Rostam and Esfandyar Part Two (Shahnameh Readalong 25)

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: the second half of Rostam and Esfandyar.

Synopsis: “Esfandyar nearly kills Rostam, but intervention from Zal and the Simorgh saves him and allows him to kill Esfandyar instead.”

TG: I’ll read sections with Simorgh and Zal doing magic FOREVER. It’s interesting to me that the rules governing use of magic remains so very amorphous. If you’re a good person, using magic is fine, if you’re a bad person (or a Turk), then it’s bad. That’s the only rule I can really parse out, though I’d be interested in an analysis by someone more knowledgable.

Speaking of magic, I looked up tamarisk trees on wikipedia and it’s salt cedar! ( It’s also all over the Old Testament and in the Epic of Gilgamesh, often planted in auspicious places, or also used as a curse. This episode of Rostam using a specific arrow to kill Esfandyar reminded me of the story from Norse mythology of only a mistletoe arrow being capable of killing the god Baldur.

I don’t have a lot to add to last week’s thoughts, to be honest, since other than the magic this continues to confuse me with regards to motivation and changing behavior. Basically everybody says one thing and does another, or feels one thing then abruptly feels another way. They really played up the prophecy that whoever kills Esfandyar will suffer, and then it went nowhere. Of course there’s always the next section, but I actually felt some tension about whether Rostam or Goshtasp would be the recipient of the torment and woe, then…nothing. They’re both doing ok!

I did like the moment Esfandyar sent his sons’ bodies home with a note reading “This is your fault, Dad, don’t pretend to be sorry!” But still have a hard time understanding why E kept up the attempts to chain Rostam when he so, so clearly disagreed with the command.

We did get a few more named women, Beh Afarid and Homay, who just lit in to Goshtasp in a really admirable way. But Pashutan then told them to shut up, basically, even though he’d literally been saying exactly the same thing three lines before hand. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Better luck next week, with THE DEATH OF ROSTAM. AW YEAH.


A bearded Rostam, mounted on his horse Rakhsh, looses the arrow that strikes the younger hero, Esfandyar (also mounted).

KE: I am bitterly disappointed that one of the sections abridged in this translation is Esfandyar’s rescue of his sisters. I don’t think any hero has rescued his sisters, or even had a relationship with a sister, not since the brief mention of Sevayash (*weeps endless tears*) hanging out with his sisters to avoid the machinations and sleazy sexual interest of Queen Sudabeh. As the endless back and forth between Rostam and Esfandyar went on, and then when he dies and the repercussions hit the Persian court, I could not help but think that we as readers would have better understood his heroic aspect (within the context of the narrative) if only we had seen him act heroically. As it is, we only see this weird bickering with Rostam which is, as you say, running by some different set of rules than those I can fully understand.

I did find this sequence really interesting though because people’s motivations are so twisty and ambivalent. It’s clear Goshtasp is not a nice man or even a particularly good king; he’s one who seems to rest upon others’ laurels, and he is a mediocre enough judge of character that he even listens to a bad advisor! At the same time, it is stated that Esfandyar tried to overthrow his father which basically goes against all societal mores. So he’s no peach either.

And, as we have already discussed, him and Rostam trying to out-dick each other is in some ways the crowning moment of this long Rostam-heavy sequence.

But it really is Goshtasp’s fault. He is smart enough to know he is at risk, and smart enough to use his son’s honor and pride against him. He machinates his son’s death in a way that no repercussions can fall on him (even if his children do blame him for it), and he gets away with it! He basically doesn’t seem to be sorry at all.

Esfandyar and Rostam are trapped by their own societal expectations, the forms of behavior they have to follow. So for me it’s a fascinating exploration of how they push and pull against their own need to not lose face, not lose reputation, and not lose honor. All things considered, it kind of sucks.

Pretty sure Bahman, renamed Ardeshir, is THE Ardeshir, a real king who took power after the death of Alexander the Great’s successors (the Seleucids) in that region. It’s fascinating to start seeing the historical element sail in.

For me there were a lot of good lines in this section (and I always love every reappearance of Zal and the Simorgh), but I was perhaps most affected by Esfandyar, on his dying breath, saying, “It was Goshtasp, my father, who destroyed me.”

That is some drama right there. His death won me over, and my abiding dislike for Rostam even softened slightly in this sequence.

Even so, I await next week: “The Death of Rostam.”

HOWEVER: it’s not yet clear whether next week’s post will go up on Friday August 20 or Friday September 2. Why? you may ask. That is because Tessa and Kate will both be at Worldcon Kansas City (Midamericon), and with the aid of Renay Williams (of the Hugo-nominated Lady Business) we hope to record a podcast for “The Death of Rostam” because we are so ready.

We will let you know as soon as we know.

To close, here is a statue of Esfandyar, holding a spear and a shield and posing with one foot forward in the classic stance. DUDE.

Esfandiyar_RamsarPreviously: 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