Monday, April 09, 2007

Shahnameh, pt. 1

A few weeks ago, I caught some flack from a friend because, despite its admittedly many problems, I liked the movie “300.” It was, to my friend’s thinking and not without some justification, a racist depiction of not just the Persians (i.e. the modern-day Iranians) but of anyone who didn’t claim white Western descent. But where he saw racism I saw the dramatic depiction (alright, an annoying slow-motion, video game, bronze-tinted, senselessly brutal depiction with absurd dialogue - sure) of Herodotus’ account of my most favorite battle of antiquity, The Battle of Thermopylae. How do I recreate the shivers that crawled up my spine when I read, as an intrigued new college student, that when a Spartan hero, one of those incredibly and impossibly built killing machines, is informed that the Persian arrows were so many that they blotted out the sun, he replies, “Then we shall fight in the shade.”? No, it isn’t just a corny one-liner they put in the trailer. According to Herodotus at least, he really did say that.

But therein lies a problem: the only accounts of the Persian Wars are from Western sources. And for all of the things at fault with “300", being true to its sources - mostly - isn’t one of them. If the Persians seem both incredibly effeminate and vile at the same time, it’s because, according to the Greeks, they were. If the Greek warriors, despite their own atrocity, are made out to be heroic freedom fighters it’s because, according the Greeks, they were. For whatever reason, the Persians didn’t see any need to record their own account of the Persian Wars and, if they did, we’ve lost it to the oblivion of time.

Biased and one-sided though it is, I still love Herodotus’ Histories and I still love the Battle of Thermopylae. It’ll take more than an overdone Hollywood movie to change that. But I’ve felt the need to even my knowledge of epic histories out a bit per se, which is why I bought Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings by Abolqase Ferdowsi, newly translated by Dick Davis. And Shahnameh is an epic which covers the history of Persia, from the beginning of time to the coming of Islam. However, Shahnameh is a history in the way that The Iliad is a history. It is based on some historical fact but, like all those other tricksy poets like Homer, Ferdowsi takes some creative liberty.

As a result, either because of Ferdowsi’s story telling or because of Davis’ translation, Shahnameh so far reads like the bastard child of the Bible and the Lord of the a good way. Compare this early passage:

The just and prudent Hushang was now master of the world, and he set the crown on his head and ruled in his grandfather’s place. He reigned for forty years, and his mind was filled with wisdom, his heart with justice...Mindful of God’s will, he set about establishing justice. He helped the world flourish, and filled the face of the earth with his just rule.

...with this passage that immediately precedes it:

He gathered together fairies, leopards and lions, savage wolves and fearless tigers, birds and domestic animals, and this army was led by the intrepid young prince...the black demon came fearlessly forward, and the dust of his forces rose into heavens, but the king’s fury and the wild animals’ magnificence rendered the demons’ claws harmless. When the two groups met, the demons were defeated by the animals; like a lion, Hushang caught the black demon in his grip, cleaving his body in two and severing his monstrous head. He laid him low in the dust and flayed his wretched body of its skin.

I haven’t even put a dent in this massive tome but over the course of what will be - yes, I admit it - months, I look forward to trying.