The Water Margin (Outlaws of the North) by Shi Naian: A 2017 Readalong

In 2016 Tessa Gratton and I read the Shahnameh (The Persian Book of Kings) by Abdolqasem Ferdowsi. It’s a long epic poem, often called the national epic of the Persian civilization, and by dividing it into weekly sections we were able to complete it in 41 sessions (with some missed weeks due to other commitments). It was definitely epic and well worth reading, as you can discover in our posts about each section.

Completing a massive project in this way emboldened me to tackle another classic of world literature in 2017 by plotting a reading schedule that will allow for an entire year to finish an otherwise daunting 798 page novel. [Stop laughing: Black Wolves is only 780 pages.]

So: Join me and a motley crew of volunteers from Twitter in reading The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh) by Shi Naian (c. 1296 – 1372 C.E.).

water-margin-cover

Originating in the transitional phase between the end of the Yuan (Mongol) Dynasty and the early Ming Dynasty it is based on the story of an historical bandit named Song Jiang who lived during the reign of the Huizong Emperor during the Song Dynasty (1100 – 1126 C.E.), the one the Mongols conquered. I haven’t read it yet but it appealed to me because it is the story of virtuous people from every level of society who, forced into banditry, are fighting against a corrupt and unjust government.

The novel is ascribed to Shi Naian but scholarship doesn’t seem agreed that we can know definitively that he wrote the entire thing alone. What is known is that over the period of the Ming Dynasty the novels was edited until, in circa 1592 a man named Li Zhi produced a “definitive” 120 chapter version. Then, in 1641, Jin Shengtan published a version that lops off the last 50 chapters to produce a more unified thematic whole. I don’t know; I’m just repeating what I read. Regardless, this 70 chapter version is the one I’m using. I may well seek out the last 50 chapters because the Jin Shengtan version is itself a product of the times HE was living in and he evidently subverts the original ending. How interesting is THAT!

Here’s how the project will go:

I’m reading the Tuttle Publishing 2010 edition, with a translation by J H Jackson and an introduction and editing by Edwin Lowe. Lowe gives the credit for the translation entirely to Jackson but in his introduction discusses how he addressed what he calls the shortcomings of Jackson’s translation (mostly to do with Jackson’s sanitizing of some of the more vulgar and barbaric passages). This version is available both in a trade paperback edition and in Kindle form.

Each week I’ll try to read 15 – 20 pages or so, and I will announce at the end of each week’s portion whether we will be reading one longer chapter or two shorter ones for the next week. I may miss weeks occasionally. I’ll post a brief synopsis and some thoughts every Friday, and the comments will be open for discussion.

The entire project will be linked here. Here’s the opening plan of action:

Week 1: January 6: Foreward and Prologue

Week 2: January 13: Chapter 1

Week 3: January 20: Chapter 2 (short because I’ll be traveling)

Week 4: January 27: Chapter 3 (still short, because I’ll be traveling)

Week 5: February 3: Chapters 4 & 5

Week 6: February 10: Chapters 6 & 7

Writing, World-Building, Idea Development: Final Thoughts on the Shahnameh Readalong (42)

The Shahnameh 2016 Readalong had its genesis in a fortuitous exchange on Twitter. Tessa Gratton and I decided to divide the book up as one would in a college course and read the entire epic by Abdolqasem Ferdowsi across the year, blogging our reactions along the way. And so here we here, having read the entire Dick Davis translation although, because Davis abridged elements, not the entire epic. Herewith our thoughts, which end up focusing both on reading and on how a process of idea and writing development work.

Tessa: I bought my copy of the Shahnameh a little over two years ago. I’d just finished the final book in my United States of Asgard series, and planned to write some stand alone novels over the next few years, while reading, learning, investigating the background for whatever my new (next) (eventual) giant fantasy series would be. I only had the core idea, and because I’ve been writing for over a decade I know my imagination needs a lot of time and layers to start the soup that will become a vibrant, complicated secondary world culture big enough for a series. So even though I wasn’t planning to write that series yet (I’m still today probably two years away from writing the thing), I needed to begin the process of feeding the specific location in my imagination that would chew on the idea.

Stack of books, all non fiction titles.

Stack of books, all non fiction titles, from Tessa’s research library.

Most of my research materials for this project are nonfiction. Histories of the culture and locations, from ancient to modern, written by people from within and without the culture itself, with a focus on architecture and clothing/tools. Some biographies. And a very small number of fiction and mythology sources—as close to primary sources as I can find. I bought Shahnameh knowing only that it’s a chronicle of kings, rather like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle meets Beowulf, but more important and influential to Persian culture than either of those aforementioned works. I also knew it was long. Very long.

When Kate mentioned on Twitter that she was thinking of making a project out of reading it, my copy had been sitting about 10 inches away from my computer for over a year, and I knew I had to jump on the opportunity if I wanted the best chance of reading every word.

I’m so glad we made this project. Not only because it’s given me an opportunity to work with an author I’ve admired for years, but breaking the Shahnameh down in weekly installments and writing up my thoughts forced me to focus on engaging carefully with the text as a reader as well as a writer, instead of trying to blaze through on my own energy, gathering only what I knew I needed instead of allowing time and space to discover what I did not know.

Discovering what I don’t know about a culture and place and time is what matters most to me when I want to be true to the rhythm and sensations of a world, not just the surface.

With regards to my writing, reading the Shahnameh has been an invaluable research experience because of how fiction breathes life into ancient peoples, especially fiction created so long ago—the Shahnameh brings me halfway to Ancient Persia in ways no recently written history or novel can. It transports me into the mindset of people fifteen hundred years ago, to what they thought was important to highlight about the Persian kings from a thousand years before that. The layers of prioritizing and purpose matter so much when analyzing and embracing a work like this, not only to my understanding of the story, but my understanding of how I myself will rework and translate the ideas and culture into what I eventually write. This version we read has a translator (Dick Davis) who chose what words/ideas/sections to highlight (and which to erase), and the original poet Ferdowsi who himself chose what kings/ideas/episodes to highlight for his very specific audience. Then we have the stories themselves, and how and why they survived in order to reach Ferdowsi’s imagination in the first place. Beyond even that, there’s the layer of my POV, my situation as a Western woman long interested in the conflicts in the Middle East for both personal and political reasons. In addition to how it directly affects my writing, the Shahnameh has helped me think through current war and politics, reshaping my understanding. Every work of fiction has layers like this, layers of perspective, expectation, prejudice, and I need to remember that at every stage of my writing process.

All this was constantly on my mind as I read, but what will stick with me longest, I suspect, is the very gripping sensation of inexorable despair that I felt several times while immersed in the stories. I’m thinking most specifically of Seyavash, of course, and secondarily of Rostam’s doomed son, of Zal surviving all his children and grand children until he goes off to a mountain alone, in some ways the first and the last of his wise-wizard archetype in the Shahnameh. It’s amazing that Seyavash’s story could resonate so strongly for so many hundreds of years, beginning in this conflict between the Persians and Arabs thousands of years ago, with what they revered and feared, and eventually finding a home in my heart, too. That kind of emotional resonance is what literature is for.

Thank you, everyone who tagged along, keeping us honest, and thank you especially to Kate for making it happen.

ferdowsi

Abdolqasem Ferdowsi

Kate: After Tessa sent me her comments I felt she had basically covered what I would say, especially with respect to world building and research: I start by figuring out what I don’t know. There’s a lot I don’t know. This is why the structure and approach toward research feels important to me as a writer. The more I assume I know, the less I can actually learn.

For decades I’ve had an intense interest in the history and mythology of the Silk Road, I think in part because an aspect of me loves the resonance of long distance travel as a theme or anchor, if you will, for narrative. The ways that cultures rise and fade across centuries, the ways cultures connect and conflict, absorb and reject, transform or remain static: As a writer this is thematic content that never gets old for me. A million million stories rise out of the endless back and forth of cultural contact in all its best and worst aspects, and everything in between. Weave that within a story of adventure or empire or a journey into unknown spaces and I’m in writer and reader hog heaven.

So my early interest in the Silk Road led me to an interest in the history of Iran, and my interest in the Hellenistic Period led me to its intersections with ancient Persia. In late 2014 I read Frederick Starr’s book Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age. It’s a non fiction work about the rich scientific and literary landscape of Central Asia during what was also the early Middle Ages of Europe and how much of that Central Asian scientific work was brought into a less advanced European system. It’s specifically written for Western readers; that’s fine because it’s a good introduction that contextualizes the material for a readership assumed to be looking in from the outside. A work like this can be a starting point but should not, to my mind, be an end point. Although I was aware of the Shahnameh, of course, Starr’s book did make me start thinking more seriously about reading Ferdowsi’s epic, but it’s a long work and therefore rather daunting.

That’s why it worked out so amazingly well when Tessa said she’d be interested in reading it along with me. Positioning it as a year long project split into discrete and manageable sections made it . . . manageable.

Reading the Shahnameh gave me a glimpse from the inside (via a translation) into the incredibly rich heritage of one of the world’s most profound and complex civilizations, that of Persia. Now when I see references to characters or events I have a connection, however frail, that links me to that cultural heritage. We all live within shared heritages, and sometimes we live within overlapping ones, so that my shared cultural heritage as a person born and raised in the USA overlaps with my shared knowledge of 20th century rural Willamette Valley Oregon, with the Danish American experience, with being Jewish in America, with having parents who lived through World War 2, and with the larger cultural “regions” each of these attach to. What I’ve listed above is not the sum of my experience, just some examples, but the point is that having read the Shahnameh I now have a few touch points that connect me to a culture and history I was taught so little about and that mostly in simplistic terms.

One of the things education and experience can do is expand our touch points, those places in which we recognize and acknowledge and at times share the experiences of people who may be separated from us along other vectors of experience. So for example, Ferdowsi and I are separated by a gulf of time and culture (I don’t speak Persian so I can’t read his work in the original), and yet we are both writers so when he complains about not getting paid for his work I feel a sense of solidarity. How dare we not get paid for the work we do! *shakes tiny fist at world*

The lives and destinies of his characters now offer me a window through which I can communicate with people who also know these stories. We can enjoy the story’s fascinating take on Alexander the Great as trickster and seeker-of-wisdom, cheer on confident Rudabeh as she invites the handsome Zal to her chambers, and weep together over Seyavash’s tragic fate. It means something important when these connections are made and bridges are built. As human beings we talk to each other so much through shared understanding of stories.

Tessa and I also often remarked on what Davis left out of his translation (she covers this discussion, above, in much the same terms I would), and that too is a fruitful space to think about how people understand the world and how the world gets “translated” (or mis-translated) for different people in different spaces and places. We have to keep pushing at the closed gates and narrowly-framed windows that limit our access of vision.

What an amazing epic story the Shahnameh is, both as the national epic of Persia and as a vital vehicle in sustaining the Persian language. It is also fascinating in terms of its own history and tradition, not just in terms of Ferdowsi’s life and work but because the existence of a “Book of Kings” in the Persian cultural zone goes all the way back at the very least into the Achaemenid period.

Strangely enough I have a project in the early stages of development and writing that is partly inspired by a period of ancient history in which the Achaemenid Empire was a major player. But that’s another story built on the edifice of Story that surrounds us and creates us, because humans are pattern makers and story tellers. It’s hardwired into us to build our lives as narratives.

So if you haven’t read the Shahnameh, I recommend it. Go forth and read. Or at the very least search out the gorgeous artwork commissioned over the centuries to illustrate the many characters and iconic events.

This is still perhaps my favorite illustration that I’ve shared in this readalong for its gorgeous composition, colors, detail, and beautifully delineated human figures:

Shirin and Khosrow Parviz

Shirin and Khosrow Parviz seated on a divan or large pillow, with three ladies in waiting.

Thanks to Tessa for the shared journey because I could not have done it without her, to Paul and Rachel our most consistent comrades on the march, and to all who read along for part or all or some of the way.

And yes, I’m doing another readalong in 2017, this time of the Chinese classic The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh).

Happy New Year!

2016 Writing Retrospective & 2017 Looking Forward

My Writing Year of 2016 & Looking Ahead to 2017: This post is only about writing/publishing.

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Cover of Poisoned Blade, featuring a dagger superimposed over a golden circle and the tagline “To win the game, she must fight a war.”

What did I publish in 2016?

In 2016 POISONED BLADE: Book Two of Court of Fives came out in hardcover, ebook, and audiobook  (Little, Brown Books for Young Readers, USA, should be available worldwide). Court of Fives was published in a trade paperback edition (ebook and audiobook still available). Both audiobooks are narrated by Georgia Dolenz, who I think does a wonderful job making Jes sound determined rather than perky!

COURT OF FIVES has been named to the Tayshas and Lone Star 2017 lists of the Texas Library Association. It’s also on the South Dakota State Library Teen Choice list for 2016-2017 (Middle School). I mention these because library and school support for MG and YA novels is so important.

If you’re a librarian or educator, or have a book club, my publisher has made this Educator’s Guide available (they asked me questions and I answered).

Besides Poisoned Blade my most widely read piece published in 2016 has probably been the 9000 word essay, Writing Women into Epic Fantasy Without Quotas, which appeared on Tor.com in March. The title describes the content.

In a related post, Ken Liu and I published a dialogue at Lit Hub on the related subject of why the idea that it is unrealistic to show women in positions of power in epic fantasy still pops up with sad regularity. We don’t deal with the related claims that no one ever says this, even though examples can be found easily and often in the very threads in which people are claiming that no one ever says this.

Tessa Gratton and I read the Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings, by Abdulqasem Ferdowsi, and we wrote each week about the chapter we’d read. We were delighted and enthralled, at times appalled, and occasionally bored by this classic of world literature, and we will never get over the tragic fate of Prince Seyavash. It was such a fantastic project that in 2017 I’m going to do a readalong of the Chinese classic The Water Margin (Outlaws of the Marsh), although Tessa won’t be participating in this one. Charles A Tan and Ken Liu have signed on though, so this is an official thing now. I’ll be posting information on that on December 30.

I started a world-building Wednesday series, which I hope to continue as I have time.

You can find the Poisoned Blade blog tour list here if you’re interested in the posts I wrote surrounding the release of the book or want to revisit them.

2016 Appearances:

RT Convention, Las Vegas, where Black Wolves won the RT Award for Best Epic Fantasy of 2015.

Nebula Weekend (Chicago, IL), where Court of Fives was a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (Updraft by Fran Wilde won the award this year–huge congrats to Fran!)

San Diego Comic Con (big)

MidAmericon (fun)

HawaiiCon (an enjoyable relaxacon)

What did I write in 2016?

BURIED HEART (Court of Fives 3, and the final volume of the trilogy) is complete and due for publication on July 25 2017. It is already up for pre-order. Don’t wait!

I wrote a novelette for THE BOOK OF SWORDS, an anthology edited by Gardner Dozois. No publication date set yet. The story is titled “I am a handsome man,” said Apollo Crow and it is set in the Spiritwalker universe.

I wrote a 100 drabble (it was actually 1120 words) as part of a fundraiser for Reading For Pixels, a short piece set in the Jaran universe. I hope to share this in 2017; I’ll keep you posted.

Here’s me looking forward into 2017:

Dead Empire (Black Wolves 2): Yes, I’m working on it. I apologize that it is going so slowly. It’s a large and complicated plot, and I’ve added one more point of view character for a total of six. That is, there are two pov characters in each of the three plot-thread locations. The new pov character has been planned all along so this isn’t me changing my mind about things or going off on a tangent. Not that I can promise that will never happen but be reassured that this isn’t it!

YA proposal, TBA: Working on this and thus can’t announce yet. It’s space opera, not fantasy, and is intended as my YA follow-up to the Court of Fives trilogy. Not a literal narrative follow-up, that is, but a new series in the YA genre.

A 2nd Court of Fives novella: Working on this and can’t announce yet although I can tell you it will be about Bettany. But if you haven’t read Night Flower yet, please do so (if you’re so inclined). Since it functions as a prequel to the Court of Fives series you can read Night Flower with or without having read Court of Fives and/or Poisoned Blade. It works either way. And I’m particularly proud of how I sketched in the world-building in this shorter piece, trying to strike a balance between enough detail to give a strong sense of place and brisk pacing to keep the pages turning.

night flower 1

The cover of Night Flower has the title superimposed over a white and pink bird of paradise shaped flower.

Short fiction: I have several partially-written Spiritwalker short pieces I would like to finish, a short-short set in the Jaran universe that I owe to Mette Harrison (as part of a fundraiser), and a couple of possible projects I’ve tentatively agreed to write a short story for that don’t yet have contracts (that I know of).

Jaran 5: I have the opening of this written. I’m starting to wonder if I can find a way to write this story as a novella just to get it out there. At the moment I do not know when I will have time because I have other contracts to fulfill. Hermione’s Time Turner would be useful right now.

Other projects: Like almost every writer I know I have a number of potential projects and scraps of openings written, just waiting for that halcyon epoch when I can write everything that is waiting to be written. These include a book set in the Crown of Stars universe, 500 years later, an adult space opera (not set in the Jaran universe), and several YA fantasy ideas in the early stages of development.

buried-heart-cover-resized

The cover for Buried Heart shows a silver-colored spider super imposed on a pale circle and blood-red background. The tagline (which my fabulous editor came up with) reads: “The end the war, she must choose a side.”

Upcoming 2017 events (this is only what is confirmed so far, not a final list):

ConFusion, Detroit, Michigan (how will I survive January in Detroit? By never leaving the hotel!)

Duke University Story Lab

YAKFest, Keller, TX (Dallas-Fort Worth area)

Sirens Conference, Vail, Colorado

If I missed any 2016 events or publications, or you have any questions about 2016 OR 2017, jump on in to the comments.

Happy New Year, my friends and readers and colleagues. May you find art and support that helps you on your journey. As for me, I will as always try to stay on the road of justice and compassion.

The Reign of Yazdegerd (Shahnameh Readalong 41)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: The Reign of Yazdegerd

Synopsis: “With the fall of this uninteresting king, the Shahnemeh goes out on a sad note.”

TG:  Well. This was the last section, and it’s depressing. It’s a good representation of how everything has changed from the first 2/3 of this epic. Long gone are the glorious kings and epic storylines, the laughter and magic (and women) and tragic downfalls and me feeling… much of anything. I just finished reading and I already can barely remember anything about Yazdegerd himself. The use of the name Rostam briefly engaged me, but he was so vastly different from the original it seemed like a historical quirk, not a storytelling throwback or deliberate parallel. I suppose that’s because we are in the quasi-historical section.

The appearance of Islam and the way it’s depicted in opposition to the wealth, ambition, and pride of the Sasan kings was interesting, but ultimately went nowhere. I was starting to hope that would be the ultimate point of this last section– a showdown of sorts or maybe a philosophical debate along the lines of those in previous sections where kings and wise men duke things out with riddles and examples. But alas, no.

What this episode drove home yet again was the rigidity of class and its relation to moral fiber. Mahuy is a shepherd’s son, but the king raises him up because of his deeds and supposed goodness, only for him to suddenly show his true colors as a traitor and regicide for no reason than being of poor blood. It was predictable and therefore boring. That’s how I felt about this entire episode. Nothing changed, and so it has achieved the status of stereotype instead of a useful trope or theme to revisit and examine.

AND think of what we missed by being denied even a page or two on those two sisters who ruled briefly before Yazdegerd! Double alas.

The main reason I’m so very sad right now, though, is the little coda at the end in the narrator’s voice–in Ferdowsi’s own voice?–in which he laments his lack of respect and how many people expect his work for free. As a writer myself I feel that pretty hard. I’m glad he gets the recognition he needs in the end.

yaz-3-dirham

Both sides of a silver dirham (coin), evidently from the reign of Yazdegerd III, the final Sasanian king. It shows his profile on one side and on the other two stylized figures flanking another creature.

KE:  Dynasties so often seem to end in this “not with a bang but with a whimper” way. First various short-lived rulers and their reigns (including women!) and then one last gasp. It’s interesting to me that after a string of murdered scions, Yazdegerd manages to rule for 16 years (even if under the thumb of the nobles) before the knife falls. That he has no sons is mentioned at least twice.

I honestly felt kind of bad for Yazdegerd. We never hear that he is good or bad, just ineffective and at the mercy of those around him. But in a society in which you are someone because you have a retinue and retainers, what a sad end for this young man, sitting alone in the straw in a random mill. That’s when you know you never had any friends to begin with, that their interest in you was solely due to how your station in life could benefit them. The miller is a tragic character as well, forced to do a terrible deed to save his family and almost certainly disposed of regardless afterward together with the monks and others who tried to honor the royal corpse.

I too tire of the embedded idea that nobility is a form of essentialism, God’s favor, rather than a power structure that maintains the status quo of a few ruling over the many. That Mahuy was able to be elevated in rank suggests a time of decentralization and upheaval — typical of the decline and fall of a major power. It is in such times, ironically, that women and lower class men have more of a chance to rise to the level of their actual merit rather than be held down by patriarchy and hierarchy. Of course that is also why a text such as Ferdowsi’s must repeat the idea that ugliness (a form of “spiritual pollution,” it is implied) and low birth are BY THEIR VERY NATURE disqualifying. The tiers of aristocracy and patriarchy can’t survive without that fundamental ideology being in place.

I thought Ferdowsi was not very complimentary to the Sa’d and his army. The contrast of their austerity to the Sasanian “goldenness” isn’t a commendation if the rest of the text has been praising display and wealth.

Like you I appreciated Ferdowsi kvetching about not getting paid. He was meant to get a large sum of money from the notorious Mahmud of Ghazhni who of course wouldn’t pony up with some variety of excuses. I found this delightful tidbit online:

There Ferdowsi composed a satire of 100 verses on Sultan Mahmoud that he inserted in the preface of the Shah-nameh and read it to Shahreyar, at the same time offering to dedicate the poem to him, as a descendant of the ancient kings of Persia, instead of to Mahmoud. Shahreyar, however, persuaded him to leave the dedication to Mahmoud, bought the satire from him for 1,000 dirhams a verse, and had it expunged from the poem. The whole text of this satire, bearing every mark of authenticity, has survived to the present.

And here’s a translation of the satire.

The power of writers! A salutary lesson for us all with the coming regime.

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Next week: We make our final comments about the project as a whole.

Khosrow and Shirin (Shahnameh Readalong 40)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week: Khosrow and Shirin

Synopsis: “The story of Khosrow Parviz’s downfall, the rebellion of his bad son, and how his non-noble wife Shirin manipulates her way to power and her ultimate end.”

The lovebirds seated close together in a pavilion. Three ladies attend them.

The lovebirds seated close together in a pavilion. Three ladies attend them. Lots of gold paint highlights, incredible patterned detail in the background, and lovely human figures with subtle motion makes this a superb painting.

TG:  Here we have another strong lady, right after Gordyeh! Only this one does not step outside the womanly roles to get what she needs and wants like Gordyeh, but uses womanly ways–sex, poison, manipulation–to survive and then die how she wants. I did not like her (she just flat-out murders poor Mariam!) but she was great to read about.

It’s clearly set up as a great love story between Shirin and Khosrow, though neither of them is remotely like Zal and Rudabeh, I feel like I’m supposed to think of them (or maybe that’s just because I’m *always* thinking of them), mostly because they are so devoted to each other–he adores her, she murders for him, they sleep together and tell each other secrets, and of course, Shirin’s ultimate act is to manipulate everyone into letting her die and be buried with her king. (Which was AMAZING, I actually started to really like her, despite not wanting to forgive her murdering Mariam.)

These two are star-crossed because of being different classes, and although Khosrow doesn’t climb any balconies, he does have to struggle to convince his councilors to accept her — and that bowl metaphor was fantastic, but also really drove home again how these later stories are becoming preoccupied with class and gender and also beauty. While we’ve always had great descriptions of the beauty of warriors and princes and queens, it’s only really been demons that are monstrous. But in the last few sections there’s a huge repeating pattern of ugliness being associated with bad men and bad thoughts. We get involved descriptions of how ugliness functions, and that is fascinating to me.

I don’t have a lot to say about all these kings who don’t rule for long–except it was nice to get a throwback to the earlier kings again when Khosrow just looses his farr. He just “becomes unjust” and I wonder what the looks like now that all these kings lately have seemed pretty terrible to me. I loved the line at the end: “he finds that his crown is made of the camphor with which the dead are anointed.” What a dark, pointed metaphor.

I found the role of Barbad the musician so interesting I looked him up. He was, of course, real, and he created an entire musical system that lasted a long time in the Middle East. AND he seems to have played a larger, more important story in Shirin and Khosrow’s courtship according to some studies– it was his music that made Shirin realize Khosrow loves her!

I can’t believe there’s only one section of this book left!!!

barbad

The musician Barbad and his very very large lute, which is also inlaid with cloisonne or painted or something similar. A lad wearing a fur cap accompanies him on a hand held drum.

KE:  I was puzzled that there was no description of the initial meeting and courtship of Khosrow and Shirin, even though I have found images of him seeing her bathing (a popular motif in these kind of stories).

khosrow-and-shirin

The young (beardless) Khosrow, mounted on a horse, sees across rock and tree to where Shirin bathes topless.

Shirin seems like the sort of lowborn lover a noble youth is allowed to have, the one he puts aside when he takes on official marriages with women of his own rank. So their story, and how she re-enters his life, did really quite interest me. Also it feels as if the story itself is of two minds about her. First she murders Mariam out of jealousy–and honestly I can’t quite figure out where Bahram Chubineh’s story and his sister marrying Khosrow fit into this–and obviously that makes Shirin seem like a villain. But, like you, I was moved by the story of her death and her apparently genuine love for Khosrow. So that’s a contrast, and I’m not sure quite what to make of it or how we are meant to approach her.

As for Khosrow, I really have reached a point where the good guys do so many unpleasant things that I’m almost glad for them to lose their farr. After all, in my eyes they have already done so!

Wasn’t the other Byzantine prince (from Kesra’s? story) also named Shirui? is this coincidence, or some sort of Persian version of a Byzantine/Roman name? I wonder.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the double dealing and treachery in this episode. It felt so real: This is what these sort of folks do, especially in the late period of a failing dynasty. Short reigns and shifting sides is often one of the markers of the final days of a ruling family. And another thing that interests me about it is that however much we in the sff community talk about the Western roots of so much epic fantasy, I have to say that a lot of fantasy kingship and political intrigue seems to me to have a lot in common with what we are seeing here in the last chapters of the Shahnameh. Have these stories had more influence than they’re given credit for? Or are stories of dynasties and kings and tyrants inevitably similar in many ways? A sobering thought given the USA’s current political situation.

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Next week: the final chapter, the end of the Sasanids and the arrival of the Arabs and Islam. I can’t believe we are almost done!

Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 2, The Death of Rostam, The Ashkanians, The Reign of Ardeshir & ShapurThe Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf, The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust, The Reign of Bahram Gur, The Story of Mazdak, The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan, The Reign of Hormozd, The Reign of Khosrow Parviz