Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).
If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out this AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.
This week we are again skipping over The Death of Rostam and continuing on with the first part of The Reign of Sekander. Tessa and I, with the assistance of the able Renay of blog Lady Business and podcast The Fangirl Happy Hour, recorded a 30 minute conversation about our feelings about The Death of Rostam. We will post that for your listening pleasure as soon as Renay has edited it to her satisfaction so soon. Meanwhile, we forge onward.
Synopsis: “The second part of Sekandar’s reign, during which he travels the known world, seeking knowledge and power, until he dies of illness in Babylon.”
TG: This section alone feels like it could have been 500 pages of adventuring. So much happened, so many lands and people were visited, and they were all fascinating! I caught myself several times trying to figure out what places and cultures they were referencing. Obviously the women of Harum are connected to stories of the Amazons, with their matriarchy and manly left breast. Possibly some of the naked, blue-faced barbarian fighters were Celts or Norseman? I’m most interested in the city where the “men have soft feet!” What does that mean?
Sekandar continues to use his trickster ways, which is not only fun, but a very consistent characterization. He tries yet AGAIN to gain information from a king by pretending to be his own envoy! His army must just have gotten used to it. I was especially surprised he uses trickery to kill the dragon by filling the cow-skins with poison. That doesn’t seem very heroic to me — I can’t imagine Rostam killing a dragon like that. And yet, it works, and Sekandar is praised for it.
The most interesting thing to me in all his wandering were the frequent death visions: Sekandar saw several corpses, seeming to symbolize his fate. The dead king high on the mountain, surrounded by treasure and fame, but still dead. The angel Esrafil told him his death would come soon. The speaking tree gave him a precise time of death…. it seems no matter how far Sekandar searched out answers and curiosities, he always had to be reminded that death could not be defeated or solved. He didn’t even achieve the Waters of Life (though it seems his friend Khezr does, and then we hear no more of him?!?).
It was neat to see Arestalis come back in, and bestow wisdom to Sekandar, who then listened to that wisdom absolutely, even though it was connected to his death.
And I loved that Sekandar’s final words of wisdom, which in previous episodes have been relayed from dying king to his son and heir, Sekandar gave to his mother.
I do feel like the Shahnameh is taking a big turn as we leave Sekandar behind, the “world is changing” as Sekandar keeps being told, and the time of epic heroes may be passing as we get more and more connected to real history.
KE: I’m dealing with multiple things going on at the same time so I don’t have any extensive commentary except that I loved this. The whole Sekander section has fascinated me both for historical and psychological reasons, and this final segment has such a fabulist and yet also deeply philosophical aesthetic that it was a delight to read. He is always asking questions. There is, I think, a direct correlation thematically between his wanting to “conquer the world” and also to answering the big questions, including the most important one, about death, and of course there is no way to defeat death as the stories tell us over and over again.
Every episode in this sequence was amazing, from the city of women (where they allow him alone to sneak in and look around) to the wonders, and the death visions, and the final letters to his teacher and his mother.
And, yes, I can’t help but love that the only person to see through his trickster-envoy ways is still, and always, Queen Qaydafeh.
Like you, I feel that the tenor of the story must now change, that maybe we are leaving behind the mythic and entering history.
Next week: The Ashkanians
Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia, The Reign of Sekander Pt. 1