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Murder of Seyavash: Unknown artist, Shiraz style 1630-40.
Courtesy British Library

Fathers against sons
In the Shahnameh, shahs are almost always in the wrong

September 15, 2000
The Iranian

Excerpt from the introduction to Fathers and Sons: Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol II, translated by Dick Davis (2000, Mage Publishers). Volume II opens and closes with tales of tragic conflict between a king and his son: Prince Seyavash and Prince Esfandiyar are both driven from the court by their foolish fathers to confront destiny and death in distant lands. It includes more than 180 illustrations, mostly taken from miniatures in the great Shahnameh made in the 1520's and 30's for the Safavid monarch, Shah Tahmasp. See excerpt from Volume II here. Also see excerpt from Volume I here.

In his retelling of the legends of pre-Islamic Iran, Ferdowsi's extraordinary skill as a narrative poet enables him to keep many strands of thematic interest going at once. On the most superficial level the poem functions as a chronicle, recording the succession of kings, dynasties, and wars that made up the account of Iran's ancient history as it had come down to the poet. In this volume we take this narrative through its later legendary phases, beginning with characters (like Seyavash and Rostam) whose origins must be sought in prehistoric myth, and ending with a character, Sasan, who-while still clearly belonging to legend in the details of his story as they are presented in Ferdowsi's poem-bears the name of an actual historical figure, and whose fanciful tale is meant to account for the rise of a real dynasty, that of the Sasanians, who ruled Iran from the mid-third century CE until the Arab conquest of the seventh century. It is in this volume, too, that Rostam, the greatest of the legendary figures of the poem, dies. After his death the Shahnameh gradually divests itself of the mythic qualities of its earlier sections, and becomes a quasi-history, still filled with legendary events and personages, but also displaying an increasingly close relationship to the historical record.

As well as the development of this bare chronicle, involving the transition from legend to history, the tales in Fathers and Sons continue a theme that was prominent in the stories included in The Lion and the Throne, that of conflict between a king and his champion or chief warrior. As a number of scholars have pointed out this is a fundamental motif in the epic traditions of many cultures, particularly cultures that have a strong Indo-European heritage. The Iliad opens with exactly such a conflict; many of the stories associated with the legendary British King, Arthur, are based on similar struggles, as are numerous European medieval verse romances. What distinguishes the Shahnameh from other epics, with which it shares this basic preoccupation, is the earnestly ethical treatment that is given to the theme. It's always hard when reading a poem based on folk or collectively known material to determine what exactly a particular poet's contribution is, but Ferdowsi does seem to take the ethics of the situations he describes much more seriously than other authors who use the same stories, and the Shahnameh's strongly ethical bias seems to be his own.

In elaborating this concern Ferdowsi tends to present what is basically the same situation (a king does or demands something which his champion considers to be unethical or otherwise undesirable) and then offers different solutions or outcomes to the problem. The champion may reluctantly acquiesce, or he may refuse to have anything to do with the matter, or he may try to dissuade his king, or even actively oppose him, or he may vacillate between some or all of these reactions. It is as if Ferdowsi is constantly probing at the problem, but is unable to come up with a one-answer-fits-all solution, so that each individual case must be lived through and experienced according to its particular circumstances. What remains fairly constant (and there is only one king treated in Fathers and Sons of whom this is not true) is that the king is virtually always in the wrong in these arguments, and that we, the poem's audience, are more or less unequivocally invited to be on the side of the champion rather than his monarch....

Not all the stories in this volume have such weighty concerns. The most famous story here is probably that of Bizhan and Manizheh, a beautifully touching and exciting romance that deals, in Romeo and Juliet fashion, with love between the children of sworn enemies. It's true that here too there is father and son conflict, most obviously between Giv and his son Bizhan. But Ferdowsi introduces a new twist by making the conflict in Turan not a father-son conflict, but a father-daughter one, between Afrasyab and Manizheh. But neither the Giv-Bizhan argument nor the Afrasyab-Manizheh quarrel occupy the foreground of our attention, which is filled with the love and sufferings of the young hero and heroine. Another tale given here which has only a tangential relationship with the father-son theme is that of Forud, one of the most affecting and powerful narratives of the poem's legendary section (and strangely enough, perhaps because of its relative simplicity, it is one of the least well known). And for good measure a story is included that typifies Rostam's wily prowess against malevolent magic, in the story of the Akvan Div. This is a tale that is very basic in its original conception (by means of a clever trick a good hero defeats a bad demon) but which Ferdowsi lifts into the realm of ethical literature by his parting admonition that the audience interpret the story allegorically and not literally.

See excerpt from Volume II here.
Also see excerpt from Volume I here.

Comment for The Iranian letters section
Comment to Mage Publishers


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