The Reign of Sekander- part one – (Shahnameh Readalong 28)

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

If you haven’t already don’t forget to check out this  AMAZING post by Rachel W in which she works out the complicated genealogy of our main and secondary characters.

This week we are again skipping over The Death of Rostam and continuing on with the first part of The Reign of Sekander. Tessa and I, with the assistance of the able Renay of blog Lady Business and podcast The Fangirl Happy Hour, recorded a 30 minute conversation about our feelings about The Death of Rostam. We will post that for your listening pleasure as soon as Renay has edited it to her satisfaction so soon. Meanwhile, we forge onward.

Synopsis: “The first part of Sekandar’s reign, during which he conquers several kingdoms, some with friendship, some with trickery, some with war.”

TG: I continue to find Sekandar delightful — I love that he refuses to give up his penchant for trickery and pretending to be who he’s not. It keeps him seeming youthful and very entertaining.

While the episode with Foor was pretty typical of episodes in the Shahnameh so far, the ways Sekandar allies himself with Kayd and Qaydafeh are very unique and fascinating.

Kayd’s defense of his land by giving up the four special gifts is so reminiscent of a fairy tale I could read it again and again, and yet the specifics ground it so firmly in Shahnemeh folklore and language I just am in love. The battle of wits that’s really a riddle game, the fairy princess, the goblet that will not be drained (not to mention the actual description of the rules by which that magic works! Be still my wizard heart!)… I was in heaven during this section.

And it’s about time we had a queen who not only rules and rules well, but who out-smarts Our Hero, and delights in doing so. She makes Sekandar blush, and laughs at him and her own prowess. I love Qaydafeh with all my heart.

The one thing that kept pulling me out of this was the anachronistic association between Sekandar and the cross, not to mention the explicit references to Christianity. Historical Sekandar lived ~300 years before Christ, and nothing in the Shahnameh so far has reminded me that it was written down hundreds of years after the events took place — if they took place — and that it likely stems from oral traditions unconcerned with chronology and documentation. This is also the first time, I believe, that Mecca is explicitly mentioned and as a holy city of God, not to mention the invocation of Abraham and his line of descendants. VERY interesting.


Qaydafeh taking no crap from Sekander as she shows him his lying face

KE: Yes, I really love how Sekander is portrayed in this. He is a great character (second only to Seyavash in my heart now).

But how fantastic is Qaydafeh!!! Note that she is an older woman, with grown sons, not a sexy princess available as a sexual partner. In fact, and this is really interesting to me, Sekander also communicates respectfully with Delaray, the mother of Roshanak-whom-he-marries), so there is a pattern here of showing him in relationships with older women that I find quite interesting (and not at all common either in the Shahnameh or in narrative in general).

But I have to quote from this simply adorable passage in which Qaydafeh calls out Sekander. How often have women thought (and less often said) this:

Qaydafeh laughed at his blustering manliness and his angry words. She said, “O lion-like king, don’t let yourself be led astray by your male pride!”

That she completely overturns the expected power dynamics between them is GOLD to me. GOLD. I could not stop laughing when she drops the portrait of him in his lap to let him know she knows who he really is.

Although Seyavash will always be in my heart, this may be my favorite sequence in the Book of Kings so far. Qaydafeh is never punished for being smart and wise and powerful. Her power is not upended (at least not so far). And given where part one left off (at page 500) I will be fascinated to see how she handles the apparent betrayal of her reckless and unwise younger son, Taymush, whom she has given permission to Sekander to school, as it were.

Whenever a well known historical Alexander episode pops up here I’m just so intrigued, for example the mutiny of the army and their complaint, which is a classic episode from the Western versions of his history as well.

Like you I’m fascinated by the presence of Christianity and Islam inserted into an historical period where they didn’t exist. Especially given the presence of Zoroastrianism during Esfandyar’s story. I don’t have any comment on it beyond how interesting it is to see the historical events of Sekander’s reign conflated with the present-day understanding of Ferdowsi’s world, in which the West WAS Christian and the Middle East WAS Muslim. Makes you think about how we create historical narrative in our own time, doesn’t it?


Next week: the second part of The Reign of Sekander

 Previously: Introduction, The First Kings, The Demon King Zahhak, Feraydun and His Three Sons, The Story of Iraj, The Vengeance of Manuchehr, Sam & The Simorgh, The Tale of Zal and Rudabeh, Rostam, the Son of Zal-Dastan, The Beginning of the War Between Iran and Turan, Rostam and His Horse Rakhsh, Rostam and Kay Qobad, Kay Kavus’s War Against the Demons of Manzanderan, The Seven Trials of Rostam, The King of Hamaveran and His Daughter Sudabeh, The Tale of Sohrab, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 1, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 2, The Legend of Seyavash Pt. 3, Forud the Son of Seyavash, The Akvan Div, Bizhan and Manizheh, The Occultation of Kay Khosrow, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 1, Rostam and Esfandyar Pt. 2, The Story of Darab and the Fuller, Sekander’s Conquest of Persia