The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh (Shahnameh Reading Project 7)

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 Zal and Rudabeh

Summary: Zal, son of Sam, falls in love with Rudabeh, who is the daughter of Mehrab, himself the grandson of the demon Zahhak. Because of her relation to Zahhak, Sam and Manuchehr initially oppose the marriage, but a prophecy that Zal and Rudabeh’s union will produce the most glorious son to protect Persia brings everybody around.


Zal stands with a companion at the base of a palace wall. He touches a lock of hair which Rudabeh, standing at the top of the wall, has let down. She has several companions with her.

Zal stands with a companion at the base of a palace wall. He touches a lock of hair which Rudabeh, standing at the top of the wall, has let down. She has several companions with her.


KE:  Where to even start? This sequence is so filled with rich storytelling that it could be an entire novel.

Years ago I read that “romantic love” is a modern invention, so I always enjoy reading stories like this that put the lie to that notion. It took me a bit to figure out what the obstacle was in the relationship: that Rudabeh is Zahhak’s descendent and thus deemed unsuitable.

Another thing that fascinates me about this tale, besides Ferdowsi’s endlessly inventive language, is its structure. If I had worlds enough and time I could write an entire essay that is about how conversation and consultation frame the various stages of the story. The young couple’s journey to matrimony is a series of social interactions with the powerful people (their parents and their king) around them. Rudabeh’s interactions are more personal and private than Zal’s, which are more public, and it is interesting how Sindokht shifts between the private and public spheres.

My favorite episode is probably that of Rudabeh’s three slave girls who seek out and converse with Zal. They are clever, confident, and free to speak. For one thing it shows that Western cliches about what women could and couldn’t do in “Eastern” societies are just that: cliches. This is borne out later when Rudabeh’s mother, Sindokht, takes charge of the expedition to travel to Sam and convince him to spare their kingdom from Manuchehr’s (presumed) wrath and to allow the young couple to marry. She states “I own castles and palaces, treasures, and slaves.” Later Sam gives her a whole raft full of rich treasure. The idea of helpless, passive women languishing in the harem . . . . nope.

The element of women’s agency is also shown in Rudabeh not only sending out her three trusted women to contact Zal but arranging for him to meet her in her palace (she has her own palace). I don’t know about you, but I read the sequence as she and Zal having sex. The idea of virginity has yet to be linked to female value. Certainly the sexual activity of the two sisters who were married to Zahhak is immaterial when they then marry Feraydun, and there is absolutely no indication that any notices or cares what the love-struck Zal and Rudabeh might have gotten up to beyond a few coy and amused references to the men Zal speaks with being aware that all he can really think about is HER. I guess one could argue that they keep it secret and so no one knows, but that doesn’t seem to be important.

This aspect is all very refreshing.

True love triumphs! With a little help from an intelligent mother, loving but anxious fathers, and astrology.

And then right in the middle of the fraught negotiations to calm Manuchehr and allow Zal and Rudabeh to marry, we get the incredible story of Sam fighting “the dragon that emerged from the River Kashaf.” This remarkable episode is merely a brief plot point along the way, brought in as part of a letter to convince the king.

What a great story this is.


TG:  I loved this section, too, and Rudabeh’s mom Sindokht is my favorite! The part you pointed out about her owning her own castles and treasures and slaves really stood out, since I don’t think we’ve seen women explicitly owning things before, though Feraydun’s mom seemed to rule her own land and so it’s been implied. I loved that Sindokht is allowed her own internal world in addition to being the voice of reason several times and also negotiating with kings – she was so full of anxiety it appeared like bruises on her skin (I loved that line), and it was her sorrow that drew Mehrab’s attention, but she got up and acted smartly. Her relationship with her husband was very interesting to me, too, since they seemed to compliment each other like partners. He is so passionate and melodramatic (as many of the men are in this book), and looks to her for advice (as many of the kings have done with their wives), but it was ratcheted up to a new level when Mehrab was at his wits end for how to keep their country safe, and all he could think of was to kill Sindokht and Rudabeh to prove to Manouchehr that they don’t need to be enemies. He begged Sindokht to come up with a better idea. “Fight for your life” he said, and I think he desperately wanted her to find a way. He relied on it, even, and trusted her to do it. I’ll take more Mehrab/Sindokht please, especially since they’re descended from the demon. (Which was apparent in their struggles for how to behave, too, as when Mehrab immediately thought to make “a river of blood of Rudabeh,” just like his grandfather (the demon!) would have done.)(I just ship it completely: #sinrabforever)

Though I was entertained by the constant negotiations and the fact that this entire long section was all about the threat of violence and solved with talking, I have to admit I was thrown in the middle when Sam already knew about the prophecy for Rostram, but didn’t use that to convince Manuchehr. He eventually got there on his own, but it seemed like a purposeful muddling of the narrative, and problems that can be solved by simple revelation of information is one of my least favorite romance tropes. That said, it highlighted how little the story relies on withholding information like that in general.

I assumed they had sex, too, since they spent all night intwined. I’m not sure how else to read it, and I laughed out loud when Manuchehr told Zal to stop lying about missing his dad, “I know you just want to get back to your girlfriend.” <3 <3 <3

My other favorite line was

“He scatters gold when he’s at court, and when

He’s on the battlefield, the heads of men.”


The vivid details of the dragon episode were fantastic – I’m thinking in particular of Sam emerging naked because all of his clothes had been burned off.


Next week: Rostam, the son of Zal-Dastan
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

Enthusiasm Thursday: On hiatus until April

I just haven’t had time to finish writing up my discussion of YA sf Scorpion Rules (by Erin Bow), and I’m not going to have time until I finish the current first draft WiP.

What I am going to discuss when I do is:

slow build vs fast build

intimate settings

letting interaction between characters create character


It’s a lovely novel, and I recommend it highly. Read it in the next month and join the discussion in April!



Geography Is Destiny (Worldbuilding Wednesday 8)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

Few things throw me out of a story as much as physical geography that egregiously makes no sense. If a writer is going to set a story in a made up world, I think it behooves the writer to make the physical geography obey known and understood rules — unless the point of the story is that it specifically does not.

Physical geography looks the way it does for a reason. Do basic research. Consider wind patterns, ocean currents, plate tectonics, climate zones, types of vegetation.

For example, if there is a mountain range and prevailing winds, one side of the mountain range will likely have a rain shadow and be drier. Islands often have windward and leeward sides.

Our earth’s mantle is made up three general types of rock, each formed under different conditions: sedimentary, metamorphic, and igneous. If your civilization is building great monuments out of stone, think about where that stone might be coming from.

I’m not saying you have to work this all out in detail. And if you do, you don’t have to put it all in the book. But don’t have people growing water intensive crops in a desert region, unless you have shown how this society has extensive irrigation systems and how they are getting and storing water. Don’t have people growing cold intolerant crops in an climate zone where it snows during the winter, unless you have greenhouses. Don’t drop a Cascades mountain range equivalent into the story and place a massive deciduous forest on either side.

What kinds of resources do different regions have? There’s a reason coal is found in certain areas and not in others. Limestone quarries don’t exist everywhere, nor does marble. Salt can be panned or mined but in different places. There’s a reason for all that.

If you have a moon equivalent to Earth’s moon, then you will have tides and these will affect shorelines and harbors. If you have multiple moons or no moon, consider the consequences.

Listen, I get things wrong, and I’m sloppy at times. If you don’t want to create a geography out of whole cloth, it is to my mind a totally acceptable short cut to use Earth’s actual geography as a template, lifting out pieces, altering shorelines (within reason), or moving things around in a logical way.

The importance of physical geography doesn’t stop with the map itself.

People in traditional societies really know and understand their local geography — they know the landmarks and how to get around — and they know their local ecology because their survival depends on it.

Farmers were not ignorant primitive people grubbing helplessly in the dirt. Famine and crop disease were real disasters, and all too common, but any cursory examination of horticultural and agricultural practices in ancient societies shows that people did their best with the knowledge they had, and were often ingenious in how they adapted the water and soil resources at hand.

Fantasy societies where there is no apparent food source except an unseen supermarket is a pet peeve of mine: agriculture is crucial. Even when the story isn’t about that, I think writers ought at the least to know where the food people eat comes from. Agriculture will be the subject of another post.

Don’t assume your every day locals are ignorant about the physical world around them just because they don’t have a university education. I once read the opening of a piece of fiction set in an archipelago. An outside academic arrives in the islands to study the winds. There’s a throwaway line in which the academic asks the locals about the winds and they don’t know anything, they just have superstitious myths they’ve handed down from generation to generation. I stopped reading right there. Because it is the locals who are going to know, even if they couch their understanding in non academic terms. Their lives depend on their knowledge of the winds, tides, currents, and seasonal cycles.

I live in Hawaii. I race outrigger canoes, both sprint races and long distance. The most famous long distance race runs from the island of Molokai to the island of Oahu.

When you race long distance in an OC-6 (a canoe that seats six people), you go out with nine to twelve paddlers because your crew will switch out at intervals over the race (which may run from 24 – 42 miles). For example, you may paddle for thirty minutes, jump out of the canoe as another person pulls themselves in to the seat you just vacated, and swim to the escort boat (where your coach and extra paddlers wait). After half an hour in the escort boat you may jump into the ocean and, as the canoe races up beside you (and other floating paddlers ready to make the change), switch in again.

When you cross the open ocean, for example the Kaiwi Channel between Molokai and Oahu whose maximum depth is 2300 feet, there are multiple factors to take in to account, including:

1) the open ocean swells, their direction and height and frequency.

2) the winds — how strong, where are they coming from.

3) the ocean currents — which direction are they pulling, how fast.

4) the topography of the ocean floor itself, especially important when you are close to the shore.

These conditions change every day.

So when you are racing from Molokai to Oahu, the straight line, the shortest distance, may be the fastest route but maybe because of the winds, swells, and currents, it might be better to take a slightly longer route that swings farther out. You can win or lose based on whether you took the best route for that day in those conditions.

Many (not all) people today live a step or three removed from needing an intimate knowledge of their physical environment. We are insulated in so many ways. But in a fantasy setting it is probable that your characters will not be–and should not be.

So when you think about world building, think of an ocean-going race as your metaphor:

1. The straight line isn’t always the best path. Don’t make geographical choices based on novels you’ve read or from a generic and disconnected idea of the physical setting. Remember that people really live in this world and must react and respond to its conditions.

2. Know your environments. Remember that distinct areas have local ecologies, and that societies develop within these local ecologies as adaptations.


I’ll discuss culture ecology in April, but for the month of March I plan to take a detour into narrative maps and tropes, including a guest post on tropes by the redoubtable Juliet McKenna.

Next week: Narrative Maps

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory, Geography is Destiny

Official Kate Elliott Bookstore Launch

ETA (03/2021): The Kate Elliott bookstore is no longer open as an online store. I still have books available. If you are interested in purchasing books from me, please email me and ask about availability and postage costs. My email is

+ + +

In an effort to clear out some closet space that is currently taken up by way more author copies than I have room for, my stalwart assistant Cheri and I are launching a bookstore on my blog.

You can browse the categories and the individual books and box sets, from the Jaran series and Highroad Trilogy, favorites like the Spiritwalker trilogy and Crown of Stars series, and new releases like Court of Fives and Black Wolves.

ALL BOOKS WILL BE SIGNED and can be personalized if you want. I’ll also include a lovely postcard of the fabulous The Very Best of Kate Elliott cover with a fantastic illustration by Julie Dillon and excellent cover design by Elizabeth Story.

Be sure to check out the DISCOUNT section as well for special sale items: These are mostly books that have some yellowing or discoloration on the edges/spines but are otherwise in acceptable condition. A few have minor tears.

For those purchasing internationally I am sorry to have to mention (as you already know) that international postage for packages is obscenely expensive. But we will mail internationally; just note the postage costs. Because this is a new venture for me there may be some delays and bumps for the first month, but the goal is to send out a shipment every week.

A quick note about the bookstore: My business is writing, not bookselling. The money from some of the few complete sets will go to Partners in Health, a respected organization that builds access to health care in impoverished communities from the ground up. The rest will go to pay my assistant.

I can never thank my readers enough. You are honestly the best, and I hope you know that. My thanks for your continued support.

Court of Fives is a Norton Award Finalist

I’m thrilled and honored to announce that COURT OF FIVES is a finalist for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy (2015).

I’m particularly thrilled and honored to be among such fantastic company in this category, with excellent writers Daniel José Older, Laura Ruby, France Hardinge, Fran Wilde, Fonda Lee, Tina Connelly, Noelle Stevenson, and Nicole Kornher-Stace.



Here is the full list (thrilled to see so many great writers honored, including several friends of mine — in fact, I don’t even know how I am going to vote in the Novel category because I want a three way tie):


The Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America are pleased to announce the nominees for the 2015 Nebula Awards (presented 2016), nominees for the Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation, and nominees for the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy


Raising Caine, Charles E. Gannon (Baen)
The Fifth Season, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
Ancillary Mercy, Ann Leckie (Orbit US; Orbit UK)
The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu (Saga)
Uprooted, Naomi Novik (Del Rey)
Barsk: The Elephants’ Graveyard, Lawrence M. Schoen (Tor)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)


Wings of Sorrow and Bone, Beth Cato (Harper Voyager Impulse)
“The Bone Swans of Amandale,” C.S.E. Cooney (Bone Swans)
“The New Mother,” Eugene Fischer (Asimov’s 4-5/15)
“The Pauper Prince and the Eucalyptus Jinn,” Usman T. Malik ( 4/22/15)
Binti, Nnedi Okorafor (
“Waters of Versailles,” Kelly Robson ( 6/10/15)


“Rattlesnakes and Men,” Michael Bishop (Asimov’s 2/15)
“And You Shall Know Her by the Trail of Dead,” Brooke Bolander (Lightspeed 2/15)
“Grandmother-nai-Leylit’s Cloth of Winds,” Rose Lemberg (Beneath Ceaseless Skies 6/11/15)
“The Ladies’ Aquatic Gardening Society,” Henry Lien (Asimov’s 6/15)
“The Deepwater Bride,” Tamsyn Muir (F&SF 7-8/15)
“Our Lady of the Open Road,” Sarah Pinsker (Asimov’s 6/15)

Short Story

“Madeleine,” Amal El-Mohtar (Lightspeed 6/15)
“Cat Pictures Please,” Naomi Kritzer (Clarkesworld 1/15)
“Damage,” David D. Levine ( 1/21/15)
“When Your Child Strays From God,” Sam J. Miller (Clarkesworld 7/15)
“Today I Am Paul,” Martin L. Shoemaker (Clarkesworld 8/15)
“Hungry Daughters of Starving Mothers,” Alyssa Wong (Nightmare 10/15)


Ray Bradbury Award for Outstanding Dramatic Presentation

Ex Machina, Written by Alex Garland
Inside Out, Screenplay by Pete Docter, Meg LeFauve, Josh Cooley; Original Story by Pete Docter, Ronnie del Carmen
Jessica Jones: AKA Smile, Teleplay by Scott Reynolds & Melissa Rosenberg; Story by Jamie King & Scott Reynolds
Mad Max: Fury Road, Written by George Miller, Brendan McCarthy, Nick Lathouris
The Martian, Screenplay by Drew Goddard
Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Written by Lawrence Kasdan & J.J. Abrams and Michael Arndt


Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy

Seriously Wicked, Tina Connolly (Tor Teen)
Court of Fives, Kate Elliott (Little, Brown)
Cuckoo Song, Frances Hardinge (Macmillan UK 5/14; Amulet)
Archivist Wasp, Nicole Kornher-Stace (Big Mouth House)
Zeroboxer, Fonda Lee (Flux)
Shadowshaper, Daniel José Older (Levine)
Bone Gap, Laura Ruby (Balzer + Bray)
Nimona, Noelle Stevenson (HarperTeen)
Updraft, Fran Wilde (Tor)

Sam & the Simorgh (Shahnameh Reading Project 6)

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: Sam and the Simorgh

Synopsis: An interlude to introduce Sam, a Persian king(?) and his son Zal, who was raised by a giant bird.

TG: At first I thought this section was a true interlude – a full aside – and I’m surprised it’s really just a brief introduction to how Zal came into being as a wise and learned man. It’s all a set up for the next section, it seems.

I’m not sure what the point of it is in breaking it off of the full story of Zal that comes next, except to bolster the theme that it’s best to trust in God’s plan (Fate?) and love according to the laws of family and God’s command.

It was interesting that Manuchehr noticed that Zal has farr but no one else seemed to – though an argument could be made for the Simorgh noticing, and that’s why she saved his life and raised him instead of feeding him to her chicks. This might be a clue to how farr works, or just further evidence that farr is mysterious, and purposefully so.

The list of gifts that Manuchehr gave to Sam when he sent him off reminded me strongly of the long list of gifts Hrothgar gives Beowulf, and I wonder at that as a similar narrative technique. I wonder if there are parallels in how the list of riches are used in each epic. Obviously it’s a display of wealth and a way to prove the importance of the characters involved, gratitude, and promise. But surely there are important connotations lost on us reading hundreds of years later.


KE:  Yes, gift giving customs are such a crucial part of social stability. I haven’t done any specific reading on this issue but I am pretty sure that at this level of kingship (proto state kingship, I guess I will call it?) rulers lavish gifts upon their followers as a means of creating and sustaining ties of loyalty and obligation. It’s also a form of wealth re-distribution, since Zal can, theoretically, then gift some of these things on to his own followers (although we don’t see that).

I loved this line, spoken by Sam to Zal: “It is right to say what is in your heart like this; say it, say whatever you wish.” Sounds very modern! Which is followed immediately by a statement about the astrologers and how “we cannot quarrel with the heavens.” I love how aspects of the story feel so emotionally understandable while other elements clearly include cultural knowledge that I totally lack.

All the paintings illustrating this episode show Zal as an albino, which isn’t quite how I understood it from the text when Sam says, “his black body, and his hair as white as jasmine.” Earlier the infant is described as having a body “like pure silver,” and I can’t quite reconcile silver and black. They seem like such contrasts to me. Regardless, it seems he is albino, a fascinating choice.

Also while googling images for next week I realized the importance of this prologue for Zal, to be followed by the long episode (next week) of his courtship of Rudabeh: They are the parents of the central hero of the Shahnameh, Rostam.

Here is a lovely painting of the Simorgh bringing Zal to Sam.

Sam & Simorgh

Painting of Sam kneeling on the ground. The simorgh with tail flared in in four sections flies down to meet him, bearing his son Zal.

Enthusiasm Thursday: Still working on a post about The Scorpion Rules

I’m running behind on writing up my thoughts about Erin Bow’s The Scorpion Rules, a YA sf novel which I really enjoyed. I’ll post next week. Meanwhile, if you are so inclined, please read it. Then you can join in next week, since in the context of the book I’m writing up what is really a discussion of narrative techniques, in this case opening with a slow build instead of a fast build/urgent hook. (Spoiler: I like slow builds but I also recognize that many readers expect a fast build or urgent hook from the first paragraph, and I have thoughts about how that can play out because a fast build relies on the reader’s familiarity with situations or character types and therefore creates its own forms of limitation.)


The Internal Map (Worldbuilding Wednesday 7)

World Building Wednesday: A series of short posts in which I write about my personal theory of how I approach world building, specifics of things to consider, and practical suggestions on how to use world building in the text. This is not a prescriptive program. I don’t think people must do things the way I do. I talk about my process because it is what I know. That’s it. Short bites: long tail.

What do I mean by an internal map?

I define an internal map as how the people in this made up world perceive the cosmos and their place in it.

People and societies have an “internal map” that orients how they see the world and influences the choices they make and the perspectives they cherish, enforce, and share. This is true for characters and cultures in narrative as well.

By cosmos I mean a people’s understanding of the universe, how they perceive that it works, and what brought them to the place (land) they are now. This view may or may not be influenced by religious beliefs.

Other elements of the internal map include cultural beliefs and expectations, laws and customs, and societally approved prejudices and/or rebellion against them. People (and thus characters) understand who they are in the world and what their relationships are to others according to this internalized map. What are the rules and customs of behavior that govern them, and does any given character as an individual obey them or not? Expectations about things like hierarchy, class, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and race will all be part of a character’s internal map.

There will almost certainly be more than one “people” in a secondary world, and each “people” will have a unique way of understanding the cosmos and their relationship to their gods (if they have them), the natural environment, their culture and sub-cultures, and to other groups and peoples both within and outside their own culture.

Internal maps are therefore not monolithic to each world or even each nation (or even individuals in the same setting). They will be influenced by the nuances, variations, and local characteristics that affect any given individual’s life. For example, a Japanese-American girl growing up in Nebraska as one of only a handful of Asian-American students at her high school is going to have a somewhat different internal map than a girl of Japanese ancestry growing up in Hawaii with its majority Asian & Pacific Islander demographic make up, and they again will have different internal maps to a Japanese girl growing up in Japan.

For me, the beginnings of understanding a world starts with my first explorations into an internal map.

Obviously no made up world is going to be as complex as the real world–I believe it is functionally not possible–but having the idea that there is an internal map provides the foundation on which I can build what I hope is a nuanced landscape.

I also have to remember that this map will always be influenced by my own internal map, the one that orients me. If I’m not aware of my own internal perspectives and biases, the ones influenced by my family, my upbringing and schooling, and the society I live in, then I am likely to reinforce or repeat my perspectives and biases within the story I’m writing regardless of whether I’m trying to write a place that is different from where I live.

I’ll use marriage customs as an example. When I read science fiction novels set in the far future in which a woman automatically takes her husband’s name and there is no explanation for why this happened, I perceive defaulting to certain common American legal norms at work. A woman taking her husband’s name is a specific cultural custom, not a universal one. When it is treated as a universal then I know the writer isn’t stepping outside their own internal map. It’s not that this custom should never be invoked in (for example) secondary world or far future fiction, but rather that if the writer chooses to include it then it’s best to be aware that there needs to be context for it.

Here’s another commonly used default: the virgin bride. Not every pre-modern culture concerns itself with women’s virginity as a token of honor and purity. Nor is marriage necessarily about sexual access. If marriage customs have a place in the society you are creating then understand how they work and in what ways marriage is considered useful as an institution in the society you are creating. If you merely replicate generically understood 1950s American marriage customs and sexual mores, you are re-using a cultural map that has been (in many places) superseded in the 21st century and which gas not ever represented a universal marriage pattern.

So, yes, my perspectives and biases will show up in the stories I write in off-hand and subtle, or not so subtle, ways, but the more awareness I can bring to my world creation the more deliberate I can make my choices. Because I guarantee: our unexamined biases will inevitably filter into our imagined worlds.

This is why I don’t “start with a map” by placing mountains and rivers and cities on a piece of paper: because physical landmarks offer only a partial understanding of a world. A physical map is by definition incomplete and circumscribed because it gives no insight into the mental and emotional and spiritual processes of the characters and the cultures in which those characters live their lives.

But at the same time, the physical geography in which a culture arises creates many of its own constraints and possibilities.


Next week: Geography is Destiny

Coming soon: More on internal maps and how to develop them, including a practical example post and one on diagramming cosmologies. Also a discussion of common narrative maps and tropes and how they influence worldbuilding. And more.

Previously: Introduction, The Flowering of an Image, Inductive to Deductive, Image to Idea: A Practical Idea, Deductive or Inductive: A Guest Perspective (Aliette de Bodard), The Map as Theory

The Vengeance of Manuchehr (Shahnameh Reading Project 5)

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

Synopsis: Iraj’s grandson Manuchehr goes to war with an army of heroes and sons of kings raised by Feraydun, killing his great-uncles and defeating a demon one-on-one.

TG: This was a lot of war! I enjoyed the descriptions of actual battle – even though it was very poetic and over the top – and also the use of trickery and messengers. I especially liked Qaren pretending to be working for Tur in order to take his castle.

I found some links to elephant armor (though it’s Indian, and more modern than what we’re talking about). This is from the Royal Armouries Museum and I’ve seen the first in person, and it’s awe-inspiring to stand next to.

Museum exhibit of an elephant in armor. The head and sides are protected by armor.

Museum exhibit of an elephant in armor. The head and sides are protected by armor.

Here are some elephant tusk swords:

Elephant Sword, 15th–17th century Indian, Iron or steel; L. 24 in. (61.2 cm); Wt. 5 lb. 3 oz. (2362 g) The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Jeri Garbaccio, in honor of Donald J. La Rocca, 2015 (2015.103)

Elephant Sword, 15th–17th century
Iron or steel; L. 24 in. (61.2 cm); Wt. 5 lb. 3 oz. (2362 g)
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Jeri Garbaccio, in honor of Donald J. La Rocca, 2015 (2015.103)

elephant tusk swords Source:

elephant tusk swords

These would be attached to the sawn down end of the tusks.


Since fate came up last week, I thought I’d mention the section where the Evil Brothers try to convince Feraydun that they only acted as fate proscribed. They said they only acted in order to bring what was written to pass. But I don’t think they mean fate as we think of it – I think they really mean “nature.” When they compare themselves to lions and dragons, it seems like they mean they only behaved according to their natures, too, just like last time we were told we shouldn’t be surprised that the moon gives off moonlight. There’s a definite connection between the idea of “fate” and the idea of “nature.” And then again, it was so important to Feraydun that he raise Manuchehr so that the winds of heaven never touch him and even his nurse did not walk upon the earth. He clearly was concerned with keeping the goodness Manuchehr was born with pure, so there might be something to fear from “nurture.”

KE:  Here’s a question. I’m continuing to grapple with the notion of farr. While I believe any such concept must have a particular and specific meaning for its own culture, I do also see similar concepts in other cultures. It isn’t really the divine right of kings, which allows for a lot more corruption if all that matters is whether you are designated by God to stand above others, but rather the relationship between the ruler and righteousness (or heaven as it stands in for righteousness and purity). Lose that righteousness and your rule will fail, the crops will wither, and your people have the right to overthrow you. The idea of American Exceptionalism is drawn in part from this conception that some carry a particular purity or divine approval. And how does this intertwine with fate and nature? We know from Jamshid’s example that you can lose farr. But can you gain it, or must it be something given to you or that you possess intrinsically? I have no firm views on this matter; I just find it interesting.

The narrative issues in this section intrigued me. Is there any suspense? Is suspense necessary? Aren’t we sure that Manuchehr will win? Perhaps the point isn’t whether it happens but how it happens. Perhaps it is the anticipation, waiting for the fulfillment of divine justice. One (of many) reasons I find reading outside my familiar narrative landscape important is because it introduces me to different approaches to and goals for narrative.

One last note: I think my favorite detail was the description of the messenger chosen by Manuchehr to bring Tur’s head to Feraydun. What a lovely little portrait of empathy, which I found very touching:

“and when the man arrived his face was filled with shame, his eyes with tears, since he wondered how he could show the severed head of the king of China to the Persian king, because no matter how evil a son might be, or how terrible his crimes, a father’s heart would be wrung by such a sight.”

Next week: The Tale of Sam and the Simorgh (Feb 19)
Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj

Enthusiasm Thursday: Making Wolf by Tade Thompson

Making Wolf by Tade Thompson (Rosarium Publishing)

making wolf

When Weston Kogi arrives in his West African home country to attend his aunt’s funeral, he has no idea what’s in store for him. How could he? Mistaken for an experienced police detective, Kogi is tossed into the middle of a thoroughly ugly conflict in the (fictitious) nation of Alcacia.

Making Wolf is an old school mystery-action-thriller and an intense, powerful, riveting story. This could be described as a dude book, filled with violent action, brutal reversals, corrupt and awful people, a scant handful of decent folk, and several beautiful and smart women. The conflicts are ragged and unclean. Everyone gets their hands dirty. In less assured hands a story like this can come across as gratuitous and shallow and juvenile, like an adolescent boy playing at being a tough man when his definition of tough is purely Hollywood. Making Wolf works because Thompson has an unflinching understanding of how cynical and compromised people can become while depicting them as people with understandable motives and reactions. It is, as I’ve said, a violent book, but I never felt pandered to.

As a character, Weston is often clueless and out of his depth. He compromises, and not always in a noble way. He makes bad choices, sometimes because they are the most rational choices. He lies to himself. He lies to others. In other words, he feels not like a superhero whom destiny has fitted out to charge in and become the savior but like an imperfect person who finds a way to survive and, possibly, to figure out who he has a chance of becoming. I could identify with some of the metaphorical and psychological elements of his journey, which made it a sobering trip.

The pacing is electric. The story and situation grabbed me immediately and never let up. Thompson has a precise eye for local detail and a thorough understanding of the setting, which he delineates succinctly and with exactitude.

I often don’t feel I’m good at expressing my emotional experience of reading. I’m far more comfortable when analyzing structure or theme, while the core of this novel is its emotional, visceral ride. I was surprised at how engrossed I was in a story that in other hands I would probably have disliked. Thompson’s writing is absolutely solid, but it’s the clear-eyed, unblinking, harsh aesthetic he brings that sold me.

Highly recommended.

TW: for extreme violence.