The Persian Book of Kings
By Abolqasem Ferdowsi
Translated from the Persian by Dick Davis
Viking. 886 pp. $45
The Shahnameh is the great epic of ancient Persia, opening with the creation of the universe and closing with the Arab Muslim conquest of the worn-out empire in the 7th century. In its pages, the 11th-century poet Abolqasem Ferdowsi chronicles the reigns of a hundred kings, the exploits of dozens of epic heroes and the seemingly never-ending conflict between early Iran and its traditional enemy, the country here called Turan (a good-sized chunk of Central Asia). To imagine an equivalent to this violent and beautiful work, think of an amalgam of Homer's Iliad and the ferocious Old Testament book of Judges.
But even these grand comparisons don't do the poem justice. Embedded in the Shahnameh are love stories, like that of Zal and Rudabeh, that recall the heartsick yearnings of Provençal troubadours and their ladies; tragedies of mistaken identity, hubris and irreconcilable moral obligations that might have attracted Sophocles; and meditations on the brevity of life that sound like Ecclesiastes or Horace. Though ostensibly historical, the poem is also full of myth and legend, of fairies and demons, of miraculous births and enchanted arrows and terrible curses, of richly caparisoned battle-elephants and giant birds straight out of the Arabian Nights. Little wonder that artists have often taken its stories as the inspiration for those manuscript illuminations we sometimes call Persian miniatures.
All this is swell, a modern reader is likely to think, but can Americans living in the 21st century actually turn the pages of the Shahnameh with anything like enjoyment? Yes, they can, thanks to Dick Davis, our pre-eminent translator from the Persian (and not only of medieval poems, but also of Iraj Pezeshkzad's celebrated comic novel, My Uncle Napoleon ). Davis's diction in this largely prose version of the Shahnameh possesses the simplicity and elevation appropriate to an epic but never sounds grandiose; its sentences are clear, serene and musical. At various heightened moments -- usually of anguish or passion -- Davis will shift into aria-like verse, and the results remind us that the scholar and translator is also a noted poet:
Our lives pass from us like the wind, and why
Should wise men grieve to know that they must die?
The Judas blossom fades, the lovely face
Of light is dimmed, and darkness takes its place.