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
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
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.