Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2005

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

War as conflict and contact. A Post-Colonial View on the Ottoman-Hungarian Relationship during the 16th century

(based on Géza Gárdonyi's Novel The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon)

Gabriella Hima (Karoli University of the Reformed Church, Budapest)


1. Borderlines between Self and the Other

In cultural studies the aim of research into alienness, according to Jan Assmann, is the scrutiny of the rigid borderlines and the equally rigid rules that govern inclusion and exclusion: "... every culture, should it be handed down, needs to draw a borderline between the Self and the Other. The generation of rules for such boundaries is anchored in the deep layers of cultural semantics. The xenological point of view focusses mainly on the manyfold symbolisms inherent in the basic structure." (1)

There is no textualization without representation, hence the question of the boundaries between fact-reconstruction and fiction is intimately connected with the representation of the Other. The dialogical structure between the Self and the Other within literary texts is established by narrative patterns, the main constitutive principle of which is travelling. The concept of alienness / foreignness includes the relationship between proximity and distance. The Latin word for "foreigner" (etymologically Latin: foras = 'outside', semantically Latin: peregrinus: E. peregrine) not only establishes the genre-typological connection between the foreign alien protagonist and the travel story but also proves their common etymological origin: peregrinus = foreigner and peregrinor (peregrinate) = to travel. The topos of the travel novels - namely, the protagonist has to leave his home to prove himself in faraway countries - is the most effective pattern of Western literature from the ancient Greek epos to the Bildungsroman.In all travelling-genres the confrontation with the foreigner becomes the main constitutive principle of the narrative logic.

If the definition of the Self needs the confrontation with the Other to mark its own borders, it is undoubtedly war as the most intensive conflict between cultures, which effects the strongest motivation for the shaping of the cultural self-image. Alienness as the alternative to the Self can be defined in conflicting ways: 1. as non-accessible, 2. as the unknown outsider, 3. as the trespasser into one's own space. Defining who is native and who is foreign, who is at home and who is on alien territory, is especially difficult during wartime. War, however, can be regarded not only as a deadly conflict but also as an intensive contact - a strong reciprocal experience among peoples. As in the medieval crusades the knights made expeditions to the Orient not only to recover the Holy Land from the Muslims but also to meet the people of the Orient, a few hundred years later the Ottomans returned these missionary visits to Europe.


2. Fact and Fiction in Historical Novels

The historical novel, the Eclipse of the Crescent Moon, by the Hungarian Géza Gárdonyi deals with the martial relationship - including its intensive cultural conflicts and contacts - between the Ottomans and the Hungarians during the 16 th century. The main target of the author was, however, not to pursue cultural studies but to re-tell a historical event.

The unsuccessful Ottoman siege of the Hungarian fortress of Eger (Latin: Agria, German: Erlau) in 1552 was a story waiting to be told, although it was commemorated often enough in verse: as early as 1554 the poet-chronicler Sebestyén Tinódi had published two eye-witness accounts of it, while the romantic poet Mihály Vörösmarty returned to this theme in his epical poem Eger, published in 1827. The defense of Eger was the first Hungarian success since the disastrous battle of Mohács in 1526 which had opened the way to Ottoman domination of the Danube Basin. The Hungarian defenders, including civilians, numbered about 2000. They held out unaided for 39 days against the Ottoman forces at least 20 times larger and equipped with superior weapons. Géza Gárdonyi researched the historical facts of the siege of Eger first in Vienna and then in Constantinople, where he became caught up by the fascinating atmosphere of the city and, among others, witnessed a Shiite procession, which he duly recorded in Part III of the novel. He interwove historical facts with fiction so convincingly that generations of readers have come to regard his story as factual, as indeed much of it is. After having been published in 1901, the Eclipse in the Crescent Moon (the literal translation of the Hungarian title "Egri csillagok" = "Stars of Eger") rapidly became one of the most widely read novels in Hungarian. It has also been translated into 15 languages. For one hundred years the book has remained a best-seller, generations of Hungarians have been fired by its patriotic and heroic fervour and captivated by its imaginative drive. And for 100 years it has been read as a factual account of the Hungarian-Ottoman war.

But what is real and what is imagination in a historical novel? The writing culture-debate of Anglo-American ethnography, questions a strict distinction between fact and fiction in the description of historical events and alien cultures. Morover it stresses the "fictional-allegorical elements of scientific descriptions".(2)

Intending to write a historical novel "which would not use history merely as a backcloth but would serve as a light to illuminate the intriguing darkness of past centuries", Géza Gárdonyi thought that he "could conjure up those characters that we might see their eyes, hear their words and feel the beating of their hearts."(3) What he really was able to "conjure up" is, however, a never-been fiction, constructed on the base of his own imagination.

Containing all ingredients of a good Victorian adventure story the Eclipse of the Crescent Moon can also be read as a special example of the travel novel.


3. War as an Educational Journey

Apart from the fact that the Ottoman campaign in Hungary was in a way an educational journey, the novel narrates the journeys of the main protagonists on both sides, made either on foot or on horseback, by force or voluntarily. The stops of those journeys between the cities of Pécs in Southern Hungary and Constantinople are listed with short comments at the beginning of the novel by a Hungarian captive, who informs his fellows-in-chains about the fate that awaits them. The main protagonist, Gergely Bornemissza (only seven years old at the time of this episode (Part I, Chapter 4)), not only manages to escape from the Ottoman camp but also to rescue his girl-friend, the five-year-old Eve and the other 14 Hungarian prisoners, with the help of István Dobó, the future commander of the fortress of Eger. A few years after the escape Gergely and Eve as young adults travel to Constantinople (Part III, "Captive Lion") in an attempt to liberate Gergely's adoptive father, Bálint Török, called the "captive lion", from the Yedikule (Seven Towers). They fail to free him and barely manage to escape to Hungary. Later Gergely travels once more to Constantinople - but this time it is a one-way-journey. Three years after the successful defense of Eger, Gergely is sentenced to death by hanging by Ahmed Pasha, one of the Ottoman commanders who failed at Eger, and now takes revenge for his own disgrace a few days before his own death. Gergely 's final fate is, however, merely hinted at in the novel (Part III, Chapter 12).

The main protagonist on the Ottoman side, the janissary Yumurdjak, travels to and fro three times between Pécs and Mecca as a pilgrimage of self-imposed penance for having lost his amulet.

The road between Hungary and the Ottoman capital resembles scenes of Babel - it is "like the Danube: everything poured into it", not only Turks and Hungarians but also "Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians, Greeks and Wallachians [and Gipsies], women, children, merchants and soldiers in a ... noisy mass." (211) The national and ethnic boundaries are washed away by the crowds and the confusion of all sorts of languages.


4. Idealization of the Self and Representation of the Other

Gardonyi 's pathos in presenting the past leads to ethical idealization of the Hungarians. This is in line with Homi Bhabha's theory about the application of psychoanalysis to reading facts and events of history by former colonised peoples.(4) The Ottomans are portrayed as morally inferior. Everything Hungarian - not only the people but also the landscape, the plants and the animals – has an inherent moral superiority, and everything Ottoman is dark and suspicious. Marking the boundaries of national identity by the confrontation with the enemy, the author's emotional dynamics do not use a hermeneutical technique but an anthropological rhetoric, which extends paradoxically also to parts of the scenery. The same cosmological phenomena (night, darkness) and the same abstract notions (silence, beauty) have different semantics in the two countries.


The seven-year old boy Gergely escapes from the Ottoman camp at night through a forest, riding on his horse. "The road was dark... The trees stood like giants beside the road." The little boy "was not afraid of them. They were all Hungarian trees." (33) As his horse was also a Hungarian one, it "knew its way". (33)

In Yedikule one night Bálint Török, "the captive lion", was looking out of his window at the sky, which was "covered with slowly-moving dark and ragged clouds". "How different even the sky is here ", he thought. "It's a Turkish sky with Turkish clouds." "Even the silence is different here; it's Turkish silence." (185)

Even beauty becomes ambivalent in Hungarian eyes if it is a Turkish attribute. Constantinople emerges as an incomprehensible, inaccessible world for the Hungarian protagonists, who are nevertheless delighted by its sights: "It's a fairy city", "...a dream-world", "It's more beautiful than a dream". But when they witness a Shiite procession in this "lovely city", Eve is going to faint at the sight of blood. "... the miasma of blood hung heavy in the air." (240) Constantinople "is like a legendary castle...", says one of them. "Outside it looks splendid, but inside it's full of dragons and the damned." (236) (5)


5. Hybrid figures

Although most of the protagonists are two-dimensional, there are a few exceptions on both sides. The main Turkish protagonist, the janissary Yumurdjak is of mixed parentage with a Turkish father and a Hungarian mother ; he speaks Hungarian perfectly but doesn't remember his original Hungarian name. His s y mbolic castration is marked by his wounded eye and wounded hand. But his physical handicaps do not prevent him from being an excellent soldier. From the other side of the road with only one eye he is able to recognize Gergely Bornemissza amidst the mass of people during the Shiite procession. He is just as good at changing his clothes and languages as his Hungarian opponent, Gergely. Both are able to switch sides - sometimes acting as a Turk, sometimes as a Hungarian - but both make mistakes in performing foreign cultural rites and rituals like greeting, eating and so on and are unmasked by the other. Despite his mixed origin, Yumurdjak is drawn as a typical representative of the stereotype Oriental, who is both religious and superstitious. It is not by accident that the Hungarian priest takes from Yumurdjak his amulet when instead of letting him hang he lets him go. Gergely Bornemissza also makes use of the superstition and lack of education of the Turkish soldiers to escape from the camp after the failed attempt of his priest-teacher to assassinate the Sultan (Part II).

The most interesting hybrid figure on the Hungarian side is Bálint Török. He has no such clear Hungarian national identity as for example Dobó, who not even communicates with any of the Ottomans and who considers himself a true soldier of the Austrian King Ferdinand. Bálint Török's political attitude is ambivalent. From Ferdinand he switches over to the Hungarian King John, who is the Sultan’s ally. The marked darkness of his hair and his mysterious physical strength, his knowledge of the Turkish language, even his family name, Török, which means Turk, make him an unpredictable person. To the Turks also he seems dangerous and obscure. After King John ' s death he is taken by the sultan as his "captive lion" to Constantinople.

The anthropological differences of the Orientals mark the boundaries of the genus humanum for the people of the Occident: "Not even humans but beasts", says Bálint Török, about his Turkish prisoners, with whom as a joke he jousts tournaments in his courtyard with - but not according to – the rules of chivalry. "They are not humans", because they eat hedgehogs and horses ' heads raw, is the common opinion of the Hungarian Gergely and the converted Turk Tulip about the non- Turkish ethnics of the Ottoman army, which is a mixture of riff-raff of Arabs, Persians, Egyptians, Tatars etc . Among the Hungarian captives curiosity arises about the Ottoman social order, their religious rites, everyday life and not least their treatment of the women, above all captive women.


6. Woman as the Other

The genealogy as interpretive pattern regulates the difference and identity, continuity and change ; hence both genders are responsible for cultural coherence. All the same, women in this aggressive martial world are socially inferior. They possess not even erotic appeal: they are either shining white angels or third-rate warriors or both in one person such as Eve, the wife of Gergely . Women can participate in this male world mainly in male costumes and in male roles. The handshake between Eve and the Turkish woman, following the exchange of their kidnapped children after the siege is lifted, is a symbolic peace treaty and identification with the fate of women and motherhood.


7. The Converted and Assimilated Other

While the Ottomans, the mysterious Orientals, are regarded as messengers of the very Devil, the captured and christianized Turk Tulip is accepted as a Hungarian. Tulip becomes Hungarian, because in his opinion "it ' s better to be Hungarian than Turkish". He explains his own conversion with the taste of the bacon: Mohamed had "never tasted bacon with paprika" that is why the Turks detest bacon. Hence Tulip's conclusion, "Everyone who's not Hungarian is a fool!", declares that to be Hungarian is a criterion for normality.(6) The real reason for his conversion is, however, his alcoholism.

Tulip represents the reformed assimilated Other. Such conversions were not rare in the Ottoman-Hungarian period. In the other camp the simple Turkish soldier Hayvan tries to convince his young and educated Hungarian prisoner Gergely Bornemissza that he should become a Turk: "Soliman pasha was a Hungarian too", he argues. "He was able to write and read [like you]. Now he's a pasha." It would seem that alcohol or military career were sufficient motivation to change side and identity. Such conversions disprove the anthropological roots of cultural differences.


8. The Orientalism of Gárdonyi 's Novel

The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon is an exemplary work of Hungarian orientalism. Orientalism in reverse one might say. The Orient is presented as the colonizing power and Europe as its colony. The colonial period is described from a Manichean point of view as a struggle between the forces of light and the forces of darkness. Everything is either white or black, not only the protagonists but also their environment. Constantinople - seen from the outside a city of dreams, seen from the inside a prison and slave market - is the symbol of dark powers. The Turkish protagonists, first of all Yumurdjak, are mysterious performers of black magic.(7)

There is of course no reality in this portrayal of the Hungarian-Ottoman dualism. This way of portraying refers to a receptive rather than to a political or cultural problem. The foreigner belongs to a different category but he is at the same time described within the framework of the ethics and rules governing one’s own side. In other words, there is no escape from the universe of the native discourse. That is why the author 's emotional rhetorics idealize the Hungarians in true romantic fashion and at the same time demonize the enemy as the very epitome of political evil. But behind this primitive juxtaposition, there are hybrid characters, emerging from the conflicting languages and cultures, characters which change not only their clothes and language, but also their nationality and identity, and even their gender.

However deadly the conflict, it could also be regarded as a productive contact, since despite horrible cruelty on both sides life went on with extensive cultural exchanges between the fighting peoples, leaving traces visible even today.

© Gabriella Hima (Karoli University of the Reformed Church, Budapest)


(1) Assmann, Jan u. Harth, Dietrich: Kultur und Konflikt, Frankfurt 1990, p. 27.

(2) Vgl. Bachmann-Medick, Doris: "Writing Culture – Probleme der Repräsentation von Kulturen und Literarisierung der Ethnographie", in: Kultur als Text. Die anthropologische Wende in der Literaturwisenschaft (Hg. v. dems.), Frankfurt a. M. 1996, pp. 30-37.

(3) Gardonyi's Diary, Budapest 1937 [Gardonyis Werke, Bd 1-45]

(4) Bhabha, Homi K.: The Location of Culture, London 1993

(5) Antal Bokay also spoke in his unpublished paper (Miskolc, November 2002) about the Manichean point of view of the author, describing the two fighting nations and mentioned these examples.

(6) S. Bokay

(7) S. Bokay

All cited pages from the novel (given in brackets) are related to the issue Géza Gárdonyi: The Eclipse of the Crescent Moon , Budapest: Corvina, 2000. Translation: George Cushing

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History

Sektionsgruppen | Section Groups | Groupes de sections

TRANS       Inhalt | Table of Contents | Contenu  15 Nr.

For quotation purposes:
Gabriella Hima (Karoli University of the Reformed Church, Budapest): War as conflict and contact. A Post-Colonial View on the Ottoman-Hungarian Relationship during the 16th century. In: TRANS. Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften. No. 15/2003. WWW:

Webmeister: Peter R. Horn     last change: 21.4.2005     INST