Interlude (Shahnameh Readalong 23)

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 aren’t reading because Tessa has a deadline.

Next week: the first half of Rostam and Esfandyar.

Instead, a brief digression. I am reading POETICS AND POLITICS OF IRAN’S NATIONAL EPIC, THE SHAHNAMEH by Mahmoud Omidsalar. (Palgrave Macmillan)

I’m not far into it yet but basically he begins by examining, and refuting, the standard Western interpretations of the epic. I will give a report on what I’ve read on that aspect later.

For now: We’ve noted how translator Dick Davis has been skipping material, especially here in the middle. He gives some explanation of what and how he decided to abridge/leave out, and of course it is his decision to make as translator. But I was stunned to read this very emotional sequence in the introduction to Omidsalar’s book and am honestly puzzled why one would leave this out.

Seyavash, having foreseen his doom, takes his leave of Faragis, then goes to the stable and frees his favorite horse, Bihzad. This part is included, of course.

And we read (in synopsis) that the hero Giv finds Faragis and Kay Khosrow and escorts them to Iran. But what isn’t mentioned is this scene, which I will reproduce in its entirety (Omidsalar, p 4-5).

+++

the princess tells her son to take Bihzad’s saddle and halter to a nearby meadow where herds of horses come to drink water at midday. . . . Giv accompanies the young prince into the pastures.

The valiant lord mounted

And Giv walked in front, leading the way

They set out for a [nearby] hill

Where they could survey the fields

When the herd came by

And the horses drank their fill

Bihzad looked up, saw the prince,

And sighed piteously

He saw that saddle of Seyavash, covered in leopard’s skin

Those long stirrup leathers and the fine pommel

Resolutely, he stood at the waterhole

And did not move from where he was

Seeing his calm, Kay Khosrow

Treaded toward him with the saddle

He caressed and laid his cheek upon his face

He ran his fingers through his mane and touched him gently

Then the prince haltered and saddled him,

And remembered his [slain] father [to him].

When he mounted and steadied himself in the saddle

The colossal steed stirred

And rose like the wind.

It flew and vanished from Giv’s sight.

++

And here an illustration of Kay Khosrow riding Bihzad for the first time:

kay khosrow rides bihzad

The Occultation of Kay Khosrow (Shahnameh Readalong 22)

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’s portion: The Occultation of Kay Khosrow

Synopsis: “The king, fearing he will fall to temptation like his predecessor,s prays to God, who tells him to give away his possessions and disappear into the mountains. Nobody is happy about it.”

The-occultation-of-King-K-010

The angel Sorush watches or guides the king ascending into the heavens as lords wait around a fire, below. The background is white, depicting snow.

TG: Also known as “that time five Persian warriors DIED IN THE SNOW.”

Damnit, Bizhan, you were supposed to live happily ever after, not DIE IN THE SNOW.

So mostly I liked this chapter a lot, because it was so different, but the intrigue depended on the history and patterns established in all the hundreds of pages before it. In order to understand both Zal’s side and Khosrow’s side, we have to have been with these previous warriors and kings so that we can see exactly what Khosrow is afraid of AND understand why Zal thinks everything is wrong and terrible.

It seems very smart of Khosrow to recognize that it’s his nature to be tempted to the Dark Side like basically every single one of his ancestors on both sides of his family have been. He doesn’t have a threat to face down, so his idle mind turns toward temptation. The surprising thing is that he’s learned from Kavus’s incredible mistakes (oh that flying machine, I love that it’s the thing Zal is most pissed about, too, because WHAT a doozy), and does the right thing: he asks God for guidance.

There was a lot of wisdom thrown around in this chapter, especially about how to act justly and how to be a good king, as well as the kind of actions that the Persians deem worthy of the highest rewards. And Khosrow spent a good amount of time comforting his wives and talking about who was awaiting them in death. I want to know more about this Mah Afarid though.

We get a bit of a flawed Zal, especially with regards to a vicious sort of classism in his immediate rejection of Lohrasp, which was interesting, and I’m delighted the two came to an accord. The visual of Zal smearing dirt on his mouth to blacken his lips and cancel his sin is maybe my favorite moment of the entire book so far.

This Goshtasp we’re skipping over sounds like a RIOT so that’s too bad. And ZOROASTER I’ve been waiting for him to show up, and am pretty disappointed it won’t be on page.

Cannot believe all those dudes died in the snow.

occultation

Seated on a cloud like vessel and attended by angels, the king ascends into the heavens. Below, men gather around a fire, arms raised toward the sky.

KE: I found this story quite gripping. The consternation and befuddlement of the courtiers in regard to Khosrow’s strange behavior worked well, especially as contrasted to the endless partying in the garden scenes from before. The debate between Khosrow and Zal, and the way Zal is able to not only see that he has misjudged the situation but makes a clear and public declaration of it, was for me quite suspenseful, however odd that may seem when we are so accustomed to page-turning meaning there is lots of physical action and violence.

I’m traveling so can’t find the quote but I loved the comparison with the shining moon and how it can be darkened.

Like you, I did feel Khosrow was right to be concerned about losing his farr given the history of Jamshid and Kavus, just to name two. Yet for all that what most struck me is this: He was completely caught up in analyzing his own behavior, fixated on his own legacy, really concerned only with himself. No where are his connections to others signaled as primary. He never knew his father although much of his legitimacy and fame comes about because he revenges Seyavash’s death. Once his mother delivers him to Persia she vanishes from the story (as far as we know from this translation). His wives (if they are wives rather than concubines) don’t have names or context beyond his palace. Given that he has to name an unknown as his successor, he either has no worthy sons or NO SONS AT ALL.

Contrast this with the endless discussion by other princes and lords about their brothers, sons, and grandsons, their pride in and love for them; even occasionally their love and respect for daughters and wives (and sometimes mothers). For me, it felt as if Khosrow was a man with no place in the world except as peerless ruler. He evidently has no descendants, nothing to hold to as a legacy except the idea that he must have a spotless reputation. It’s not that having a child is the only path to meaning in life. It isn’t. But contextually in a story about legacies and generations, and men who to a great degree measure their success in life by knowing they have a worthy successor of their own lineage, Khosrow’s situation stood out for me.

Like you I was again frustrated by wondering what we are missing in the synopsized portion. I don’t know why these cuts are showing up now except that, as per the introduction, the translator felt there was repetition of theme and action. But I am sorry to have missed Goshtasp.

And while I basically know nothing about the Persian language, this shift of names interests me: Lohrasp, Goshtasp, Arjasp. Don’t these sound like regional differences or even a different (perhaps related) language? I don’t know, maybe not, but I wonder if it signals a shift in dynasty linguistically as well as politically, and I also wondered how it related to the arrival of Zoroaster.

In fact the mention of Zoroaster got me all excited but, alas, we skip over it. It does mean the story is now venturing into history known to us (although I grant you not much is actually known about the historical Zoroaster); I don’t know what historical sources and legends Ferdowsi had access to a thousand years ago that were obliterated or lost due to the Islamic conquest and/or the passage of time.

#

Next week: Rostam and Esfandyar (first of two parts, I don’t have page numbers on hand because I’m writing this while traveling but read about 26 pages). Somehow I suspect this will end tragically because when Rostam gets involved that tends to be the outcome.

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

SDCC 2016 Schedule

I will be attending SDCC on Friday 22 July. Come and say hi!

Here’s my schedule:

10 am – 11 am:  Panel: Love in the Time of YA Room 32AB

(Mary Pearson, Kami Garcia, Andrea Cremer, Brenna Yovanoff, Amy Tintera, Alexandra Bracken, Kate Elliott)

 

12 pm – 1 pm: Signing (with all the above mentioned panelists): AA 09

 

1:30 – 2:15: Signing at Orbit Books booth #1116 (giveaway of copies of Cold Magic & Black Wolves)

 

BONUS:

On Thursday from 6 pm, at the Little, Brown Books for Young Readers booth #1116, they’ll be giving away copies of Poisoned Blade.

Bizhan and Manizheh (Shahnameh Readalong 21)

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’s portion: Bizhan and Manizheh

Synopsis: Another contained episode in which Rostam saves Bizhan from the clutches of Afrasyab with undercover work and actually! trusting! a! woman!

TG:  I didn’t dislike Rostam so much in this one, since he showed a lot of interesting initiative and thoughtfulness regarding how best to get Bizhan safe, instead of just crashing wildly in because he CAN. I loved that he and the other warriors went in as merchants, basically spying on the Turks at first to discover the best way to get Bizhan out.

And of course that best way was to let Manizheh help.

OH MANIZHEH. I love her. She is rich and takes what she wants damn the consequences (she gets this from her dad, no doubt), including drugging Bizhan and kidnapping him! She’s bold and also loyal once she’s given her heart. But the best thing about her is how she stands up to men who are treating her like she’s not worthy of them: Rostam and Bizhan. They both act like she can’t be trusted, or  are mean to her, and she stands up and basically cusses them out for being unfair fools. And it works! They change their behavior. It’s clear the narrative is on her side about Rostam and Bihan’s treatment of her.

She gets her reward, too, for sticking with Bizhan and helping him escape.

I am livid Afrasyab’s execution is a footnote. And Piran’s stoic, noble death, too. What the hell, Davis? Given how painful reading Seyavash’s death was, I expected some emotional payback getting at least a little bit vengeance in Afrasyab’s death. But no! It’s a footnote and not only that, but Garsivaz is still being a terrible counselor and still alive.

I’m curious about what this means about the purpose of the over-arching narrative. We’re supposed to focus on the suffering of our heroes, and be less invested in relishing vengeance? Are we, like Bizhan, supposed to “drive all thoughts of hatred” from our hearts and forgive the bad guys? At least to the point where the story isn’t ruined by not being allowed access to the catharsis of vengeance?

I can’t help assuming there IS some greater narrative point, because I want there to be.

rostam rescues Bizhan

An illustration that shows Bizhan in the pit holding onto a rope. The hero Rostam is holding onto the other end and hauling him out while Manizheh watches. Six random hero dudes stand around together with two horses.

KE: I too was absolutely fascinated and delighted by the “disguised as merchants” trope. Two hundred years after Ferdowsi the Mongols sent spies disguised as merchants ahead of their line of conquest to check things out, so this means it’s not just a trope but a real aspect of historical espionage in this era.

I loved this episode in large part because it has an active woman character in it. Once again I am intrigued by the sexual politics on display in the Shahnameh because ONCE AGAIN it is the woman who is the sexually assertive one, the woman who approaches the man, who invites him to be with her. There is so much I could say about how the post-Victorian post-50s Puritanical culture of the UK and USA has warped the ability of readers steeped in those two traditions to conceive of sexual politics different from those we have been assured are traditional and inevitable worldwide. If a woman lives in something resembling a woman’s palace or women’s wing or a harem, etc, then it is also assumed she is a guarded virgin who is either too constrained or too passive and virginal to get up to anything. But, again, virginity is a particularist concept, not a universal one. Many societies simply do not valorize virginity even if they value women being faithful to their husbands, for example. And yet even Sudabeh is not taken to task so much (I think) for wanting to have sex with Seyavash but for her anger at his rejection and her efforts to lie about him and thus destroy him.

Look how often we have seen the female gaze at work in this story, even with the relatively minor roles women have played. Manizheh sees Bizhan and desires him: that’s classic female gaze right there. Her father’s anger seems directed at her defiance in sleeping with the enemy rather than any concern over her “purity.”

Again, notice how he strips her of her wealth, which makes it clear that these women controlled their own finances. Whatever constraints they lived under (and I’m not entirely sure of what those are as we have seen women traveling in earlier episodes in order to resolve conflicts) they were not dependent for their pin money on some man’s parsimonious doling out of a few coins here and there. Women’s financial and intellectual and physical dependence often seems like such a staple of British and USA Victorian and post-Victorian literature that it really delights me to see my expectations shattered to bits here, where Manizheh acts on her own desires, suffers the consequences, questions Rostam, and as reward is shown the respect she deserves.

miniature of two in bed

Not sure who this image of a man and a woman in bed together represents but honestly it could be so many of the couples in the Shahnameh, so I will imagine it is Bizhan and Manizheh enjoying some well deserved canoodling.

I also was OUTRAGED that Afrasyab’s death is passed over in a synopsis. I assume this means it is written and that Davis just chose not to translate it. It’s just very odd to me too. Faragis’s flight is skipped over although surely it is dramatic, and now Afrasyab’s death when he has been the antagonist for so long. *sigh*

I also wish I knew more about the cultural aspects of forgiveness in this context especially since in other cases Rostam is unforgiving. So what and why now? SO MANY QUESTIONS. So far if there is one over-arching commentary it is that both good fortune and bad fortune are transitory compared to the inevitability of death. There’s a bit of the same tone as Ecclesiastes underlying this poem, perhaps.

Next week: The Occultation of Kay Khosrow

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

The Akvan Div (Shahnameh Readalong 20)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

 

This week’s portion: The Akvan Div

Synopsis: “An interlude in which Rostam defeats a pretty nifty demon and steals horses from Afrasyab.”

TG: This was pleasant enough, and nicely contained, though I remain more invested in Rakhsh than Rostam. BUT Rostam does continue to want vengeance for Seyavash and that endears him to me slightly.

The div is great, I thought, and I like how well he’s fleshed out. This is like a fairy story, really reminding me of some old Irish legends. The hunt for a beast who disappears and reappears and the choice given to Rostam how he should die, but of course only meaning the opposite of what he says, are staples of Irish and Celtic fairy stories.

I also note that Rakhsh did not warn Rostam when the Akvan Div approached this time. Rakhsh is learning. Too bad when he found shelter with the Turkish horses Rostam had to find him again. Rakhsh just can’t escape.

Surprise! Addressing! The! Reader! I’m glad it doesn’t happen very often since it’s pretty condescending in tone. “If you don’t appreciate this tale, it may be that you have not seen its real meaning.” I took this pretty personally, I admit.

I went looking for color images of the Akan Div, and found several: they stand out from the black and white image in our copy of Shahnameh because they HAVE GIANT SCHLONGS. Except one, which is actually coded female, with dangling breasts and more feminine curves instead of masculine shoulder-to-hip ratio and pec muscles.

My favorite: http://magictransistor.tumblr.com/post/89287070076/muin-musavvir-the-div-akvan-carries-rustam-to

The second image on this page: http://www.paaia.org/CMS/loc-persian-collection.aspx

And here’s the female-coded one: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/545217098614537309/

(These all have artist credits.)

Possibly the exaggerated sex organs is because the Akvan Div is connected to the Aka Manah, one of the main demons of Zoroastrianism, according to my not-so-thorough wikipedia research, and this demon is a demon of sensual desire. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aka_Manah)

rostam in the water

A gorgeous modern rendition of Rostam thrown into the sea by the Akvan Div. Artist credit: Sahar Haghgoo

 

KE:  I’m fond of stories where no one is surprised when unusual people and/or creatures appear. I love how Khosrow takes the herdsman’s complaint seriously and dispatches only the best to pursue the wild ass. Yet why appear first as a wild ass? I really loved the trick the Akvan Div plays on Rostam (when he’s sleeping), and I had a lot of sympathy for Rakhsh who it almost kind of seems is trying to hide from his master. But I’m probably only saying that because of my persistent annoyance with Rostam.

Again I note the emphasis on courtly graces and behavior, the gathering in gardens to drink but also for poetry and discussion. Even though these gatherings are inevitably interrupted by violence and war, they are still clearly depicted as what people should strive for since Ferdowsi’s mentions of “the world [being] filled with his justice and goodness” always coincide with the king presiding over a peaceful court. I have a book on Persian gardens that emphasizes their importance historically through the various eras, as well as the standard templates for garden architecture and flora. Also, the herdsman feels quite free to bring his complaint to the king personally, so there is an interesting mix of hierarchy with reciprocal degrees of responsibility.

I was bothered by Rostam killing half of Afrasyab’s herdsmen, seemingly at random (what did they ever do to him?), but I guess this is still setting us up for a later confrontation regarding Seyavash’s death.

As you noted, it’s interesting to get a glimpse of the authorial voice here, and especially the statement: “When a man leaves the ways of humanity, consider him as a div, not as a person.” On the one hand, one can agree with this with respect to norms of human decency. On the other, it is a very slippery slope indeed depending on how those in power decide to start defining what the “ways of humanity” are. But I think I am projecting my own background into the work here.

Finally, it’s also interesting to watch the secondary heroes cycle through. Last week a son and a nephew died, and Bizhan was introduced, and he appears here again in preparation for his greater role next week in what I hope will be a more cheerful episode.

Next Week: Bizhan and Manizheh

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

Forud, the Son of Seyavash (Shahnameh Readalong 19)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Sorry I missed last week! I was so busy finishing up a revision for Court of Fives 3 that I completely blanked out even though I had read the portion and Tessa had emailed me her comments. Onward!

By the way here is an AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.

This week’s portion: Forud, the Son of Seyavash

Synopsis: Forud, Seyavash’s son and Persian king Khosrow’s brother, encounters a Persian army led by Tus, defends his kingdom with poor advice, and dies.

TG: I kind of wanted to describe this one as “more terribleness in the wake of Seyavash’s death” because that’s how I feel: a bit worn down from the repetitive tragedies. There was no hope in this one, and I plodded through the plot, unable to be very excited. Part of this is I’m still mourning Seyavash myself so every time his name came up I was sad all over again. But part of it is I’m really beginning to learn the patterns of these stories and it was pretty clear Forud was doomed.

That said, the most impressive moment was all about the ladies. While I’ve come across the idea/image of the women of a conquered castle throwing themselves off the ramparts so as not to be taken as slaves, it was especially poignant and terrible here because 1) it DID actually manage to make Forud’s death worse than Seyavash’s by thoroughly destroying everything he had and was and loved, and more importantly 2) Jarireh’s DREAM.

That dream was a great narrative trick! She has her dream of the castle burning and all her ladies dying in the fire, offering some foreshadowing, prophetic magic, and extra tension, in addition to letting us know (if we didn’t already guess) that Jarireh is awesome because she was given a prophetic dream!

THEN it turns out that Jarireh herself sets the castle on fire! And the ladies all die, but not because of the fire, because they listen to Forud’s final wish and die instead of living under the Persian occupation.

It was also interesting to note that Jarireh is called a lion, like Seyavash himself, and many other noble warriors.

OH, and I greatly enjoyed the description of all the Persian war banners and which warrior they went with.

SO GLAD we get a demon chapter next because surely it’s not going to make me wretched with tragedy. SURELY.

A 5802

Giv chides Bizhan for failing to defeat Forud

KE: Like you I found this episode very hard to read because from the beginning it was clear it was going to end badly, and because I will never get over Seyavash’s death. I just didn’t realize HOW badly it was going to end, with the destruction of Forud’s entire household.

I note there is little mention of men in his household and indeed his story is of particular interest because he apparently has no wife. The woman he interacts with, gets advice from, and relies on for emotional support is his mother. Usually, as in Seyavash’s story and many others, a man turns to his wife, or it is his wife (that is, his primary or chief wife) who warns and mourns.

Again I’m struck by how much space exists within these stories for women’s stories that aren’t told. Jarirah is Piran’s daughter, clearly a valued child because Piran valued his friendship with Seyavash. Additionally, note how Forud has his own household, his own castle, and presumably his own lands, and in that way I perceive that his mother, too, has a degree of independent wealth and possibly land ownership. We’ve seen this pattern repeatedly in the epic, with mentions of women who act using their own funds.

That he has no official wife makes me feel he is very young, not even a mention of siring children yet. Perhaps it is his youth that makes him incapable of listening to good advice and instead plunging headlong into disaster.

Like you I was also horrified that the women would rather kill themselves than be captured by/fall into the hands of the Persians, although under the circumstances I have a fair bit of compassion for that choice as well. Have we seen that behavior (women committing mass suicide) before? It can’t specifically be the Persians, can it? Seyavash himself is the product of a Persian/Turkish liaison, and one that has a slightly unsavory beginning since his unnamed mother was essentially taken captive and likely had no choice about becoming the king’s concubine. So I would guess it is more about the castle being taken by force and what that means for the women inside.

I mentioned this before but of course Seyavash’s mother, besides being unnamed, is never described as the king’s wife. And Jarirah, likewise, is never described as Seyavash’s wife, is she? Only Faragis gets that appellation? So there is a lot of implied information here about words and titles and where women fit in the household.

In Maria Brosius’s book on Persian women (of the Achaemenid era) there is some discussion of both of these aspects: that noblewomen of that time are attested to own estates and control their own finances, and that marriage customs (as far as anyone can tell) do suggest that the kings and royal princes married as “wives” or “queens” only women of equally high royal status but would make other (perfectly respectable and important) alliances with women who were then part of the royal household but not designated as queens or wives. Of course there isn’t a ton of evidence, and what the Greeks wrote about the Persians was fairly inaccurate propaganda, but nevertheless in this context it interests me as possibly a cultural expectation that survived across a long period of centuries. I don’t know. I have ordered Homa Katousian’s THE PERSIANS on Tessa’s recommendation, although I don’t know if he addresses the issues of women. I guess I will find out.

Next week: The Akvan Div. Demon hunting!

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

The Legend of Seyavash (part three): Shahnameh Readalong 18

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

This week’s portion: The Legend of Seyavash (third of three parts, this part starting on page 259 and going until the end of the section)

Synopsis: Garsivas turns Afrasyab against Seyavash, who is murdered. His son by Farigis is born.

TG: This was terrible. I’m so upset I can’t make paragraphs.

1) Seyavash doesn’t even get to die in battle! Instead he’s captured and his throat is cut like he’s an animal. D: D: D:

2) Garsivas just… gets away with it? WTF I am very angry about that. I skimmed ahead and I don’t see any retribution coming for him. VERY distressing. He just turned everybody against each other, for jealousy and bitterness, and he doesn’t even get to find out Seyavash is his grandkid, and tear out his hair???

3) I take back every nice thing I’ve ever said about Afrasyab. He’s way too easily manipulated.

4) I’m less sure about the timing of all this… since right after this Kay Khosrow becomes king, either we were wrong about the timing of the incident with Sohrab, or it happens while Khosrow is growing up in secret with the shepherds?

5) I loved it when Farigis calls Seyavash “my lion lord.”

6) It was interesting that Seyavash could give such a specific prophecy to Farigis about her future and his son, down to how they would escape Turan, but all his own personal prophecies were so much more generic. I wonder if there are rules to that (I’m constantly in search of magical rules, and the Shahnameh doesn’t have many).

7) I love that in Seyavash’s absence Seyavashgerd became a wilderness of thorns.

8) Someday I might start a novel “On a dark, moonless night, when birds and beasts were sleeping, the lord Piran saw in a dream a candle lit from the sun. Seyavash stood by the candle, a sword in his hand, crying out in a loud voice, ‘This is no time for rest; rise from sleep, learn how the world moves onward; a new day dawns and new customs come; tonight is the birth of Kay Khosrow.'”

It is just so inspiring and beautiful– or possibly I just already miss Seyavash so much I was thrilled for another appearance.

The_Slaying_of_Siyâvash-_Ferdowsi's_Shahnameh

KE: I’m in total agreement. The death of Seyavash is by miles the most dispiriting event in the Shahnameh so far. Obviously the degrading manner of his death is on purpose, including the one person who speaks out against it and isn’t listened to. It’s not just degrading to Seyavash; it dishonors those who kill him like this, and it is clear they are considered beyond the pale (at least by the author).

I also skimmed ahead to see if Garsivaz gets his comeuppance and yet, despite everything, he apparently does not (maybe he is a footnote in the coming fall of Afrasyab). Shades of Iago, though: People resist his nasty insinuations at first and then fall for them, perhaps out of his sheer persistence. This is one of the most depressing forms of story: the envious courtier who destroys the people he is envious of, sowing destruction and bitterness wherever he goes. I had hoped Seyavash would see through him as he saw through Sudabeh, but it does seem a combination of getting worn down (and not suspecting G’s duplicity) and then his own prophetic powers.

It was also interesting to see the contrast between his friendship with Piran and that with Garsivaz. Seyavash treats the two men more or less the same but one always feels that Piran is the more genuine.

I love Faragis in this. Her obvious love for him (I also adored “my lion lord”) and how she pleads for his life. As with most of the women we have seen so far, she is well educated, well spoken, intelligent, and unafraid to speak her mind (at least at dramatic points in the story). She does not cower.

Also I would have loved to know more about Piran’s wife, briefly mentioned BY NAME (we still don’t know the name of Seyavash’s mother), Golshahr. One of the interesting things for me about the Shahnameh is, as I’ve said before, the sense within the text that this merely scratches the surface of a much larger cycle of tales. How fortunate we are that Ferdowsi lived and wrote when he did because if he had not, much of this would have been lost as the great Persian culture was partially subsumed by Islam/Arab culture (although obviously Persia has always retained its own identity as one of the great, noble civilizations of the world).

After finishing (and crying) I re-read the part of the introduction where the translator talks about what parts he chose to leave out. I couldn’t help but notice the italicized synopsis at the end in which it is mentioned in a sentence that Kavus had Sudabeh executed! The events referred to in that synopsis seemed so important to me, but perhaps they weren’t as interesting to read? I don’t know. This is one of several fundamental issues with translation: it is always a form of gatekeeping in which the translator (or abridger) makes choices and we are then left reading a version that may seem to us as the complete one when in fact it is incompletely. I don’t fault Davis, who has done a wonderful job. Just noting how often people and events are left out as “insignificant” or “unimportant” when that is always a judgment call by a subjective scholar or translator.

As for the issue of chronology, now I am wondering if there is any scholarship on that.

And, yes, please do someday start a story with that paragraph.

*weeps*

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Next week: Forud, The Son of Seyavash

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 (part two) Shahnameh Readalong 17

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The Legend of Seyavash (second of three parts, this part starting on page 237 and ending on page 259)

Synopsis: Seyavash moves to Turkestan to escape Kavas’s terrible decisions, making a home there and marrying into Afrasyab’s family.

Siyavash_faces_Afrasiyab_across_the_Jihun_River

I suspect this scene of Seyavash facing Afrasyab across the Jihun River is for next week but it’s such a great image I used it this week.

TG: I am full of dread.

This middle section is basically Seyavash being awesome, while Afrasyab tries to be better than it’s in his nature to be (and constantly worrying that Seyavash will turn around and bite him someday), and Seyavash himself makes dire predictions about his destiny.

I’m so done with Kavus. Obviously. The nicest thing I can say about him is “at least he’s consistent in his terribleness.” It’s nuts that he makes Rostam look wise and level-headed. (And actually, with them side by side I suspect Rostam is supposed to be wise, generally good, but with the kind of temper that leads to being a total bad-ass on the battlefield, while Kavus is just temperamental and childish. Most of our looks at Rostam have been involving war and Kavus, the two things guaranteed to piss Rostam right off. The only other time I’ve sympathized with him was when he mourned so heavily for Sohrab.)

And speaking of Sohrab, I wonder if these stories are out of chronological order (assuming we’re right about that) because Sohrab is the ultimate doomsday version of father-son relationship, and Seyavash is forced into several father-son relationships here, and one (or all) of them is bound to go very wrong very soon. Kavus is his actual father, Piram and Afrasyab both sort of adopt him and take on a fatherly role, and of course we know but, like Rostam and Sohrab, neither Seyavash nor Garsivas knows that Garsivas is Seyavash’s actual grandfather or grand-uncle or something (and I suspect the downfall is going to start with Garsivas and jealousy).

Having the tale of Sohrab right before this one creates more tension for me than I might otherwise have had because of all the father-son talk. My dread just builds and builds because I both know how likely a terrible ending is, but also hope more strongly for a happier ending than Sohrab and Rostam got.

It is fascinating to me that Seyavash has personal knowledge of his impending doom! And he accepts it, even walking toward it. He doesn’t take Bahram and Zangeh’s advice because “the heavens secretly willed another fate for him.” At first I wondered if it was something he was aware of, or a coy narrator’s insertion. But later when the astrologers tell him not to build his city in Khotan, Seyavash basically has a breakdown about what he knows but cannot reveal, confessing to Piran that he’s not long for this world, but must accept his fate and enjoy life while he can. It’s obvious by then that Seyavash DOES hear God’s will or something like it, and accepts it even though it means his doom. It made me think of Gethsemane, and the tragic themes that come with a character knowing their terrible fate, but choosing to face it because of faith or love.

I wonder if the knowledge of destiny is related to his farr, and also if he’s taking warnings from God as inexorable destiny, instead of warnings for things to avoid! Maybe he got a little bad judgement from his father….

polo playing

An illustration of playing polo, with five men on horseback (one a sixth rider partially obscured), with polo sticks.

KE: I too am in dread. Seyavash is clearly doomed, and I too am puzzled by his acceptance of his early death. I enjoyed the depictions of friendship between men, especially Piran and Seyavash, and the sense that he and Faragis have a reasonable marriage of mutual respect. This is the behavior I expect from the noble born if they are going to claim that their noble born ways are somehow superior, and yet they so rarely act this way!

After all this time putting up with Kavus just because he is king and descended from the right people, we get a person with actual farr, someone who acts for peace rather than war, and — naturally — he is not long for this world and destiny rolls against him.

I read Garsivas as his grandfather (or his great-grandfather? depending on if he is his mother’s grandfather or father). And yes, things aren’t looking good. The sense of impending disaster looms large.

And honestly: could Seyavash be any better of a YA hero? He’s practically perfect except for his passive acceptance of destiny, and even that is depicted as an aspect of his preternatural maturity and intelligence.

On to part three, which will doubtless break our hearts.

Next week: The final part of The Legend of Seyavash (page 259 to the end of the section)

*sob*

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 (part one)(Shahnameh Readalong 16)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The Legend of Seyavash (first of three parts, this part one ending on page 237)

Synopsis: Kavas’s wife Sudabeh plots against Kavas’s son Seyavash because Seyavash refuses her advances. After being proved innocent, Seyavash leads the Persian army against Afrasyab, but a dream convinces the Turkish king to sue for peace.

seyavash fire again

Seyavash’s trial by fire is a popular subject for illustration

KE:  Wow. This is a complex and fascinating story, possibly my favorite thing so far. It seems to be told out of chronology; that is, I would suggest it is set before or during Sohrab’s childhood, because so far it never refers to the incident of Rostam killing Sohrab even though Rostam essentially acts as Seyavash’s foster father. I am assuming that fostering out a son in this way, even a royal prince, was a fairly common occurrence and thus would not have to be explained to the audience.

The other thing that makes me believe this story is out of sequence is Sudabeh’s apparent age. The Turkish girl could easily have come to Kavus’s attention before his marriage to Sudabeh. The opening sequence, in which Sudabeh falls in love (in lust) with Seyavash, seems to take place not too long after Kavus and Sudabeh have married. That they have young children is referenced, and she pretends to be pregnant at one point. So I would assume this takes place not more than 10 or so years after the marriage of Kavus and Sudabeh. Since she could have been anywhere from 14 – 20 (rough estimate) at the age of marriage, she could certainly be under 30, so it isn’t all that far-fetched for her to still be young and beautiful (by our standards) and thus likely to fall for the teenaged (and precociously mature) Seyavash.

This is the most interesting character study so far. First of all, Seyavash is no fool, despite his youth. He is described as having all the skills and virtues required of princes, and at the same time he is clearly a thoughtful, intelligent youth. He is cautious; he understands the danger he is in; he thinks things through rather than acting or speaking impulsively. This story is, so far, not kind to women: Sudabeh has no particular motive. She seems simply to have fallen for the young man in a clearly inappropriate sexual way and is determined to seduce him or destroy him. Seyavah’s Turkish mother is never named, the way the men see her as an object they can claim is rather unpleasant, and after she gives birth and Seyavash enters the story she has been (so far) not referenced again at all. She is apparently not present in the Kavus’s women’s quarters. Why? What happened to her? Seyavash’s sisters are referenced, although not by name, and they at least seem to be polite, kindly girls that he doesn’t mind hanging out with.

But what interests me most is the detailed characterization of Kavus, as his emotions drag him in one direction and then back again. So far (again, we’re only a third of the way in) he originally does not misunderstand what is going on, although from prior knowledge of him we might expect him to immediately show bad judgement. He sees what Sudabeh is up to, and yet he does care for her. I loved the brief mention of how, when he was a prisoner of Hamaveran, she “ministered to him day and night.” There’s an emotional verisimilitude to the reference that “the memory tormented him” that makes it more understandable he would keep gravitating back to her even though she has by now been revealed to have an “evil nature.” And of course his love for her begins to erode his better judgement about the clearly superior Seyavash, not that he ever really had good judgement.

I note that, once again, Kavus’s courtiers have no problem insulting him in private as when Rostam says (to Seyavash), “Kavus is as he always was.” One really need say no more.

I was glad to see that Zal is still alive (although again this tale may occur before Sohrab), and I note a second reference to Rostam’s brother Zavareh, so I am happy that Zal and Rudabeh had a second child who lives close by them (assuming Zavareh is Rostam’s full brother).

Afrasyab is back with an ill-omened dream and a lot of anxiety. Seyavash is negotiating with his own grandfather with apparently no knowledge that Garsivaz IS his grandfather. And I can hardly wait to find out what happens next since I am pretty sure it is building up to be a disaster of epic proportions.

MS 311 (f82r)

Seyavash and the trial by fire, another version, with spectators and Sudabeh watching from a window

TE:   This is so complex! The most incredible thing for was that that for about three paragraphs I almost liked Kavus. I was disappointed by the prominent placement of what amounts to a false rape accusation, but Kavas’s response to the conflict between his wife and son engaged me with one of my least favorite plot devises Of All Time. Who knew this usually tempermental and frankly stupid king had it in him to measure his emotions, memories, and thoughts so well and come up with a (relatively) balanced solution. This is the guy who eventually builds a flying car to reach the sun! Being nuanced and practical!

I was fascinated by the fire trial. It’s a familiar sort of magical trial, and on one hand I loved that the actual villain/witch in this situation survived by her wiles, and the innocent party bravely pressed on through the fire. It makes me want to write a fire trial someday, and I think this is the first time I’ve been directly, specifically inspired, instead of generally interested in and inspired, by the Shahnehmah.

I, too, am delighted Zal is still alive, and also that Sudabeh accused Seyavash of using Zal’s magic to survive the fire. I hope that Zal DID teach Seyavash some magic, since he’s probably better suited for it than Rostam (obviously I DO mean that as a dig at Rostam. His horse would be better at magic than him). Before Zal made his appearance I had already thought to myself what a relief it is to genuinely like Seyavash after so long kinda hating the Rostam/Kavus duo. I thought “I like him almost as much as I like Zal” so it’s rewarding to have the story compare them, too.

Speaking of characters making reappearances: we all know I love Afrasyab, but I’m not too keen on his dream anxiety. I like him being a bad-ass, hot-tempered, “All the World Belongs To Me” king. I suspect he’ll rally and do something terrible to Seyavash, since Afrasyab survives this and I don’t think Seyavash does. I just hope he doesn’t fall prey to Sudabeh’s evil scheming. OR if they do, they become a proper Murder Couple.

The one meta thing that struck me about Seyavash is the lack of talk about farr. He surely has it–if Kay Kavus has it, and loses it, and has it again, and loses it again, ad nauseam, surely Seyavash does, too. And thinking about it, I wonder if the lack of farr talk is because we’re getting farther and farther away from those first kings, who were “purer” with the farr, or at least their relationship with it. If there was a lot of overt talk about Seyavash and farr, it would point out how explicitly bad Kavus is at behaving as though he is the one true king of Persia. And everybody KNOWS it.

 

Next week: The Legend of Seyavash (part two of three, pages 237 – 259)

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 Tale of Sohrab (Shahnameh Readalong 15)

Join Tessa Gratton and me as we read the Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi. We’re using the Dick Davis translation (Penguin Classics).

Today’s portion: The Tale of Sohrab

Synopsis: Rostam has a son with a Turkish princess, who grows to be as strong a warrior as him. They meet on the battlefield not knowing each other, and Rostam kills Sohrab. 

gordafarid

Gordafarid faces Sohrab. I will never get tired of this.

TG: My lack of sympathy for Rostam and Kay Kavus impeded my ability to feel the tragedy of this section. (At least everyone else in the story agrees with me that Kavus is an idiot who never makes good choices. It amuses me how often his allies openly call him names, just never to his face!)

I usually enjoy this sort of tragic set up, as I’m very interested in how character flaws create tragedy. For Sohrab, I felt it very keenly: he’s arrogant and ambitious as his father, and too young to know better, but at the heart of his motivations he really just wants to meet his father and make his father king, not himself. But Rostam’s flaws weren’t what created his tragedy here, it was a sudden, uncharacteristic refusal to acknowledge his name. Never before has Rostam avoided declaring his name and ancestry, so it was out of left field when he flat-out lied to Sohrab about being himself. If he’d admitted his name, Sohrab would have flung his arms around his father and none of the tragedy would’ve occurred. This is the first time I feel let down by the storytelling itself, because this was a case of inexplicable miscommunication that required Rostam acting totally out of character to achieve.

Once again, I enjoyed Afrasyab’s role here. When he heard about Sohrab and Sohrab’s ambitions I love that he just laughed. And then encouraged chaos.

I’m very glad to move away from Rostam for a while in the next section, though I suspect it will be full of Kavus being stupid.

KE:  I have a lot of rambling thoughts about this section.

First, my understanding is that this is considered the central tragic tale of the Shahnameh. Like you, I struggled with Rostam — in fact I have always struggled with Rostam, who is the great hero of the piece and who I find deeply unsympathetic and pretty much a self centered jerk. I keep contrasting him to his father, Zal-Dastan, and while Zal is clearly a prince with all the privilege and pride that goes with that status, he at least seems to have more of a sense of responsibility and community in the sense of having long-standing relationships with others while Rostam seems to mostly function alone. Zal has a wife, while Rostam has a one night tryst with a woman WHO SNEAKS IN TO SEDUCE HIM (otherwise he evidently can’t be bothered?). He receives communication from Tahmineh about their son but otherwise evidently can’t be bothered to write to him, send for him, or go see him, much less have any sort of relationship with her (maybe because she is a Turk?). He really seems to live only for himself and his status as a hero. And, yes, he treats his horse badly. Mediocre!

So, just as you said, Rostam’s inexplicable refusal to admit to who he is did not make sense to me in context. It did feel as if it was pushing a tragic flaw for the sake of the story.

What DID touch me about Sohrab’s death was that Sohrab did suspect that Rostam was indeed Rostam, and thus his father. He is deliberately misled by Hejir, and yet still trusts his instinct that Rostam means something to him. He gives Rostam multiple chances to admit it; he TRIES to reconcile, to connect, and Rostam rejects him. And Sohrab even throws it in his face in the end– that if he had only said his name, none of it would have happened.

And on top of that it turns out that Kavus COULD HAVE saved Sohrab’s life with his magic potion but refused. Such a jerk. A completely useless selfish jerk of a jerk. And yet (I read ahead to the first part of the next sequence) the ladies are all over him. What is up with that? I admit that I too enjoyed all his lords talking smack about him behind his back. He has certainly earned it.

The final tragic blow of course is Rostam riding himself to beg the potion from the king only to have Sohrab die, alone, while Rostam is gone. Poor kid.

However in this sequence there were two very interesting bits with ladies.

First, Tahmineh. Again, we see young women living in relative seclusion, and yet making for themselves sexual choices and not being chastised or punished for it. Perhaps this is because heroes are always acceptable lovers. I don’t know. But she sneaks in, she has sex with him, she gives birth nine months later, and not a peep about virginity or honor or any of that. The child is raised as a prince, not as a bastard. This fascinates me, especially given how often people claim that in the past women’s sexuality was completely locked down and it is only now in the modern world that women have their first taste of sexual freedom. Again and again the Shahnameh puts the lie to that old canard.

Second, Gordafarid! How great is she? I wish I knew if there is an entire set of tales about her, or where she comes from, or how she fits into the legendary cycle. Because she was awesome: she’s a skilled warrior AND she outwits young Sohrab. She made me very happy although there’s no further mention of her, alas.

Another image of Gordafarid:

Gurdafarid_(The_Shahnama_of_Shah_Tahmasp)

Next week: The Legend of Seyavash (we are reading this in three parts because it is so long)(the first part starts on page 215 and goes to the bottom of page 237 — the second part will start with the section ‘Seyavash Writes a Letter of Kavus’)

Looks like Sudabeh takes an unpleasant turn, and Afrasayb is back.

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