Marco Polo’s "Million Lies"

On this day in 1324 Marco Polo died in Venice, aged seventy. The adventurer’s Travels of Marco Polo, dictated around 1300, several years after his return from decades in the land of Kublai Khan, became an influential book in Renaissance Europe. So dubious were some contemporaries of a vast and grandiose empire to the East that they published Polo’s account as Il Milione, meaning “The Million Lies.” Some modern scholars, suspicious of what isn’t in Polo’s book — any mention of tea, or foot binding, or the Great Wall — also wonder how reliable it is, or if it is based on firsthand observation.

Whatever its weakness for caravan-stop gossip or hyperbole, Polo’s book conveys his amazement at not just imperial ostentation but day-to-day living — yurts, asbestos, paper money, even an efficient postal system. Here is his practical forewarning to others who might seek adventure or fortune on the Gobi Desert stretch of the Silk Road:

When a man is riding through this desert by night and for some reason — falling asleep or anything else — he gets separated from his companions and wants to rejoin them, he hears spirit voices talking to him as if they were his companions, sometimes even calling him by name. Often these voices lure him away from the path and he never finds it again, and many travelers have got lost and died because of this…. Even by daylight men hear these spirit voices, and often you fancy you are listening to the strains of many instruments, especially drums, and the clash of arms. For this reason bands of travelers make a point of keeping very close together. Before they go to sleep they set up a sign pointing in the direction in which they have to travel, and round the necks of all their beasts they fasten little bells, so that by listening to the sound they may prevent them from straying off the path.

Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.