Western readers should welcome this “huge panorama of conflict and epic adventure,” announced as the fullest prose translation yet of the 11th-century national epic of Persia (now Iran).
Written over a span of 35 years by the accomplished poet Ferdowsi, it’s a lavish tale based on earlier oral epics and a royally commissioned national history, composed in some 60,000 couplets (which compare roughly with 100,000 lines of English verse). The book begins as a conflation of indigenous myths and legends, then traces several centuries’ worth of royal reigns (hence its subtitle), and concludes following the seventh-century Arab invasion of Persia that toppled the long-lived Sasanian dynasty and irreversibly altered a proud ancient culture. The poem is thus simultaneously a chronicle of kingship (which includes very pointed references to monarchs’ responsibilities to their subjects); a saga of complex relations between rulers and the military men who serve (and, sometimes, oppose) them; and a vast succession of stories of power struggles and portraits of heroes and villains, humans and supernatural foes, and families and regimes divided. Its choicest contents include: the tale of introverted Kay Khosrow’s troubled reign and eventual abdication; the adventures of Seyavash (a kind of Persian Marco Polo); the mixed morality deployed by royal consort Shirin (a classic survivor, against formidable odds); the story of Iraj, which partially echoes that of Old Testament hero Joseph; the conquests, and eventual death, of the invader Sekandar (i.e., Alexander the Great); and the richly detailed history of soldier-hero Rustum (known to us through Matthew Arnold’s narrative poem “Sohrab and Rustum”). The latter is a true tragic hero (his “Seven Trials” closely parallel the Labors of Hercules), and the stories in which he is central achieve thrilling intensity and resonance.
One (many, actually) of the world’s great stories, in immensely attractive and reader-friendly form. Essential reading.