The Epic of Kings: Hero Tales of Ancient Persia – Firdausi

The last book I read was Firdausi’s The Epic of Kings: Hero Tales of Ancient Persia, translated into English prose by Helen Zimern. Another way of saying that would be that I’ve just finished an English translation of the Shahnamah.

Wikipedia tells me that the Shahnamah is Iran’s national epic. It certainly is a nationalist, with the welfare and glory of Persia being the chief aim of the sympathetic characters. The epic part likely refers to the text’s length and the fact that it is a poem. I read the Zimern translation because I can’t handle narrative poetry more complex than Bubble Trouble. If you want a more authentic experience, Wikisource has a translation by James Atkinson that weaves in and out of verse.

Shahnameh is a book about great battles and the men who win them, in some cases single-handedly. Although the title of the book refers to kings, the most memorable protagonist of the Shahnameh is not royalty, but the military champion Rustem. For a good eighty-percent of the book, whenever Iran is in trouble it was Rustem who has to fix it. Adept at killing strange supernatural foes as well as turning the tides of battle, it is clear that Rustem is the most competent character in mythical Persia.

The least competent character in the book was the Shah Kai Kous. I don’t want to go too hard on him because I don’t know how fondly the character is seen in modern Iran, but there is a chapter called Kai Kaous Committeth More Follies. The antagonists twice con him into ill-advised invasions of the neighboring geopolitical superpower, but his silliest moment is his flight attempt. This involves a wooden contraption on which is nailed meat. Eagles try to take the meet, and their frustrated flapping carries the contraption to a distant desert. To be honest, I would have been sympathetic if Rustem tried to remove Kai Kaous from power and take his throne.

My favourite character was Rakush, Rustem’s surprisingly proactive horse. There’s this one bit where Rustem is on a journey to rescue Kai Kaous  and he falls asleep. A lion leaps out of nowhere and attacks the sleeping hero, but not to worry, his horse goes and kills it! Presumably with his teeth! Rakush somehow disposes of the corpse because when his owner wakes up Rakush gets yelled at. The next night the incident repeats itself, with a dragon! Rakush is my favourite character because his awesomeness goes above and beyond what I expected from a horse. Beating up monsters and performing feats of grotesque physical impossibility is all a day at the office for your average hero, but for a horse to take down a dragon, now that makes you think! This is why I believe that Rakush is the best horse in fiction.

This book was written against a Zoroastrian background. Zoroastrianism invented much of the eschatology of many popular religions, such as hell, and a conflict between angels and demons. I didn’t get much Zoroastrian cosmology from this book, besides the baddies (called deevs), a brief mention of Zoroaster and a surveilling angel who flies around the world seven times each day. Interestingly, Rustem’s father was raised by a giant bird called the Simurgh. Giant mythical birds seems to be a reoccuring theme in Middle Eastern stories, as seen in Sinbad’s titanic Roc and the Ziz mentioned in Legends of the Jews.

Anyone who liked Lord of the Rings or could handle the prose style of Gods and Fighting Men would find enjoyment in Zimern’s translation. The prose is heavily stylised, arguably stilted, and could prove alienating to less dedicated readers. Those fond of mythology, fairy tales or the strange stories medieval people told themselves might want to check it out.

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