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Literature / Alamut

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"Until now I've trusted to my statesmanship. But now I'm going to see what faith can accomplish."

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 assassin 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, and was one of the main inspirations for Assassin's Creed.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Achilles in His Tent / Orcus on His Throne: ibn Sabbah leaves Alamut only once in the story, namely to pick up Halima from the slavers.
  • Agent Scully: ibn Tahir comes close, but Obeida is the only one who sees through the fake paradise that ibn Sabbah has created. It doesn't end well for him.
  • Anti-Villain: Nizam al-Mulk is, by all accounts, an excellent administrator who has brought decades of prosperity to Iran. It just happens that he had to purge a few religious sects to achieve that.
  • "Arabian Nights" Days: The novel broadly falls under this trope, although the setting is described a bit more realistically than in other examples.
  • Arc Words: "Nothing is true, everything is permitted."
  • Artistic License – History:
    • The entire narrative is based on the legends surrounding Alamut and Hassan ibn Sabbah ("the Old Man in the Mountain"), so pretty much everything that happens in the book has an associated legend in the real world, even if it's not actual history. A good example is that there were no gardens in Alamut, though there really was a long-standing legend that the real-life hashashins went through the same process the fedayeens are shown going through in the book.
    • We don't know the identity of Nizam al-Mulk's killer, and it's not certain he was a member of the assassins, though given their modus operandi and real-life animosities between him and the order, it's not unlikely. Malik Shah's death might likewise have been caused by a number of his enemies, including caliph and supporters of Nizam al-Mulk. The author ascribes both acts to assassins in order to paint Hassan Ibn Sabbah as a formidable chessmaster.
    • There's no reason to believe real-life Hassan Ibn Sabbah was anything other than a devout Shia Muslim, contrary to the fictionalized version in this book.
  • 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.
  • Blasphemous Boast: When ibn Tahir meets Miriam he mentions that after meeting her Ali and the martyrs mean nothing to him anymore, and that he would "dislodge Allah from his throne" and put Miriam there instead.
  • Break Them by Talking: Hassan to ibn Tahir.
  • Chessmaster: Hassan ibn Sabbah, and he knows it - he regularly emphasizes how what comes to fruition throughout the novel is just the result of decades of planning. And everything does end up working just as he intended, though sometimes it seems like it won't.
  • Courtroom Episode: The arraignment/trial of ibn Sabbah’s son for murder and mutiny.
  • Creator Provincialism: Inverted, a story written by an interwar Slovene novelist about medieval Iran. The subject matter on the book was, on the surface at least, so far removed from Bartol's own background that he would occasionally meet Slovene people who would claim to his face that the book had been written by an English or Indian author, and that Bartol had merely been the translator.
  • 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.
  • Dragon-in-Chief: Despite the fact that the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad is his nominal superior, the Seljuk sultan Malik Shah is widely seen as the real ruler of Iran. In turn, Malik Shah himself leaves most of the business of ruling to his grand vizier Nizam al-Mulk.
    • The same goes for ibn Sabbah, who acts like a fully independent ruler even though he technically acknowledges the Fatimid caliph in Cairo as his superior.
  • 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.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": Hassan is known as "Sayyiduna" or "our master" to all but his closest initiates.
    • Similarly, ibn Tahir is a title meaning "son of Tahir". The character's actual name is Avani.
  • Garden of Love: The "paradise" at Alamut could be considered a horribly perverted version. Certain characters do fall in love there, but overall it's not a romantic place in the slightest if you know its true purpose.
  • Genre-Busting: A historical political thriller / philosophical novel / adventure / coming of age story.
  • Grey-and-Gray Morality: Most of the characters, although ibn Sabbah arguably acts more on Blue-and-Orange Morality.
  • The Hashshashin
  • Heroic BSoD: ibn Tahir doesn't take it well when he finds out that his idol and mentor is a fraud who cynically sent him to his death to eliminate a political opponent, and that the girl he loves is the former's accomplice and concubine.
  • Inadequate Inheritor: ibn Sabbah’s son Hosain.
  • Intelligence Equals Isolation: Hassan firmly believes this, disturbingly equating accepting his philosophies with wisdom, and being dismissive of people who consider them unacceptable - which in his period is most people. He doesn't get a clue this might not be so even when his son, whom he considers an idiot, accepts his philosophy, and very easily; instead, he just thinks Hosain "doesn't fully grasp it".
  • The Ingenue: Halima.
  • Jerkass: Hosain.
  • Karma Houdini: By the end of the book, Hassan suffers no retribution for any of his actions.
  • Love at First Sight: Yusuf and Zuleika and Suleiman and Halima both experience this in the garden. Special mention goes to ibn Tahir however, who is so utterly smitten by Miriam's beauty and intellect that he faints when she even so much as kisses him.
  • May–December Romance: Miriam and Hassan.
  • Male Gaze: The beauty of the harem slaves is dwelt on extensively, although to be fair this happens to some of the male characters as well.
  • Oh, Crap!: When ibn Tahir returns to Alamut alive, Hassan's initial reaction is this. He quickly regains control of the situation though.
  • One-Word Title: The Place the story is set.
  • Ordered to Die: Hassan demonstrates his power over his acolytes by ordering two of them to commit suicide, which they do without hesitation.
  • Parental Abandonment: Hassan abandons his son in childhood... With his abusive grandparents. And then is surprised when the boy resents him.
  • Perfect Poison: Averted with the poisoned blades the fedayeen use. The victims die horrifyingly painful deaths.
  • Power Trio: The three main fedayeens of the story: Yusuf, Suleiman and ibn Tahir. In particular, they're a male variant of Beauty, Brains, and Brawn; respectively, Suleiman (frequently noted to be beautiful, even by the other fedayeen), ibn Tahir (a natural poet who excels in the fedayeen classes) and Yusuf, who is the biggest and strongest among the characters.
  • Pretty Boy: Suleiman.
  • Real Life Writes the Plot: Bartol wrote this parable on fascism in 1930s Europe.
  • Sacrificial Lamb: ibn Vakas is executed in ibn Tahir's place after the latter decides not to kill Hassan.
  • 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.”
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: The students struggle with their sexuality even before they are taken to the garden, and afterwards it is that much worse.
  • Shut Up, Hannibal!: When ibn Sabbah reveals his nihilistic philosophy to his son Hosain, the latter simply responds: "I dealt with that when I was 14".
  • The Sociopath: Although ibn Sabbah does have loved ones, he definitely falls into this trope.
  • 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.
    • Miriam initially believes she is this as well, but later discovers that she genuinely cares for some of the other characters.
  • Training from Hell: The fedayeen’s training regimen, which aside from familiar subjects such as writing, mathematics and religious studies also includes things like walking barefoot over hot coals, climbing down huge cliffs and "breathing exercises" which involve the students holding their breath until they faint.
  • Troll: Contrary to his image to the outside world as an imperturbable mystic, this is how ibn Sabbah actually behaves.
  • Warrior Poet: ibn Tahir.
  • Weak-Willed: ibn Tahir, which is amusing considering he's "the smart fedayeen." When he wakes up in Alamut's gardens he's initially skeptical that he's in Paradise, but Miriam persuades him pretty quickly. He becomes a fanatical servant of ibn Sabbah and gleefully undertakes a Suicide Mission to assassinate the grand vizier. But after ibn Tahir mortally wounds the vizier, it takes the vizier about 30 seconds to pull the wool from ibn Tahir's eyes and (rightly) convince him that ibn Sabbah had manipulated him with a false paradise. He then hates ibn Sabbah with a white hot fury and vows to kill the old man...except, once the two are actually face-to-face, ibn Sabbah is able to again completely destroy ibn Tahir's worldview over the course of about two pages and turn the young man into a Straw Nihilist like himself.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Apama.