The story of Marco Polo’s Asiatic journey is one of the most astounding of all travel books of Western civilization. One reason for its popularity is that Marco did not mind mixing fiction and fact. Another is that he possessed in high degree a quality few travelers ever have: the ability to see new things objectively.
The Travels of Marco Polo was passed down in many manuscript versions, none of which is the original. Although it is nearly certain that the scribe Rustichello transcribed the original manuscript in French, manuscripts are extant in almost all of the Western European languages. None of the extant manuscripts is complete; hence, much scholarly attention was focused on speculation about what material was present in the original version and what material was interpolated by later scribes. At least an equal amount of attention is focused on trying to distinguish Marco Polo’s observations from the embellishments of Rustichello. To some extent, Chinese historical records are helpful in settling some of these questions. A lesser, although nevertheless vexing, problem arises in attempting to correlate Marco’s citation of personal names and place names with their modern-day equivalents and counterparts—a problem stemming from irregular orthography and compounded by transliteration from one alphabet to another as well as by other changes that have occurred, for example, Constantinople becoming Istanbul. The aggregate of these textual difficulties makes analysis and evaluation of Marco’s narrative tentative at best.
One matter, however, is considerably less debatable than others: the place of The Travels of Marco Polo in literature. Marco Polo’s account is, without doubt, soundly within the mainstream of medieval and Renaissance historical-travel literature. Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia regum Britanniae (c. 1136; Vulgate version; History of the Kings of Britain, 1718), Sir John Mandeville’s The Voyage and Travels of Sir John Mandeville, Knight (c. 1356), and Richard Hakluyt’s sixteenth century books on exploration, among others, join The Travels of Marco Polo to form the canon of this literary tradition. These and similar works share certain common features, most of which reflect the attitudes of the age: a mixture of fact and fantasy, a certain cultural ingenuousness, and a rather pervasive credulity about the supernatural. The modern reader is thus entitled to some legitimate skepticism about Marco’s report.
This report had the advantage of being designed for a Western...
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