The Travels of Marco Polo Summary

Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Nicolo and Maffeo Polo set forth on their first trip to the East in 1260, with a cargo of merchandise for Constantinople. From there, they venture on into the lands of the Tartar princes. Having at last reached the court of Kublai Khan, China’s emperor, they manage to ingratiate themselves into his highest favor. During their stay, the khan questions them about the Catholic faith and asks them to return to Europe and ask the pope to send missionaries to his distant land. In the year 1269, the two Polos arrive in Venice. There they learn that Pope Clement is dead, and that Nicolo Polo’s wife also died after giving birth to a son, Marco Polo.

There is a long delay in the naming of a new pope. At last, the Polos decide to return to Kublai Khan and to take young Marco with them. Scarcely do they leave Italy, however, when word follows that Gregory the Tenth was elected in Rome. The Polos at once ask the new pope to send missionaries to Kublai Khan, and Gregory appoints two priests to accompany the merchants. Before their arrival at the khan’s court, the priests turn back when confronted by strange lands and unknown dangers. Young Marco Polo remembers that the journey to the land of Kublai Khan took three and a half years.

Kublai Khan receives them graciously and appoints Marco one of his attendants. In a short time, Marco learns four different languages, and he is sent by Kublai Khan on various important missions. For seventeen years, the Polos remain at the court of Kublai Khan before they express a desire to return to their own country with their wealth. They feel that if the great khan should die, they will be surrounded by envious princes who might harm them. The khan is unwilling to part with the Polos, but they manage to get his permission by offering to transport some barons to the East Indies. Fourteen ships are made ready for the homeward voyage. The expedition arrives at Java after about three months. Eighteen months more are required for the voyage to the territory of King Argon in the Indian seas. During the voyage, six hundred of the crew are lost as well as two of the barons. From there, the Polos take an overland route to Trebizond. En route, they learn that the great Kublai Khan is dead. The three arrive home safely in 1295, in possession of their wealth and in good health.

When the time comes for him to dictate to the scribe, Rustichello, the story of his travels, Marco remembers that Armenia is divided into two sections, the lesser and the greater. In Armenia Major is the mountain said to have been Mount Ararat, where Noah’s ark came to rest. Near this place is a fountain of oil so great that caravans of camels haul away the oil, which is used for an unguent as well as for heat and light.

At the boundaries of the province of Georgiania, Alexander the Great had a gate of iron constructed. This gate, although not all of iron, is commonly said to enclose the Tartars between two mountains.

At Teflis is a fountain wherein hundreds of fish make their appearance from the first day of Lent until Easter Eve. During the remainder of the year, they are not to be seen. Baudas, or Baghdad, known in ancient times as Babylon, lies along the river that opens out upon the Sea of India. The city is one of the great cities of the world and its ruler one of the richest men of all time. He loses his life through his unwillingness to spend a penny of his wealth for its protection. His captor locks him up in his tower, where he starves to death surrounded by gold. In that region, a Christian cobbler causes a mountain to move and, by his miracle, converts many Arabs to Christianity.

In Irak, Marco visits a monastery in which the monks weave woolen girdles said to be good for rheumatic pains. He also visits Saba, from where it is said came the three Magi who adored Christ in Bethlehem. At Kierman, on the eastern confines of Persia, Marco sees the manufacture of steel and products in which steel is used. Much rich embroidery is also found there, as well as splendid turquoises. The Karaunas of the region learn the diabolical art of producing darkness in order to obscure their approach to caravans they intend to rob.

At Ormus, Marco encounters a wind so hot that people exposed to it die. A whole army is once wiped out by the wind, and the inhabitants, seeking to bury the invaders, find the bodies baked so hard that they cannot be moved. Bitter, undrinkable water, the tree of the sun, and the old man of the mountain are all from that region. The old man of the mountain administers drugs to young men to...

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The Travels of Marco Polo Bibliography (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Bergreen, Laurence. Marco Polo: From Venice to Xanadu. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2007. Lively and well-researched biography. Concludes that even though Polo’s book contained some romantic embellishments and outright lies, he was still a perceptive witness to life in the countries in which he traveled.

Cordier, Henri. The Book of Ser Marco Polo the Venetian Concerning the Kingdoms and Marvels of the East. Translated and edited by Sir Henry Yule. 3d ed., rev. Amsterdam: Philo Press, 1975. A two-volume scholarly work in the classic tradition, containing comprehensive historical information and striking visual images. Includes extensive footnotes, drawings, engravings, maps, and photographs to illustrate each chapter of Polo’s work.

_______. Ser Marco Polo: Notes and Addenda. London: John Murray, 1920. Corrections, clarifications, and additions to the 1903 text. Provides further clarification of place names and people named in The Travels of Marco Polo.

Haw, Stephen G. Marco Polo’s China: A Venetian in the Realm of Khubilai Khan. New York: Routledge, 2006. Responds to Wood’s theory (below) that Polo never actually traveled to China and to alleged inaccuracies in Polo’s account of the trip. Haw maintains that Polo did indeed visit China, and he explains why Polo’s travelogue remains an accurate and important source for information about a significant period in Chinese history.

Larner, John. Marco Polo and the Discovery of the World. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1999. Describes how Polo created his account of his travels and the book’s impact on intellectual society in the thirteenth century. Recounts how the book was cowritten by Rustichello da Pisa, a minor author whom Polo met when both men were prisoners in Genoa.

Rugoff, Milton. Introduction to The Travels of Marco Polo. New York: The New American Library, 1961. A solid introduction to Polo’s life and work. Discusses the influence of the book as the first to “pull the veil off the East.”

Wood, Frances. Did Marco Polo Go to China? Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1996. Wood argues that Polo did not make the trip to China; she maintains that his travelogue is not an itinerary but a geography book about Asia, containing information from the works of other travelers, including his father and uncle.