I begin this post by thanking Scott Nason, the brother of a former student and current friend, for recommending a wonderful book to me. Five years ago, I showed him my reading plan, and he recommended a Persian epic -- "greater than the Iliad," he said -- called the Shahnameh or The Persian Book of Kings. It sounded just right for me, so I added it to the plan -- the only book I added by recommendation.
I finally started this great work this past week, and I'm so very glad Scott recommended it. Every page is filled with colorful characters, intriguing tales, and beautiful imagery and figures. I read in Durant last year that the medieval Persian courts retained the splendor of ancient times more than any other culture of the Middle Ages, and the tenth-century author, Ferdowsi, ascribes this splendor to every early king in his saga, beginning with Kayumars, the first king and the inventor of clothing and food preparation. All the animals, both wild and tame, come to his throne and bow to him in obeisance. Later kings must restrain the animals who grace the court, but they show their power and glory by having elephants tethered to the left of the throne and lions and leopards to the right.
The very names invoke a sense of exotic romance: Hushang the hunter; Tahmures, the Binder of Demons; Jamshid, who organized society and discovered mining; and Feraydun, wielder of the ox-headed mace. Not so glorious, the Demon King Zahhak has a snake growing out of each shoulder. To keep himself alive, he must feed the snakes human brains. Each night he sends two poor souls to the kitchen to donate their heads to the cause, but his brave cooks spare the life of one in each pair and send him into hiding. After the cooks have saved about two-hundred, they send these survivors to a distant land where, Ferdowsi tells us, they become the Kurds.
The figurative language all seems new to me, and yet it all makes perfect sense. Rather than lasting for years or "many moons," a long event might last "seven seasons." One fellow is beaten so badly, he can't tell the peaks from the valleys. Several castles have towers that reach the clouds. This sounds like impossibly exaggerated tall-tale telling at first, but I have seen Manhattan skyscrapers disappearing in the low clouds, and I wonder at Ferdowsi's quite reasonable imagination of what would happen once engineering improved a bit. Cypresses must be special trees in Iran; several kings are as tall as cypresses, or as straight and firm as cypresses. Celestial figures also appear frequently and must have come naturally to a culture with such great astronomical skills. The head of most good kings sits like the moon on a cypress. The beauty of princesses usually finds itself described in relation to stars; one girl is as beautiful as Canopus (the second brightest star, after Sirius). I think I'll start comparing my wife to heavenly lights.
I've only read about sixty pages so far, so I don't know enough yet to know whether the Shahnameh surpasses the Iliad (not likely!). But already I've read more than Scott. Soon after buying the book (it's been sitting patiently on my shelves for four years waiting for me to visit it), Scott told me he had never read it, only heard about it. So, Scott, if you're reading this, let me return the favor and recommend the book to you.