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!

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

The Reign of Khosrow Parviz (Shahnameh Readalong 39)

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 Khosrow Parviz

Synopsis: “Bahram Chubineh continue to harry Khosrow, they both ally with outside rulers, until Bahram is killed ignominiously and his sister Gordyeh is amazing.”

TG:  Continuing the tradition of the immediately previous sections, every king and warrior in all of this is terrible and difficult to invest in. THAT SAID, I still enjoyed reading this section because of all the scheming and murderousness. My eyes were bugging out of my head when Khorad-Borzin was plotting with the old servant Qalun to murder Bahram… I was sure it wouldn’t work. AND THEN! IT DID.

This really furthers his image as a dark mirror to Rostam–that would never have worked on Rostam, obviously, but there are so many references to the old hero (and his horse) as well as Seyavash (my heart!) that it reads very purposefully like “look how far we’ve fallen since the Good Old Days Of Persian Kings and Heroes.” I feel ya, Shahnameh, I miss those good old days, too.

But one thing the golden age heroes and kings never had: GORDYEH.

I’m thrilled to have been wrong to worry about her. Not only does she not meet some untimely end or be forced into any marriage, she makes her own choices, owns her own cities, riches, servants, and GOES TO WAR LIKE A MAN. Here we do have a hero of old, but of course the men can’t recognize that. She rides to war in armor and uses weapons, she murders her enemies, AND she has girlfriends — that aside about her five loyal companions and how they all work together to kill her husband was my favorite part. Then she becomes the favored queen, and gets everything she wants. *heart-eyes*

There needs to be a novel or movie about her, stat.

gordyeh-kills-tovorg

Gordyeh kills Tovorg. An armored woman on horseback spears a helmetless man in the back after he has fallen from his horse.

KE:  There is a weird thing here in which a king like Hormozd is announced as having an evil nature while never seeming to do that many horrible things, but the righteous dudes like Khosrow Parviz and Kesra actually do worse things on the page and are championed for it. It’s related to that “if God loves and approves of me then nothing I do can be wrong” mentality much loved by the self-proclaimed most righteous. For example, his treatment of the city of Rey is awful, and I did like how “even the priests were astonished to hear Khosrow talk in this way” when he concocts his grotesque plan.

Which brings me to Gordyeh. I also loved her, especially because the Sasanian period has been pretty raw for the womenfolk, and she feels like a return to the good old days of heroic, smart, well spoken women who are taken seriously as advisors. The kitten story is a classic example of the advisor who uses an odd spectacle to make their point. But more importantly, I cheered when she got her BFFs to aid her in killing her husband (and so well described) and then parlayed that action into marriage to the king. In all she acted pragmatically throughout, given the political situation and her position as a woman in a patriarchal world. If only her brother had listened to her in the first place.

Having said that I quite like Bahram Chubineh as a character because his faults and reckless reactions feel genuine to me, so in an odd way I felt I was getting more of a “realist” (rather than a mythic) portrait of a man. He definitely is no Rostam, who would have succumbed to none of that and would have fallen for none of it–well, except the ignoble death–but I’m guessing that is the point. Bahram Chubineh is the exemplar of how far mankind has fallen since the days of old (although his sister is allowed to be just as noble, courageous, and wise as the women of ancient times). In fact I might go so far as to say that SHE is the real heir of Rostam’s legacy, not her brother.

I continue to be intrigued by the treatment of envoys from one kingdom to another, even between enemy courts. An entire treatise has likely been written on this subject. Emperors being enchanted by the diplomats and envoys sent to

their court is a common theme. Those guys were just really good at their jobs.

I would probably have more complex things to say but after 39 weeks I find I am finally lagging. It’s been an amazing read, with a mere two sections left, and also a long haul.

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Next week: Khosrow GOES BAD (finally) and I guess it is all the fault of a woman. The Story of Khosrow and Shirin

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 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 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