QUAINT #23: The Hellenes in “Gobi or Shamo: A Story of Three Songs” by G.G.A. Murray

Hellenes. The Hellenes were created by G.G.A. Murray and appeared in Gobi or Shamo: A Story of Three Songs (1889). George Gilbert Aime Murray (1866-1957) was a scholar of the Classics, a Fellow at Oxford, a playwright, a translator and popularizer of Hellenism, and a passionate liberal, campaigning tirelessly for the League of Nations.

Gobi or Shamo is the search for a lost colony of Greeks. Mavrones is a young English scholar who yearns to discover an unknown historical curiosity or treasure. He stumbles upon the possible existence of a lost group of Greeks while perusing a set of manuscripts in a former Byzantine monastery on the Greek island of Arganthus. Mavrones sets out to locate the Greeks, assisted by his friend Quentin Baj, “a man of six feet two, with dark moustaches and a crushing manner, and…further…the possessor of an acer et contemptor animus, with few good-natured weaknesses to spoil the edge of a resolve.” Mavrones, Quentin Baj, and their annoying friend Wibbling set out for Mongolia, and after a series of life-threatening adventures they find the Hellenes.

The Hellenes are the descendants of Milesians taken prisoner by Darius the Great after the Ionian Revolt of 499 B.C.E. After five generations of slavery the Milesians fled northward, joined with a group of Ionians, and fled “from the kingdom of the Persians, Northward and Eastward, over the great mountains that lie by the sources of the Indus and Oxus…” They ended up in a remote, mountainous part of Mongolia (“shamo” being the Mongolian term for the Gobi) and settled there, on top of a steep plateau, driving off the local Sanni tribe and forcing a peace on them. The Hellenes have an interesting civilization. They retain the essentials of Classical civilization, but have developed advanced technology.

They are strict vegetarians, and educate the “lower animals,” using dogs as hall porters and messengers. The dogs are taught to read and to understand spoken Greek, although they do not speak. The Hellenes are xenophobic and have formulated laws forbidding non-Hellenes from entering or staying with the Hellenes. They use advanced science based on a type of energy which may or may not be electricity–the text is coy on this point. This energy can create a lethal force field, but the Hellenes “use it chiefly for sending messages, or building large temples, or for such kinds of labour as do not beseem the dignity of man.” But because the Hellenes are surrounded by hostile Mongolian and Chinese tribes, the Hellenes also use their energy for powerful explosive shells.

Once Mavrones, Baj and Wibbling discover the Hellenes they are forced to leave almost immediately, as the Hellenes do not welcome strangers. But the three travelers are caught among the Sanni during an uprising, and barely escape before the Sanni set off a high explosive bomb they captured from the Hellenes. Eventually Mavrones and his two friends make it home:

Perhaps it would seem more friendly if we accompanied Mavrones and Baj in their journey westward, up and down their mountains and ravines, across their torrents and snowy passes, and, most dangerous of all, across the official bridges built by the Tibetan government, making detours to avoid Tudjung and Punukka and evade, if possible, the Episcopal suspicion; till at last we should reach the line of little posts with flapping banners which marks the Southern frontier of Thibet, and feel ourselves safe to travel like peaceable foreigners in the territory of the Rajah of Bhotan. Yet it is a dull and disagreeable journey: the only good reason for undertaking it would be a desire to serve our friends, and I strongly opine they would be better off without us.

Gobi or Shamo is a Lost Race novel, but it was written early in the development of the genre, only four years after Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines had been published and before the great onslaught of Lost Race novels. Unlike most Lost Race novels, however, Murray allowed for his Lost Race to evolve with the passing of time.

Gobi or Shamo was an early work, written only a year after Murray left Oxford, but it still reveals a mind witty, cynical, and either well-traveled, well-read, or both. Murray has a good touch at
description, and the novel is written with skill and, surprisingly, humor, and is an unexpectedly entertaining read. It works well as a travelogue of Central Asia, and Murray neither takes his subject too seriously nor forgets that adventure is always a bonus in Lost Race novels.

The Hellenes are an technologically and culturally advanced race. Their civilization seems to have little to do with the historical Greeks, however. Despite the obvious research that Murray did for Gobi or Shamo, the Hellenes are not so much Greek-flavored as a generic Lost Race civilization with surface ties to the Greeks. They have the dress and architecture of the Greeks, but not their society.

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One response to “QUAINT #23: The Hellenes in “Gobi or Shamo: A Story of Three Songs” by G.G.A. Murray

  1. Excellent post – thanks so much!