By Michael Dirda
Sunday, May 14, 2006
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.
The world is pleasure first, then grief, and then
We leave this fleeting world of living men --
Our beds are dust, for all eternity,
Why should we plant the tree we'll never see?
Many of the episodes of the Shahnameh clearly draw from the same teeming ocean of story known to Western poets and mythmakers. Old King Feraydun divides greater Persia into three realms, one for each of his sons, and the two older brothers conspire against the youngest, with bloody centuries-long consequences. The champion Rostam boldly undertakes seven Herculean trials. Kay Kavus's entire army is scourged with blindness by the White Demon. A heroic warrior meets his own valiant and unrecognized son on the field of battle (English majors will remember this as the subject of Matthew Arnold's poem "Sohrab and Rustum"); Kay Khosrow fasts and meditates, like Buddha, and then renounces the throne and earthly vanity to ascend into heaven. There's even an example of that misogynistic favorite about the high-ranking older woman (Potiphar's wife, for instance, or Phaedra) who lusts after a forbidden younger man, in this case her stepson: "Now when the king's wife, Sudabeh, saw Seyavash, she grew strangely pensive and her heart beat faster; she began to waste away like ice before fire, worn thin as a silken thread." But, as in Racine, Ferdowsi makes us feel the middle-aged Sudabeh's torment:
"But look at me now," she implores Seyavash. "What excuse can you have to reject my love, why do you turn away from my body and beauty? I have been your slave ever since I set eyes on you, weeping and longing for you; pain darkens all my days, I feel the sun itself is dimmed. Come, in secret, just once, make me happy again, give me back my youth for a moment."
The story of Seyavash is a study in conflicting loyalties, like so much of the Shahnameh . The blood relations between Iran and Turan are intricate, as many of the major characters can trace their lineage back to Feraydun, and even traditional enemies occasionally intermarry. In fact, the most common theme of the epic is the tension between fathers and sons, often of kings who don't want to relinquish power and younger men who want to prove they deserve it. Aging Goshtasp can't bear to give up his kingship, even to his own son. So he sends the noble young warrior on an impossible mission: to bring the proud and invincible Rostam back to the court in chains. In truth, there's no good reason for this order, as that hero has long been a loyal defender of one unworthy Iranian king after another. But Esfandyar owes obedience to his father and his sovereign, even as he recognizes the injustice, indeed the senselessness of the command. Worse yet, Rostam admires the young man and so urges every possible escape clause, even agreeing to return to the Persian court -- but not in chains, for he has pledged never to be bound. In the end, two admirable men, caught between mutually opposing vows, must reluctantly meet in armed combat to the death.
Rostam is a recurrent figure throughout the first half of the Shahnameh . He lives for 500 years, swings his mace like a Middle Eastern Thor, and is usually called upon when times grow truly desperate. When young, Rostam searched for a horse that could support his mammoth size and weight. He finally found Rakhsh, as famous in Persian lore as Pegasus in Greek mythology. What, he asks, is the cost of this formidable animal? The herdsman replies, "If you are Rostam, then mount him and defend the land of Iran. The price of this horse is Iran itself, and mounted on his back you will be the world's savior."
Rostam also shares, with Odysseus, a liking for sly humor. Once, on a secret mission to a land of sorcerers, people begin to suspect him of being Rostam because of his great strength. He innocently replies: "I don't know if I'm worthy even to be Rostam's servant. I can't do the things he does; he is a champion, a hero, a great horseman." Another time in battle, he seizes an enemy by his belt, which breaks, and the man escapes. Rostam berates himself, "Why didn't I tuck him under my arm, instead of hanging on to his belt?" The old hero finally dies in a trap constructed by his own stepbrother, but not before he uses his last ounce of strength to notch an arrow and send it through the trunk of the tree behind which the murderer thinks he is safe.
The wily Turanian King Afrasyab is nearly as long-lived as Rostam and somehow manages to escape time and again from certain death. His machinations power much of the first half of the Shahnameh . Afrasyab is nothing if not a Machiavellian realist and one of the most vivid and complex characters in the poem. As a young man, he recognizes the folly of war with Iran's Kay Qobad and so advises his shortsighted father: "War with Iran seemed like a game to you, but this has proven to be a hard game for your army to play. Consider how many golden helmets and golden shields, how many Arab horses with golden bridles, how many Indian swords with golden scabbards, and how many famous warriors Qobad has ruined. And worse than this, your name and reputation, which can never be restored, have been destroyed." He concludes by saying, "Don't think of past resentments, try to be reconciled." The lessons of history, as they say.
There's much more to the Shahnameh than I've touched on here. Because the poem's geography is largely the Eastern empire, Ferdowsi makes no mention of such famous Persian kings as Darius or Xerxes (though Alexander the Great does appear under the name Sekandar). Instead we learn about figures like Bahram Gur, who enjoyed hunting with cheetahs, once killed a rhinoceros with a dagger and eventually thwarted an invasion by the emperor of China.
For all their richness, though, long poems sometimes fall prey to a certain repetitiousness, and the wise reader will want to parcel out this one over time. Yet the epic scale of the book shouldn't overshadow its memorable smaller moments, or even some of its single sentences. One beautiful woman's mouth is described as "small, like the contracted heart of a desperate man." A seductive witch appears to Rostam, "full of tints and scents." A king's three daughters, "as lovely as the gardens of paradise, were brought before him, and he bestowed jewelry and crowns on them that were so heavy they were a torment to wear." As Ferdowsi quietly writes, "So the world went forward, and things that had been hidden were revealed." The Shahnameh eventually concludes with the death of the last king of the Sasanian dynasty and the passing of pre-Islamic Iran. Yet the poet can rightly sing:
I shall not die, these seeds I've sown will save
My name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone, my praises and my fame.
Thanks to Davis's magnificent translation, Ferdowsi and the Shahnameh live again in English. ·
Michael Dirda's "Book by Book: Notes on Reading and Life" has just been published. His online discussion of books takes place each Wednesday at 2 p.m. on washingtonpost.com.