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Narrator: Genghis Khan. A man. A myth. A legend. The greatest leader of the unstoppable Mongol hordes, sweeping down from the steppes and conquering Eurasia, creating a land empire rivaling those of Rome and Alexander the Great. To some, a cruel, bloodthirsty, barbaric raider. To others, an unstoppable force on the battlefield, someone to bow down to in fear. Genghis Khan changed the fabric of history forever by conquering the majority of the known world.
Martin Luther King, Jr. The famed orator and civil rights leader, who fought back against racist bigotry and unfair laws by nonviolent methods and helped to push the United States into becoming a more free and equal nation. We remember MLK today for his famed “I Have a Dream” speech, which is still read today in the same hushed tones and reverent manner as one would expect from a holy book. He defeated militant police and domestic terrorists like the KKK without lifting a finger against them, winning his battles with peace, kindness, and nonviolence.
Napoleon Bonaparte. The French general who rose to power through the uncertainty and terror of the French Revolution and forged one of the greatest fighting forces ever seen in Europe, the Grand Army of the Republic. It took the entirety of Europe combined to defeat him, and even in exile he plotted to return. To some, he is a monster, driving France into the ground to fuel his taste for glory in battle. To others, he is an ideal, a symbol of revolution whose Civil Code can still be seen in European laws to this day.
These three men could hardly be more different. A brutal twelfth-century conqueror, a twentieth-century civil rights leader, and an eighteenth-century general-cum-emperor, after all, have very little in common. But they are all enshrined in the bowels of history, names that will be remembered and studied by generations upon generations to come. As Napoleon once famously said, “There is no immortality but the memory that is left in the minds of men.”
Cut to KING, writing letter to Coretta Scott King: Dear Coretta. I know that you will never read this letter, but I feel that you would understand the situation I am in. I have fought against injustice. I have fought against racism. I have fought for equality and justice. But nothing in all my years could have prepared me for the ordeal, no doubt, that I will soon endure.
I am to speak with two men, great men it might be said, two men who left their mark on history like I am told I have. They are Genghis Khan and Napoleon Bonaparte. Infamous though they may be, I must wonder what they’re like to meet in person. History and myths have a way of distorting the facts, after all. I suppose I will soon learn, at any rate.
I am but a pastor, fighting for what I believed to be right and trying to change a nation for the better. What could I possibly understand about two war-fighters, men who left their legacies stained with blood? Coretta, how I wish you could be here. You always did have a way of making me keep my chin up.
KING looks up, shakes his head, and quickly continues writing.
KING: I must be going now.
Cut to KHAN, dressed in leathers and furs, inside a Mongolian gurt: Strange times call for strange things. To think, the great Khan, conqueror of the steppes, to speak with men from the future?
What foolishness. A pompous general and a man of worship could never hope to understand the men of the steppe. They could never hope to know the feeling of true battle, of the fire that runs through the veins of men in mortal combat. They are soft and weak, city-dwellers who have never known true hardship.
I have conquered many kings and countries in my life. Who could hope to understand the Khan but another conqueror?
Cut to NAPOLEON, dressed in 18-century military garb. He is standing in a tent, with a table laden with maps and other documents.
NAPOLEON: How ridiculous. They expect me, Napoleon himself, the conqueror of Europe, to kowtow to some barbaric ruffian and a Negro priest?
Ah, but I suppose such things must happen. There is far worse company to speak with, and who else can say they could converse with men times past and future?
I am but a man, and I cannot stop myself from wondering if my ambitions for France ever came to fruition. Did my efforts ever matter in the end? Do the citizens of the future remember my actions? Or have the bourgeois expunged me from the records of history, fearful of future emperors and generals hoping to reach the same heights of glory that I did?
To think, a Negro as a man of God. How has the world changed since I departed it? The legacy of man is the only truly immortal thing. I cannot imagine that we three men were merely footnotes in history. To speak with the past and the future is an opportunity that no living man has ever experienced. Fitting, for Napoleon himself.
Narrator: Three men, separated by hundreds of years and thousands of miles. The peace activist, the aristocratic general, and the savage warlord. Each embracing a different facet of human nature, they left their legacies on the world to be remembered in awe, in fear, and in envy.
Different though they may be, each is in their own right just another man. In the end, they fought, they lived, and they died. We remember them not just for their deeds or the impacts they had on history. They are legendary figures because they are not remembered as mere mortal men. Through their actions and their legacies, their memories have become ideals and concepts.
They have become the ideals that we idolize and look up to. People like King, Gandhi, and Mandela are famed as men of peace. Generals like Napoleon are famed for their skill, their ruthlessness in battle, and their ambition. And Khan is remembered for embodying the idea of the barbarian warrior, the fierce conqueror of the steppes, more as an idea of the primal violence of man than as a warlord who ushered in the Pax Mongolia.
How much do people really know about the man behind the myths? How much of it is just the legends that have been passed down through time?
We hold these figures up as mythical. But how much of that idolization is the individual in question, and how much of it is our own desires, personified in the face of those who we look up to?