The Shahnameh: The Persian epic as world literature
Columbia University Press (Footprint), $68 hb, 272p, 9780231183444
Not many peoples are able to read poems in their language written one thousand years ago, as Persian speakers in Iran, Afghanistan, and Tajikistan do today with Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh, meaning the ‘Book of Kings’. The Shahnameh is Iran’s national epic, a vast compilation of pre-Islamic Iranian myths, legends, and imperial history. The summa of the life of Hakim Abol-Qasem Tusi, known by his honorific name Ferdowsi, at 50,000 couplets it is the world’s longest epic poem written by a single poet; it took the devoted poet just over thirty years to write. From its arrival in 1010 ce, the Shahnameh has powerfully shaped poetic writing in Persian and has been credited by scholars with preserving the modern Persian language. Outside Persian, even Turkic, Azerbaijani, Ottoman, Georgian, and Kurdish literary traditions have felt its influence, while Matthew Arnold’s highly popular and beautiful Victorian retelling of the story of ‘Sohrab and Rustum’ is but one instance of its impact, in translation, in European languages.
Its scope is titanic: through sixty-two stories, told in 990 chapters, the Shahnameh tells the story of a people and a land, the Iranians and Iranshahr (‘Greater Iran’), from a cosmogonic, to a mythic, to a historical age. Expectedly, the cast of characters is enormous, ranging from gods, monsters, and mythical animals to warrior kings, troublesome courtesans, and unruly, disobedient offspring. Uniquely, the central character of the poem is Iran itself, not, say, a war (the Iliad), or an individual (Beowulf).