"I Have Only Told The Half of What I Saw": The Adventures of Marco Polo by Russell Freedman
Notable author Russell Freedman, known for his scholarly, yet highly readable books for young people on pivotal points in American history, has taken on a giant step back in time to to relate The Adventures of Marco Polo, the tale of a celebrated world traveler who broke out of the narrow confines of medieval Europe to open up the East to European eyes.
Marco inherited the role of intrepid traveler from his father Niccolo and uncle Maffeo, who reputedly spent eleven years journeying to the court of Kublai Khan and returning as designated emissaries to Pope Clement IV, all while little Marco was growing in the care of relatives in Venice. When Marco was seventeen, however, he was invited to accompany Niccolo and Maffeo back to the Mongol emperor's court bearing gifts and letters from Clement's successor Gregory X, but with only two of the 100 learned Christian men requested by Khan.
The story of this second expedition covers their journeys by water and on land and their sojourn in the fabled Khan's city of Shangdu (Xanadu) over nearly 24 years, years in which they crossed deserts where the very sands "cried out," at night, over mountains so high that "no birds flew" there, and along the fabled cities of the Silk Road to the court of Kublai Khan, grandson of the Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan, and ruler of most of what is now China.
The Polos must have made optimum use of their Venetian traders' skills. By their account they became close advisers and diplomatic agents of the Khan, visiting the legendary cities of Daidu, Quinsa, Zaiton, and at least as far south as Yunnan on the present-day border of Myanmar on missions of state or trade for the emperor. As Marco Polo tells it, the then elderly Mongol ruler was so enamored of their good company that he would not grant them leave to return home for several years after they began to long for their native city.
At last an occasion arose to combine their return to Venice with a diplomatic mission: Kublai Khan was asked to provide a suitable princess from his court for a strategic marriage with his great-nephew Arghun Khan in Persia. Kublai selected the beauteous and engaging Kokejin, nicknamed the "Blue Princess" and entrusted to the Polos her passage by ship from modern Quanzhou to Sri Lanka and across the pirate-filled Indian Ocean to Hormuz. Empowered by hordes of riches earned at court and golden paizas granting them safe conduct through Mongul lands, the three Polos arrived with their princess, being four of only eighteen out of the 600 passengers to survive the voyage.
Although Kokejin's intended bridegroom had died in the two and one-half year interim, she was soon married to his son, who then provided the Polos with cavalry escort across present-day Iran and Turkey to the Mediterranean coast. Arriving home ragged, speaking Mongol-accented Italian, and much changed after their nearly 24-year absence, the Polos were welcomed by their families when they revealed the gold and jewels sewn into their way-worn clothing. There was much to tell and much that was unbelievable to the stay-at-home members of the Polo clan, but before all could be related or recorded, Marco, ever the adventurer, found himself captured in a naval battle between Venice and its rival city state Genoa, sharing a prison cell with another naval captive from Pisa.
True to his luck, his year in prison was serendipitous. He just happened to be confined with one Rustichello, a veteran writer of epic romances, who volunteered to be Polo's ghost writer. Dictating a narrative of his adventures, particularly the curiosities of nature and lives of the rich and famous he met along the way, Polo's account, immodestly titled The Description of the World became a medieval best seller. Because Gutenberg's printing press was still more than 100 years in the future, Polo's adventures had to be copied out by hand, but that did not stop its wide translation and dissemination across Europe in his lifetime and the century which followed.
Freedman, an accomplished and painstaking historical writer, discusses in his final chapter, "Did Marco Polo Go to China," the authenticity of Polo's journeys, taking up the many arguments, pro and con, to the truthfulness of his accounts. Certainly, Rustichello was an amanuensis whose earlier writing experience might have prompted him to exaggerate Polo's stories, and there is evidence that Marco Polo also revised the manuscript after he settled down to be a family man and merchant in Venice. The account was doubtless translated and possibly changed each time it was recopied, but many of the descriptions of manmade wonders and animals, such as the crocodile, elephant, and the excesses of the Mongol court, such as lavish state dinners for 40,000 people and Khan's 500 wives and concubines, are validated in other sources. Moreover, implored on his deathbed by his family to confess any lies in his account, he only replied, "I have only told the half of what I saw." Certainly, Marco Polo's "Description of the World" was a mind-bending read for the cloistered mindset of the Christian world of his time.
While Freedman agrees that Polo did not introduce pasta or ice cream to Europe (they were already known), he points out that many Mediterranean traders followed the Polos' route to introduce Asian products and ideas to their folks back home. He notes that Christopher Columbus used a well-worn Latin copy of Polo's Description of the World "as a guidebook, scribbling notes in the margins and underlining passages about gold, jewels, and spices." If Marco Polo can be given due credit for what came to be known as the Columbian exchange and the colonization of the Americas, it is hard not to give his book respect as pivotal in Western history.
In addition to the skills of its Newbery Award-winning author, The Adventures of Marco Polo is noteworthy for the illustrations of Bagram Ibatoulline, which are matched in style to the geographic locale of the chapters. Archival artwork from historical sources are also included, and the book design is integrated by its use of burgundy in endpapers, title page and chapter headings, page frames, and as a key color in the illustrations themselves. This book was selected as a 2007 Notable Book.
For the young history buff on your list, see a summary of Russell Freedman's nonfiction works for young readers here.