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Unwanted battle
Rostam and Esfandiyâr fight against their own best interests

By Jerome W. Clinton
August 27, 1999
The Iranian

From Jerome W. Clinton's In the Dragon's Claws: The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar (1999, Mage Publishers). Also see excerpt from Clinton's other book on the Shahnameh.

... Who has by wisdom or
By manliness escaped the knife sharp claws
Of that celestial dragon?

Introduction: the Shahnameh

The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar is taken from the Shahnameh or Book of Kings, a long narrative poem in Persian that was given its present, form by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (932 - 1025 AD). The many heroic tales that fill the Shahnameh are drawn from the history and mythology of Iran, and some of them at least were recited at the courts of Cyrus and Darius in the sixth century BC. In the course of the centuries that followed, these epic tales were gathered together into a book from time to time, but none of these earlier collections has survived.

In the tenth century, one such recension in prose came into the hands of Ferdowsi, a minor noble who lived in the city of Tus near present day Mashhad. Although Ferdowsi was a Muslim, he was devoted to the ancient traditions of Iran, and feared that they would be lost as Islamic culture became ever more deeply rooted in Iran. To help forestall this, he set himself the task of retelling all the tales of the Shahnameh in poetry so that they would be remembered and passed on. The labor took him thirty five years, but the result was a masterly work, nearly 50,000 couplets in length, that has enjoyed enormous popularity throughout the Persian speaking world for a millenium. It was discovered by European scholarship in the 18th century, and eventually translated into all the major languages of Europe.

Ferdowsi also assumed that in giving poetic life to these tales he would assure the survival of his own name as well. When this my famous book shall reach its end, My praises will be heard throughout the land. From this day on I shall not die, but live, For I'll have sown my words both far and wide. In this he was successful beyond his wildest dreams. No name resonates more powerfully in the history of Iranian culture than that of its greatest poet, Abolqasem Ferdowsi.

In its length and its concentration on heroic action the Shahnameh resembles the western epic tradition, but in other important respects it differs substantially from Homer, Virgil and their imitators. It begins, for instance, not "in the midst of things" as does the Iliad, but with the creation of the world and the appearance of the first shah. The many and varied stories that make up the Shahnameh are joined together not by the force of single hero such as Odysseus, nor by the movement toward a single climactic event, such as the fall of Troy, but by the dynastic history of the Iranian court. This long and vivid history ends when that sequence of rulers does. That is, with the Arab, Islamic invasion of the seventh century AD that replaced the Iranian Shahanshah ("emperor") with an Islamic Caliph.

Since the focus of the tales is the life of the royal court, one finds little mention in the Shahnameh of the life of ordinary people such as farmers, shepherds or craftsmen. In this it resembles Malory's tales of King Arthur and the knights of the round table more than it does Homer, or Virgil. As in the court of Arthur as well, a single god, called Izad or Yazdân, rules over the universe of the Shahnameh, not the celestial college of the Greeks and Romans. The horse riding pahlavâns of the Persian court battle each other using lances, shields and heavy maces much as did the the knights of Arthur's round table.

The events the Shahnameh stretch across many generations, and so are not tailored to the life span of a single hero. However, the principal figures in its dramas live as long as Biblical patriarchs, and one in particular, Rostam, lives for nearly nine centuries. Rostam is the last and greatest of a family of heroes from the Iranian province of Sistan, and he is a central presence in several of its finest stories. His death, which takes place just after the events of the present tale, and as a result of them, concludes the purely legendary portion of the Shahnameh. In the last third, the tales are peopled with figures from historical times. One portion draws heavily on a fictional biography of Alexander the Great, who conquered all of present day Iran and parts of Central Asia and North India in the fourth century BC. The last sequence of stories is a similarly fictionalized account of the history of the Parthian and Sassanian dynasties (247 BC. - 651 A. D.) who ruled in Iran between the time of Alexander's death and the rise of Islam. The style of presentation does not change; however, and historical figures and events are presented as the stuff of myth and legend.

In the world of the Shahnameh, humankind seems to have existed before the first shah, but as an undifferentiated species. The formation of human society required the shaping presence of a divinely appointed ruler. Other shahs, most notably Hooshang and Jamshid, the Iranian Solomon, provided human society with those gifts - fire, tools, agriculture, and the various crafts - that raise men and women above the level of beasts. In other traditions these gifts that distinguish and sustain human society are gifts from the gods. In the Shahnameh it is Iran's shahs who provide them, or, rather, it is through them that Yazdân, the sole God of pre-Islamic Iranian religious belief, gives them to mankind.

While there are a number of recurrent themes in the Shahnameh, such as the immortality of noble deeds, the malignancy and inevitability of fate, and the persistent hostility and envy of Iran's neighbors, the theme that underlies all of these is that God prefers Iran to other nations and sustains it through the institution of the shah. So long as His chosen shah sits upon the throne, Iran will endure. When Shah Yazdegerd III is slain in 652 AD, the Iran of the Shahnameh comes to an end. Other epics use a single dominant hero, like Odysseus, Aeneas, or Roland, or a single, epochal event ­ the destruction of Troy, the founding of Rome or the defeat of the Saracens ­ to provide dramatic unity. In the Shahnameh it is the enduring institution of monarchy that stitches all its stories together.

Although the Divinity's support for Iranian monarchy is a central constant of the Shahnameh, its ideology is not a naïve and enthusiastic monarchism. Ferdowsi was not a panegyrist who presented idealizations of the ruler for the admiration of the royal sponsors and their followers. He was as realistic about the limitations of individual monarchs as was Shakespeare about England's kings. Many of the greatest tales in the epic, like The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar, explore the terrible consequences that result when a bad or foolish shah sits upon the throne.

The Persian language

Persian belongs to the Indo-European family of languages and has strong similarities to the major languages of Europe-the words for father, mother and brother, for instance, are pedar, mâdar, and barâdar. Old Persian, one of the court languages of Cyrus and Darius, was a contemporary of Sanskrit, and closely resembled it. Middle Persian languages had wide currency in Central Asia and the Iranian plateau from the time of Alexander in the 4th century BC to the rise of Islam in the 7th century AD. Modern Persian, which evolved in the Islamic period, evolved from these Middle Persian languages. Its grammar and syntax is Persian, but it contains a large vocabulary of Arabic. The Shahnameh is written in a slightly archaized form of this language that is virtually free of Arabic loan words. Since the ninth century Modern Persian has been written in a modified form of the Arabic alphabet.

Persian and its literature first came to the West as a result of the European conquest of India. For centuries Central Asian Muslims, whose literary and administrative language was Persian, ruled in India. When European merchants and adventurers became interested in India in the seventeenth century they learned Persian in order to trade and rule. Then as now the principal texts for teaching the language were literary and many of those who learned Persian for practical reasons came to value it as a source of pleasure and a focus of scholarship. One of the principal fruits of this scholarship was the "discovery" of the Shahnameh, or "Book of Kings" and its translation into the major languages of Europe. In the nineteenth century the English rulers replaced Persian with English as the language of education and administration, but Persian continued as a major language until well into the twentieth century.

For a work that is usually described as one of the greatest stories of the Iranian national epic The story of Rostam and Esfandiyâr displays a surprisingly modern skepticism about the values we associate with the epic. In the world of the Shahnameh, monarchy enjoys divine sanction and society's most admired virtues are embodied in heroes like Rostam and Esfandiyâr, yet the story expresses a profound ambivalence about the demands of heroism, and is sharply critical of a monarch who exploits the courage and loyalty of his heroes to further his own selfish ends. The climactic event of the story is the battle between Rostam and Esfandiyâr, yet the two heroes do not view themselves as natural enemies. On the contrary, they fight each other against their own wishes and in violation of their own best interests. Moreover, theirs is a battle in which the roles of victor and vanquished seem to have been reversed. Although it is Esfandiyâr who dies, the outcome is as tragic for the ancient hero as it is for the young prince. Esfandiyâr loses his life and fails in his ambition to rule Iran as a consequence, but he dies with his reputation unsullied and confident that his actions in this world will be judged favorably by God in the next. Rostam gains only a brief respite from defeat and death, and does so at the cost of enduring shame for having slain the one Iranian hero whose virtues and accomplishments approach his own. The one person who may be said to gain by this tragedy, Shah Goshtâsp, pays a heavy price for his triumph as well. The defeat and death of his son lets him sit more easily on his throne, but as a result of it he loses the esteem of his own people, alienates his courtiers, and brings disgrace on his family. His victory is a Pyrrhic one.

While the narrative focus of the story is the slowly escalating tension between Esfandiyâr and Rostam, a tension that explodes in their final tragic confrontation, the engine that drives their struggle is the conflict between Esfandiyâr and his father over which of them will rule Iran. The seed of that conflict is in the shah's inability to understand and value his son, not in any failure of loyalty on his son's part. However, it is the son who will suffer the consequences of this, not the father.

As a young man, Goshtâsp was so resentful of his father's reluctance to abdicate in his favor that he was willing to lead the army of Iran's enemy to the west, Rum (Byzantium), against him. When Esfandiyâr as a young prince distinguishes himself in a battle against Arj,sp, the ruler of Turan, Iran's hostile neighbor to the north, and so wins the loyalty and admiration of the army, Goshtâsp assumes that he is as ambitious for rule as he himself was. When an envious courtier, Gorazm, accused Esfandiyâr of plotting against the shah, he believes him and has his son thrown in prison despite his plea that he is innocent. The irony in this is that Esfandiyâr is cut from another pattern than the Shah, and more nearly resembles his loyal and heroic uncle, Zarir, with whom he is often compared. Initially, at least, he is animated by simple loyalty and virtue, and does not covet his father's throne. Goshtâsp cannot see this, and so abandons him to the prison fortress of Gombadán, and rides off to Zâbolestân for a long visit with Rostam.

When Arjâsp and his ally, the Khâqân of China, learn that the Shah has left his capital and that Iran's greatest hero is in prison, they launch a second invasion and quickly overrun the country. Only then does Goshtâsp recognize his error, and, wishing both to make amends and save his rule, he sends his counselor, Jâmâsp, to release Esfandiyâr and to promise him the throne if he will drive Arjâsp and his army out of Iran. Jâmâsp, however, does not mention the Shah's offer, but attempts to win Esfandiyâr's support by speaking of the devastation his sisters and brothers have suffered at the hands of their enemies. At first Esfandiyâr is unmoved by his pleas ­ none of his brothers and sisters have shown concern for his own suffering. When he learns that the one brother whom he loves, Farshidvard, has been brutally slain, the news stirs him to action at last. He shatters his bonds, too impatient to weight for the blacksmiths to do so, and sets out to rid Iran of the invading forces.

After Esfandiyâr has defeated Arjâsp's army, Goshtâsp himself formally promises to yield his place to him once he has rescued his sisters from captivity in the enemy's capital - a fortress encircled with a brass wall. He gives him a royal crown as proof of his good intention, and also presents him to the army as his heir. These are the promises that Esfandiyâr alludes to when he confronts his father in court. If Goshtâsp now fears his son's eagerness to replace him on the throne, he has only himself to blame.

As the present story opens, Esfandiyâr has returned in triumph from his campaign against Turan, where he freed his sisters, beheaded Arjâsp, and captured both his family and his treasury. His expectation is that Goshtâsp will now honor his promise and abdicate in his favor, but his father says and does nothing. Esfandiyâr's explosive first scene is fueled by legitimate frustration, but it leads him to make a fatal error. In the heat of his anger and resentment he vows that if his father will not now make him shah, he will overthrow him and seize the throne by force (I swear by great Yazdân/Who holds the heavens up, I'll crown myself/Despite my royal father's wish. (11-12)). In the world of the Shahnameh, challenges to royal authority invariably lead to the challenger's death, even when, as is true here, the threat is more rhetorical than real. This one moment of hot-headed rebelliousness is enough to assure Esfandiyâr's destruction. It seems both cruel and unfair that a lapse in obedience that is so brief, and so justified, should be his death warrant. But Fate, as Ferdowsi reminds us on many occasions, is as capricious as it is implacable.

In the event, the actual danger to Goshtâsp's monarchy vanishes with the morning sun. It is late and Esfandiyâr is drunk when he makes his threat. He apparently thinks better of his angry words the next day, and does not confront his father immediately, but only after several days delay. His manner when he does is not threatening, but earnest and pleading. Goshtâsp, forewarned of his son's anger, is able to smoothly deflect his protests by acknowledging their truth, and insisting that he still intends to honor his promise. However, he says, there is one final task that Esfandiyâr must undertake before he can be crowned. He must journey to Zâbol and there humble its ruler, the legendary hero Rostam, for having shown an insulting reluctance to honor Iran's new royal line by attending them at court. Where Esfandiyâr's first two tasks were both urgent and honorable, as were his earlier efforts to disseminate the new faith of Zoroastrianism, this new commission is neither. For centuries Rostam has performed heroic services for the shahs of Iran. Whatever his offense, he deserves better than this brutal insult. Esfandiyâr knows this, and he senses that his father's intention is to do him some injury, not Rostam. His suspicions are well-founded. Earlier, Goshtâsp, hearing of his son's frustration, has cast his horoscope and learned that Esfandiyâr is fated to die by Rostam's hand in Zâbol. Although he cannot remedy that fate, he chooses neither to warn his son nor to delay his fatal encounter with Rostam, but to send him off to blindly provoke the great hero's anger.

Even though he does not know what fate awaits him in Zâbolestân, Esfandiyâr would rather retire from the court than accept this commission. Once the shah orders him to do so, however, he has no choice but to obey. Both loyalty and ambition have been offered as motives for his decision to obey his father, but Esfandiyâr's motive runs deeper than either of these. As a pious Zoroastrian he believes that the commands of his father, the Shah, have the force of divine decree. If he disobeys him, he will suffer eternal torments in the afterlife. Once Goshtâsp has spoken Esfandiyâr has no choice but to raise an army and depart.

The shah's insistence that Rostam submit to having his hands and feet shackled, and that he make the journey to the court on foot, like a slave, comes as a terrible shock to Rostam. He is baffled by this show of hostility from a court that he has served so long and so well. He is more than willing to come to the court to receive whatever chastisement is his due, but, as Goshtâsp has surely anticipated, he is too proud to make the journey to the court on foot and with fetters on his hands and feet. The humiliation of this would be unendurable to him personally, and it also would have terrible consequences both for his own family and for his kingdom. To yield to such a disgrace would negate all that Rostam has been and done throughout his long life.

I'll look upon your face with a joyful heart,
And gladly do whatever you command.
But not these chains. Shackles are shame, defeat,
An ugly stain upon my family's name.
While I'm alive, no one will ever see
Me bound with chains. My soul insists on this.

Esfandiyâr has willing endured shackles, and worse, at the shah's hands, but Rostam will not do so. The old hero does not feel himself threatened by the fires of eternal torment should he disobey the shah, or if he does, the destruction of his good name seems a heavier punishment. He cannot bring himself to obey a command that is both unreasonable and unjust even if it does come from the Shah. In doing so, he too becomes a threat to the state, and, by the logic of the Shahnameh, he must be punished as well.

Esfandiyâr deeply admires Rostam, and is sympathetic to his sense of being ill-used by the court. He has himself already suffered a more painful humiliation at the hands of his father than he would now, in his father's name, inflict upon Rostam. He attempts to mitigate the harshness of his father's command, promising that once they are at the court he will intercede with the shah on Rostam's behalf, yet if Rostam will not yield, he knows that he has no choice. He must obey his command to the letter. Should he allow Rostam to approach the court mounted and free, as he suggests, and not led by "a rope about his armson foot and running," like a slave, will be counted by his father as outright disobedience. Goshtâsp, in short, has phrased his commission so that it will create an irresolvable conflict between Rostam and Esfandiyâr.

Rostam welcomes Esfandiyâr to Zâbol with great warmth and admiration and seems eager to befriend him. Esfandiyâr cannot respond in kind, although he feels drawn to the ancient warrior. He must hide the very real affection and admiration he feels for him in order to carry out his father's wishes. There is a poignant moment, one of several, that shows what feelings Esfandiyâr has been obliged to hide behind the mask of royal agent. It takes place just after the first, unsatisfactory encounter of the two heroes on the bank of the Hirmand River that marks the border between Iran and Sistân. Rostam has returned alone to his court to await Esfandiyâr's invitation to dine, and Esfandiyâr ponders how to continue their debate. He decides not to invite Rostam to eat with him because sharing a meal would draw them closer, and he anticipates that ties of friendship with Rostam will ultimately cause him pain. He muses aloud to his brother, Pashutan, whose principal function is to be the recipient of such confidences.

... We thought this was an easy task,
But it's proved hard indeed. I have no wish
To visit Rostam in his home, nor has
He any need to see me here. Should he
Not choose to come, I will not send for him.
If one of us should breathe his last while here,
His death would sear the heart of him who's left.
A closer friendship would increase that grief."
(541 - 4)

His words may seem cool, even harsh at first, but Esfandiyâr believes that he himself is invincible, and assumes that the heart that will be wounded will be his own. It is the thought of his own grief at Rostam's death that he finds unbearable. Such glimpses behind the mask that Goshtâsp has obliged him to wear reveal him to be an essentially decent man who is constrained by his piety and loyalty to betray his own instincts.

The exchanges between them inevitably become increasingly acrimonious as each tries, and fails, to persuade the other to his view. For the reader, as for Esfandiyâr, there is a painful irony in Rostam's pleading with the young shah to be more reasonable. Esfandiyâr would gladly accept Rostam's conditions, but as his father's agent he must reject them. Nor, out of loyalty, can he reveal what his true thoughts and feelings are. He also knows that Goshtâsp only wishes him ill, but he cannot say this either. Indeed, when Rostam accuses Goshtâsp of perfidy he must appear to turn a deaf ear to him, and even defend the shah.

Esfandiyâr rejected all his pleas,
And spoke to him in bitter terms.'
Hear me!
I will not disobey the shah's command,
Not for a crown or throne. I find in him
Whatever's good or evil in this world.
My hell and heaven are contained in him.

When at last, they meet in battle, Rostam, at first, comes perilously close to defeat, but through the magical intervention of Simorgh he triumphs over Esfandiyâr, although "triumph" is surely the wrong word here. Their combat ends in the death of Esfandiyâr, but the outcome is as tragic for the ancient hero as it is for the young shah. Esfandiyâr loses his life and fails in his ambition to rule Iran. He must look to receive the reward of his virtue in heaven, not on earth. Rostam gains a brief respite from defeat and death, but does so at the cost of enduring shame for having slain the one Iranian hero whose virtues and accomplishments approach his own. Moreover, he does not see himself as in any sense the victor in a battle. His only role has been to act as Fate's instrument in slaying Esfandiyâr with the deadly arrow made of tamarisk wood.

I was the agent of the tamarisk; that's all.
I am what's dark and dismal in this tale.

Rostam's role in this drama is, of course, more complex than this. He is obliged here to reprise the role he played in the death of his own son, Sohrâb. There are differences, of course. Sohrâb explicitly threatened to overthrow the shahs of both Iran and Turan, while Esfandiyâr's challenge to his father, as we have seen, is in his father's mind, not his own. Rostam was unaware that the young challenger he faced was his son until too late, while he is all to aware of Esfandiyâr's identity, and of the consequences his death will have for him. But the central fact of Rostam's killing a young hero who challenges royal authority, and of making a terrible personal sacrifice in order to preserve a bad ruler remains unchanged. He has been absent from the central events of the Shahnameh quite literally for centuries. Now he has been called back to perform this terrible and onerous task. It is as though this is the price he must pay for his unique strength and skill, for enjoying fate's favor throughout his long life.

His death follows closely on that of the young shah he slays, and, indeed, is precipitated by it, so that the narrative of the story of Rostam and Esfandiyâr is the concluding episode of the cycle of stories of which he is the central figure as well as that of Esfandiyâr's. His presence, and the many similarities between the relations between these two remarkable and virtuous heroes, who serve two such deplorable rulers, seem meant to remind us of the terrible consequences of linking human frailty to divine right.

The final resolution of the play returns the court of Iran to a state of order and security. Bahram-Ardashir replaces his father as the acknowledged heir to the throne. Rostam is forgiven for not having shown proper respect to the court and reestablished in his rule of Zâbolestân. Yet one is left with the sense of the world turned upside down, of the good being punished while the evil are rewarded. Each of the two heroes has in his own time been the chief prop and support of Iran and its shahs, and neither has done anything to threaten the security of the state. Bahram-Ardashir is in no sense the man his father was, and Shah Goshtâsp is the least admirable of rulers, a moral leper whom "evil wishes and the turns of fate" combine to drive down "a crooked path", that is, he is the real villain of the story. He provokes his son's anger by lying to him, and forces him to fight Rostam, knowing he will be killed. He is the first and only Shah to kill his own child, and he is condemned for his actions by the nobles of his court and his own family. He also goads Rostam into a fatal show of rebellion. Like Kay Kâvus, the foolish and arrogant shah whom Rostam served, Goshtâsp is so terrible a ruler for his country that we cannot help but question God's wisdom in choosing him. Worse yet, he is not punished for his sins.

Questioning God's wisdom in choosing and supporting Goshtâsp as shah is precisely what Ferdowsi wishes us to do. He is no revolutionary. He accepts monarchy as the system that God has chosen to order human society. But in this magnificent and painful tale he has chosen to reveal to us the dark and shadowy side of that system. A bad monarch can be the enemy of all that is most admirable, and peace and security have been won here at a price that may be too heavy for society to bear. There is a bitter irony in the words that conclude Rostam and Esfandiyâr:

The story of Esfandiyâr has reached Its end at last.
Long may the Shahriyâr live!
His heart forever freed of care, the times
Obedient to his command. May he
Rejoice upon his famous throne, a rope
Around the necks of those who wish him ill.

Further Reading

The only complete translation of the Book of Kings into English verse is that of Arthur George and Edmond Warner, (The Sháhnáma of Firdausi. Nine volumes London, 1905-25) Now long out of print, it is available only in large research libraries. The first volume of a three volume set of a beautifully illustrated prose paraphrases of the whole of the Shahnameh was published by Mage in 1998.

There are also modern poetic translations of two others of the most famous stories from the Shahnameh , the present author's The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam (revised edition, University of Washington Press, 1997), and Dick Davis's The Legend of Seyavash (Penguin Classics. New York 1992). Davis has also written the best general study of the Shahnameh in English, Epic and Sedition: the Case of the Shahnameh. (University of Arkansas Press, 1992).

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