Sunday, May 1, 2011

Epic Proportions

I still can't say if the Shahnameh is greater than the Iliad. I certainly don't feel ready to judge the national epic of a great and storied people. But I can say I'm still enjoying it.

Rather than Homer's tale of heroes and war, Ferdowsi's Persian Book of Kings reminds me more of the Arthurian tales, with glorious kings selecting warriors from an inner circle to send out on adventures, and the Biblical books of Genesis and Samuel, with multigenerational stories and battle accounts that focus on individuals.

Without revealing anything special about God, the work is religious in that both narrator and characters praise God and credit Him with good events. But the book's religious themes raise questions for me. Just how early was Persia monotheistic? Do Ferdowsi's stories reflect the Zoroastrianism of earlier times, or is he projecting Islam on early Iranians? As one would expect of a Persian epic, the tales often involve astrology and horoscopes, as well, and the characters often speak of a fate written in the stars. In the world of this book, do the heavens determine the fate of humans, or do they merely reveal the will of God? After one bad horoscope, Ferdowsi relates that the people involved "take refuge in the will of God." According to a fellow named Piran, "The ever-turning skies bestow now joy, now sorrow, on the world below," but another character calls God "He who rules the sun and moon eternally."

The best parts of the Shahnameh involve an inner conflict of a character whose path in life is not clear. For a while, the narrative stays devoted to a war between the Iranians and a land of demons, and in this portion, the good guys and the bad guys were all clearly defined and fairly boring. But just as I think that the next boy born will grow up to be yet another warrior tall as a cypress, fierce as a lion, and ready to fight all the evil foreigners, along comes Seyavash. This son of the Iranian king Kovus demurs when his father tells him to go have a good time in the harem and further angers the king by diffusing a war with the Turks rather than escalating it. As an exile, Seyavash ends up serving the Turkish king Afrasyab (a name that would be much easier to pronounce spelled in reverse order) but builds a palace with a mural of Kovus as well. At Seyavash's advice, Afrasyab gives up his desires to attack Iran, yet he remains wary of "raising a leopard" in his midst: like wild predators, foreign kings' sons can never be fully tamed. The warrior Garsivaz lies and stirs up discord between Afrasyab and Seyavash, but perhaps only because he wants to protect his nation from the destruction he believes Seyavash will eventually bring. So who's good here and who's bad? I don't know, but Seyavash has had a premonition that he'll die young, and I only have about ten pages left in his tale. So I think I'm about to get some kind of answers.

Most of the other good stories so far involve Rostam, whom the book cover touts as the central hero of the book. Rostam chooses a horse by pressing down on the backs of potential mounts until he finds one whose belly doesn't end up touching the ground. I'm not sure the physics of that story really works, but I like it. Rostam is powerful enough that, while loyal to the king, he can make his own demands and just sit out each crisis until the king has to call on him. He often fights several heroes at once, usually winning by simply lifting the opponents one by one off of their saddles and throwing them to the ground.

But a son he has by a slave girl named Tahmineh has cast a shadow on his glory. Tahmineh raises the boy, Sohrab, by herself (how is a hero supposed to make a happy little home with a slave?!), so when Rostam hears of a new mighty warrior in the north only nine years later, it never enters his mind that the powerful knight could be his son. They end up in a fight, of course, and Rostam delivers a mortal wound. But just before he dies, Sohrab prophesies that his father will take revenge on the one who killed him -- not knowing that the two are one. So at some point, I expect Rostam to bring about his own downfall.

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