After a hiatus, weekly posts have returned on Saturdays. Today, I propose a modest theory about the Old Man of the Mountain, Hassan ibn Sabbah, the leader of the Nizari Ismai’lis, which are more infamously known (however unfairly) as the Assassins.
I have discussed the Old Man of the Mountain in the past in the context of the famous Assassin’s Creed franchise. In this post, I try to understand how exactly Middle English readers would have understood the reference to the Old Man of the Mountain in The Book of John Mandeville. I propose in fact that they would have interpreted this account as a moral allegory not dissimilar to certain fairy tales in which the seductions of fairy land tempt the victim away from aspiring to heaven by presenting the victim with a garden of earthly delights.
Before I begin, here is the entire reference to Catholonabeus, which is Mandeville’s name for Hassan ibn Sabbah. This is a free translation from the text edited by Kohanski and Benson. (Catholonabeus is a Latinized corruption of a Syrian word meaning ‘killer.’)
The Old Man of the Mountain
In this land was a rich men that men called Catholonabeus, and he had a fair, strong castle. And he had made a good, strong wall all around the hill. Within was a fair garden in which were many fair trees bearing all manner of fruit that he could find. And he planted all manner of herbs of good smell. And there were many fair wells, and nearby were built many fair halls and chambers endowed with gold and azure. And he made birds and beasts that turned around via an engine within a clock and they sang as if they were alive. And he had in his gardens maidens of 15 years of age, the fairest that he could find, and male children of the same age, and they were clothed in gold and he said that they were angels. And he had made a conduit under the earth so that when he wanted he could sometimes run milk, sometimes wine, sometimes honey. And this place is called Paradise. And when any young bachelor of that country, knight or squire, came to find solace, [Catholonabeus] led him into his Paradise and showed him many wonderful things and his maidens and his wells and he also sounded his musical instruments in a high tower that could not be seen and said that they were angels of God and that here was Paradise that God granted to those who believed when He said thus: “I shall give you a land flowing with milk and honey.”
Marco Polo’s account of Hassan ibn Sabbah develops this point to say that all those who the Old Man of the Mountain seduced with his pleasure garden he also persuaded to carry out political murders. Their reward was re-entry into Paradise and for that, they were willing to do anything.
My initial impression of this account is that it is an Orientalist wonder tale, a European projection of fears about the Islamic ‘Other.’ Certainly the myth of a false paradise implies a degree of alterity to the man who built it. He cannot be said to be an entirely orthodox man and certainly not a Christian one. However, nowhere in Mandeville is Catholonabeus called a Saracen or a Muslim. And nowhere is his Paradise ever explicitly condemned as a false heaven. If anything, it almost seems as though the author celebrates the human ingenuity that could produce such a marvel in this world. The mechanical birds and magnificent the clock (which reminds me of a certain water-clock the caliph Harun al-Rashid of One Thousand and One Nights fame gifted to none other than King Charlemagne) suggest a technological advancement far ahead of what was common in Europe at the time.
My second impression of this account is that it corresponds fairly closely the idea of a wainscot society in fantasy criticism. A “wainscot” refers to a society of fantastic beings that exists within the mundane world, although this society can only be accessed ‘through the cracks.’ For example, there might be fairies living in a house’s actual wood paneling, which is what a ‘wainscot’ is. Or, to return to Catholonabeus, a secret society of hedonistic pleasure seekers (and their servants) might exist concealed in the mountains and within a castle, as the artificial paradise appears to be. The fact that the servants are called ‘angels’ furthermore links them with the supernatural, although they may merely be false angels.
Angels are only a small step away from fairies. Now consider if this wainscot society situated in a wondrous garden of paradise formed a sort of Celtic Otherworld.
In Sir Orfeo, a Middle English verse romance, a knight ventures into a fairy Otherworld that resembles the New Jerusalem, for all the bright and precious stones that adorn the buildings. The New Jerusalem is “the proude court of Paradis” (376). It is an otherworldly, wondrous utopia like the artificial paradise, only Sir Orfeo’s is the real deal. Nonetheless, it might be said that a tradition of viewing Paradise as an Otherworld does exist in the medieval English literature. Why not an artificial paradise?
Celtic fairy lore mentions the perils of being caught dancing in fairy circles and the danger of losing oneself to the seductions of fairy land, the ‘perilous realm.’ Consider Catholonabeus as a kind of Oberon, only with the skill of La Belle Dame Sans Merci at seducing young men with the pleasures of his garden. The dangers a young man might face with the Old Man of the Mountain come remarkably close to the ones a knight might expect from a fairy.
Then recall the tradition of fairies as the puckish, arbitrary dispensers of harm or aid. Never anger a fairy, or there will be hell to pay. Keep giving them milk in a dish by the windowsill and they will be kind to you. But you just never know. A fairy might decide to play the trickster no matter what you try to do.
Although Mandeville strangely omits all mention of the Assassins from his account, if Catholonabeus controlled his Assassins rather like a fairy king, he would have been considered a dangerous man. Like a Mafia don, a fairy with the power to murder you should better be placated.
Although I let my fancy fly a little in my last paragraph, I believe there are nevertheless suggestive cues in the account of the Old Man of the Mountain to suggest that one kind of text that might have influenced how Middle English readers interpreted John Mandeville’s account is what I will loosely call the ‘fairy story’ or ‘fairy romance.’ Kings and squires venturing near a fairy mound had better pour wax in their ears not to hear the seductive siren music of the fairyland. In the same way, the same heroes might be well instructed to turn a deaf ear to anything Catholonabeus promises and to not be fooled by his hidden musical instruments that they are in the real Paradise.
But just in case anyone needs a convincer, think about this.
Fairy rings are known to grow bigger the deeper you enter them. Although they look small, as if they do not contain much space, once you enter one, they are bigger on the inside (rather like the inside of the Doctor’s TARDIS).
Hassan ibn Sabbah was lord of Alamut castle in Northern Iran. Unfortunately, this castle is much too small, narrow, and rocky to have housed a full scale garden of paradise. However, a certain vineyard does thrive on Alamut to this day. It was rumoured to have been planted by Hassan himself.
Although it is not much to look at, the vineyard is a slice of green life thriving in the otherwise spartan ruin of the Ismai’li castle.
Has anyone ever paused to see how big that vineyard is on the inside?
A modern-day shot of the castle of Alamut.