Literature / Alamut

Persia, 1092.

Young, poetic ibn Tahir leaves his village for Alamut with the intention of becoming a soldier. There he is trained not just physically, but also mentally, with courses in science, literature, and radical Islam. After much brutal physical training and intense study, ibn Tahir finally becomes an elite fedayeen, a group of young soldiers fanatically devoted to Alamut’s leader, Hassan ibn Sabbah.

Elsewhere, beautiful young slave girl Halima is brought to just outside Alamut and sold to ibn Sabbah. He takes her to a secret garden behind Alamut, where to her confusion she is dressed in nice clothes and placed with other girls in a class where they are taught seemingly unrelated subjects. But there is a purpose to all of this: Halima is being trained to play the role of a houris, a virgin of paradise.

What neither of them know is that they are both pawns in Hassan ibn Sabbah’s insane plan, by which he intends to pit his small, but unreachable, fortress against the vast Seljuk Empire.

He is going to handpick certain members of his ascetic fedayeen, inform them that they’ve been granted a glimpse of paradise, and then give them a pill of hashish (concentrated opium). They’ll wake up in the garden, surrounded by all sorts of wonders they’ve never even heard of, and between that, the hashish, the willing houris, and some applied psychology, the fedayeen will sincerely believe that they’ve been transported to paradise. Another hashish pill will put them under, and they’ll wake up back at Alamut. There ibn Sabbah will order his fedayeen, now in drug withdrawal, to kill a single highly guarded enemy. Of course, the “hashish-ian” will surely die, but they’ll go straight to paradise for all eternity if, and only if, they succeed.

Written by Vladimir Bartol in 1938 Slovenia, Alamut is one of the great novels of his language. It incorporates all of the (false) stories and legends that surround the historical Hashshashin, and uses them to weigh some heavy philosophical issues.

It only recently has been translated into English.

It’s one of the inspirations for Assassin's Creed. Remember the Big Bad’s nihilistic monologues from Assassin's Creed I? They were mostly inspired by ones delivered by Hassan ibn Sabbah.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Arc Words - "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
  • Based on a Great Big Lie - The book draws heavily from all the myths surrounding The Hashshashin of old, nearly all of which are false. But the book probably wasn’t meant to be a true-to-life history.
  • Bittersweet Ending - The ending could arguably be interpreted as this. ibn Sabbah destroys the oppressive Seljuk Empire and his people will thrive, but he cuts off most of his humanity in the process. Ibn Tahir now understands the truth, and goes off to learn about the world. Although it doesn’t say it in the book, ibn Sabbah’s people thrive for less than 200 years.
  • Courtroom Episode - The arraignment/trial of ibn Sabbah’s son for murder and mutiny.
  • Defector from Decadence - Hassan ibn Sabbah’s motivation.
  • Disaster Dominoes - When one of the fedayeen kills the Seljuk Sultan, the resulting succession crisis causes a civil war.
  • Downer Ending - Another interpretation: Miriam, Halima, Yusuf, and Suleiman are all dead. The Sultan, who wasn’t really that bad a guy, is horribly murdered and the country falls into chaos. Ibn Tahir falls into nihilism and ibn Sabbah, despite his betrayals and murders, essentially gets away with it and is revered as holy by his people.
  • Driven to Suicide - Or tricked into it. Well, not Miriam. Halima was arguably an accident.
  • Easy Evangelism - It doesn’t take a whole lot for ibn Tahir to switch to ibn Sabbah’s thinking.
  • Genre-Busting - A historical political thriller / philosophical novel / adventure / coming of age story.
  • The Hashshashin
  • Inadequate Inheritor - ibn Sabbah’s son.
  • Jerkass - See above.
  • Perfect Poison – Averted with the poisoned blades the fedayeen use. The victims die horrifyingly painful deaths.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot - Bartol wrote this parable on fascism in 1930s Europe.
  • Scary Black Man – ibn Sabbah’s bodyguards.
  • See You in Hell – One fedayeen is instructed to smuggle the poisoned blade to his target by hiding it in a sealed message that he is supposed to be delivering. After the blade delivers a fatal dose of the poison, the victim and the guards open the message:
    “Till we meet again in Hell – ibn Sabbah.”
  • Straw Nihilist: ibn Sabbah is ultimately this-he believes only in rational thought to the point where he finds joy in nothing except ambition, because he can't trust anything to make him happy. Played with, however, in that he also believes there is such a thing as compassion, and he greatly respects religious figures of myth, who he viewed as Anti-Nihilists who came up with religion as a way to save humanity from its own selfish impulses.
  • Training from Hell - The fedayeen’s training regiment.
  • 2 + Torture = 5 - "Nothing is true... and everything is permitted!"