The Shahnameh: The First Kings through Rostam

shahnamehEvery summer for several years now, I’ve tried to reserve some time and space to read one or two Really Long Classics. This summer, after reading Gogol’s Dead Souls (which wasn’t actually very long), I decided to read the Shahnameh, the epic Persian book of kings, written in the 10th century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. I didn’t read the entire thing, both because it’s not available unabridged in English and because even if it was, I probably wouldn’t have tackled it: in the original, it’s 9 volumes. But my version was 850 pages long, so it felt fairly epic even in its abridged form.

This book is reminiscent of lots of other things I’ve read. It’s the story of the Persian empire, from its very beginnings to the moment when Ferdowsi was writing it, so it tells all about invasions, successions, wars, alliances, just kings and unjust kings. It’s a little like the Iliad, where kings and generals feud during wartime. It’s a little like parts of the Bible, in which one king succeeds another and some are servants of God and some rebel against God and have to have prophets tell them what’s what. Parts of it reminded me of Herodotus, because there are travels recorded in it as well as battles: the customs of far-off peoples and places. A lot of it reminded me of Machiavelli, as well, because Ferdowsi insists so heavily on what is and is not appropriate behavior for kings. This is, in a lively and fascinating tale-telling way, a mirror for princes. Are they worthy of the divine farr, that glorious emanation of nobility that will give away a prince even if he is filthy and hiding in a hen-coop? Only their behavior will tell.

The stories of the very first kings are full of monsters, angels, and demons. Several of the first kings live for hundreds of years (this also reflects what happens in the Bible.) There are animals and mythological creatures flitting everywhere. For instance, when the first king, Kayumars, wants to take revenge on the Black Demon for the murder of his son Siamak:

He gathered together fairies, leopards and lions, savage wolves and fearless tigers, birds and domestic animals, and this army was led by the intrepid young prince.

This is just by the way, you know? No people in this here army, just a bunch of fairies and pets. Hmmmm. In another one of my favorite stories, the king Sam has a son who is born with white hair. In horror, Sam abandons the boy in the mountains, where the great monster-bird, the Simorgh, has its home. Unexpectedly, the Simorgh adopts the boy, Zal, and brings him up into a lovely youth, and eventually Sam brings him home; from then on the Simorgh is reliable help for Zal in case of emergency.

A lot of the book is taken up with descriptions of wealth. There are whole paragraphs given over to the gifts kings give to each other, or to the spoils they take in war, or to the throne rooms they build, decked in gold and gems and scented with musk and ambergris. This sort of description extends to the women, which of course tells you that the women were a sort of wealth. Men are described in the same sorts of phrases — tall as a cypress, face like a full moon — but here is the description of Rudabeh, a princess:

Her stature is like a teak tree’s, her color is that of ivory, and she wears on her head the crown of musk that God has given her. Her eyes are like two dark narcissi, her eyebrows are like a bow, her nose is like a silver reed, her mouth is small, like the contracted heart of a desperate man, and her hair falls in ringlets to her feet. Her mouth is so tiny that her breath can scarcely find passage there, and there is no one in all the world who is her equal for beauty.

Perhaps my favorite descriptive phrase (used for men as well as women) is that the person has “a gait like a pheasant.” You can find videos of pheasants walking if you look for them, but I can assure you that it looks just like you think it’s going to.

One of the greatest characters in this epic book of kings is not a king at all: Rostam, the son of Zal. He is a giant, a great warrior, and frequently the savior of Persia, but never takes the throne. He is the hero of dozens of outsized, outlandish adventures –his giant horse Rakhsh, for instance, was untamable and uncatchable before he arrived, and was called “Rostam’s Rakhsh” for no reason anyone knew — and he has a huge temper to match his body. But he defends Persia in battle after battle, including a wild battle against demons on the demons’ territory. As he gets older (say, 800 years old or so) he gets wiser, and becomes an advisor to kings. Rostam is one of the very few characters who manifests any sort of sense of humor, and I loved him.

After the death of the giant Rostam (and the earth shook with that thunder), about halfway through the book, the sense of the epic becomes more realistic: gone (mostly) are the demons and fairies, and real kings with real agendas, alliances and consequences take the throne. This is fascinating and compelling work, but in another way. More on that in a second post.

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5 Responses to The Shahnameh: The First Kings through Rostam

  1. Thank you for this. This is one of those books – like The Tale of Genji – I sometimes pick up in teh bookshop, look through, and say to myself that as someone who likes to think of himself as educated, I really should know something about this. And then I say “another time”, and put it back again.

    Many of the myths you mention remind me of the stories of the Indian epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.

    • Jenny says:

      I think the Ramayana is going to be my next summer’s read. My husband (who reads Nothing But The Classics) just read it, and highly recommended it. It’s not surprising that they’re similar, though, is it? The Ramayana is supposed to be the river from which all our stories flow.

  2. vanbraman says:

    I found myself thinking of “Journey to the West” while reading about this epic. The Chinese epic has very similar threads. I read a five volume set, not sure if it was abridged or not. A couple months ago I wrote a blog post about Journey to the West illustrating it with pictures that I took in Korea.
    http://bramanswanderings.wordpress.com/2013/04/02/journey-to-the-west/

    • Jenny says:

      I’ve got Journey to the West sitting on my shelf waiting for me to read it! I’ve read Story of the Stone, which I loved, and my husband’s kind of in the middle of Plum in the Golden Vase (very naughty) and we’re both sort of looking at five volumes of Journey to the West and putting it off. But I know it’s going to be great. Loved your post! Wonderful pictures.

  3. aartichapati says:

    Ooh I’ve never heard of this but it sounds fantastic and right up my alley! I have a feeling that I would get a bit tired of all the wealth descriptions and the like, but I could always skip over those parts to get back to the fairies ;-)

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