In White Swan and the Heavenly Lake, first-time novelist Kim Aasland has crafted her own take on the swan princess myth and its connection to the origins of the modern day Kazakhs.
The novel focuses on two families living almost a thousand years apart. In the Khangai mountains, a twelfth century Naiman family faces extinction at the hands of the conquering Mongols. In the city of Almaty, Kazakhstan, a wealthy twenty-first century Kazakh family finds themselves growing apart. What unites both of these families and their stories are visions of a miraculous swan.
Growing Up With Kazakhstan
My family moved to Almaty when I was just 10 years old. At the time, Kazakhstan was a newly independent republic, having only existed as separate from the Soviet Union for a few years.
As both Kazakhstan and I grew up together, I saw the people of Kazakhstan discover their own national identity. No longer were they a minority people group in a Russified, Soviet world. Instead, they had their own traditions, history, and yes, even myths.
Of Kazakh Myths and Epics
One such myth depicts the origins of the Kazakh people. In her scholarly work The Kazakhs, political expert Martha Brill Olcott writes,
“Many theories have been advanced to explain the origin of the term [Kazakh]. Some speculate … that the term comes from the Turkish words ak (white) and kaz (goose), from a popular Kazakh legend of a white steppe goose that turned into a princess, who in turn gave birth to the first Kazakh.” (The Kazakhs, Martha Brill Olcott, 4)
The swan also appears frequently in Kazakh poetry and music as a sacred animal, often representing purity and innocence.
In her novel, Mrs. Aasland draws on these cultural archetypes and interweaves them into the lives of a modern family that has become disconnected from their identity.
Summary: White Swan and the Heavenly Lake
Medieval Central Asia
In the early twelfth century, Karlagash is loath to send her only son Batirjan to war. The Naiman khanate is preparing for an attack against advancing Mongols. Led by the fierce and ruthless warrior Temüjin, known in the history books as Ghengis Khan, the Mongols seek to conquer and assimilate the Naimans.
For devout Nestorian Christians, the threat of war is also a threat to the family’s faith and identity. After praying and seeking the wisdom of Kudai (God), Karlagash gives Batirjan over to Kudai’s protection. Batirjan rides off to war and is present at the Battle of Chakirmaut, a devastating defeat of the Naiman khanate that sees their leader Tayang Khan and most of the Naiman warriors killed.
Except for Batirjan, who miraculously survives the battle. Finding an abandoned horse, Batirjan tries to ride to safety, but his wounds leave him in a delirious state. The horse leads him to a lake, where Batirjan marvels at a vision of a white swan rising from the lake to rescue him.
In present-day Kazakhstan, Gulmira is unhappy. Her husband Bolat has grown distant, too concerned with his career and the comforts that his wealth can buy him. Their son Khanat is busy with his own life. Meanwhile, their daughter Aigerim is more interested in going out with her friends than doing well at university.
Tensions between mother and daughter rise when Gulmira discovers that Aigerim is interested in a fellow student, Yerbol. In an attempt to keep the young lovers separated, Gulmira forbids her daughter from attending a university-sponsored tour of western China. But Aigerim sneaks out of the house with her passport, stealing some of her father’s money in the process.
Ashamed that she could not keep Aigerim under control, Gulmira tries to save face by hiding her daughter’s actions from Bolat. But when Gulmira receives a call that Aigerim and Yerbol have ditched the tour group to go off to Lake Sayram on their own, she heads to China with her friend Almagul to find Aigerim herself before the young woman ruins her reputation.
Hungry For More
As I read this book, I found myself hungry for more. For many reasons, most of the West is ignorant of the history and culture of Kazakhstan. While the Internet has proven to be a powerful way for us to connect around the world, language barriers and history makes it difficult to dive deeply into the rich literature of this beautiful country and its Central Asian neighbors.
So it’s probably no surprise that my favorite chapters centered around Karlagash, Batirjan, and the beautiful Ak-Kaz. The stakes these Naiman ancestors faced were thrilling and offered a chance to escape into a medieval fairytale.
It may surprise readers to learn of the Nestorian Christian roots in Central Asian history. Often, the region’s religious affiliation is boiled down to just Islam and Russian Orthodox, but many of today’s Kazakhs come from ancestral groups that practiced Shamanism, Buddhism, and yes, Nestorian Christianity. Even Western European mythology recognizes the influence of the Nestorians in myths like those of Prester John.
I think it might be easier for a Western audience to immerse themselves in Karlagash and Batirjan’s story over Gulmira and Aigerim’s. The latter, although modern, may still feel distant and foreign to a Western reader not well versed in the cultural expectations and values of the modern-day Kazakhs.
Overall, the novel was an enjoyable read. I did, however, find myself immediately searching online for more stories from this part of the world. My one wish for the novel is that Mrs. Aasland had included recommendations for further reading for those of us enchanted by this tale.