Barbarian at the Gate

by M. J. Engh

(Warning: This review contains spoilers for a forty-year old book.)

Arslan was written in the late 1960s and was first published in paperback in 1976. It must have come and gone with little notice: I certainly didn’t notice it. But some important people did, because in 1987 it was reissued in a hardcover edition by Arbor House. Algis Budrys, who did a book review column for Fantasy & Science Fiction at that time, wrote an extensive and enthusiastic review that motivated me to buy and read Arslan. I only read it once, thirty years ago, but I never stopped thinking about it. Once Arslan gets into your head, he’ll never leave. This is an amazing and horrifying work. It doesn’t surprise me one bit that those important people who read it in 1976 were agitating for a reprint eleven years later.

From time to time I’ve wondered what became of Arslan. Recently I got an email plugging the book and learned that yes, Arslan lives on. It’s still drawing reviews; there are some good ones here and here and here. And so, I decided to read it again after thirty years, and see how it stacks up after all this time.

Engh is a scholar of ancient history. If you know even a little ancient history, you probably heard stories of peaceful, prosperous civilizations suddenly confronted by an irresistible barbarian army led by a charismatic commander. Think Attila. Think Genghis Khan. Think Tamerlane. Think, an army of people who respect nothing but raw power. And they have all the power. We think of this sort of confrontation as something belonging to the ancient past. Arslan asks a simple but hard question: What would it look like if middle America of the 1960s encountered a modern Genghis Khan and his horde?

I can’t honestly “recommend” this book. It is powerful and memorable. It is also deeply disturbing. Whether you ought to read it depends on how you feel about a deeply disturbing book that will haunt your thoughts for the rest of your life. Some people rave about this book; others report throwing it against the wall after the first chapter. I should give a trigger warning here, because this book contains, well, just about every awful thing you can imagine one human being doing to another. To paraphrase Nietzsche, beware of looking too deeply into Arslan, lest you find Arslan looking deeply into you. Follow me to the other side, if you dare, but don’t say I didn’t warn you….

Still with me? The first half of Arslan is narrated by Franklin Bond, who is principal at the junior high school in Kraftsville, a rural community in southern Illinois. He begins by mentioning that folks in Kraftsville were sort of vaguely aware of Arslan, the military dictator of the central Asian republic of Turkistan. Apparently he took control of the country and then began appearing in the news quite a bit. Bond can’t remember exactly why. Then the USSR offered to mediate a border dispute between Turkistan and China. Arslan and Chinese officials traveled to Moscow. A couple of days later, the Emergency Broadcast System kicked in to announce that martial law had been declared in the US, that Arslan was now in command of all US armed forces, and that all Federal and state highways were now restricted for military use only. Civilians found on them would be shot. Folks in Kraftville discover that there is no more long distance telephone service. No one understands what’s going on.

While Kraftsville is still absorbing these developments, a unit of Turkistani soldiers comes to town and immediately takes control of Bond’s school. Amazingly, Arslan himself is among them. He has decided, apparently on a whim, to make Kraftsville the capital of the world-spanning Empire he has just created. The students at Bond’s school are now hostages, and he issues a series of draconian orders: A dusk to dawn curfew. Orders from Arslan’s soldiers are to be obeyed without hesitation or question. No one is permitted to cross the county line. The conveniences of modern technology—telephones, electricity, autos, machinery—are now all forbidden. The penalty for each act of disobedience will be the execution of one of the kids in the school, one related to the culprit, if possible.

Even as these orders are being issued, Arslan arranges for a celebratory feast in the junior high school gymnasium for himself and his troops. Arslan tours the school with Bond and chooses three eighth-graders. Franklin says they are his three best students. They are to “serve” him at the banquet, Arslan says. The feast is an all-Turkistani affair, except for Franklin Bond and a few of his teachers, who are forced to attend the event bound and gagged. At a suitably climactic moment, Arslan summons one of the eighth-graders, a girl named Paula Sears. She is brought to him naked, and he rapes her to the acclaim of his men and the horror of the American witnesses. The girl is taken away. More feasting, and then, because, as Franklin explains it, “anyone can rape a little girl,” Arslan summons a second student, a boy named Hunt Morgan, who is also brought out naked and also raped by Arslan, again to the acclaim of his soldiers. The boy is taken away. At the end of the evening, Arslan approaches Hunt’s mother, who is a teacher at the school and witness to her son’s rape, and compliments her on how fiercely he fought back.

That is the first chapter. And this is the place where a lot of people throw the book against the wall. Are you still with me? There are many more horrors in the book, but it is that first chapter that sticks in the mind like a shard of steel. But what is Arslan about? What is the point of all this awfulness?

I’m going to divide the rest of this review into two sections: the rape, and everything else. And, um, let’s start with everything else.

Understand what this book is not. Although it is a story of a global catastrophe, it is not an epic. Do not expect to read a play-by-play account from multiple viewpoints around the world of how a military dictator from a small country brought down global civilization. That’s already happened when the story opens. Do not expect to read about a plucky band of heroes who take it upon themselves to fight back. There is a resistance in this novel, but they are offstage and mostly ineffectual. What is shocking about Arslan, apart from the ruthless horror, is how small the story really is. There are only three characters who matter: Franklin Bond, whom Arslan conscripts to be liaison between Kraftsville and the occupation force (Arslan also moves into his house), Hunt Morgan, whom Arslan not only rapes, but then rips from his family and keeps locked away in Franklin’s spare bedroom, for use when the mood strikes, and of course, Arslan himself. Later in the 16 years the book spans, you will also get to know Arslan’s son Sanjar, who is born in the course of the story and grows to the age of eleven, though he is a formidable presence even then, because he is Arslan’s son.

We know little of what goes in outside of Kraft County, Illinois, because our narrator knows little. Arslan has divided the world into small communities, and cut off all communication between them. As the story unfolds, we gradually get some hint of how Arslan accomplished his seemingly impossible conquest, but again, that’s not what the book is about. This is not a plot-driven story. The ultimate clash between civilization and barbarism that Arslan wants to lay before us does not take place on a world stage or on a battlefield. It takes place in the soul of one child: Hunt Morgan. Representing barbarism is Arslan, the man who in one master stroke has become the most important and most powerful person in human history. Representing civilization is the solid and upstanding—though often small-minded—middle school principal, Franklin Bond. It’s not a fair fight, and there’s only one possible outcome, but it’s still a hell of a spectacle. And I mean that literally.

This is a character drama, that takes place as much in the minds of its two first-person narrators as anywhere. Franklin Bond tells the first half of the story, encompassing the first year of Arslan’s reign, when he rules the world from Kraftsville. When it’s time for him to go, he takes poor, abused Hunt Morgan along with him, and there we shift to Hunt’s narration, as he retells that first year from his own point of view, then narrates his four-year odyssey around the world as Arslan’s catamite, until Arslan plunks him back into Kraft County at the age of eighteen. Hunt then moves in with Franklin, because Franklin Bond’s house is the only place in Kraft County where he is welcome. We then return to Franklin’s point of view for a time, although Hunt gets the last chapter, and the last word. It remains a personal tale even when Hunt is jetting around the world with Arslan. Hunt is mostly narrating his own scars. For a story about the end of the world, it is a surprisingly intimate tale. And speaking of intimacy….

The rape. I use the definite article here, even though the narrative alludes to thousands, millions more. Because Arslan’s war against civilization embraces not only technology and governments and laws and nations, but seeks to extinguish human decency itself. Still, I can say the rape, and anyone who has read the book will know at once which rape I am referring to: Hunt Morgan’s.

Hunt is the only male character who is raped in the course of the story. He is also the only character whose rape matters. The others vanish from the narrative as soon as their rapists are finished with them, like Paula Sears, who is named and who suffers the same initial indignity as Hunt, but then disappears from the story and is never heard from again. Women hardly exist in this novel, not the rape victims, and not even Franklin’s or Arslan’s wives, both of whom die in the course of the story and seem like little more than window dressing even when they’re alive. I should probably pause to point out that the author, M.J. Engh, is a woman. “M.J.” stands for “Mary Jane.” But she is clearly addressing the argument in this book to men. A good case can be made that Arslan has little to say to women readers; I won’t try to make it here, because this review does that so well. I will applaud Engh for her examination of the trauma of rape, (for this one character, at least) and for including the bitter, but all too real, moments when Hunt is traumatized further by his own community, which views him as damaged goods, if not an outright collaborator. No one will have anything to do with him, not even his family. No one except Franklin Bond.

The solid, workmanlike Franklin tells his half of the story in solid, workmanlike prose. But when Hunt takes over the narration, the novel soars. The prose explodes into rich imagery, peppered with a thousand allusions to the classics. I was surprised at first; Hunt is supposed to be a smart kid, but his education was interrupted in the eighth grade. But you see, Arslan is also poorly educated. He used Hunt to read Western classics to him (when he wasn’t using Hunt for more abominable purposes), and Hunt educated himself while he was educating Arslan. It is all the more harrowing that this lush writing should be employed to express Hunt’s grim, stunted emotions. Hunt was forced to become a man before he was finished being a boy, and as a result believes in nothing and no one. Except Arslan. It is easier to pity Hunt than it is to like him. It’s hard to like any of these characters. Not Hunt, not Arslan certainly, and not Franklin Bond, who seems a decent man, but not a good one. Arslan grants Franklin a grudging respect for his steadiness; Franklin returns it with reluctant courtesy. Hunt is aloof, even hostile, toward Franklin, while privately yearning for him to replace the father who abandoned him. But Franklin seems too emotionally barren to reach out to Hunt. And Hunt is incapable of disentangling himself from Arslan. Hunt loves Arslan so much he becomes jealous of Arslan’s wife, and late in the story is still willing to go into battle at Arslan’s side. Yet even Hunt acknowledges that the concept of Arslan feeling love for anyone is beyond his imagination.

And it is within this emotionally dreary and nihilistic triangle of realtionships that the battle between civilization and barbarism plays out in Hunt’s soul:

It took a convulsive effort to realize that it was exactly the good people, it was especially the better people, who were the loathsome hypocrites. My father and my mother, and all the other reasonably intelligent, reasonably nice, reasonably successful people I had ever known—they were the ones who spoke out dogmatically for truth, beauty, and goodness, while with every action of their lives they cast votes for falsity, ugliness, and corruption. And Mr. Bond, of course—Mr. Bond was a particularly prime specimen, because he made his living teaching hypocrisy to children.

It was Arslan who showed me the possibility of living honestly. Even his deceits were straightforward—tools as simple in purpose and exquisite in design as the guns he equally loved. He lied; but he did not pretend.

The message of Arslan is that the barbarian has honesty on his side. The barbarian does not pretend. Do you reject barbarism and embrace civilization? If you say you do, you must contend with Arslan’s dark and accusing look—the look that says in truth you are no better than he is; you have merely varnished your evil with hypocrisy. Do you reject barbarism? If you say you do, and you look the other way when a woman is sexually harassed, or try to invent excuses for a rapist, then you are a hypocrite. If you say you do, and condone petty thefts and self-serving lies, then you are a hypocrite. If you say you do, then turn your back on disease and starvation so long as they don’t reach all the way to your comfortable home, then you are a hypocrite.

It turns out that standing up for civilization is a lot harder than it sounds. Are you up to it? Arslan asks us all. This is a powerful and thought-provoking book. Whether what you’ll get out of it is worth the harrowing of your soul is something only you can decide.

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