1992-02-23: Travels of Marco Polo

The Travels of Marco Polo (1298)

by Marco Polo (1254-1324), translated by ?

This book describes a journey into (previously) unknown lands.  When it was written (or dictated), Polo’s purpose was to describe the lands and people he had seen in his many years with the Great Khan.  To the people of his own time, who had no independent sources of information about these lands and people, his story was incredible. To us, who now have many confirming sources, his book is useful as a source of insight to the reaction of one man to the events and impressions of his journey.

The book has a systematic order, not as a travel journal, but in the order Polo wanted to convey his impressions.  For the many places he describes Polo gives its location (usually relative to a previously mentioned place), the manner of worship of its inhabitants, their remarkable customs, their primary diet, the climate and animals, and type of articles of trade to be found there, and the relation of the ruler to the Great Khan.

The book, though certainly sensational in its time, is written in a thoroughly matter-of-fact tone, not one calculated to arouse excitement.  Polo seems to be giving his observations, with little intent to amaze his readers.  Indeed, he is so objective that it is hard to see what he really felt about it all, except that he was greatly taken with Kublai Khan, and evidently Khan was also taken with Marco, and his father and uncle.

In a way, that is one of the remarkable facets of this book.  Although it gets repititious in tone, and some places are practically indistinguishable from some others, yet the reader is drawn along at a rapid pace, as if compressing the journey of many years into a few hours.

I recently learned that Marco Polo was only 17 when his father and uncle returned from the travels and took him on their next journey, of which he wrote.


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