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.
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.
The power of writers! A salutary lesson for us all with the coming regime.
Next week: We make our final comments about the project as a whole.