night flower 1

The cover of Night Flower has the title superimposed over a white and pink bird of paradise shaped flower.

Short fiction: I have several partially-written Spiritwalker short pieces I would like to finish, a short-short set in the Jaran universe that I owe to Mette Harrison (as part of a fundraiser), and a couple of possible projects I’ve tentatively agreed to write a short story for that don’t yet have contracts (that I know of).

Jaran 5: I have the opening of this written. I’m starting to wonder if I can find a way to write this story as a novella just to get it out there. At the moment I do not know when I will have time because I have other contracts to fulfill. Hermione’s Time Turner would be useful right now.

Other projects: Like almost every writer I know I have a number of potential projects and scraps of openings written, just waiting for that halcyon epoch when I can write everything that is waiting to be written. These include a book set in the Crown of Stars universe, 500 years later, an adult space opera (not set in the Jaran universe), and several YA fantasy ideas in the early stages of development.


The cover for Buried Heart shows a silver-colored spider super imposed on a pale circle and blood-red background. The tagline (which my fabulous editor came up with) reads: “The end the war, she must choose a side.”

Upcoming 2017 events (this is only what is confirmed so far, not a final list):

ConFusion, Detroit, Michigan (how will I survive January in Detroit? By never leaving the hotel!)

Duke University Story Lab

YAKFest, Keller, TX (Dallas-Fort Worth area)

Sirens Conference, Vail, Colorado

If I missed any 2016 events or publications, or you have any questions about 2016 OR 2017, jump on in to the comments.

Happy New Year, my friends and readers and colleagues. May you find art and support that helps you on your journey. As for me, I will as always try to stay on the road of justice and compassion.

The Reign of Yazdegerd (Shahnameh Readalong 41)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: The Reign of Yazdegerd

Synopsis: “With the fall of this uninteresting king, the Shahnemeh goes out on a sad note.”

TG:  Well. This was the last section, and it’s depressing. It’s a good representation of how everything has changed from the first 2/3 of this epic. Long gone are the glorious kings and epic storylines, the laughter and magic (and women) and tragic downfalls and me feeling… much of anything. I just finished reading and I already can barely remember anything about Yazdegerd himself. The use of the name Rostam briefly engaged me, but he was so vastly different from the original it seemed like a historical quirk, not a storytelling throwback or deliberate parallel. I suppose that’s because we are in the quasi-historical section.

The appearance of Islam and the way it’s depicted in opposition to the wealth, ambition, and pride of the Sasan kings was interesting, but ultimately went nowhere. I was starting to hope that would be the ultimate point of this last section– a showdown of sorts or maybe a philosophical debate along the lines of those in previous sections where kings and wise men duke things out with riddles and examples. But alas, no.

What this episode drove home yet again was the rigidity of class and its relation to moral fiber. Mahuy is a shepherd’s son, but the king raises him up because of his deeds and supposed goodness, only for him to suddenly show his true colors as a traitor and regicide for no reason than being of poor blood. It was predictable and therefore boring. That’s how I felt about this entire episode. Nothing changed, and so it has achieved the status of stereotype instead of a useful trope or theme to revisit and examine.

AND think of what we missed by being denied even a page or two on those two sisters who ruled briefly before Yazdegerd! Double alas.

The main reason I’m so very sad right now, though, is the little coda at the end in the narrator’s voice–in Ferdowsi’s own voice?–in which he laments his lack of respect and how many people expect his work for free. As a writer myself I feel that pretty hard. I’m glad he gets the recognition he needs in the end.


Both sides of a silver dirham (coin), evidently from the reign of Yazdegerd III, the final Sasanian king. It shows his profile on one side and on the other two stylized figures flanking another creature.

KE:  Dynasties so often seem to end in this “not with a bang but with a whimper” way. First various short-lived rulers and their reigns (including women!) and then one last gasp. It’s interesting to me that after a string of murdered scions, Yazdegerd manages to rule for 16 years (even if under the thumb of the nobles) before the knife falls. That he has no sons is mentioned at least twice.

I honestly felt kind of bad for Yazdegerd. We never hear that he is good or bad, just ineffective and at the mercy of those around him. But in a society in which you are someone because you have a retinue and retainers, what a sad end for this young man, sitting alone in the straw in a random mill. That’s when you know you never had any friends to begin with, that their interest in you was solely due to how your station in life could benefit them. The miller is a tragic character as well, forced to do a terrible deed to save his family and almost certainly disposed of regardless afterward together with the monks and others who tried to honor the royal corpse.

I too tire of the embedded idea that nobility is a form of essentialism, God’s favor, rather than a power structure that maintains the status quo of a few ruling over the many. That Mahuy was able to be elevated in rank suggests a time of decentralization and upheaval — typical of the decline and fall of a major power. It is in such times, ironically, that women and lower class men have more of a chance to rise to the level of their actual merit rather than be held down by patriarchy and hierarchy. Of course that is also why a text such as Ferdowsi’s must repeat the idea that ugliness (a form of “spiritual pollution,” it is implied) and low birth are BY THEIR VERY NATURE disqualifying. The tiers of aristocracy and patriarchy can’t survive without that fundamental ideology being in place.

I thought Ferdowsi was not very complimentary to the Sa’d and his army. The contrast of their austerity to the Sasanian “goldenness” isn’t a commendation if the rest of the text has been praising display and wealth.

Like you I appreciated Ferdowsi kvetching about not getting paid. He was meant to get a large sum of money from the notorious Mahmud of Ghazhni who of course wouldn’t pony up with some variety of excuses. I found this delightful tidbit online:

There Ferdowsi composed a satire of 100 verses on Sultan Mahmoud that he inserted in the preface of the Shah-nameh and read it to Shahreyar, at the same time offering to dedicate the poem to him, as a descendant of the ancient kings of Persia, instead of to Mahmoud. Shahreyar, however, persuaded him to leave the dedication to Mahmoud, bought the satire from him for 1,000 dirhams a verse, and had it expunged from the poem. The whole text of this satire, bearing every mark of authenticity, has survived to the present.

And here’s a translation of the satire.

The power of writers! A salutary lesson for us all with the coming regime.


Next week: We make our final comments about the project as a whole.

Khosrow and Shirin (Shahnameh Readalong 40)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: Khosrow and Shirin

Synopsis: “The story of Khosrow Parviz’s downfall, the rebellion of his bad son, and how his non-noble wife Shirin manipulates her way to power and her ultimate end.”

The lovebirds seated close together in a pavilion. Three ladies attend them.

The lovebirds seated close together in a pavilion. Three ladies attend them. Lots of gold paint highlights, incredible patterned detail in the background, and lovely human figures with subtle motion makes this a superb painting.

TG:  Here we have another strong lady, right after Gordyeh! Only this one does not step outside the womanly roles to get what she needs and wants like Gordyeh, but uses womanly ways–sex, poison, manipulation–to survive and then die how she wants. I did not like her (she just flat-out murders poor Mariam!) but she was great to read about.

It’s clearly set up as a great love story between Shirin and Khosrow, though neither of them is remotely like Zal and Rudabeh, I feel like I’m supposed to think of them (or maybe that’s just because I’m *always* thinking of them), mostly because they are so devoted to each other–he adores her, she murders for him, they sleep together and tell each other secrets, and of course, Shirin’s ultimate act is to manipulate everyone into letting her die and be buried with her king. (Which was AMAZING, I actually started to really like her, despite not wanting to forgive her murdering Mariam.)

These two are star-crossed because of being different classes, and although Khosrow doesn’t climb any balconies, he does have to struggle to convince his councilors to accept her — and that bowl metaphor was fantastic, but also really drove home again how these later stories are becoming preoccupied with class and gender and also beauty. While we’ve always had great descriptions of the beauty of warriors and princes and queens, it’s only really been demons that are monstrous. But in the last few sections there’s a huge repeating pattern of ugliness being associated with bad men and bad thoughts. We get involved descriptions of how ugliness functions, and that is fascinating to me.

I don’t have a lot to say about all these kings who don’t rule for long–except it was nice to get a throwback to the earlier kings again when Khosrow just looses his farr. He just “becomes unjust” and I wonder what the looks like now that all these kings lately have seemed pretty terrible to me. I loved the line at the end: “he finds that his crown is made of the camphor with which the dead are anointed.” What a dark, pointed metaphor.

I found the role of Barbad the musician so interesting I looked him up. He was, of course, real, and he created an entire musical system that lasted a long time in the Middle East. AND he seems to have played a larger, more important story in Shirin and Khosrow’s courtship according to some studies– it was his music that made Shirin realize Khosrow loves her!

I can’t believe there’s only one section of this book left!!!


The musician Barbad and his very very large lute, which is also inlaid with cloisonne or painted or something similar. A lad wearing a fur cap accompanies him on a hand held drum.

KE:  I was puzzled that there was no description of the initial meeting and courtship of Khosrow and Shirin, even though I have found images of him seeing her bathing (a popular motif in these kind of stories).


The young (beardless) Khosrow, mounted on a horse, sees across rock and tree to where Shirin bathes topless.

Shirin seems like the sort of lowborn lover a noble youth is allowed to have, the one he puts aside when he takes on official marriages with women of his own rank. So their story, and how she re-enters his life, did really quite interest me. Also it feels as if the story itself is of two minds about her. First she murders Mariam out of jealousy–and honestly I can’t quite figure out where Bahram Chubineh’s story and his sister marrying Khosrow fit into this–and obviously that makes Shirin seem like a villain. But, like you, I was moved by the story of her death and her apparently genuine love for Khosrow. So that’s a contrast, and I’m not sure quite what to make of it or how we are meant to approach her.

As for Khosrow, I really have reached a point where the good guys do so many unpleasant things that I’m almost glad for them to lose their farr. After all, in my eyes they have already done so!

Wasn’t the other Byzantine prince (from Kesra’s? story) also named Shirui? is this coincidence, or some sort of Persian version of a Byzantine/Roman name? I wonder.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the double dealing and treachery in this episode. It felt so real: This is what these sort of folks do, especially in the late period of a failing dynasty. Short reigns and shifting sides is often one of the markers of the final days of a ruling family. And another thing that interests me about it is that however much we in the sff community talk about the Western roots of so much epic fantasy, I have to say that a lot of fantasy kingship and political intrigue seems to me to have a lot in common with what we are seeing here in the last chapters of the Shahnameh. Have these stories had more influence than they’re given credit for? Or are stories of dynasties and kings and tyrants inevitably similar in many ways? A sobering thought given the USA’s current political situation.


Next week: the final chapter, the end of the Sasanids and the arrival of the Arabs and Islam. I can’t believe we are almost done!

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur, The Story of Mazdak, The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan, The Reign of Hormozd, The Reign of Khosrow Parviz

The Reign of Khosrow Parviz (Shahnameh Readalong 39)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: The Reign of Khosrow Parviz

Synopsis: “Bahram Chubineh continue to harry Khosrow, they both ally with outside rulers, until Bahram is killed ignominiously and his sister Gordyeh is amazing.”

TG:  Continuing the tradition of the immediately previous sections, every king and warrior in all of this is terrible and difficult to invest in. THAT SAID, I still enjoyed reading this section because of all the scheming and murderousness. My eyes were bugging out of my head when Khorad-Borzin was plotting with the old servant Qalun to murder Bahram… I was sure it wouldn’t work. AND THEN! IT DID.

This really furthers his image as a dark mirror to Rostam–that would never have worked on Rostam, obviously, but there are so many references to the old hero (and his horse) as well as Seyavash (my heart!) that it reads very purposefully like “look how far we’ve fallen since the Good Old Days Of Persian Kings and Heroes.” I feel ya, Shahnameh, I miss those good old days, too.

But one thing the golden age heroes and kings never had: GORDYEH.

I’m thrilled to have been wrong to worry about her. Not only does she not meet some untimely end or be forced into any marriage, she makes her own choices, owns her own cities, riches, servants, and GOES TO WAR LIKE A MAN. Here we do have a hero of old, but of course the men can’t recognize that. She rides to war in armor and uses weapons, she murders her enemies, AND she has girlfriends — that aside about her five loyal companions and how they all work together to kill her husband was my favorite part. Then she becomes the favored queen, and gets everything she wants. *heart-eyes*

There needs to be a novel or movie about her, stat.


Gordyeh kills Tovorg. An armored woman on horseback spears a helmetless man in the back after he has fallen from his horse.

KE:  There is a weird thing here in which a king like Hormozd is announced as having an evil nature while never seeming to do that many horrible things, but the righteous dudes like Khosrow Parviz and Kesra actually do worse things on the page and are championed for it. It’s related to that “if God loves and approves of me then nothing I do can be wrong” mentality much loved by the self-proclaimed most righteous. For example, his treatment of the city of Rey is awful, and I did like how “even the priests were astonished to hear Khosrow talk in this way” when he concocts his grotesque plan.

Which brings me to Gordyeh. I also loved her, especially because the Sasanian period has been pretty raw for the womenfolk, and she feels like a return to the good old days of heroic, smart, well spoken women who are taken seriously as advisors. The kitten story is a classic example of the advisor who uses an odd spectacle to make their point. But more importantly, I cheered when she got her BFFs to aid her in killing her husband (and so well described) and then parlayed that action into marriage to the king. In all she acted pragmatically throughout, given the political situation and her position as a woman in a patriarchal world. If only her brother had listened to her in the first place.

Having said that I quite like Bahram Chubineh as a character because his faults and reckless reactions feel genuine to me, so in an odd way I felt I was getting more of a “realist” (rather than a mythic) portrait of a man. He definitely is no Rostam, who would have succumbed to none of that and would have fallen for none of it–well, except the ignoble death–but I’m guessing that is the point. Bahram Chubineh is the exemplar of how far mankind has fallen since the days of old (although his sister is allowed to be just as noble, courageous, and wise as the women of ancient times). In fact I might go so far as to say that SHE is the real heir of Rostam’s legacy, not her brother.

I continue to be intrigued by the treatment of envoys from one kingdom to another, even between enemy courts. An entire treatise has likely been written on this subject. Emperors being enchanted by the diplomats and envoys sent to

their court is a common theme. Those guys were just really good at their jobs.

I would probably have more complex things to say but after 39 weeks I find I am finally lagging. It’s been an amazing read, with a mere two sections left, and also a long haul.


Next week: Khosrow GOES BAD (finally) and I guess it is all the fault of a woman. The Story of Khosrow and Shirin

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur, The Story of Mazdak, The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan, The Reign of Hormozd

The Reign of Hormozd (Shahnameh Readalong 38)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: The Reign of Hormozd

Synopsis: “Hormozd begins by killing all his advisors, and spends his reign fighting against enemies and then his own ambitious champion Bahram Chubineh.”

TG:  I didn’t hate this section! It started off poorly, with Hormozd making clear what kind of king he was going to be by killing off all his advisors (in pretty imaginative ways)– a bad one. There were no women mentioned at all in the first 45 pages of the section either. Women are just absent entirely (but for the prophecy that Hormozd would have his eyes put out by his wife. Hormozd himself is just one more uninteresting, terrible king, and not very wise on top of that.

HOWEVER, I am very interested in Bahram Chubineh. He’s introduced as a Rostam character, but without the details that made me actively dislike Rostam–there are no magical horses to be mean to.

I almost liked Bahram, even, since he seemed like a pretty cool guy, within the context of this story, who was raised up by the king and lived up to it. I loved the fact that he had his dream about being defeated, but went to war anyway, for the right reasons. He faced terrible odds, and even his own doubt, and bravely led himself to success. (It was disappointing to find out the dream was sent by a magician, instead of being a dream from God

Once he began to fall from grace (at least in the eyes of the narrative and the king), I was even more interested because of the very blatant classism. All the conflict between Bahram and Hormozd can be traced to the fact that Bahram is not nobility, and no matter what great deeds he accomplishes, he still is not good enough to be on level with the king or even his defeated enemy Parmoudeh, and certainly unworthy of Seyavash’s earrings. I’d have been pissed at Parmoudeh, too, if he ignored me like he ignored Bahram. (I wonder what Seyavash would’ve said about Bahram, though.)

We did finally get some women affecting the story, who weren’t (yet) killed in terrible ways, though I have a bad feeling about Bahram’s sister. The others are the old woman astronomer and the Evil Sorceress, who sounds pretty great. Of course, once she put ambition in Bahram’s head, she just sort of vanished….

And speaking of women: DAMN sending Bahram the spindle and women’s clothes was cold. But also speaks to the really dangerous sexism that’s become so apparent in the last hundred or so pages of the Shahnameh. I don’t think that would have worked or even occurred to anyone during Rostam’s time.

I’m glad they’re still hanging on to Seyavash’s belt.


Gordiyeh advises her brother Bahram not to aspire to the Persian throne. Bahram sits in the center with four people around him, one his sister as she speaks.

KE:  I also quite enjoyed this section although I have to admit that I was thrilled that Hormozd was immediately identified as a king of “evil nature” since I knew it meant I was allowed to cheer for all his bad decisions rather than being meant to admire him as with the awful Kesra. Once Bahram Chubineh was introduced I perceived a likely conflict, and because by now I have grown tired of the repetitive nature of the man problems (and the constant championing of a hierarchical, patriarchal, authoritarian inequality as the most just and right system) I was hoping that it would all kind of fall apart. Of course it doesn’t — it never quite does — but at least there were set backs and entertaining conflict. And we are left with a rare cliffhanger of an ending, with Hormozd blinded (although not by a woman as we were promised, so I’m sad about that).

Like you I was amused by the blatantly sexist gift of the spindle and women’s clothing as an insult. It follows the path of the recent chapters with respect to women (I can’t see this as being done in an earlier section; it would just have seemed childish).

This section also has a sense of realism in the ways wars are fought or avoided. At first many people are marching on Persia but Hormozd’s advisors figure out how to deal with each one except Savad Shah. The long standing enmity toward the Turks remains. I guess the Chinese Turks aren’t really the Chinese? I wonder if they are the eastern steppe tribes? I’m not sure. It would be interesting to find an article that tries to identify who these various groups might have represented, especially since the place names are consistent.

But my favorite episode in this section was with Parmoudeh (not even his dad’s favorite son; a classic case of the younger son being the favorite and thus crown prince, while the less favored son manages to survive the catastrophe). Because I am petty, I enjoyed his petty treatment of Bahram Chubineh trying to get back into his good graces by ignoring him and refusing all his efforts to make nice. Parmoudeh’s final comment “Go back, you have tired yourself out enough” is classic.

Next week: The Reign of Khosrow Parviz

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur, The Story of Mazdak, The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan

The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan (Shahnameh Readalong 37)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan

Synopsis: “Kesra’s rule is highlighted with one bad Christian son and his on-again, off-again relationship with his vizier.”

TG:  I hardly know what to say.

No named women, again, and despite the section opening with ideas on what kind of woman a king should marry, it was only about her religion and her womb.

The first three sections, in fact, all have anti-women morals. The betraying son is bad because of his religion, which he got from his mother. The dream interpretation by Bozorjmehr takes a dream about a magnificent tree and a pig that wants to drink from the king’s cup and makes it about how women are untrustworthy, culminating in the death of a harem woman, and even the section about Kesra marrying the daughter of the emperor of China he’s only interested in her body being as good looking as her mother’s lineage.

(It almost suggested that a woman’s royalty can be seen through any disguise, mirroring earlier stories of lost heirs being raised by farmers and the like, but no, this was about her beauty, not any farr or royal bearing.)

It was disheartening, though I supposed this week I’d have had to read about the resurrection of Zal to be truly invested.

It does interest me that there is so much religious strife in these latter tales. A clear reflection of the book veering closer and closer to history. In the beginning, the strife was between Godly men and demons, or ambitious men against ambitious men, or all about epic love and giant magical birds, but now we have multiple religious, and different religions tied to different states with more frequency. I can’t help but see the connection between that and the lessening roles of women. Though obviously that kind of analysis would be very complicated.

I almost liked Bozorjmehr, but I can honestly say I don’t understand his last section. He just felt like the king was going to be mean to him, so emoji shrugged his way through torture and near-death, all because of some vague sense of fate. If the black bird stealing the king’s jewels had been a dream, that would have made more sense, but as it really happened, I just don’t get why Bo didn’t merely tell the king what happened, or wake him up, or…chase off the bird.



Nobleman Piruz, seated on a horse to the right, faces King Kesra’s son Nushzad (seated on a horse to the right). Around them many soldiers await orders for battle. This scene represents Piruz advising Nushzad not to rebel against his father the king.

KE:  Like you I quite dislike Kesra the self righteous, continually described as the best and most just and so on and on, and meanwhile he again kills someone by hanging them upside down and who knows what else. Not a pleasant man in pursuit of making absolutely sure he has absolute power absolutely. But this is the system. I get it. Prosperity equals order and strength. Women live in purdah and no longer have names or agency which they don’t need because beauty, fertility, and obedience are their only important features. Bring on the revolution.

Anyway, I found the story of his hapless first son (the lovely Byzantine wife is mentioned and then vanishes) interesting and sad because it struck me as a real conflict. Born to a Christian mother he is then punished for adhering to her religion rather than that of his father. Obviously the king must maintain the supremacy of the state religion (and I believe that Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sasanian kings), but it’s lovely touch of tragic realism, the kind of plot-line that could work so easily in an historical or sff novel.

This chapter also has a sequence of non violent conflicts in which kings test each other with who has the most knowledgable wise men and/or viziers. It’s interesting to read a story in which besting others with your intelligence substitutes for a physical battle of arms.

But overall I’m just getting tired of the struggles of authoritarian men with little self doubt who have the power of life and death over their hapless subjects.

Next week: The Reign of Hormozd

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur, The Story of Mazdak

The Savage Other as a Stereotype in Fiction

(An early draft of this essay was written in 2011. This is a revised version.)

According to my American Heritage dictionary the word savage comes from the Latin for “of the woods, wild.” Savage is variously defined as “Untouched by man and civilization; not domesticated or cultivated; Ferocious; vicious or merciless; brutal.” Basically, savages are but one step up from wild animals. They are, as it were, undomesticated man.

The issue of how savages are the same as or different from barbarians is a related but entangled issue, one I will not get into now because instead I want to discuss the use of “savages” in fictional narrative both written and visual. This is an incomplete and partial examination of a complicated question. I use the generic “we” as a writing device, not to suggest I am speaking for others. Be aware I am specifically speaking from the point of view of an American (USA) writing in English.

A typical appearance of the stereotypical Savage Other in narrative may include some or all of the following characteristics:

1) Savage Others live in a crude and primitive manner, with primitive technology, primitive homes, primitive weapons, and primitive manners. They may be generally partially or mostly naked, and often they are painted or scarred; if clothed, then the clothing is usually unsophisticated while the decoration is often exotic and beautiful. Bare breasts might be prominent. They lack modesty and are sometimes perfectly happy to have sex in public because, like dogs and other animals, they lack self consciousness.

2) Fights, often to the death, and brute strength (i.e. violence) are often used to solve social problems within the group. Savages often are boisterous, unable to grasp or stomach the subtleties of politics or social relations.

3) They often are not articulate or talkative. There may be grunting. This is not always just because everything is being translated. Or, if they talk good, they have a limited palette of conversational topics.

4) Simplistic notions of the universe often combine with a primitive notion of religion. Also, sometimes they can’t count past 3. They may be cunning but are rarely or never inventors or sophisticated problem solvers.  Usually they are gullible and superstitious, although often their naïve view of the world may prove to be profound in some mystical way.

5) Sucks to be a woman. They get all the worst chores and are also at constant risk of rape, especially captive women without a guardian or some man who has claimed her (see #9 below, the primal edge).

5a) Exception: Free savage women may have lusty sexual appetites to go with their bare breasts. Also, savage women can sometimes best civilized men in arm wrestling.

6) Blind loyalty to strong masculine male leader. Blind loyalty turns quickly to feeding frenzy if leader shows the slightest sign of weakness.

7) Dirty or matted, tangled hair a bonus. Decoration a plus, especially bones woven into the hair. Peter Jackson’s King Kong film, I’m looking at you.

8) Savages are usually “those people over there” and never “our people.” I have not done a statistical study on how many in works written by Euro-American authors map savages to non-white non-European groups. But that wouldn’t mean anything anyway because blond people can be depicted as savage, too! You know, like the Scots! No, wait, the Picts! Aren’t they blond?

9) Savages lack discipline. That is, they live close to the “primal edge” and just one little bit of alcohol or tip of excitement will set them over the top and into the kind of impulsive behavior that suggests they have no awareness of themselves in a social milieu. Another way of looking at it might be to say that adult savages lack impulse control in something of the same way some teenagers are said to lack impulse control; in other words, they have never quite grown up; they are perpetual children lacking adult restraint and insight and the virtues of consideration, decorum, and moderation, unless, of course, they are a Wise Savage, in which case they are connected to the mystical spirit of the universe, or a Noble Savage, in which case, bad luck, because they are soon to be wiped out so “we” who have recorded their Last Days can mourn their passing.

10) Occasionally they need an Outsider to help them out, become ruler, save them, or civilize them.

Here are four problems I have with depictions of the Savage Other, although this is by no means a complete discussion of how deeply problematic this stereotype is.


The idea that the default state of human beings is “savagery” lies beneath many of these depictions: an unexamined assumption that this is “what we-as-humans are really like.” The problem with the “what we are really like” theory is that just as human beings have violent tendencies, they also have altruistic and cooperative tendencies; just as they can be cruel, they can also be kind and affectionate. Altruism, cooperation, kindness, tenderness, and affection are not the purview of civilization, just as cruelty and violence are not the purview of savagery. All exist within human behavior regardless.


A “simple” level of social organization, or a low level of technology, does not mean there are equally simple levels of innovation, social interaction, cosmological understanding, or customary (unwritten) law within the group.

What we think of as “primitive tech” was once leading edge tech. Throughout history people have figured out how to use the technology they have in sophisticated ways to deal with their environment and improve their lives. We got where we are today because of uncounted numbers of innovations and inventions that came before in a steady chain of discovery, many forgotten or unrecognized.

In college I took a class on “South American Indians” in which we studied, among other things, cosmologies of various groups. The cosmologies of many of these groups were exceedingly complex and layered and sophisticated. Additionally, the layers of social interaction are usually extremely complex in all societies, and social relationships may be necessarily multilayered in so-called “simpler” societies. If you have ever studied kinship terms you can see how simplified, or one might say atrophied, American English kinship terms are compared to kinship terms in many other languages.


Human groups have all been developing for the same amount of time. They are continually adapting to their environmental and geopolitical circumstances, which are constantly changing in ways we can’t always see from the present moment. My spouse has worked in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and he will tell you that some of the most supple and sophisticated thinkers he has met have been highland villagers in PNG who may seem, by external technological Western measurements, to be more “primitive” (or “less advanced”) than “us” but who are far less locked into rigid ways of thinking.

When we say “less advanced,” what do we really mean? How are we defining “advanced?” Usually we are defining it in terms of cities and urban civilization. Politically and bureaucratically state level societies are usually described as “more advanced” than chieftain level societies because they are more populous and have more moving parts and more specialization. (Lest you wonder, I like my technological conveniences and my Constitution just fine, thank you.)

Yet, for instance, the culture of the nomadic Mongols made famous by the 13th century conquests of Genghis Khan was not “less advanced” in cultural terms compared to other cultures of that time. It was suited to its environment, and was as sophisticated and complex in terms of interpersonal dynamics, cosmological understanding, and the nature of lineage and tribal obligations that bound sub-groups together. It had been developing throughout prehistory through stages in a parallel process (with a different outcome) to the development of the complex urban civilizations of the time, those in China, Persia, and the Middle East. Although not based in an urban context, the fluid and dynamic nature of the steppe lineages and groups proved superior militarily to the urban societies they conquered. The Mongols knew how and where to get the outside knowledge they needed to do what they wanted, including bringing in Chinese siege warfare experts just as one example. The descendants of that conquest held on for a reasonably long time in historical terms as the initial empire grew and then slowly collapsed in the way typical of large empires.


“Savages” do not behave that way. Functional societies are orderly in an internally consistent way.  Functional societies rely on social mores, legal (written or unwritten) expectations or codes, and societal ways (which may be repressive, customary, tolerant, familial, or law-bound) of enforcing social cohesion.

Let me repeat:  All functional societies contain social mechanisms to regulate behavior within the group.

Groups that lack social and customary (legal) cohesion do not survive, or they are already disrupted by other forces which are causing them to change or dissolve. Things like environmental stresses, economic collapse, imperial or colonial pressure or exploitation, and war (internal civil or invasion by an outside group) disrupt social cohesion.

In other words, “savage” defines behavior, not culture. Savage behavior is a dynamic that most often comes into play because of disorder or high stress. For instance, when Wellington’s army sacked the city of Badajoz in 1812, they engaged in savage behavior.

No society or culture can function internally, with internal cohesion, with “savage behavior” as its sole social web. We only think it can be true because the contrast flatters us and reinforces our expectations and assumptions about who is a savage.

Do people behave horribly sometimes? Absolutely.

So here’s my problem: An incident of “savage” or “wild” behavior among a people who are classified as “savages” defines “them,” and the entire culture, as savage, whereas an incident of “savage” or “wild” behavior among “us” (ours, people like us) is defined as an aberration, the exception that proves the rule of our disciplined, advanced, cohesive, orderly, and thus superior society.

But human society is by definition social; we have evolved within social bonds, and with human emotions that influence the ways we interact, enforce social bonds and behavior, and create our way of understanding the world around us.

Humans are as a group emotionally sophisticated, although individuals vary. One of the worst problems with the depictions of the Savage Other is that entire “peoples” or “groups” are treated as if, like variant individuals, they fall outside the curve. But people live in social groupings for a reason: not only are we band animals, we are so because we survive in bands (and larger groups) whereas alone we would die.

As soon as any grouping of people settles into a band or larger society, they now have a social order and will interact to improve the social order (even if only in their favor).

In other words, the Savage Other does not exist. It is a construct, held up so we can feel better about ourselves.

When one people or civilization referred in the past (or refers today) to another as “savage” it is important to examine where and why that word was (or is) being used. Usually it is specifically used to create a value judgement that allows “our” culture to be elevated as more civilized and superior and “theirs” as savage and thus inferior. People in the past, just as in the present, had prejudices and agendas and we should therefore not repeat their judgements as if they were objective.

I’m reminded of the argument that the civilization of the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) was “savage” because they did not use forks: So said anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, writing in the 19th century. Meanwhile, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, writing as an old man in the 1560s, reflects that the Spaniards with Hernán Cortés on that first fateful expedition had never seen a city in Europe as large, spacious, orderly, and beautiful as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Some people typically argue that the Aztecs were savages because they practiced heart sacrifice. A nasty business, I agree. But Mexica heart sacrifice was a tool for political (and religious) power just as the various inquisitions and pogroms have been in Europe, with torture, burning at the stake, and wholesale slaughter part of the historical record. And let’s review a few horrific details of the conquest of the Americas as detailed in Bartolomé de las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (published in 1561):

“The Spaniards forced their way into Native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mother’s breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks.”

Are these acts and the religious-political justification for killing any less savage?

Depictions of the Savage Other in fiction and film don’t function as realistic societies because they don’t contain the complex underpinnings and social interaction that functional working societies have. Savage Others in such cases are poorly thought-through as a piece of world-building. They’re bad craft, and they are also extremely harmful stereotypes. Any belief that they represent a real “type” of human social order has more to do with our willingness and desire to accept a simplistic weave of cliches than with the reality of their existence.