The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh
January 26, 1998
From pages 91-97 of The Lion and the Throne : Stories from the Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, Vol. 1 (Mage Publishers, 1997).
Zal Travels to Kabol
The demons of Mazanderan and the refractory warriors of Gorgan rose in rebellion against Manuchehr, supreme lord of Iran. Sam, the son of Nariman, entrusted the lordship of Zabolestan to his brave son, Zal-e Zar, and set off for the court of Iran, to offer his services in battle against Manuchehr's enemies.
One day, Zal decided to spend time in the pleasures of the chase, and with a few companions and a group of soldiers, he went out to the plains looking for game. Every now and then they stopped beside a stream or in the foothills of the mountains, and Zal would call for singers and musicians and pass the time drinking wine with his friends; and so they went forward until they reached the land of Kabol.
The ruler of Kabol was a sensible, courageous man called Mehrab who paid tribute to Sam, the king of Zabolestan. Mehrab was descended from Zahhak, the Arab who had ruled over Iran and committed so much injustice there, and who had finally been deposed by Feraydun. When Mehrab heard that the son of Sam had arrived near Kabol, he was very pleased. At dawn he went out to greet Zal, accompanied by his army and well-placed horses and nimble slaves, and he bore precious gifts with him.
Zal welcomed him warmly and gave orders that a celebration begin; he called for musicians and entertainers, and he and Mehrab sat happily down to feast together.
Mehrab looked at Zal. He saw a tall, noble, brave youth, with ruddy cheeks, black eyes, and white hair, and with the body of a mammoth and the courage of a lion. He gazed at him in wonder, openly expressing his admiration, and to himself he thought, "To have such a son would be like being lord of all the world."
When Mehrab rose from the feast, Zal saw he had the trunk and stature of a male lion, and he said to his friends, "I didn't think a more elegant and handsome and noble individual than Mehrab can be found in any country anywhere."
During the celebrations one of the courtiers remarked that Mehrab had a daughter, and said of her:
"In Purdah, and unseen by anyone,
He has a daughter lovelier than the sun.
Lashes like ravens' wings protect a pair
Of eyes like wild narcissi hidden there;
If you would seek the moon, it is her face;
If you seek musk, her hair's its hiding place;
She is a paradise arrayed in splendor,
Glorious, graceful, elegantly slender."
When Zal heard the description of Mehrab's daughter, love found its way into his heart and deprived him of all rest. All night he thought of her, and sleep did not visit his eyes.
One day when Mehrab came to Zal's tent, Zal welcomed him warmly and made much of him and told him that if he had any wish hidden in his heart, he had only to ask. Mehrab said, "My Lord, I have only one desire and that is that you show your magnanimity to one as unworthy as myself, and that you do me the honor of coming to my house as my guest."
Although Zal's heart was preoccupied with Mehrab's daughter, he thought for a moment, then said, "My lord, ask me anything but this and it shall be done. But my father, Sam, the son of Nariman, and Manuchehr, the lord of Iran, will not look kindly on my entering the abode of one who is of the seed of Zahhak, or of my sitting down to eat as his guest." Mehrab was saddened by this answer; he made his obeisance before Zal and went on his way. But Zal could not rid himself of thoughts of Mehrab's daughter.
Sindokht and Rudabeh
After returning from Zal's camp, Mehrab visited his wife, Sindokht, and his daughter, Rudabeh, and rejoiced to see them. In the midst of their conversation, Sindokht asked about Sam's son and said, "How did he seem to you, and what was it like to eat as his guest? Is he worthy of the royal throne? Has he taken on human habits? Does he know how to act with noble warriors, or is he still the Simorgh's wild child?" Mehrab began to praise Zal, saying, "He is a fine, magnanimous nobleman, and as a mighty warrior he has no equal. He is,
As ruddy as the pomegranate flower --
Youthful, and with a young man's luck and power;
Fierce in revenge, and in the saddle he's
A sharp-clawed dragon to his enemies;
Possessed of mammoth strength, a lion's guile,
His arms are mighty as the flooding Nile;
He scatters gold when he's in court, and when
He's on the battlefield, the heads of men.
The one strange thing about him is that the hair on his head and face is completely white. But then, this whiteness suits him and gives his face a kind appearance." When Rudabeh heard these words, her cheeks blushed bright red and she longed to see Zal.
Rudabeh Tells Her Secret to Her Companions
Rudabeh had five close friends who were her confidantes. She told them her secret and said, "I think of Zal night and day, I long to see him, and his adsence has reft me of rest and sleep. You must think of some way to make me happy by catching a glimpse of Zal."
Her companions approached her, saying that in all the seven climes of the world, there was no one as beautiful as she was, and that everyone who heard of her longed for her. And how was it that she should long for someone with white hair and refuse the great lords and nobles who came seeking her hand?
Rudabeh shouted at them, saying that they should not talk so foolishly and that their opinions were all worthless. She went on "If I should fall in love with a star, what use is the moon to me? I long for Zal because of his virtues and bravery, and his face and hair are of no importance to me. When I think of his kindness and goodness, the lord of Rum and the Khaqan of China are as nothing to me.
Oh may my heart admit no one but him
And see you mention to me none but him;
I do not love him for his hair and face
But for his virtue and his godly grace."
When her companions saw that Rudabeh was so firm in her love for Zal, they said with one voice, "O princess, lovely as the moon, we are all yours to command. May a hundred thousand like us be sacrificed for one hair of your head. Tell us what must be done. If we must practice magic in order to bring Zal to you, we shall do this, and if we must give up our lives for one such as you, then so be it."
The Companions' Plan
The the companions thought of a plan. Each of the five dressed hereself in her most attractive clothes and together they made their way over to Zal's camp. It was the month of Farvardin [March 21-April 20], when spring is at its most beguiling, and the plain was green with new grass and bright with wild flowers. The companions went to a stream, where Zal's tent was pitchsed on the other side. They began to wander up and down, picking flowers. When they reached a point opposite Zal's tent, the hero caught sight of them and asked, "Who are these girls who are so fond of flowers?" And the answer was, "They are companions of Mehrab's daughter, who came each day to pick flowers beside the stream."
Zal's head began to whirl and he felt his self-control slip from him. He called for his bow and arrows and, taking a servant with him, strolled alongside the stream. Rudabeh's companions were busy on the opposite bank. Zal looked for some excuse to talk to them, so that he could ask about Rudabeh.
A duck was swimming in the stream and Zal grasped his bow and took aim at it. The duck flew into the air, toward Rudabeh's companions. Zal released his arrow and the duck fell lifeless at the companions' feet. Zal told his servant to cross the stream and retrieve the duck. When Zal's servant reached them, Rudabeh's companions asked him, "Who is he that shot the arrow, for we have never seen such a tall and handsome man?" The youth answered, "Have no fear, for this is the famous Zal-e Zar, son of the brave warrior Sam. There is no one in the world with his strength and splendor, and no one has ever seen a finer-looking person than him."
The oldest of the companions laughed and said, "This is not so. Mehrab has a daughter who is lovelier than the sun and the moon." Then gently she added, "These two would seem to suit one another, for one is the champion of the world, and the other the most beautiful woman alive.
How fitting it would be in every way
If Zal became betrothed to Rudabeh."
The young man rejoiced at this and said, "What could be finer than that the sun and moon be linked in partnership?" He picked up the duck and returned to Zal and told him what he had heard from Rudabeh's companions.
Zal was very pleased and gave orders that the companions be given jewels and fine robes. They said in reply, "If the hero has anything to say, he should tell us." Zal approached them and enquired after Rudabeh and asked questions about her face and form and habits and character, and as he heard her described, his love for her grew ever stronger. When the companions saw the hero so eager in his interest they said, "We shall talk to our mistress, and we shall see that she looks kindly on you. In the evening you should come to Rudabeh's castle and delight your eyes with her moon-like beauty."
Zal Visits Rudabeh
The companions returned and brought Rudabeh the good news. When night fell, she secretly sent a servant to Zal to guide him to the castle, while she herself went up on the castle walls to watch for his arrival.
When the brave hero appeared in the distance, Rudabeh called out, greeting him warmly and welcoming him. To Zal it seemed as though he saw the sun itself shining from the castle walls and his heart beat faster with joy. He greeted Rudabeh and declared his love for her.
Rudabeh unloosed her lovely hair and let it down from the castle walls, as if it were a rope for Zal to climb. Zal kissed her tresses and said, "God forbid that I should use your musky hair in this way." Then he look a lariat from his servant and threw it up so that it looped over the battlements; nimbly he sped up the rope and gathered Rudabeh into his arms and embraced her and said, "I love you, and I desire no one but you as my wife; but what can I do -- my father Sam, the son of Nariman, and Manuchehr, the king of Iran, will never agree that I marry someone descended from Zahhak."
Rudabeh grieved to hear this and tears stained her cheeks. She said, "If Zahhak was unjust, how is this my sin? Ever since I heard the stories of your bravery and greatness and magnanimity, my heart has been yours. Many nobles and famous warriors have sought my hand in marriage. But I have given my heart to you, and I desire no husband other than you."
Zal gazed at Rudabeh with loving eyes and stayed silent for a moment, thinking. Finally he said, "O my beloved, do not grieve. I shall pray to God, asking that he wash away all thoughts of hatred and revenge from the hearts of Sam and Manuchehr, and that they look on you with affection. The lord of Iran is a great and magnanimous man and he will not act unjustly toward me."
Then Rudabeh swore that she would accept no husband in all the world but Zal ad that she would give her heart to no one else. These two noble souls swore eternal, binding love to one another; then they said their farewells and Zal returned to his camp.
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