The national saga of Iran, which constitutes an ethnic history of the Iranians, existed in written form long before the time of Firdusi. Sagas of this type formed a genre of classical Persian literature, both in verse and in prose, which were known by the generic name shahnamah. Firdusi chose an existing prose shahnamah to versify during his long poetic career. He included in his narrative other relevant tales from the oral tradition, creating a coherent narrative detailing the national saga of Iran in verse. His masterful verse gradually replaced the original prose work, and in time the term shahnamah came to be applied exclusively to his poem.
The Sah-name is a long epic poem that in the great majority of manuscripts comprises between forty-eight thousand and fifty-two thousand distichs. In some later manuscripts, the number of distichs reaches fifty-five thousand or more. The Sah-name is composed in the meter of mutaqarib, which is made of a line of eight feet in two hemistichs. Whereas the hemistichs of each line have end rhyme, successive lines do not rhyme with one another. As in the case of all other classical Persian poetry, a regular caesura exists between hemistichs. The mutaqarib meter, although used in the work of pre-Firdusian poets in different kinds of narrative poetry, came to be almost exclusively reserved for epic poems after Firdusi. The Sah-name has been repeatedly published in Iran, Europe, and India, and has been translated either in whole or abridged form into many languages.
The narrative of the Sah-name can be divided into three parts. The first, a mythological section, begins with the reign of the first king, Kaymars, and deals with a dynasty of primordial rulers, or demigods, who function as creative kings or culture heroes. They either invent some useful item or teach men a new craft. This group of kings, possibly based on an ancient class of old Iranian gods, are called the Pshdds (the ancient creators).
The second part of the epic deals with a series of kings called the Kayniyn. The rule of this group constitutes the purely legendary section of the Sah-name. As all creative activities have already been dealt with by the Pshdds, the Kayniyn dynasts mark the beginning of the legendary and the heroic section. Their reign is filled with great wars and lofty deeds of heroes and kings. In this section, men become the main figures of the tales. Although the men encountered in these stories are heroic, or idealized, they are nevertheless completely human, lacking the creative powers of the demigods of the previous section. While they may be sorcerers, makers of illusions, they are not divine.
The third part of the Sah-name is the semihistorical section, which narrates an idealized version of the reign of historical monarchs who ruled Iran from roughly the sixth century b.c.e. to the Arab conquest in the seventh century
(The entire section is 1253 words.)