For years, I knew Marco Polo as so many others first come to know him, clearly an accomplished hider and seeker in medium sized swimming pools. In time I learned he was a Venetian trader who traveled the world, and only later learned the man was a rather shameless teller of tales if not an inveterate liar.
Well. That last comment is completely unfair, and does not reflect my current opinion of Marco Polo, after a few more years of study. Still, Marco Polo’s relationship with what we would call “the truth” can be a complicated one. Let me explain.
We are discussing Marco Polo in class this week as part of our semester-long discussion of Western creations of Asian identities. Polo is a great place to start, not least because the book for which he is so famous, The Travels of Marco Polo, is itself the creation of multiple interpretations, some fed by audience expectations anticipated or otherwise.
For one thing, Polo did not write The Travels alone, but with the help of Rustichello of Pisa, a writer in the romance tradition who held great influence over the composition of the work following the meeting of the two men in prison. Beyond that, Polo lived in an age somewhat different to ours in terms of the consumption of stories, myths and legends; with the scientific revolution unknown and centuries away, knowledge of the world could be gathered and then dispersed in many ways. Why would there not be a great Christian king sitting somewhere east of the Muslim World ready to come to the aid of Crusaders and other Europeans, such as the oft-discussed and contradictory Prester John? Polo weaved great tales of his time in China in particular, filling European heads with dreams of the great riches and sumptuous pleasures of the court of the great Khan.
The Khan in this case was Khubilai Khan, grandson of Chinggis and ruler of China. He also inspired, or rather the legend of his riches inspired, the famous Coleridge poem “Kubla Khan.” It is thanks to Polo that we have such rich tales of the wealth, riches and power of “Cathay”, the old European word for China. Then again, it was very much what the audience wanted to hear, and Polo turned out not to have all that much in the way of competition for records of the East.
It should be said however that Polo’s work features an awful lot of cataloguing of information that would imply he certainly set out with a geographer’s sense of focus and obligation. His consistent openings listing various religious sects he has encountered always brings this home the most, for me; and in truth, the riches of the Yuan Dynasty, as Khubilai Khan’s rule over China was known, were extraordinary and must have stunned and humbled Polo, who himself came from Venice, no backwater by European standards. If nothing else, Polo’s travels exposed the myriad ways in which Europe lagged behind the riches and power of East Asia even following the trauma of Mongol invasion. Polo wrote of the great riches of the court but also of the extensive postal station system utilized by the Mongols, and attitudes within the political elite to various punishments meted out upon criminals and traitors and attached policies.
So yes, calling him an inveterate liar is just a little unfair, but Polo and Rustichello were unafraid of a fantastic tale or two, whether they present them as relayed from other sources or not. My personal favorite, and a famous and popular tale in the Middle Ages, concerns a Sheik named Alaodin who maintains a beautiful garden resembling Muslim descriptions of paradise: the Sheikh would, according to Polo, drug young men and relocate them so they woke up in this garden, thinking they were in the hereafter. He used this to build loyalty, and created a cadre of assassins so fearsome that no man he desired dead could escape his fate. This is typical of the fantastical extents The Travels can reach, as well as reflective of the expectations of Polo’s Christian audience: Alaodin meets a sticky end of his own. And then the book moves on to the next tale. There are plenty Marco Polo wants to tell.