The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan (Shahnameh Readalong 37)

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 Kesra Nushin-Ravan

Synopsis: “Kesra’s rule is highlighted with one bad Christian son and his on-again, off-again relationship with his vizier.”

TG:  I hardly know what to say.

No named women, again, and despite the section opening with ideas on what kind of woman a king should marry, it was only about her religion and her womb.

The first three sections, in fact, all have anti-women morals. The betraying son is bad because of his religion, which he got from his mother. The dream interpretation by Bozorjmehr takes a dream about a magnificent tree and a pig that wants to drink from the king’s cup and makes it about how women are untrustworthy, culminating in the death of a harem woman, and even the section about Kesra marrying the daughter of the emperor of China he’s only interested in her body being as good looking as her mother’s lineage.

(It almost suggested that a woman’s royalty can be seen through any disguise, mirroring earlier stories of lost heirs being raised by farmers and the like, but no, this was about her beauty, not any farr or royal bearing.)

It was disheartening, though I supposed this week I’d have had to read about the resurrection of Zal to be truly invested.

It does interest me that there is so much religious strife in these latter tales. A clear reflection of the book veering closer and closer to history. In the beginning, the strife was between Godly men and demons, or ambitious men against ambitious men, or all about epic love and giant magical birds, but now we have multiple religious, and different religions tied to different states with more frequency. I can’t help but see the connection between that and the lessening roles of women. Though obviously that kind of analysis would be very complicated.

I almost liked Bozorjmehr, but I can honestly say I don’t understand his last section. He just felt like the king was going to be mean to him, so emoji shrugged his way through torture and near-death, all because of some vague sense of fate. If the black bird stealing the king’s jewels had been a dream, that would have made more sense, but as it really happened, I just don’t get why Bo didn’t merely tell the king what happened, or wake him up, or…chase off the bird.

*sigh*

piruz_advises_nushzad_not_to_rebel_against_anushirvan_lacma_m-2009-44-2_4_of_5

Nobleman Piruz, seated on a horse to the right, faces King Kesra’s son Nushzad (seated on a horse to the right). Around them many soldiers await orders for battle. This scene represents Piruz advising Nushzad not to rebel against his father the king.

KE:  Like you I quite dislike Kesra the self righteous, continually described as the best and most just and so on and on, and meanwhile he again kills someone by hanging them upside down and who knows what else. Not a pleasant man in pursuit of making absolutely sure he has absolute power absolutely. But this is the system. I get it. Prosperity equals order and strength. Women live in purdah and no longer have names or agency which they don’t need because beauty, fertility, and obedience are their only important features. Bring on the revolution.

Anyway, I found the story of his hapless first son (the lovely Byzantine wife is mentioned and then vanishes) interesting and sad because it struck me as a real conflict. Born to a Christian mother he is then punished for adhering to her religion rather than that of his father. Obviously the king must maintain the supremacy of the state religion (and I believe that Zoroastrianism was the state religion of the Sasanian kings), but it’s lovely touch of tragic realism, the kind of plot-line that could work so easily in an historical or sff novel.

This chapter also has a sequence of non violent conflicts in which kings test each other with who has the most knowledgable wise men and/or viziers. It’s interesting to read a story in which besting others with your intelligence substitutes for a physical battle of arms.

But overall I’m just getting tired of the struggles of authoritarian men with little self doubt who have the power of life and death over their hapless subjects.

Next week: The Reign of Hormozd

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 Savage Other as a Stereotype in Fiction

(An early draft of this essay was written in 2011. This is a revised version.)

According to my American Heritage dictionary the word savage comes from the Latin for “of the woods, wild.” Savage is variously defined as “Untouched by man and civilization; not domesticated or cultivated; Ferocious; vicious or merciless; brutal.” Basically, savages are but one step up from wild animals. They are, as it were, undomesticated man.

The issue of how savages are the same as or different from barbarians is a related but entangled issue, one I will not get into now because instead I want to discuss the use of “savages” in fictional narrative both written and visual. This is an incomplete and partial examination of a complicated question. I use the generic “we” as a writing device, not to suggest I am speaking for others. Be aware I am specifically speaking from the point of view of an American (USA) writing in English.

A typical appearance of the stereotypical Savage Other in narrative may include some or all of the following characteristics:

1) Savage Others live in a crude and primitive manner, with primitive technology, primitive homes, primitive weapons, and primitive manners. They may be generally partially or mostly naked, and often they are painted or scarred; if clothed, then the clothing is usually unsophisticated while the decoration is often exotic and beautiful. Bare breasts might be prominent. They lack modesty and are sometimes perfectly happy to have sex in public because, like dogs and other animals, they lack self consciousness.

2) Fights, often to the death, and brute strength (i.e. violence) are often used to solve social problems within the group. Savages often are boisterous, unable to grasp or stomach the subtleties of politics or social relations.

3) They often are not articulate or talkative. There may be grunting. This is not always just because everything is being translated. Or, if they talk good, they have a limited palette of conversational topics.

4) Simplistic notions of the universe often combine with a primitive notion of religion. Also, sometimes they can’t count past 3. They may be cunning but are rarely or never inventors or sophisticated problem solvers.  Usually they are gullible and superstitious, although often their naïve view of the world may prove to be profound in some mystical way.

5) Sucks to be a woman. They get all the worst chores and are also at constant risk of rape, especially captive women without a guardian or some man who has claimed her (see #9 below, the primal edge).

5a) Exception: Free savage women may have lusty sexual appetites to go with their bare breasts. Also, savage women can sometimes best civilized men in arm wrestling.

6) Blind loyalty to strong masculine male leader. Blind loyalty turns quickly to feeding frenzy if leader shows the slightest sign of weakness.

7) Dirty or matted, tangled hair a bonus. Decoration a plus, especially bones woven into the hair. Peter Jackson’s King Kong film, I’m looking at you.

8) Savages are usually “those people over there” and never “our people.” I have not done a statistical study on how many in works written by Euro-American authors map savages to non-white non-European groups. But that wouldn’t mean anything anyway because blond people can be depicted as savage, too! You know, like the Scots! No, wait, the Picts! Aren’t they blond?

9) Savages lack discipline. That is, they live close to the “primal edge” and just one little bit of alcohol or tip of excitement will set them over the top and into the kind of impulsive behavior that suggests they have no awareness of themselves in a social milieu. Another way of looking at it might be to say that adult savages lack impulse control in something of the same way some teenagers are said to lack impulse control; in other words, they have never quite grown up; they are perpetual children lacking adult restraint and insight and the virtues of consideration, decorum, and moderation, unless, of course, they are a Wise Savage, in which case they are connected to the mystical spirit of the universe, or a Noble Savage, in which case, bad luck, because they are soon to be wiped out so “we” who have recorded their Last Days can mourn their passing.

10) Occasionally they need an Outsider to help them out, become ruler, save them, or civilize them.

Here are four problems I have with depictions of the Savage Other, although this is by no means a complete discussion of how deeply problematic this stereotype is.

One:

The idea that the default state of human beings is “savagery” lies beneath many of these depictions: an unexamined assumption that this is “what we-as-humans are really like.” The problem with the “what we are really like” theory is that just as human beings have violent tendencies, they also have altruistic and cooperative tendencies; just as they can be cruel, they can also be kind and affectionate. Altruism, cooperation, kindness, tenderness, and affection are not the purview of civilization, just as cruelty and violence are not the purview of savagery. All exist within human behavior regardless.

Two:

A “simple” level of social organization, or a low level of technology, does not mean there are equally simple levels of innovation, social interaction, cosmological understanding, or customary (unwritten) law within the group.

What we think of as “primitive tech” was once leading edge tech. Throughout history people have figured out how to use the technology they have in sophisticated ways to deal with their environment and improve their lives. We got where we are today because of uncounted numbers of innovations and inventions that came before in a steady chain of discovery, many forgotten or unrecognized.

In college I took a class on “South American Indians” in which we studied, among other things, cosmologies of various groups. The cosmologies of many of these groups were exceedingly complex and layered and sophisticated. Additionally, the layers of social interaction are usually extremely complex in all societies, and social relationships may be necessarily multilayered in so-called “simpler” societies. If you have ever studied kinship terms you can see how simplified, or one might say atrophied, American English kinship terms are compared to kinship terms in many other languages.

Three:

Human groups have all been developing for the same amount of time. They are continually adapting to their environmental and geopolitical circumstances, which are constantly changing in ways we can’t always see from the present moment. My spouse has worked in the Highlands of Papua New Guinea, and he will tell you that some of the most supple and sophisticated thinkers he has met have been highland villagers in PNG who may seem, by external technological Western measurements, to be more “primitive” (or “less advanced”) than “us” but who are far less locked into rigid ways of thinking.

When we say “less advanced,” what do we really mean? How are we defining “advanced?” Usually we are defining it in terms of cities and urban civilization. Politically and bureaucratically state level societies are usually described as “more advanced” than chieftain level societies because they are more populous and have more moving parts and more specialization. (Lest you wonder, I like my technological conveniences and my Constitution just fine, thank you.)

Yet, for instance, the culture of the nomadic Mongols made famous by the 13th century conquests of Genghis Khan was not “less advanced” in cultural terms compared to other cultures of that time. It was suited to its environment, and was as sophisticated and complex in terms of interpersonal dynamics, cosmological understanding, and the nature of lineage and tribal obligations that bound sub-groups together. It had been developing throughout prehistory through stages in a parallel process (with a different outcome) to the development of the complex urban civilizations of the time, those in China, Persia, and the Middle East. Although not based in an urban context, the fluid and dynamic nature of the steppe lineages and groups proved superior militarily to the urban societies they conquered. The Mongols knew how and where to get the outside knowledge they needed to do what they wanted, including bringing in Chinese siege warfare experts just as one example. The descendants of that conquest held on for a reasonably long time in historical terms as the initial empire grew and then slowly collapsed in the way typical of large empires.

Four:

“Savages” do not behave that way. Functional societies are orderly in an internally consistent way.  Functional societies rely on social mores, legal (written or unwritten) expectations or codes, and societal ways (which may be repressive, customary, tolerant, familial, or law-bound) of enforcing social cohesion.

Let me repeat:  All functional societies contain social mechanisms to regulate behavior within the group.

Groups that lack social and customary (legal) cohesion do not survive, or they are already disrupted by other forces which are causing them to change or dissolve. Things like environmental stresses, economic collapse, imperial or colonial pressure or exploitation, and war (internal civil or invasion by an outside group) disrupt social cohesion.

In other words, “savage” defines behavior, not culture. Savage behavior is a dynamic that most often comes into play because of disorder or high stress. For instance, when Wellington’s army sacked the city of Badajoz in 1812, they engaged in savage behavior.

No society or culture can function internally, with internal cohesion, with “savage behavior” as its sole social web. We only think it can be true because the contrast flatters us and reinforces our expectations and assumptions about who is a savage.

Do people behave horribly sometimes? Absolutely.

So here’s my problem: An incident of “savage” or “wild” behavior among a people who are classified as “savages” defines “them,” and the entire culture, as savage, whereas an incident of “savage” or “wild” behavior among “us” (ours, people like us) is defined as an aberration, the exception that proves the rule of our disciplined, advanced, cohesive, orderly, and thus superior society.

But human society is by definition social; we have evolved within social bonds, and with human emotions that influence the ways we interact, enforce social bonds and behavior, and create our way of understanding the world around us.

Humans are as a group emotionally sophisticated, although individuals vary. One of the worst problems with the depictions of the Savage Other is that entire “peoples” or “groups” are treated as if, like variant individuals, they fall outside the curve. But people live in social groupings for a reason: not only are we band animals, we are so because we survive in bands (and larger groups) whereas alone we would die.

As soon as any grouping of people settles into a band or larger society, they now have a social order and will interact to improve the social order (even if only in their favor).

In other words, the Savage Other does not exist. It is a construct, held up so we can feel better about ourselves.

When one people or civilization referred in the past (or refers today) to another as “savage” it is important to examine where and why that word was (or is) being used. Usually it is specifically used to create a value judgement that allows “our” culture to be elevated as more civilized and superior and “theirs” as savage and thus inferior. People in the past, just as in the present, had prejudices and agendas and we should therefore not repeat their judgements as if they were objective.

I’m reminded of the argument that the civilization of the Aztecs (also known as the Mexica) was “savage” because they did not use forks: So said anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan, writing in the 19th century. Meanwhile, conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo, writing as an old man in the 1560s, reflects that the Spaniards with Hernán Cortés on that first fateful expedition had never seen a city in Europe as large, spacious, orderly, and beautiful as the Aztec capital of Tenochtitlan. Some people typically argue that the Aztecs were savages because they practiced heart sacrifice. A nasty business, I agree. But Mexica heart sacrifice was a tool for political (and religious) power just as the various inquisitions and pogroms have been in Europe, with torture, burning at the stake, and wholesale slaughter part of the historical record. And let’s review a few horrific details of the conquest of the Americas as detailed in Bartolomé de las Casas’s A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (published in 1561):

“The Spaniards forced their way into Native settlements, slaughtering everyone they found there, including small children, old men, pregnant women, and even women who had just given birth. They hacked them to pieces, slicing open their bellies with their swords as though they were so many sheep herded into a pen. They even laid wagers on whether they could manage to slice a man in two at a stroke, or cut an individual’s head from his body, or disembowel him with a single blow of their axes. They grabbed suckling infants by the feet and, ripping them from their mother’s breasts, dashed them headlong against the rocks.”

Are these acts and the religious-political justification for killing any less savage?

Depictions of the Savage Other in fiction and film don’t function as realistic societies because they don’t contain the complex underpinnings and social interaction that functional working societies have. Savage Others in such cases are poorly thought-through as a piece of world-building. They’re bad craft, and they are also extremely harmful stereotypes. Any belief that they represent a real “type” of human social order has more to do with our willingness and desire to accept a simplistic weave of cliches than with the reality of their existence.

The Story of Mazdak (Shahnameh Readalong 36)

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 Story of Mazdak

Synopsis: “Mazdak comes to Qobad’s court, preaching equality for all men, but his new religion is rejected and he’s killed.”

TG:  WELL we have our absolute evidence that women have lost all status. Here they of course cannot hold their own wealth or make their own choices because they ARE wealth. They are equal only to wealth, in that they bring corruption to all mankind equally with wealth.

I’m very glad this is all happening in the end of the book, because if it had been in the first 1/4 I’m not sure I’d have been able to stick to this project!

It’s interesting to me that this brief sojourn into a sort of communist agenda where men are supposed to be economically equal and wealth is the enemy so easily catches hold of King Qobad, though the snake poison anecdote is a pretty convincing one. Especially since so recently we had the episode where the priest made all the people in a village equal and a few weeks later the village was razed to the earth and everything had gone badly.

And even though Mazdak’s religion is rejected it certainly isn’t because of anybody thinking women are worth anything. The number one argument against sharing women in common had nothing to do with women, but in good patriarchal fashion, it was “how will a son know his father, or a father his son?”

Always centering the menfolk. ALAS.

Apparently, Mazdak is a historical figure and I found quite a bit about him, and most of it de-emphasised the sexism, which doesn’t make me think Shahnahmeh is inaccurate, it makes me think history doesn’t care much.

The next section is about how kings needs a good woman for a partner, and I’m a little nervous to read it.

upsidedown-followers

I’m not positive this is an illustration of the crown prince having the followers of Mazdak planted upside down in the palace garden but here are six men, with varying skin tones, hanging by their feet from garden trees.

KE: “He said that those who have nothing were equal with the powerful, and that one man should not own more than another.” <== These radical social movements aren’t modern inventions; they go all the way back.

This story is a classic example of how the rich and powerful squash social movements that threaten their privilege, status, wealth, and lines of inheritance (i.e. control of women’s pregnancies). At the same time it reminds us that men like Mazdak could also be (and were often) demagogues, filled with love for the sound of their own voices, insistent on punishing anyone who refused to follow their exact way. And of course so often these men are also just as sexist as the society at large (or more so), seeing women as possessions like gold and horses rather than women having their own right to themselves, much less the same right to status and rank as men. And how stark a comparison to the old legendary days when so many women are described as possessing their own wealth (and sexuality). Like you, Tessa, I think if this had been the attitude toward women in the opening third I might not have gotten farther either. How far we HAVE fallen, indeed.

So basically Prince Kesra, meant to be an exemplar of virtue, devises horrific deaths for his political enemies as he maintains the unequal status quo. Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.

Now I need to read more about Mazdak and his legacy. Note Ferdowsi’s warning made in the present tense to the reader: “If you have any sense, you will not follow Mazdak’s way.” This suggests to me that in Ferdowsi’s time Mazdakism still existed somewhere, somehow. Because after all, these ideas and social movements always will exist as long as our political systems entrench and support inequality and pretend that it is justice and God’s will.

Next week: The Reign of Kesra Nushin-Ravan (who I am already disposed to dislike)(and yes, I too am not sure if the comment about “a good woman” will turn out to be some horrible form of “I told you so” irony)

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 Reign of Bahram Gur (Shahnameh Readalong 35)

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 Bahram Gur

Synopsis: “Bahram Gur rules the world, has too much sex (arguable), impresses the King of India, and dies after giving away and spending all his money.”

bahram_gur_in_the_sandalwood_pavilion_w-623

Bahram Gur and the ladies. Always the ladies.

TG: My parents joke about how we won’t have any inheritance from them because they plan to use all their saving traveling the world after retirement. That sounds fair to me, but when Bahram Gur basically does the same thing–to the point of having his vizier plan out how much money he has to spend when before he dies– it feels a little fishy.

That’s how I feel about this entire section. Many of the things Bahram Gur does are things Sekandar also did (like going to a foreign king in disguise) but the motivations seem less pure somehow. Maybe it’s just because he trampled that girl in the last section, and I can’t forgive him, but even his mischief comes off as less trickster like and more mean-spirited. He lies to the king of India (as well as multiple of his subjects) about who he is, and instead of being charming, it’s seedy. (At least one of these times he’d lying specifically to get into a girl’s bed, so again, unlike Sekandar, his motives are very suspect.)

I wish I knew more about when these stories were being made famous, and to what purpose, in order to tie them more directly to shifting culture, because it’s stunning how differently the women are treated in this section than before. They aren’t characterized with their own wealth in the same way, or their own lives and motivations. They’re just there to be taken by Bahram Gur to prove his stamina and greatness. Sometimes, they’re overtly used as symbols of their fathers’ wealth and status, instead of more complicated relationships I’ve grown used to.

We got almost as many horse names in this section as we did names for women.

Unlike previous episodes where kings and warriors defeat great beasts (the white demon, the worm) the rhino and dragon in this are again just props for Bahram Gur with no stories of their own.

Overall, it reads as a diminished version of the kind of complicated glory I’m used to. I’ve also noticed a lessening of the poetic language– fewer lines devoted to armies and the colors of war. We still get dramatic descriptions of wealth, but not the rest.

PS. I disagree heartily that once a month is a good amount of sex to have. But it’s the only thing I agree with Bahram Gur about.

bahram-gur-green-pavilion

YES, he’s with the ladies AGAIN.

KE: Like you, I am finding the shift into the historical to create a diminished story. The people aren’t as grand and heroic. The repetition of motifs has gotten more obvious, I think, as you say, in large part because of things like Bahram’s “going in disguise” having none of the charm of Sekander. At least Sekander sought knowledge, not just . . . . treasure, land, and chicks.

I do find interesting three specific aspects of the story.

One is the “folk tale” aspect of Bahram Gur’s collection of tales. He interacts a great deal with the common folk, whether dispersing coin, appointing headmen, or marrying their best looking women, and that suggests to me that for some reason he is seen as more accessible than the other kings. They pretty much only interact with the court, while Bahram is always out and about and drinking wine in local villages. Maybe this represents the reality of a king riding from place to place in his kingdom, or something specific in Bahram Gur’s tradition. Unlike Ardeshir or Shapur I, he doesn’t seem to have done anything particularly important or interesting, and yet he gets a huge long chapter–longer than either of theirs–and I would love to know if there are other story cycles that center around him. It seems there is always some guy who attracts the glamor for no discernible reason.

Another is the realism of the various wrestling for status and pride and power of the kings. I enjoyed the account of the campaign against the Chinese emperor: the deception about agreeing to send tribute but marching to make a surprise attack instead; the description of how hungry and thin the king and his soldiers got from their long march and how they had to take a day’s rest before they can attack the camp of the unsuspecting emperor.

Like you I was genuinely dismayed by the treatment of women. Even though there weren’t a lot of women in the first two thirds of the Shahnameh, they were almost without exception treated as intelligent women with agency, wealth, and the ability to make their own decisions (even if bad ones). In Bahram Gur’s take it’s all tits and ass, basically, and women whose reward in life is evidently to be able to gaze lovingly upon their husband-king. GAH. I am sad. I miss the badass ladies.

Who are the Luris? Enough negative stereotypes are present in their story that it makes me wonder.

brooklyn_museum_-_bahram_gur_hunting_onagers_with_fitna_page_from_the_haft_paykar_from_a_manuscript_of_the_khamsa_of_nizami_-_2

Here hunting the wild ass (onagers) from which he possibly gets his nickname.

Next week: The Story of Mazdak

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 Yazdegerd the Unjust (Shahnameh Readalong 34)

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 the Unjust

Synopsis: “Yazdegerd is such a terrible king his advisors turn against him and try to keep his son Bahram from succeeding him.”

TG:  There was a lot going on here, more of the recent narrative taking stories that are familiar and shifting them or re-ordering the series of events to make something slightly new, but I have to admit I can’t really get past/over the very brief episode where our supposedly glorious, farr-blessed, wise and good hero tramples a woman he “loves” because she said something silly.

It WAS a silly thing to say, and a challenge that seemed designed to egg him on, not improve anybody or anything, but then he succeeds, shoves her off the camel, and tramples her. The episode just closes “after this, he never took a slave girl hunting again.” As if any slave girls would WANT to go hunting with him again!

It reminded me of “always leave a note” moment in Arrested Development because it’s such an over the top, ridiculous reaction/punishment to something trivial.

Like with Rostam and his horse cruelty, I just couldn’t get behind the notion that Bahram was a decent guy after this. Especially because he supposedly loved Azadeh (she even HAS A NAME!) enough to have a special saddle made so they can ride and hunt together.

(It wasn’t the only Rostam call-back: They make a big deal of Bahram choosing his horse, too.)

My favorite part of this section was the lake horse that kills Yazdegerd. I’m basically always on the side of the horse in the Shahnameh.

KE: I found a plate with the infamous hunting scene on it.

Working Title/Artist: Plate with Hunting Scene of Bahram Gur and Azadeh Department: Ancient Near East Culture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 05 Working Date: photography by mma, DT1634.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 8_26_08

Working Title/Artist: Plate with Hunting Scene of Bahram Gur and Azadeh
Department: Ancient Near East
Culture/Period/Location:
HB/TOA Date Code: 05
Working Date:
photography by mma, DT1634.tif
retouched by film and media (jnc) 8_26_08

 

KE: Yes, I had the same reaction. After his treatment of Azadeh I just wanted to dump Bahram into a pit of sucking sand and listen to his helpless cries as I watch him sink and choke. Frankly his story (and the stories coming in the next section, since I have been reading ahead) strike me as being more sexist in their treatment and limited view of women than the legendary tales. Bahram has no relationship with women that isn’t sexual. He demanded to be taken away from the women’s quarters at seven in a speech ripe with condescension for his female caretakers, and all of his relationships here and into the next section are basically him plucking sexy young women for his wine, hunting, and pleasure cycle.

I also noted how he regained his throne: Sure, he is advised to speak wisely, but basically he says, “Look at all these great arguments for me to become a wise king and also by the way my army will kill all of you and lay waste to your land if you don’t accept me.” The crown and the lions is just a face-saving mechanism so the Persian notables and dignitaries who have worked so hard to make sure Yazdegerd’s son doesn’t come to the throne can pretend it was a divine working.

NOT mind you that I have anything good to say about Yazdegerd. Like you, I appreciated the white horse.

I guess Bahram is a reminder of how far the farr has fallen (see what I did there?), even from the reigns of Ardeshir and Shapur I (and even Ardeshir had his unpleasant behavior toward women).

I don’t know if it’s just that the book is so long or if the transition into the historical section loses something of the mythic tone and qualities that make the legendary section so fresh and delightful to read. Ardeshir and even to some extent his son the first Shapur still had some of that sheen but now it is wearing off for me as a reader and I am strongly feeling my anti-monarchy leanings rise to the brim once again.

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Next week: The Reign of Super Sexist Jerk Bahram Gur

(we’re doing the entire long 56 page segment the better to get quickly past the Wild Ass <== what Gur probably refers to).

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 Shapur Zu’l Aktaf (Shahnameh Readalong 33)

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 Shapur Zu’l Aktaf

Synopsis: “Shapur, Lord of the Shoulders, battles against Rome after being sewn into the skin of an ass, and rules for fifty years.”

TG:  It’s strange to think of an episode that includes a king being sewn into the skin of a donkey as generally just more of the same, but that’s what it is. I enjoyed it, and would never call it boring, but these sections are beginning to feel familiar. They follow the same frame, of coming to and leaving kingship, and then the pieces are filled in with recognizable incidents, and while that can get repetitive, it really lets the details shine. Not only details like the donkey skin, but also details about the women and secondary characters, who they’re related to, and asides (like how Shapur got his epithet).

Overall there are two things I really noticed:

– I’ve gotten used to the section headings, and for the most part they only gently suggest what’s about to happen. They’re “so and so fight so and so” or “so and so is killed” or “so and so sees our hero and falls in love.” But when I got to “Shapur Travels to Rome and the Emperor of Rome Has Him Sewn in an Ass’s Skin” I had to read it twice.

And then I sat there, mouth open, and thought how I couldn’t WAIT to find out how this was going to come about, and why. It was a great reminder that sometimes a spoiler really pushes me eagerly on.

– I wonder how many descriptors of beauty are gendered. I expect most, or all, to be, but in the Shahnameh very few seem to be. I think “face like a moon” is generally used for women, but like a cypress tree, musk smelling, rosy cheeks, all these things are said of men, too. Shapur’s description in particular struck me as very “feminine” which of course made me sit back and think about my OWN assumptions and use of adjectives and metaphors and how I gender them (and play to and on reader expectations).

It’s nice in the final quarter of this epic book to feel familiar enough with the context and rhythms of it to really dig into some of these things for myself.

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ILLUSTRATION NOTE: For the first time ever, I have not been able to find a lovely Persian miniature painting from the section we are reading this week, so have a painting of Shapur I using Emperor Valerian as a footstool to mount his horse.

shapur-1-and-valerian

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KE:  I too felt the drum of familiarity in this section–a king in disguise as a merchant, battles and more battles, the countryside devastated, a man saved by a clever and beautiful young woman–with the notable exception of the ass’s skin. What an amazing detail!

At least the young serving girl who saves the hapless king is given a name by him. Did she have a name before or was she literally nameless? Perhaps this is a special honor name? I don’t know the customs but was pleased to see her honored because so few women get named in the saga that it’s nice to see one get her due.

The episode of the Ass’s Skin is definitely one of my small highlights of the entire book just for how strange and somewhat grotesque it is to imagine.

And yes, I do also feel we are consistently seeing a somewhat different beauty aesthetic than the one we are accustomed to. Although youthful beauty is a theme cross culturally worldwide, I suspect.

The revolt of the Nasibins also interested me; they don’t want to be ruled by a Zoroastrian king, and pay the price for it. Also note that very odd aside in which Shapur criticizes Christianity by saying, “It’s ridiculous to respect a religion whose prophet was killed by the Jews.” I don’t know any way to read this except as anti-Semitic, but maybe there is another interpretation. Neither do I have any idea of whether the Sassanians were particularly anti-Semitic, and if not, where this comes from.

Speaking of religion, I was struck by how the section concludes with a curious and unexpected mention of Mani, the founder and prophet of Manichaeism, at the end of which Mani meets a violent death (as he did in real life). Since Zoroastrianism *was* the state religion of the Sassanian dynasty, as far as I know, it makes sense that it plays a larger role in the story now. One of the things bad and simplistic history teaches is that the Muslim conquerers of Persia basically made everyone convert at the point of their swords immediately but in truth that didn’t happen at all. Zoroastrianism hung on for centuries (and there is still a remnant community), and often people converted either out of piety or because it benefited them in some way. I don’t think the Book of Kings will get into that, though, since we’ve already been told that Islam is never mentioned in the story although Ferdowsi wrote after the Islamic conquests.

So I peeked ahead to the reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust and I can just say that Yazdegerd’s son Bahram looks to be the nastiest toward women yet. Imagine my emoji face.

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Next week: The Reign of Yazdegerd the Unjust

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 & Shapur

The Reigns of Ardeshir & Shapur (Shahnameh Readalong 32)

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 Ardeshir AND The Reign of Shapur, Son of Ardeshir

Synopsis: “Ardeshir rules wisely and makes many changes to the laws of the land. He also likes to kill the ladies.”

TG:  “When Ardeshir killed Ardavan and grasped the world in his fist” is a GREAT opening line to a story.

I’m enjoying how these episodes are taking stories and story-lines we’ve encountered before and giving them different endings or twisting them. For example: Ardeshir wants to see if his soul will respond to the sight of his son, so has 100 boys dressed up as look alikes. He has faith he’ll recognize him, but it also testing the farr and their royal connection. Given the tendency in the Shahnameh for fathers and sons to NOT recognize each other — to great tragedy– I am really nervous for Shapur who I haven’t even met. But this time, it works out. And then we do the same thing with Shapur’s secret son! Ardeshir recognizes his farr and lineage in the exact same way: through polo. Such a great storyline! And it plays on my emotions because I do not expect it to work out.

It’s interesting that Ardeshir fears someone will cast an evil eye upon Shapur when that’s so similar to the vizier’s fear that someone who is in enemy will poison his water. This new fear of the power of enemies to curse or slander is a culture shift, I think. Earlier, the power of an enemy was all about the sword. People made choices to hide secret sons or rescue condemned prisoners because of prophecy or stars, not because of a vague fear of curses. It’s as if magic has disseminated into the population, instead of just being the tool of wizards (I miss you Zal!) and demons.

We’re also getting more of these stories where farr and beauty mark a person royal even if they’re hidden among the peasants, “Like a tulip among weeds.”

It’s interesting, too, that Ardeshir makes so many thoughtful reforms, but really likes killing women. He wants to cut off their heads or hang them or, notably, burn them alive! “Interesting.” Mostly I mean that he’s clearly supposed to be a king we respect, and yet….

“Religion cannot do without the king, and the king will not be respected without religion” I wonder if this is true? I know they can build each there up, create support structures for each other, but to what extent can they survive without the other? We have evidence that religion can survive without a king just fine, but at least in the West, I’m not sure we can say the same about kings. Religious rebellion and changing philosophical perspectives is one of the things that leads to uprising against kings in western history. We rely upon the Divine Right of Kings, and without that divine right… why is the king the king? I suspect in the Shahnameh this is directly related to farr, and that only a person with farr can be king, and farr itself comes from God.

“That man who lifts a wine glass in his hand/In memory of the kings who ruled this land/Knows happiness” is going to be the epigraph of a book I wrote someday. Or short story. We shall see.

Here are a few brief notes I took down:

– It’s funny the note that Ferdowsi gives about brief accounts of uneventful kingships, when the one we just read about Shapur is really brief and uneventful, too. It was more like an epilogue to Ardeshir’s section.

– Self castration takes…balls. This entire episode delighted me.

– I’d like to know the protocols of wine drinking.

– We got a girl at the well story!

– “Scribes are the unseen rulers of the kingdom” can I put that on my business cards?

– I fear the reason we haven’t heard more from Golnar is because she’s dead, since Ardeshir really likes to kill the ladies.

golnar-looking-out-the-window

Golnar looks out a second story window and sees handsome young Ardeshir for the first time. <3s!

KE:  I am going to figure out a way to write a story about Golnar because I too want to know what happened to her. Or make up my own triumphant ending for her, because she is aces.

I love the girl at the well story, and even better, she is in fact the missing daughter of Mehrak, who is referenced and then to my excitement brought back into the tale in an important role. I am intrigued by how many women Ardehir’s story includes, because even if he does want to kill most of them (or discards the much missed Golnar), they are still there: his mother, the slave Golnar, Arnazad’s nameless daughter the poisoner, and Mehrak’s daughter. That’s a lot of women! And they all do such active things, which is what intrigues me most. Think about it: everything these women do in this section are all perfectly reasonable things for historical women to have done, and in the way they have done them and for the reasons they do them.

The girl in the well also matters to me because of its Biblical parallels. In the Bible, girls at wells drawing water for tired and thirsty animals are seen as desirable because of their compassion, while Shapur sees “radiance” and “signs of royalty” in her face. He actually says, “No peasant ever had a daughter as lovely and as bewitching as you are.” Which I don’t adore as a sentiment, but it is what it is, and yet at the same time, her father Mehrak is described as “low-born” so I don’t know what to make of that.

Shapur defeats the Romans (I love being in historical times) and then uses Roman engineering! Smart man.

Ardeshir’s reforms are really interesting and also fit a pattern. It feels like dynasty founders follow similar paths. In fact, these “discovery of the royal child amid ordinary children” stories are both reflections of a story from Cyrus the Great’s childhood, so I have to wonder if they got their start there or if, like the stories of Moses and Sargon being cast into the river in a basket as babies, they represent a kingly origin tradition tale. It does feel as if these warring conquerers then, once they’ve got theirs, turn around and immediately start working to keep it together by instituting a strong legal system and to keep their legacy untarnished by declaring themselves for justice, mercy, and other such reforms. I don’t know. But one does see it over and over again in the history of the world.

Now that we’ve entered historical times, people die at normal ages rather than 800. Onward into the Sassanian dynasty!

Next week: The Reign of Shapur Zu’l Aktaf

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 Ashkanians (Shahnameh Readalong 31)

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 Ashkanians

Synopsis: “The post-Sekandar world is less grandiose than before, with many short-lived kings and an even shorter-lived peace, but we do get a great story about a demon-worm.”

TG: The introduction to this section was fascinating, as it basically said “here’s what we’re going to talk about, and it’s not really worth talking about, in fact, we know almost nothing about these kings but their names,” and then the section proceeds to go into a lot of detail.

I wonder what the purpose of it was — to assure us that we don’t have to worry about another great character like Sekandar? To relate listeners to an episode of history that I’m not familiar with?

That said, this section presented some unique moments (not even including the worm). Babak’s reaction to his dream prophecy was a pleasant surprise, in that he didn’t get jealous or angry, but instead welcomed this strange prince into his life and allowed Sasan to become his son, and then for Ardeshir to be born.

And Golnar! The king’s treasurer. She’s not just any slave or mistress, she’s trusted with the kingdom’s funds, and no matter what else you can say about Ardavan, he loved her, even refusing to start his days without seeing her face for a good omen. That was charming. But Golnar takes destiny (and the story) into her own hands by climbing out of her bower to chase love in the form of Ardeshir. She gives up everything, risks her life, and even uses her power over the treasury to steal from Ardavan. If only she didn’t disappear entirely once she served her purpose. I was hoping to discover who her sons and daughters are by Ardeshir. OH WELL.

And then the worm. What a great fairy tale, and it fits into the story here seamlessly. I love the overlooked daughter who finds the worm and instead of fearing it, gives it a home and uses its luck. Too bad this turned into her father’s story instead of her own. So it goes. But at least I can imagine she survives and finds continued happiness and success in the rest of her life.

Here’s a picture of Ardeshir killing the worm: 

ardeshir-kills-worm

King Ardeshir in disguise as a merchant pours hot lead down the throat of the giant worm, which lives in a cistern. His three cronies stand alongside, watching.

And here the girls spinning (I’m fascinated by their spindles)(the piece is a detail from a larger 16th century painting called “The Story of Hafted and the Worm):

girls-spinning-shahnameh

five young women seated cross-legged on the ground, amid trees, spinning thread.

KE: The historical discussion here fascinates me. Sekander “kills all the kings” which I would kind of assume must reference his conquest of the Persian Empire and replacing most (although not all) of the local level kings and rulers with Macedonian and Greek men from his army. So there is a violent break in terms of rulership to some degree (although studying the Seleucid period shows that it isn’t a clean a break as one might think, and it certainly didn’t involve any major changes in the general population demographics). But the narrative seems to skip over the Seluecid period and to a fair extent the Parthian period, as the Ashkanian period seems to include a number of local and regional level rulers without one overall Iranian king as in the previous dynasty.

Maybe this was just me, but I did feel that Ardeshir’s narrative has less of a legendary aura to it and felt more realistic. Everything that happens to him (even to some extent the story of the worm with the cunning way he kills it) feels completely believable in the sense that it could easily be translated directly into the plot of a novel and make pragmatic sense. Rostam always feels larger than life. Ardeshir feels like a dude doing things to make his way, and his story also makes political sense, for example, with the idea of him fostering at the court of a more powerful king whom he eventually supplants. Also I loved his charming correspondence with his beloved grandfather, to whom he is evidently closer than his own father.

While I’m on that, how savvy and level-headed is Babak anyway? Seeing how the stars reference this young shepherd as a future king or sire of kings, does he try to murder the man? NO. He promptly marries him off to his daughter so that he, too, can be connected to this coming line of kings. I loved that.

I too loved the story of the worm but I’m sorry we never hear what became of the daughter (the one, the story tells us, that her father never thought about, which is then contrasted with her actions bringing about his wealth and power). I thought her sparing the worm was a nice action but I guess it wasn’t? I never figured it out, and she vanishes from the story, still nameless. Alas. Together with the unnamed daughter of Mehrak, who is the only one of his family not put to the sword, because she manages to hide out. Will we see her again in the next chapter? Or is she yet another woman’s story hinted at and left untold? It’s no wonder I write the books I do, centering women.

Finally, I just absolutely have to do a retelling of Golnar’s story because it completely took hold of me and I, too, was irritated that we never hear about her again (unless she turns up in the next chapter, but I have to assume that Ardeshir’s heir will be by the princess, not the slave)(although you never know).

Oh, one last thing. For all his legendary status and heroics, Rostam really is a life that flares brightly and yet leaves nothing but his reputation upon his death (although that is considerable), while the hero Esfandyar is now one of the ancestors of the new dynasty and mentioned as such.

Next week: The Reign of Ardeshir & The Reign of Shapur, son of Ardeshir

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 Death of Rostam (Shahnameh Readalong 30)

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

This week we present an out of order chapter, the long-awaited podcast (hosted by the brilliant and magnificent Renay of Fangirl Happy Hour and Lady Business) in which you can hear Tessa and I discuss in person with each other the project, and the death of the great hero Rostam, about which we have many complicated thoughts.

Here’s an image of his death together with his loyal horse Rakhsh.

2-death-of-rostam

Find this week’s discussion on the Fangirl Happy Hour podcast.

Here’s another image of his death, using marquetry (inlaid wood):

death-of-rostam

Next week: We hop back to the regular sequence and, after the death of Sekander, continue on with The Ashkanians.

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 Reign of Sekander – part two – (Shahnameh Readalong 29)

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

If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out this  AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.

This week we are again skipping over The Death of Rostam and continuing on with the first part of The Reign of Sekander. Tessa and I, with the assistance of the able Renay of blog Lady Business and podcast The Fangirl Happy Hour, recorded a 30 minute conversation about our feelings about The Death of Rostam. We will post that for your listening pleasure as soon as Renay has edited it to her satisfaction so soon. Meanwhile, we forge onward.

Synopsis: “The second part of Sekandar’s reign, during which he travels the known world, seeking knowledge and power, until he dies of illness in Babylon.”

TG: This section alone feels like it could have been 500 pages of adventuring. So much happened, so many lands and people were visited, and they were all fascinating! I caught myself several times trying to figure out what places and cultures they were referencing. Obviously the women of Harum are connected to stories of the Amazons, with their matriarchy and manly left breast. Possibly some of the naked, blue-faced barbarian fighters were Celts or Norseman? I’m most interested in the city where the “men have soft feet!” What does that mean?

Sekandar continues to use his trickster ways, which is not only fun, but a very consistent characterization. He tries yet AGAIN to gain information from a king by pretending to be his own envoy! His army must just have gotten used to it. I was especially surprised he uses trickery to kill the dragon by filling the cow-skins with poison. That doesn’t seem very heroic to me — I can’t imagine Rostam killing a dragon like that. And yet, it works, and Sekandar is praised for it.

The most interesting thing to me in all his wandering were the frequent death visions: Sekandar saw several corpses, seeming to symbolize his fate. The dead king high on the mountain, surrounded by treasure and fame, but still dead. The angel Esrafil told him his death would come soon. The speaking tree gave him a precise time of death…. it seems no matter how far Sekandar searched out answers and curiosities, he always had to be reminded that death could not be defeated or solved. He didn’t even achieve the Waters of Life (though it seems his friend Khezr does, and then we hear no more of him?!?).

It was neat to see Arestalis come back in, and bestow wisdom to Sekandar, who then listened to that wisdom absolutely, even though it was connected to his death.

And I loved that Sekandar’s final words of wisdom, which in previous episodes have been relayed from dying king to his son and heir, Sekandar gave to his mother.

I do feel like the Shahnameh is taking a big turn as we leave Sekandar behind, the “world is changing” as Sekandar keeps being told, and the time of epic heroes may be passing as we get more and more connected to real history.

sikander-kills-dragon

Sekander kills the dragon

KE: I’m dealing with multiple things going on at the same time so I don’t have any extensive commentary except that I loved this. The whole Sekander section has fascinated me both for historical and psychological reasons, and this final segment has such a fabulist and yet also deeply philosophical aesthetic that it was a delight to read. He is always asking questions. There is, I think, a direct correlation thematically between his wanting to “conquer the world” and also to answering the big questions, including the most important one, about death, and of course there is no way to defeat death as the stories tell us over and over again.

Every episode in this sequence was amazing, from the city of women (where they allow him alone to sneak in and look around) to the wonders, and the death visions, and the final letters to his teacher and his mother.

And, yes, I can’t help but love that the only person to see through his trickster-envoy ways is still, and always, Queen Qaydafeh.

Like you, I feel that the tenor of the story must now change, that maybe we are leaving behind the mythic and entering history.

Next week: The Ashkanians

 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