Persian Poetry Tuesday: The Prologue to the Story of Rostam and Sohrab in Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh

Written in the 10th century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (NPR did a feature on him not too long ago), the Shahnameh (Book of Kings) is the national epic of Iran, telling the nation’s story by recounting the tales of its kings, from the first, mythical king Kayumars to Yazdegerd III, who ruled Iran just before the Muslim Arab conquest in the 7th century. One of the best loved stories in the Shahnameh was given the title The Tragedy of Sohrab and Rostam by Jerome W. Clinton when he published his translation of it in 1987. Rostam is a Hercules-like character whose role throughout the epic is to defend Iran and its kings; Sohrab is Rostam’s son, conceived with Tahmine, a princess from one of Iran’s vassal kingdoms. When Sohrab reaches puberty and discovers who his father is, he decides that Rostam, the greatest warrior in the world, should be the ruler of Iran, not Kay Kavus, the king who rightfully sat on the throne at the time. Sohrab sets off with a dual mission, to find his father and to depose Kay Kavus.

Despite his youth, Sohrab is, like his father, a peerless warrior and when the Persians realize that none among them will be able to defeat him, they summon Rostam. Rostam does not know he has a son and, in what is the most puzzling aspect of the story, refuses to identify himself each of the several times that Sohrab asks who he is. The two warriors fight three times and, in the end, Rostam is victorious. As Sohrab lies dying, the true identities of the fighters are revealed and the story ends on a note of bitter sadness.

Matthew Arnold was so moved by this story, that he wrote his own version, “Sohrab and Rustum,” that is recognized by scholars to be an important turning point in his career as a poet. There are significant differences between Arnold’s version and the original, though, due largely to the fact that Arnold’s source was most like an inaccurate summary of the tale than an actual translation.

The prologue with which Ferdowsi frames the story of Sohrab and Rostam is a meditation on fate. The idea of the just nature of death comes from a form of Zoroastrianism which saw death as part of a realm that exists outside this world, that people do not have access to, and that contains all events that are inherent in time and cannot be avoided. Thus, since death comes to everyone, it always comes at the proper time and is, by definition, fair and just. This version of the prologue is from Clinton’s translation, which I mentioned above:

What if a wind springs up quite suddenly,
And casts a green unripened fruit to earth.
Shall we call this a tyrant’s act, or just?
Shall we consider it as right, or wrong?
If death is just, how can this not be so?
Why then lament and wail at what is just?
Your soul knows nothing of this mystery;
You cannot see what lies beyond this veil.
Though all descend to face that greedy door,
For none has it revealed its secrets twice.
Perhaps he’ll like the place he goes to better,
And in that other house he may find peace.
Death’s breath is like a fiercely raging fire
That has no fear of either young or old.
Here in this place of passing, not delay,
Should death cinch tight the saddle on its steed,
Know this, that it is just, and not unjust.
There’s no disputing justice when it comes.
Destruction knows both youth and age as one,
For nothing that exists will long endure.
If you can fill your heart with faith’s pure light,
Silence befits you best, since you’re His slave.
You do not understand God’s mysteries,
Unless your soul is partners with some div.
Strive here within the world as you pass through,
And in the end bear virtue in your heart.
Now I’ll relate the story of Sohrab,
And how he came to battle with his father.

Cross posted on The Poetry in The Politics and The Politics in The Poetry.

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