The Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi [A Review]

The Shahnameh, the Persian Book of Kings, is an epic poem composed by Abolqasem Ferdowsi in the late-tenth century, early-eleventh century. It chronicles Persia’s legendary and historical past, through the lives of its kings, from the creation of the world to the seventh-century Arab conquest that brought Islam to Persia. It has been described as one of the world’s great works of literature but one least well-known to the English-speaking world.

This version that I read is a Penguin Deluxe Classics edition of the epic, translated and edited by Dick Davis. It contains some wonderful illustrations, taken from lithographs from popular 19th century editions. There is a part of me that bristles at the thought of edited or abridged versions of classics, but one must be realistic. The original Shahnameh is composed of 50,000 22-syllable lines and is usually presented in nine separate volumes. So an edition that provides the essence of the epic, without taking months out of your life, is the only realistic option for the modern English reader. Given the praise Davis has received from people who would know, such as The Kite Runner author Khaled Hosseini, it would appear that Davis has achieved an effective compromise. Most of all, what makes me feel assured that this is the best way to read the Shahnameh is something Davis says in his introduction:

My aim in translating the Shahnameh was not to produce a text for scholars, but to make it available to a wide non-specialist audience. I hesitate to say a popular audience: perhaps no medieval literary artefact, from any culture, can have a truly popular existence now. We prefer our medievalism to be derivative and ersatz; The Lord of the Rings rather than Beowulf, Camelot rather than Malory or Chretien de Troyes. Nevertheless there is still a world of readers, especially relatively young readers, who are not scholars, who might try Beowulf or Malory, and it was them I aimed to reach with my translation. I translated not for scholars, who after all have access to the original, now in relatively good editions, but for that radically endangered species, the general reader.

Davis has largely translated the Shahnameh into a narrative form, though there are frequent passages of poetry. Most of the chapters are quite long, especially those that cover the reigns of major monarchs, but each chapter is broken down into shorter sections of story. So, the Shahnameh is an easy book to dip in to and out of. Though, from the point of view of trying to review it; it is difficult to say much about the stories. Even the shorter ones require a lot of explaining to share, even briefly, so I’ve reluctantly decided not to.

More broadly, the structure of the entire epic can be considered to be made of three sections. The first is a legendary section depicting an heroic age. The stories and characters are pretty simple and black-and-white. Like a lot of ancient and medieval writing, you would almost say it was like a children’s story if not for all the violence.

I was frankly surprised by this beginning. Having read epics like Homer, I was expecting the Shahnameh to be a long and arduous read. But the combination of the story’s simplicity and Davis’ narrative translation made reading this very easy-going and I quite enjoyed the first 120 or so pages. Battle between the forces of good and evil, between human and supernatural, combined with the style of the language creates that enjoyable storytelling you remember from childhood. There are parts that feel Arthurian, others that feel like the Old Testament or Homer.

If a noble tree grows tall and is then damaged in some way, its leaves wither, its roots weaken, and its summit begins to droop; and if it snaps, it must give way to a new shoot that, when spring comes, will bud and blossom like a shining lamp. If a sickly branch grows from a good root, you should not curse the root for this. In the same way, when a father cedes his place to his son and acquaints him with the secrets of life, if the son then brings shame on his father’s name and glory, then call him a stranger, not a son. If he slights his father’s example, he deserves to suffer at the hands of fate. This is the way of the ancient world, and you cannot tell what will grow from a given root.

As I say, this section of the epic is very ‘heroic’. It features mythical creation stories, the origins of various ethnicities, powerful but flawed kings battling natural and supernatural threats, demons and saviours, often reliant on superhuman, Herculean, heroes to win their wars and come to their rescue. Given Persia’s geography, Indian, Hellenic or even Hebrew influence should not be surprising.

This enjoyable first impression, however, did not last. Mostly because of the repetition which I will come to later. Another, milder, disappointment was that these early stories are legendary with no historical basis. One thing I had hoped for in the Shahnameh was to read stories of the rulers of the Achaemenid Empire – Cyrus the Great, Xerxes and the Darius’s and Artaxerxes’s. Unfortunately, they are absent from the stories, as is the Parthian Empire. As Davis explains, knowledge of these eras was largely lost in Persia during Ferdowsi’s time.

In the middle section of Shahnameh, the transition to something of a historical basis begins with a long series of stories on the exploits of Sekandar (Alexander the Great). Though they have a historical figure at their centre, they are still very much legendary. For example, Ferdowsi’s Alexander is half-Persian, a Christian and visits Mecca! In the Shahnameh, Sekandar is not the son of Filqus (Phillip II of Macedon), but the grandson. Ferdowsi has a generation in between whereby a daughter of Filqus is briefly married to the Persian king Dara. But he sends her back to Greece pregnant because of her bad breath. Sekandar’s subsequent conquest of Persia is therefore not a defeat to a foreign power, but the return of a half-Persian with a legitimate claim to the Persian throne.

I don’t believe there is much value in querying the factual accuracy of Shahnameh. There are doubtless many historical errors within. I think it would be better to consider Ferdowsi as a sort of Grimm brother, collecting local histories, folklores and traditions and trying to conceive of a narrative whole.

The Sekandar stories bridge the Shahnameh from its legendary first section to its increasingly historical last section. By now, the supernatural beings of the heroic beginning are largely absent as are the superhuman heroes and the simplicity of the characters or the interpretation of events. Instead we have kings and rivals of complex character, trying to maintain an empire in decline with no clear guidance to the difference of right and wrong, wisdom or folly. The complexity, even contradictions, of the later characters and stories are due, according to Davis, to Ferdowsi reconciling competing sources of information. As well as the stories at the opening, some of the stories towards the end of the epic were the ones I enjoyed the most.

But in the end the virtuous and the vicious both lie beneath the dust.

While I enjoyed reading the Shahnameh in the beginning, I found it very difficult to enjoy it through the middle sections. This book is very repetitious. Repetition is something that should be expected as a familiar device from epic poetry but I cannot stress enough how tedious it made reading it.

On one level, there is the repetition within stories in the form of frequently repeated phrasings and listings. Everyone of royal or noble stock is described in terms of having ‘the stature of a cypress, with a face like the full moon, a waist as slender as a reed and the gait of a pheasant’. Over and over again. Because so much of the stories concern kings engaging in diplomacy; most letters and emissaries, must begin with obeisance to God:

He opened the letter in the name of the Creator, the lord of knowledge from whom all benefits derive, who makes Mars and the sun turn in the heavens, who rules over both elephants and ants, who raises the lowly as he wishes and needs no precedent for his actions.

Obeisance to God is usually followed by obeisance to the king; flattering them absurdly in similar style. Being monarchs and somewhat narcissistic, flattery will get you everywhere. Emissaries and astrologers are showered with gifts for telling the king what he likes to hear. There are also the rewards given to warriors and heroes and the treasure won from campaigning. These frequent lists of rewards and treasure become very tedious as well; golden goblets and crowns, emeralds and rubies, ivory thrones, musk and ambergris, silk and brocade. These obeisance’s and lists of treasure are never the exact phrasing every time, but it is close enough and frequently enough to become very tiring to read. It would be an interesting exercise to see how much of the Shahnameh is an actual story of events and dialogue and how much just consists of this repetition.

Unfortunately, there is another level of repetition between stories as well. Story after story will be about another king/prince being offended and going to war, or declaring one out of hubris; another king/prince is kidnapped or captured in war and a rescue mission is needed; another prince rebels against his father and starts a civil war or leaves the kingdom; another prince falls in love with his enemy’s daughter; another heir is discovered living an ordinary life ignorant of his lineage; another hero comes to rescue a captured king or lead the king’s army in war, often completing Herculean tasks along the way.

It may be that I am being a little unkind here because there are subtle differences between many stories and it might be argued that the message of these stories lies within those subtleties. Like much folklore, these are probably stories that have been repeated from memory, around a fire, compared and contrasted, and analysed for moral meaning over centuries of retelling, but a modern reader can’t appreciate it in that way from a single reading. The repetition could also have been much worse. Davis says that he excluded many passages, even entire stories, where the repetition became extreme.

As I say, I also found the passages toward the end of the book to be among the best, but I may have been too jaded by that point to have enjoyed and appreciated them fully. It made me wonder if, given that this book is like a collection of shorter stories, I should have dipped in and out of it rather than read it continuously.

There are some other aspects to the Shahnameh that I feel a responsibility to mention. I hesitate to be overly critical because for the most part these things cannot be helped – they are what you would expect from an epic written almost 1000 years ago. Nor do I entirely want to sound apologetic towards these things just because their presence is understandable and expected. I certainly don’t want to sound like a regressive providing a list of ‘triggers’. Nevertheless, this is a review and if you have an interest in this book you ought to know about some things it contains.

As the subtitle says, this is a ‘book of kings’ and is mostly about kings doing what kings do. There is a lot of warfare and things get bloody; people get decapitated, sawn in half and all manner of horrible tortures are devised and carried out. Outside of war, these kings engage in a lot of diplomacy, governing (though very little detail of that) and the pleasures of heavy drinking, feasting, entertainment, hunting and visits to their harems. There is, therefore, very little room for the stories of women or ordinary people in these stories for the modern reader.

The stories are also very ‘ethnocentric’, to use Davis’ term. This is a ‘Persian’ book of kings and was written to be a national epic. There may be instances where it rewrites history to be more favourable to Persia. It often has a limited view of rivals and outsiders be they Turk, Greek, Roman, Indian or Chinese, and sometimes much is made of Persian’s superiority to others. As well as removing the most repetitious sections, Davis says he also removed passages where this aspect would be too distasteful to modern readers.

It would be easy to continue with more points here but we needn’t do so. It should be sufficient to remember that Shahnameh is a medieval nationalist epic, focussed on the lives of the influential few.

In his introduction, Davis gives many reasons to consider the Shahnameh as complex and important work. He briefly examines some of the issues explored in the Shahnameh – of rivalry between unfit kings and morally-superior heroes, between those who are too eager for power and those who avoid it, of whether kings should rule by birthright or by the approval their peers, and of what makes a great ruler. Davis also discusses the peripheries the book inhabits – between natural and supernatural, legendary and historical, civilised and uncivilised, Persian and foreign.

I can’t say I found the Shahnameh very enjoyable, but I was not expecting it to be that sort of experience given what it is. Where I did find it enjoyable came as a pleasant surprise. Given Davis’ comments about who he was translating for – the general reader, but not a popular audience – and why, this is not a book to be read for entertainment alone like modern literature. I agree it is an important, interesting and impressive work, but not widely read, and I am glad to be able to say I have read it and I think this version is the way to read it. I actually have another medieval Persian story that I have yet to read on my shelves – Vis and Ramin by Fakhraddin Gorgani – and was glad to see that Davis is the translator in that book as well.

The Shahnameh was Ferdowsi’s life’s work. Though he lived a few centuries after the Muslim Arab conquest, Persia’s conversion to Islam and the destruction of its pre-Islamic culture and history was slow with reverses back-and-forth. Ferdowsi experienced this in his own lifetime as he mostly lived during an era of Persian cultural revival and support for his work under the Samanid Empire, only to see Persia fall to Ghaznavid Turks who were far from supportive. It was repeated again in the 20th century as the Shahnameh enjoyed a revival under the Pahlavi dynasty only to be ignored again following the Islamic Revolution. This sense of a loss of culture, a lament towards inexplicable and cruel ways of the world and God, is reflected in the Shahnameh as well and Ferdowsi died a bitter and poor man though convinced of the ultimate durability of his work.

After sixty-five years had passed over my head, I toiled ever more diligently and with greater difficulty at my task. I searched out the history of the kings, but my star was a laggard one. Nobles and great men wrote down what I had written without paying me: I watched them from a distance, as if I were a hired servant of theirs. I had nothing from them but their congratulations; my gall bladder was ready to burst with their congratulations!

I’ve reached the end of this great history
And all the land will fill of talk of me:
I shall not die, these seeds I’ve sown will save
May name and reputation from the grave,
And men of sense and wisdom will proclaim,
When I have gone my praises and my fame.


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