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Literature / The Travels of Marco Polo

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Marco Polo was a 13th century Venetian merchant who set out from Venice on a journey to the east. He stayed there many years serving The Emperor of China, Kublai Khan. Upon returning he set out as a warrior in the Venetian Fleet to meet the hereditary foe, the Genoans.

He was captured and apparently looked too rich for the Genoans to throw him overboard and waste a good ransom. In any case he was kept prisoner next to a professional storyteller and told his adventures to pass the time. This story was later published under the title Description of the World or Books of the Marvels of the World, but it has eventually become better known under its nickname Il Milione or, more simply, The Travels of Marco Polo. The Travels themselves are a surprisingly dull book but the idea of the story was so powerful that it became a classic, and Marco was nicknamed Il Millione for the "millions" of tales he brought back (or, perhaps, because of the large numbers Marco used to describe Chinese society).

Curiously, very little is known about Marco himself. For that reason, even though more than one "biography" has been written, large parts often come from the author's imagination.

And, contrary to the myth, he never introduced pasta to Italy.

Not to be confused with the videogame Marco Polo that was of course inspired by this adventurer.

Tropes in The Travels of Marco Polo a.k.a. Il Milione:

  • Badass Bureaucrat: Marco claimed he had been this for Kublai Khan.
  • Badass Family: In addition to Marco Polo himself, others in his family were also world-exploring merchants. Notably, he was accompanying two uncles when he went out on his famous journey to China.
  • Bold Explorer: The book is a biographical (and somewhat confused) recounting of the Italian explorer's 13th-century expedition to the Middle-East and China. It was a block-buster hit in its time.
  • The Epic: A Real Life one, no less.
  • Going Native: According to one or two biographers.
  • Intrepid Merchant: Marco (and the rest of his family)
  • Merchant City: Every city.
  • Mighty Whitey: Do remember he might have mildly exaggerated this.
  • Mistaken for Afterlife: According to the text, the leader of The Hashshashin exploited the idea behind this trope by running a fake paradise in a hidden valley. New recruits to the sect would be drugged and taken there — after which, they were convinced that their leader could get them into Heaven at will, making them fearless on missions. This story looks rather dubious in the light of what is known today about the Hashshashin and their strongholds.
  • Mundane Object Amazement: Though crocodiles are taken for dragons, this is subverted when Polo meets other exotic animals.
    • On seeing a Javan rhinoceros, Polo is certain that this is the animal behind the unicorn myth, and is sorely disappointed by its lacking grace compared to the legend.
    • Polo sees a large group of "small furry creatures with human faces" flocking from the countryside to an Indian temple for food. He is told that the temple feeds them because they are reincarnations of people, but Polo is certain they are just wild beasts.
  • Our Dragons Are Different: Passing through Carajan results in an encounter with evil two legged dragons. Most modern readers can see these are just crocodiles.
  • Roc Birds: In what is quite possibly one of the earliest accounts of the creatures in Europe, Marco Polo describes rocs as eagle-like birds from Madagascar so large that their feathers alone are twelve paces long. They hunt by gripping elephants in their talons and dropping them to ground, before swooping down to feed on the smashed remains.
    It was for all the world like an eagle, but one indeed of enormous size; so big in fact that its wings covered an extent of 30 paces, and its quills were 12 paces long, and thick in proportion. And it is so strong that it will seize an elephant in its talons and carry him high into the air, and drop him so that he is smashed to pieces; having so killed him the bird gryphon swoops down on him and eats him at leisure. The people of those isles call the bird Ruc, and it has no other name. (Book III, chapter 33)
  • Shrouded in Myth: Clearly unintended, but it is almost easy today to tell which places and things Marco Polo really saw and where he was merely told about them, because he describes the latter in much more fantastical ways.
  • Travelogue Show: One of the oldest examples of the travel narrative.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Often regarded as this. He was a returned traveler telling yarns after all; someone just remembered to write his yarns down. Technically, Marco didn't write it himself. He told his stories to a romance author while imprisoned, who then added his own knowledge and other stories from various sources.
  • Verbal Tic: "Let me tell you...", "What more need/shall I say?", "What need to make a long story of it?", "Let us now..." and a lot more.

Adaptations of Il Milione:

Comic Strip

  • Plays an important part in the Suske en Wiske album De Tartaarse Helm (The Tartarian Helmet).

Video Games

Alternative Title(s): Il Milione, Marco Polo