Travelin’ Man

Ironically, although we’ve turned our backs on The Odyssey and started a new literary voyage in The Travels, I can’t help but make constant comparisons between these two works as I read The Travels. They are both books about traveling, and visiting strange, unfamiliar areas; however they do that in completely different styles.

I was struck mostly by the lack of a strong plot in The Travels. Most of the story is related in the prologue, and even that sounds more like a summary by a narrator than an actual tale: “In the year of Our Lord 1260…Messer Niccolo Polo, who was Marco’s father, and Messer Maffeo…were in that city, having come there from Venice with their merchandise.” Then the whole first chapter is basically a geography book. It focuses on descriptions rather than action, which makes sense; this story’s MO of entertaining is showing people places they’ve never seen, not giving pulse-pounding adventures. That’s not to say it’s not an interesting read; I particularly enjoyed the last bit about the  “Sheikh of the Mountains and his Assassins.” Especially how the narrator tops it off with “Let us now change the subject.” Just when it was getting interesting.

That does, though, bring up another stylistic difference from The Odyssey; and that is the narrative tone. While The Odyssey was told mainly through distant, passive narration, this story has a narrator that’s outside the story, but is actively participating in the telling (On that note, who the narrator is could be a topic for discussion, because in the prologue the narrator says “You may take for a fact that Messer Marco stayed with the Great Khan fully seventeen years; and in all that time he never ceased to travel on special missions.” Then, in chapter one, this line pops up: “I will tell you his story just as I, Messer Marco, have heard it told by many people.” Perhaps the prologue was someone else’s introduction to the story that Marco Polo himself told…I’m not sure). But in any event, whoever is telling the story is really getting into it. He keeps saying things like “Let me tell you about this” (which is funny, because we’re going to have to hear it whether we let him or not), “You should also know that…” and of course, he’s not afraid to change the subject once a story’s run its course. What I wonder is, is this technique a result of the oral tradition of the tales collected here, or is it a deliberate attempt to give the story the feel of a real person actually telling it to you?

One more interesting thing I thought I’d bring up is the sense of wonder that this story is rife with. You don’t really find that in The Odyssey. Women who can turn people into pigs? One-eyed monsters? Totally normal; or at least no one freaks out because they’ve never seen anything like it before. In The Travels, things are constantly being highlighted as unusual. The Town of Fire-Worshippers or the miracle of Baghdad and Mosul are good examples. Again, it just contrasts The Odyssey as a work of fiction that takes suspension of disbelief as the status quo, and The Travels, where the entertainment comes through surprise.


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9 Responses to Travelin’ Man

  1. Kevin Fox says:

    My first impression of this book was quite different than I imagined it would be. Of course, I knew very little about the book going into it, but I at least imagined that after a prologue and lengthy first chapter I would have at least a little more insight into the main character. Sure, we know that Marco Polo is from Venice, that his father’s name is Niccolo, etc, but there isn’t a lot to be gleaned about him as a person. It’s almost like he, as the narrator, is just listing off an endless stream of places, like “here lives culture X, they follow religion Y, and the strangest thing they do is Z,” with the occasional story about why they follow religion Y or do Z. I’ll be very interested to see if the rest of the book just continues on like this.

  2. Kaitlin says:

    I found this book quite interesting as well. It almost reminded me, in terms of narration, of “Gulliver’s Travels” by Swift. But in regards to your comment on if it continues like that, I think it does. In the prologue, the narrator writes that Kublai Khan was most intrigued by the people and the culture of the places he sent his ambassadors, for lack of a better word, out to; Marco Polo was his best who would bring back stories. So it seems to me that, as this book is Polo documenting his travels, that it would be what Khan liked to hear, information about the people.

  3. Caitlin says:

    Another aspect of the way Marco tells his story is the manner with which he addresses distance. Everything is referred to as a certain number of days away. Even though this is just a function of not having any other way to determine distances between cities, it may make the stories of his journeys more effective. To say that he travelled for eight days without any sources of food or water is so much more meaningful than 247 miles.

    Going along with Kaitlin’s previous post, I also noticed the importance placed on the different cultures – something that Kahn would’ve been interested in. Every minute detail, down to the type of wood used to build ships, seems important. The narrator would be in the middle of discussing a city’s diet, and randomly interject that they worship Mohamed. These interjections must be important, otherwise we could assume that the narrator wouldn’t interrupt himself so abruptly.

  4. Lindsey says:

    Going along with what Caitlin said, I noticed that Marco often mentions food and water supply in addition to the days it takes to travel. For example, page 68 of Chapter 1 says, “The return journey from Hormuz to Kerman passes through a fine plain ampky stocked with foodstuffs…when the traveller leaves Kerman…he finds no running water, or a good as none.” Today, these details may seem almost trivial to us, considering how many gas stations and restaurants line the roads. In Marco Polo’s time, this information is obviously much more important- it could mean the differnce between life and death.

  5. Allie Klein says:

    Definitely agree, the lengthy descriptions of food, water, and peoples is such a different way of introducing new places than any of us are used to in this age of social media, where any information and facts we could ever desire is quite literally at the tip of our fingertips. However for someone receiving information like this, there is a very good possibilty they have never heard of or interacted with these peoples before… therefore any information possible would provoke this “sense of wonder” as mentioned in the blog post above.

  6. Megan says:

    Looking at the many instances where food and water were mentioned, I found it interesting how many different descriptions there were of the local water supply: spring water, fresh water, bitter water, sulfurous water, brackish and green water. Since water is such a necessity for survival, perhaps the description of a certain location’s water supply could tell a lot about the quality of life in that place. In addition to this, I also found it interesting how, as mentioned above, the distance between places is always indicated by the number of days it takes to get there. For me, this makes Marco Polo’s journey somewhat easier to follow than the Odyssey because I can picture the distance between places and how he is actually getting there, as opposed to the Odyssey, where Odysseus seems to randomly appear in different places, with limited information about how he arrived there.

  7. Annalise Burnett says:

    It is interesting to observe the difference between the way this book is written compared to The Odyssey. Despite the fact that both works are centered around the same general storyline of travel and adventure to foreign lands, Marco Polo has a much heavier focus on the factual description of the places he visits, while The Odyssey is told through the events that happen at certain places, and the details of the land are much less important than the actual interactions themselves. Much like what Kevin said, there is not much to say at this point about Marco Polo other than that he appears to be good at his mission and recording/relaying minute details of foreign lands. The Odyssey, however, was written in a way that allows the reader much more insight into the personalities and characteristics of the characters.

    I think it is very clear that The Odyssey is a poem whereas Marco Polo is a novel. There is something poetic and beautiful in Homer’s words, while Marco Polo reads almost like a textbook. Perhaps the only thing that makes it more interesting to read would be the conversational style with which it is written. The lead-ins like “Let us now change the subject” make the work sound as if it is a story being read to us. This contributes to the folklorish style of the book and perhaps explains the lack of a general plot line.

    • Tobias Boes says:

      Annalise mentions two more possible genres that we might “test out” as we try to make up our minds what kind of book this really is: folkloric collection and novel. Let’s not conflate those two descriptions too easily. Not every book written in prose is a novel, after all. Since the next two works that we will be reading are unambiguously novels, we might want to use part of our time on Tuesday to discuss what actually makes a novel a novel, and whether Marco Polo fits the bill.

  8. Charlie says:

    Although we did not discuss whether or not The Travels qualifies as a novel in class on Tuesday, I think that it is important to determine just what kind of literary work we’re approaching. After all, we don’t often examine a deeply symbolic story such as To Kill a Mockingbird in the same way that we might approach a more historically based work, such as rendition of the Civil War told from the perspective of a fictional narrator. I am of the opinion that the Marco Polo story fits more into that second category, since it’s not exactly a tale that “contains nothing but the truth”(33) as Rustichello would have us believe, nor does it follow a journey of mostly fictional encounters like The Odyssey. Marco Polo’s travel log seems like more of a combination of true events and subsequent embellishments that appeal to the intended audience, that is, the Roman Catholic nobles of the various European principalities.
    But is it a novel? Well, a novel is a fictitious portrayal that tells the story of characters and the struggles that they encounter. As I mentioned before, this account is probably based in fact, so, if anything, it’s a kind of historical fiction. We can be reasonably certain that Marco Polo embarked on a journey to the Orient in 1271, and many of the cultures described over the course of his journey seem historically accurate. But even if Marco Polo’s descriptions are fabricated and the work no longer belongs in the category of non-fiction, it doesn’t necessarily become a novel. For one, the characters of The Travels are rarely involved in the contents of the book; Marco Polo seems more like a disembodied pair of eyes floated across the Eurasian continent, listing the primary exports and unholy practices of the natives. Without an interactive protagonist, The Travels wanders from the criteria that merit a novel label. What seems more likely is that this account is more of a historical travel log with the added spice of a few references to Alexander the Great and biblical allusions that the European gentry would have found relatable. As far as containing a fluid narrative outlining the conflict between characters, Marco Polo gets about as close as the snippets concerning a shoemaker cutting out his eyes and desert nomads being kidnapped and trained as assassins.

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