Join Tessa Gratton and I as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).
SYNOPSIS: Feraydun’s three sons earn their names and marry the three daughters of the king of the Yemen.
TG: This story is very simple and straight-forward, and a story-type I’m very familiar with, and yet it surprised my by how technically well it’s told, and how self-sustaining it is.
I read the line that the princes could hold their own against elephants before they were named and assumed that was a delightful bit of hyperbole meaning they were big and strong even when babies. THEN the note that the princesses of the King of Yemen were “three unnamed daughters” came and I paused to think for a while about naming conventions. Clearly the daughters are marriageable age, so what does this mean? They have no names of their own? Why not? Are they only named in relation to their eventual husbands? How does this work? I remembered the line about the princes and decided maybe it was a detail I was never going to get the answer to, something I don’t understand because of a lack of exposure. Or it was a use of basic fairy-tale convention.
AND INSTEAD IT’S WHAT THE ENTIRE STORY IS ABOUT.
The three unnamed princes and three unnamed princesses coming together and only then earning their names from Feraydun – the most powerful character currently in the world, with the farr of God and magic of angels. This story is not about Feraydun dividing his land or fighting between the sons, it’s about how they got their names and, of course, foreshadowing.
I went back and read through the whole story again to see how the hints about the theme were dropped in so casually and gracefully that I – a very practiced reader – noticed them, but not how they were part of the internal scaffolding.
I continue to be impressed by the role and treatment of women. The princesses weren’t unnamed because they were women, and they are valued by their father for themselves and how they make him feel. Not political or monetary worth. He’s only concerned with enraging Feraydun, not gaining alliance with him through the means of his daughters. All the women so far, though ruled and sometimes even controlled entirely by the men, aren’t chattel. They have power in their own right as advisors, sorceresses, mothers.
KE: I agree. I also entered this section with preconceptions and then they were all exploded. I suppose this is the “good dad” episode although naturally there may be more good dads later but I was specifically enamored of how the story deals with the king of Yemen and his love for his daughters. He doesn’t reject Feraydun’s request out of hatred for the other king. He isn’t evil or conniving, even though he does connive a bit. I was so impressed that he simply really loves his daughters. As people. As good company. What a concept. Also, so far the two kings also identified as Arab have not done well against the Persians, although obviously the king of Yemen isn’t in the same category as Zahhak. His deceit is, one might argue, for a good cause (at least by our standards).
Like you, I read the clues as to what the episode was about without really registering them until the naming happens and then the light went on and I realized I had been played by a master.
It also interested me that Feraydun finds a way to praise each quality of his sons even if, as with Salm, we might in another circumstance expect him to be condemned as a coward. Yet it IS also possible to see his behavior from a different angle, as the king does.
I did feel there were echoes of the ancient Indo-European folktale pattern of the three sons and the youngest son having a special destiny. I don’t know if this will turn out to be the case but given that the next section is the story of the youngest son, I guess we are about to find out.