Tales of Love and War
“The worldview of a people, though normally left unspoken in the daily business of buying and selling ... is to be found in a culture’s stories, myths, and rituals.” (Thomas Cahill, The Gifts of the Jews).
The epic of pre-Islamic Persia (Iran) is the Shahnameh, or Epic of Kings, a collection of heroic tales written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi at the end of the 10th century C.E. This monumental effort took 30 years to complete and, sadly, the poet died in poverty and embittered by royal neglect in 1020 C.E. Significantly, the work is written in Persian, even though Arabic was the primary language of government and education at the time.
The Shahnameh deals with heroes and kings, but it is much more than a warrior-hero story or a collection of romantic tales of love and war. The epic is a window revealing the people and the rich culture of pre-Islamic [pre-7th century] Persia. On one level, it is a patriotic chronicle of the central role of monarchy in Persian history. On another level, it is a revelation of human strengths and foibles and a subtle discussion of authority and a not-so-subtle critique of the institution of monarchy.
The story of the hero, Rostam, for example, allows the reader a glimpse of an all-too-human hero’s decided ambivalence about the demands of heroism. Faced with the rescue of his horse, Rakhsh, Rostam wonders: “How can I stand against the Turks, and how can I traverse the desert alone?” Sir Lancelot would never utter such a thought!
Rostam’s personal ethics are at times at odds with the court. He insists that he is his own man, and constantly shows an independent streak that puts him outside of authority. He lives “on the edge,” like Dirty Harry, but he is sought after as a subduer of demons, like Superman. Rostam is also a cunning hero who plays tricks to win victories: “A wise man should not seek to be underhanded or unjust ... but keep your spear points dipped in poison, for wherever there is a kingdom, there is warfare, however great the realm may be.”
This advice Rostam gives to his king! The epic also contains revealing put-downs of Arab culture. At the time of its writing there was a good amount of antipathy between the Persians and the Arabized Turks and other Arab states: “You can buy the world with treasure and trouble, but you can’t cut Chinese silk with an axe." (Persian proverb)
To me it’s interesting that, after the 1979 Revolution in Iran, when the Shah stepped down and Khoumeni established a government based on an extremely fundamentalist form of Islam, the Shahnameh was banned from schools as un-Islamic. Fanatic Muslims even desecrated Ferdowsi’s tomb.
Still, the epic has survived to be considered one of the great works of literature, not only in Iran but by educated people world-wide.
Reference: Rostam, Tales of Love and War from Persia’s Book of Kings, Abolqasem Ferdowsi, translated by Dick Davis.