Kanturali’s Quest

A re-telling of the classic Turkish epic of Dede Korkut
by Sevgi Zubeyde Gurbuz

The pounding of horses’ hooves was like thunder rolling across the steppe. Over a dozen warriors were in hot pursuit of each other, javelins held high above their heads, aiming for the bodies of their opposition. In waves, they sped back and forth, first attacking then retreating, kneading the earth like dough. Moans of the vanquished echoed across the field. Sweat trickled down their arms and faces, glistening under the scorching heat of the sun, high overhead.

Kanli Koja proudly watched his son, Kanturali, charge his opponent head on, knocking him off his horse with the impact of his spear. There was a time when he too had been known for his daredevil tactics and skillful riding. But those days were long past. Jirit was a war game for the young and high-spirited. As he ruefully looked down on his ageing hands, hairs turned gray and weakened with arthritis, he realized that one day he too would pass on, leaving his only son alone in this world.

“The time has come,” thought Kanli Koja. “It’s time for my son to finally settle down and find someone he can share life with and be happy.”

Kanturali had never fallen in love, but lived with the dream of her, a fair maiden of kindred warrior spirit who had the same thirst for adventure that he had. Quick to her feet and sure on her horse, she would be skillful with bow, arrow, and sword, bringing him the heads of his enemies even before he had the chance to lift his weapon. He pictured her long, silky hair being tossed about by the wind as they rode their horses on the high plateaus overlooking their home, chasing after each other with childlike exuberance, her face beaming as he wrestled her to the ground, body pinned down beneath his, only surrendering when he conquered her in a long, deep kiss.

Kanli Koja smiled, gently shaking his head as he listened to his son’s fantasies. “Oghlum, my son, such warrior women are only to be found in fairytales.”

“Baba, I will find her even if I have to travel to the land of the fairies myself!”

For many days Kanturali roamed the surrounding lands, only to return home disappointed. Not able to idly stand by as his son grew more and more forlorn, Kanli Koja offered to go searching himself. Leaving the traditional homeland of his Oghuz tribe in Turkistan, he traveled westward, south of the Caspian Sea, through the Caucasus Mountains, and along the shores of the Black Sea, deep into the Anatolian heartland.

● ● ●

One day, as he stopped at a caravanserai to rest and feed his horse, Kanli Koja overheard the conversation of several people talking about Seljen, daughter of the Lord of Trabzon.

“Have you heard about what happened to the last fellow who tried to win the hand of Seljen?”

“Aw that’s not news anymore; Bowah finishes ‘em off every time.”

“Poor fellas. All those young men are plumb crazy. I don’t care how pretty the girl is, you gotta be loco to try to fight those beasts.”

“Well, at least he didn’t try running away in fear like the others. He kept his honor.”

The men nodded their heads in agreement.

“It’s still a shame. Many of those men could have made good husbands for other girls. But noooo, all boys talk about is Seljen, like she was the only girl in town.”

“Yeah, but Seljen is no ordinary girl. I betchya she’d be able to slay ‘em all.”

“Little good that’s gonna do’er when she’s an old maid.”

“Well, if they’re trying to find someone worthy for her, they’d have been better off if they had the boy fight Seljen rather than these monsters. Then they’d find a guy strong enough without killing off most of the Anatolian male population!”

“Stop being stupid Enis, you can’t have ‘em fight the girl, then she’d be dead when she found the right one!”

“Either way, I tell you that gal ain’t getting hitched any time soon…”

Kanli Koja had heard enough. The next day, he went to the castle of Lord Davud and inquired about Seljen. He was led to a small, dark room, with no outside windows, just a wooden mesh through which one could, without being noticed, peek into to Seljen’s room and observe her.

Seljen was all that he had hoped for, and more. To say she was pretty would be an understatement. Seljen was ravishingly gorgeous. Her long blonde hair gently rested on her shoulders as she focused on the book in her hands. But for all her beauty and attempts to refine her, Kanli Koja could not help but notice the ruggedness of her true nature. Her hands were not white and silken, but tanned and chiseled. Her serious demeanor, high cheekbones and lean, athletic appearance gave her the aura of a wolf. Seljen was a hunter. The furs covering her floor and bed, the bow and arrows hanging from the wall, the sword slightly protruding from under her pillow were all a testament of her skill. This was not a girl who passed her time idly, tending to her appearance. This was the maiden of Kanturali’s dreams, a hatun worth dying for.

Kanli Koja nodded in approval. “So where is this beast that I hear people talking about?”

“Beasts - ssssss, with an ‘s.’ Plural,” corrected the servant as they headed towards the cages. “There is more than one creature that must be slain: an ox, a lion, and a dragon.”

These were no ordinary creatures, but beasts of mythical proportions. Bowah the Ox was over twice the size of a full-grown man. Each of his horns were longer than that of a regular sword and ended in a point so sharp that even a casual scrape would rip through half a man’s arm.

Aslan the Lion had a fiery golden mane, which together with his piercing black eyes and long, scythe-like teeth gave him a ferocious appearance that even other lions were scared of him.

Kanli Koja noticed the lion’s eyes were wrapped tightly in a bandanna. “What’s this for?”

“Oh, that is to shield us from the entrancing effect of his gaze. Look into his eyes, and you will forget yourself in them. By the time you realize what’s happened, he’d pounce and you’d be dead.” The servant motioned towards a stairwell leading into the dungeons. “This way, we’ve got the dragon confined in extra fortifications.”

The air reeked of death, cold, moist and heavy. Flames from torches mounted on the walls flickered in the dark, barely lighting up the corridors. In the far back corner, Kanli Koja saw two evil, red beady eyes staring at him. These cramped quarters would make any animal ornery, ready to lash out at his captors.

“Not too close,” warned the servant. “His fiery breath can scorch a man even a hundred feet away.”

The dragon’s skin was dark, thick and impenetrable, his wings as broad as ten horses. Kanli Koja could hear him slither his tail across the floor, hissing as though warning him not to come near.

“Well,” he thought, “Kanturali always loved to test his bravery and skill. He’ll love this hatun too - if he doesn’t get killed trying to win her.”

● ● ●

Kanturali was ecstatic. The beasts did not deter him one bit, instead making him value and admire Seljen Hatun even more. “It is the difficult tasks that deserve accomplishing. Lord Davud would not have made the challenge so difficult if Seljen were not worth it,” he thought to himself. Taking with him just his bow and arrows, sword, and a small supply of rations, Kanturali wasted no time in setting out on the long journey to Trabzon. The mountains, rivers, and trees blurred into a whirlwind of colors as he rode his steed at full speed, only stopping for the very minimum amount of rest and sleep needed to carry on.

Just over a fortnight later, Kanturali arrived at Lord Davud’s castle. The road leading to the front gate was lined with the heads of failed suitors, each mounted on a stake for all to see. It was a ghastly sight, well serving its goal of turning away the foolhardy. Kanturali counted a total of thirty-nine heads as he passed by.

As his father before him, Kanturali was well received and promptly introduced to Lord Davud, who was keen to learn more about his new guest and invited him to join them for dinner. “I come from the clan of Oghuz Turks near Samarkand,” explained Kanturali, “I believe you have already met my father, Kanli Koja, who was one of your guests here about a month ago.”

Lord Davud nodded in affirmation, but Kanturali quickly lost focus on their conversation as he came eye to eye with Seljen, who had been closely examining him ever since he arrived. Seljen quickly averted her gaze, but that one brief look was equivalent to a hundred words. She was challenging him. Kanturali had never seen that kind of a rebellious look in a woman’s eyes before, but it was quite clear to him that she was daring him as though to say, “So, you’ve come here to win me over, eh? Well, we’ll see how far you get!”

Seljen’s gaze still lingered in his thoughts as Kanturali faced the first of his three challengers the next day: Bowah the Ox. Ornery from having spent the entire day in his cage, Bowah lost no time in charging at Kanturali, thrashing his head about so as slash at the air with his gigantic horns. For several minutes, Kanturali dodged Bowah’s attacks before finally looking him straight on from across the field. This time, when Bowah charged, Kanturali began running towards him as well. The onlookers gasped in disbelief at this apparent craziness, even Seljen jumped to her feet in anticipation of what was to happen next.

Just when it seemed like they were going to crash into each other, Kanturali drew his sword and tumbling on the ground, rolled between the legs of the furious Bowah, slashing his underbelly all the way from the bottom of his neck to the top of his tail. As Bowah fell to the ground in agony, Kanturali finished him off by plunging his sword into his neck.

This was an unexpected turn of events, but now that one of three beasts had been slain, Seljen began to consider Kanturali in a more serious light. This Turk had both skill and strength. He was not cocky, nor did he gloat over his victory. The dark hair, flowing mustache, slanted brown eyes, and olive-colored skin that had initially seemed intimidating and fierce, now proved itself to be the handsome veneer of a man with cool self-reliance. Seljen could not help but ever so slightly smile as Kanturali approached her father and asked matter-of-factly, “Sir, what more should I do to earn the hand of your daughter?”

Heartened by Seljen’s smile, Kanturali eagerly awaited his next opponent, Aslan the Lion. The castle guards had purposefully left the lion unfed since the day before, so as to make him all the more ferocious for the fight today. Indeed, Aslan lost no time in picking up the scent of ox blood what had soaked through Kanturali’s clothes, and immediately began to approach his prey, crouched down as though he were going to pounce any instant.

Kanturali knew that he was no match for Aslan’s speed or strength. The lion could tear him apart even before he had a chance to run far or draw his sword. Kanturali surprised the crowd again when he dropped his sword, simply waiting for the lion’s attack, careful not to look in his eyes. As Aslan sprang towards him, Kanturali slightly dodged his path, and grabbing the lion’s great mane, flung himself upon Aslan’s back. Aslan roared with rage and began thrashing about to rid himself of his rider. But Kanturali held firm, and pulling out the dagger that was concealed in his boots, slit the lion’s throat with one clean, deep stroke. Aslan crashed to the ground, struggling to bite at his enemy before finally falling limp and silent.

Kanturali then cut off a long, thick batch of Aslan’s fiery mane and kneeling down before her on one knee, offered it to Seljen as a symbol of his victory. He looked up at her with warmth and sincerity, inviting her to take him as well as his gift. His eyes reached out to her, as though to say, “Surrender yourself to me, and I will love you forever.” Kanturali was the first warrior to look at her as anything more than a prize to brag about. He was not just fighting these beasts, but fighting to win her affections as well. Seljen blushed as she accepted his gift, but averted her eyes to conceal her feelings for him. She was not ready to surrender herself just yet.

Again, Kanturali asked Lord Davud, “Sir, what more should I do to earn the hand of your daughter?”

His answer came soon enough, as the shrill battle cry of Ejderha the Dragon was heard throughout the castle. Ejderha had risen to his full height, stretching out his wings to cast an intimidating dark shadow over the onlookers. His next scream was accompanied by a stream of fire, melting the sword he had forgotten in the middle of the field after his fight with Aslan. Dodging the dragon’s fiery breath, Kanturali scampered around the field, trying to find a position from which he could regroup and launch his own counter-attack.

The crowd laughed at Kanturali’s plight. “Look at him now, “said man, chuckling, “he killed the ox and lion with ease, but now the dragon has him running for his very life!” Seljen was silent, her face taught with worry. She wanted Kanturali to win; she wanted him as her husband.

Failing to kill him with fire, Ejderha now swept his tail across the field, wrapping it around his victim, and lifting him into the air. The dragon scornfully scowled at Kanturali, mocking his smallness and weakness. Slowly, he tightened his grip, listening to Kanturali’s moans with pleasure.

But Kanturali was not to be vanquished so easily. Remembering the dagger that he kept hidden in his boots, he reached down to his feet, pulled out his dagger and flung it straight into the dragon’s right eye. Recoiling in agony, Ejderha loosened his grip, and dropping Kanturali on the ground, took flight in the air. Recognizing this moment as his best chance, Kanturali grabbed onto the dragon’s tail as he rose into the air, climbing up onto his back, and slowly inching forward towards his head. Ejderha was flying erratically in circles around the castle, trying to shake off his enemy to no avail.

Kanturali plunged his arm into the dragon’s good eye, rendering him completely blind, and proceeded to pommel the dragon’s head. The dragon’s entire skin was as tough as armor, but Kanturali found one spot just above the middle of his two eyes which was tender. Extracting his dagger from the dragon’s left eye, he plunged it over and over again into this soft spot. The dragon spun out of control, spiraling downwards and crashing into one of the hills in the countryside.

As Seljen saw Ejderha descend from the sky, she immediately ran for her horse and sped towards the location where they fell. Fearing the worst, she hoped by some miracle that Kanturali had survived the fall. She found Kanturali sitting cross-legged about ten feet away from the lifeless dragon, wrapping his lacerated hands and arms in the remnants of his shirt.

“You’re alive!” she exclaimed, incredulously, bubbling with exuberance.

Kanturali grinned. “I wouldn’t be much of a man if I died that easily.”

And so Kanturali claimed his bride, declaring that they would set out for Turkistan the next day, to be married in the land of his fathers. Lord Davud and his wife were taken aback with this scheme; they had planned for their daughter to be wed in Trabzon, indeed they had never really considered that their groom would come from a land so far away. But Kanturali was determined, and declared in no uncertain terms that he would die before he married without seeing his mother and father first.

However, unbeknownst to the two betrothed, leisurely making their way through the Kachkar Mountains, six hundred of Lord Davud’s horsemen were hot in pursuit. Fearing that she would never see her daughter again, Seljen’s mother had cried in misery for days on end before Lord Davud finally decided that he had to correct his mistake, kill Kanturali and reclaim his daughter.

As the days went by, Seljen grew increasingly worried and restless. It couldn’t be this easy, she thought. There were many who loved her, many who would gladly kill Kanturali to take her back home. They would murder believing that they were doing what was best for her, unable to understand that she was in love and wanted the new life Kanturali was going to give her. Somehow, she had to stop them.

Every night, Seljen sneaked away from their encampment, and mounting Kanturali’s horse, scouted the countryside looking for any sign of her father’s men. On the third night, she spotted their camp site, and hurried back to warn Kanturali. Sweetly into Kanturali’s ear she sang:

“O warrior from the Oxus, war is upon us! Why are you still sleeping? Lift your head, or you’ll be dead, now is not the time to be dreaming!”

Kanturali awoke, confused as to what all the commotion was for. “As we speak, six hundred of my father’s men are coming to make war upon us. Warning you was my duty, now you do yours.” He heard the chinking of her silver mail as she mounted her horse, sword in hand, bows and arrows tied to a strap around her chest. Seljen was going to fight her father’s horde!

“If we die, we die together. If we live, let’s meet back here once the fighting is over,” she said.

As the sun slightly rose above the mountain tops casting crimson rays across the valley, the two young lovers clashed swords with those of their enemy, driving straight through the middle of the horde like two ants carving a tunnel in the sand. A dark brown cloud of dust kicked up from the pounding of horses’ hooves ominously hung over the fray, as the shrieks of fallen horses and cries of injured men drifted through the mountains, warning all passersby of the ensuing storm. Only the vultures dared come near, ready to feast on the dead.

When finally the valley fell silent, Seljen returned to their tent, hoping to find Kanturali waiting. Instead, she was surprised to find Kanturali’s parents casually sitting by a newly-lit campfire. This most definitely was not the way she had imagined meeting her future in-laws. Her hair was disheveled, with dirt and sweat clinging to every strand. Her clothes, arms, and sword were splattered with blood.

“Daughter!” exclaimed her mother-in-law, “Where is my son? Have you killed him? You’re alone, my only child is missing – quickly now, tell me what is going on here!”

Seljen pointed towards the valley with the hilt of her sword, and suggested that they search for him there. Picking through the bodies strewn about the grass, she found the body of Kanturali’s horse, eyes and body pierced with several arrows. “He couldn’t have gone far from here,” she thought, and began scanning the edge of the forest for any signs of disturbance. From the distance, she thought she hear the faint whinny of several horses.

Plunging into the forest, she cut through the trees until she reached a small clearing. There, she found Kanturali engaged in a fierce sword fight, trying to ward of the attack of about fifteen of her father’s men. Throwing herself and her horse into the middle of the fray, Seljen mercilessly bore down on the attackers.

Kanturali was furious. Amidst the commotion he failed to recognize that this newly arrived warrior was in fact his betrothed, Seljen. “Rider of the black stallion, what kind of warrior do you think you are? Don’t you know that it is shameful to cut into the fight of another without his permission? Shall I carve out your eyes like a falcon, and make your blood flow like a river through these lands? Step away from this battle,“ commanded Kanturali.

“You couldn’t bring yourself to harm your betrothed, your love, could you?” inquired the rider. It was then that Kanturali recognized Seljen. Turning their backs to each other, they then fought their way out from the center of the fray, and finished of this last remnant of Lord Davud’s horsemen.

Although no longer in danger, Kanturali was still angry at Seljen. “When we reach the Oghuz you will brag about how well you rode your horse, wielded your sword, and saved me from death. I will be humiliated and become the laughing-stock of all warriors. You would have done better to let me die with my honor than disgrace me like this.”

“Bragging does not become a woman, I would not brag,” protested Seljen.

But Kanturali would not be appeased. “You leave me no choice but to call you out.”

Now it was Seljen’s turn to get angry. This was madness. Why do men seek out capable women, but then have trouble dealing with their prowess? “Pick your weapon, sword or arrow?” she yelled, still incredulous that Kanturali actually was going to fight her.

Kanturali pulled out his own bow and arrows, inviting Seljen to take the first shot. Seljen dashed to the peak of a nearby hill, and took aim at Kanturali, or rather at the leaf of a tree that dangled just above Kanturali’s head. The arrow whistled through the air, cleanly cutting the leaf from its branch. Kanturali watched in amazement as the leaf gently drifted to the ground.

It was then that Kanturali finally understood the completeness of Seljen’s loyalty and love. If she wanted to, she could have struck him right through the forehead just as surely as she clipped the leaf. But she didn’t, instead teaching him a lesson that he should have realized much earlier. Now, he was ashamed of having doubted her. As they embraced, Kanturali gently kissed Seljen on the forehead, as though asking forgiveness for his mistake.

And so it was that one week later they were finally married with a simple ceremony that was followed by three days of dancing and music. Stories of their adventures were told throughout the lands until finally they themselves became legend, immortalized in the poems of Dede Korkud, still recounted to children to this day.