Mansur Abu'l Qasem Ferdowsi c. 935-c. 1020
Ferdowsi's major work, the Shah-Nama, or “Book of Kings,” is comprised of over 50,000 verses and recounts the history of Persia from its creation to the Arab invasion. The work encompasses sections that scholars have described as mythological, legendary, and quasi-historical, with each portion covering a different era. In its length and heroic focus, the Shah-Nama has often been compared to the Iliad. Because of its sweeping scope and depiction of Iranian beliefs and values, the poem has been revered as a national treasure that continues to serve as a touchstone for Iranian cultural identity.
Very little is known about the life of Ferdowsi. Even his real name remains a mystery; “Ferdowsi” is his poetical name, and means “paradisal.” He was born into a family of land owners near Tus, in eastern Iran. Scholars believe that he composed the Shah-Nama over thirty years, between 980 and 1010, and that he based it on a tenth-century prose compilaton. Ferdowsi presented the poem as a gift to Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, but, according to legend, Ferdowsi was deeply dissatisfied with his reward and wrote a savage satire against Mahmud. The Shah-Nama, Ferdowsi's masterpiece, became the model for most later Muslim epic poetry. It was also read and appreciated by western authors and served as the inspiration for Matthew Arnold's Sohrab and Rustum. Another work, Yusuf and Zulayka,was at one time attributed to Ferdowsi, but today that attribution is disputed by scholars.
The Shah-Nama comprises fifty chapters which narrate the story of fifty Persian kings and queens, from the legendary Kayumard to the fall of te Sassanian dynasty in the year 641. Beginning with the creation of the world, the narrative proceeds by relating the means by which primordial kings conceived the basic tenets of civilization. Next follows description of the reigns of numerous shahs, interspersed with the intermittent appearance of the prince Rostram, the greatest of the Shah-Nama's heroes. Rostram faces a number of natural as well as supernatural challenges. In his battle with Esfandiyar, Rostram briefly escapes death, but endures the shame of having slain a great hero, while Esfandiyar dies before ruling Iran, but leaves the world with an untarnished reputation. Seyavash is another outstanding hero, who rejects his father's demands and is subsequently killed by his enemies. While he experiences spiritual triumph, he nevertheless succumbs to physical defeat. Ferdowsi continues tracing the line of monarchial succession through the reign of Yazdegerd, under whose rule the Iranian empire fell to the Arab invaders. Given its focus on dynastic succession, one of the most prominent themes of the Shah-Nama is the nature of kingship. Ferdowsi places great emphasis on the divine sanction of Iran's monarchs, as well as on God's favoring of Iran over other nations. The Shah-Nama also highlights the malevolent nature of the universe, and of fate. Through the deeds of its heroes, the poem also examines the immortality of noble actions.
Critics approach the Shah-Nama from a variety of angles. Some focus on Ferdowsi's goals, methods, and influences, while other critics study the themes and structure. Still others discuss individual stories or characters within the larger work. G. E. Von Grunebaum examines Ferdowsi's motivation to compose the Shah-Nama, arguing that the poet strove to create Iranian unity by revealing the “oneness” of the nation's past. Given this goal, Von Grunebaum states, the elements Ferdowsi chose to eliminate from the historical sources available to him are significant. Von Grunebaum finds that the philosophical and artistic flaw of the work is the lack of a unified view of the past. Similarly, Reuben Levy observes that Ferdowsi's main objective is to relate the story of his fatherland. Levy further contends that the work is unified through the theme of the hostile nature of the universe. G. M. Wickens identifies kingship as one of the main themes of the Shah-Nama and maintains that, although the work contains all the necessary components of dramatic form, it lacks the formal structure of great drama. William L. Hanaway analyzes the structure and language of the Shah-Nama, concluding that the work is structured according to four major dynastic divisions and is characterized by plain language and economy of imagery. He observes, too, a tension between Ferdowsi's desire to use rhetorical devices and figurative language, and the need to keep the listener's attention fixed on the poem's heroic action. In her structural analysis, Olga M. Davidson demonstrates the influence of the oral tradition on the Shah-Nama, asserting that a rich tradition of recitation helped to shape the poem and explains the variety of interpolations in various manuscripts. Jerome W. Clinton surveys the major themes in the poem, and notes that several themes are recurrent—the immortality of heroic deeds, the inevitability of fate, and the divine sanction enjoyed by the monarchy. Clinton further observes that Ferdowsi does not present a perfect monarchy, despite its divine backing, and states that in stories such as those of Rostram and Esfandiyar, the poet explores this theme. A number of other critics, like Clinton, examine particular stories or characters from the Shah-Nama. James Atkinson describes the story of Suhrāb as both beautiful and interesting, but comments that Ferdowsi is unable to portray such emotions as love, passion, or despair. Minoo S. Southgate discusses the fatalism of the Suhrāb story, observing that Ferdowsi's fatalism is not fully borne out by his characters. In his examination of the Seyavash story, Dick Davis focuses on the symmetry and economy of the narrative. Davis also argues that Ferdowsi's own interest in a character is influences the psychological depth with which that character is portrayed—a depth, notes Davis, that is not typically found in epic poetry. In addition to his discussion of the Seyavash story, Davis also examines elements of Zoroastrianism (the Persian national religion) within the larger work, stating that Ferdowsi exhibits a distinctly Zoroastrian suspicion of appearances and physical reality. Von Grunebaum similarly identifies elements of Zoroastrianism in Ferdowsi's usage of traditional myths, but contends that the poet downplayed the doctrines of Zoroastrianism that would offend a Muslim audience. Von Grunebaum further explains that although Ferdowsi himself was a Muslim, pride in Persia's national past is inextricable from pride in the ancestral religion of Zoroastrianism in the Shah-Nama. Anna Krasnowolska challenges critics who find in the Shah-Nama a Zoroastrian dualistic view of life, stating that textual analysis does not support such a contention. Krasnowolska maintains that in Ferdowsi's depiction of conflicts between two branches of the same tribe, and in his portrayal of events from a movable perspective, the poet presents his view that nothing is “black and white,” and that God transcends good and evil.
SOURCE: A preface to Suhrāb and Rustam: A Poem from the “Shāh Nāmah” of Firdausī. 1814. Reprint. Scholars' Facsimiles and Reprints, 1972, pp. l-xxv.
[In the following essay, Atkinson prefaces the translation of the Suhrāb story from the Shah-Namawith a biographical sketch of Ferdowsi and a general overview of the poem. Atkinson praises the poet's descriptions and his flowing verse.]
The Shahnamu, from which the Poem of Soohrab is taken, comprises the history and achievements of the ancient Kings of Persia from Kuyomoors, down to the invasion and conquest of that empire by the Saracens, during the reign of Yuzdjird, in 636. It is replete with...
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SOURCE: “Firdausî's Concept of History,” in Islam: Essays in the Nature and Growth of a Cultural Tradition, Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1955, pp. 168-84.
[In the following essay, Von Grunebaum studies Ferdowsi's portrayal of Persian history, arguing that the poet's aim was to generate a feeling of national unity by portraying the “oneness” of Iran's past.]
It is only when it is drawing to its close or even after it has passed away that a creative age will receive that literary representation that will be felt thenceforth to constitute the valid embodiment of its spirit, its aspirations, and its self-interpretation. Iliad and Odyssey follow...
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SOURCE: A prologue to The Epic of the Kings: “Shah-Nama,” the National Epic of Persia, by Ferdowsi, translated by Reuben Levy, revised by Amin Banani, Routledge and Kegan Paul, Ltd., 1967, pp. xv-xxvi.
[In the essay below, Levy offers an overview of Ferdowsi's Shah-Nama, commenting on its form and style and praising, in particular, the poet's skill in his laments for Persia's fallen kings and heroes.]
Before the land of Iran was converted to its present religion of Islam, or Mohammadanism, it had for many centuries followed the doctrines of Zoroaster. His religion, known in the West as Zoroastrianism or Mazdaism, had a literature of its own, which concerned...
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SOURCE: “The Imperial Epic of Iran: A Literary Approach,” in Iranian Civilization and Culture, edited by Charles J. Adams, McGill University, 1972, pp. 133-44.
[In the essay that follows, Wickens examines the portion of the Shah-Nama dedicated to the Sasanid period of Iran's history, offering a synopsis of this section and emphasizing its dramatic form and themes.]
Many of the ideas presented here have undoubtedly been maturing in my mind since I was first compelled, some thirty-four years ago, to read a portion of the Shāh-nāmah not for its own splendid sake but as a tool on which to practice my elementary grasp of the Persian language. They are...
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SOURCE: “Fate in Firdawsī's ‘Rustam vam Suhrāb’,” in Studies in Art and Literature of the Near East, edited by Peter J. Chelkowski, University of Utah, 1974, pp. 149-59.
[In the essay below, Southgate maintains that Ferdowsi uses the story of Suhrāb to emphasize the inevitability of fate but stresses that the author's fatalistic view is not shared by all of his characters.]
In a recent study of Matthew Arnold's “Sohrab and Rustum,” Hasan Javadi observes that Arnold's version of the story is more fatalistic than Firdawsī's. Javadi admits that fate is not absent from Fardawsī, but declares that its force “is lessened by the Persian poet's concern to...
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SOURCE: “About the ‘Black-and-White Thread’ in Šāh-Nāme,” in Folia Orientalia, Vol. XVIII, 1977, pp. 219-31.
[In the essay that follows, Krasnowolska examines the contention that the Shah-Nama reflects Ferdowsi's dualistic view of life, maintaining that there is insufficient evidence to support this argument. Rather, Ferdowsi presents his story from a flexible point of view in order to demonstrate that events can be observed from many angles and that nothing is “black and white.”]
Comments about the structure of Ferdousi's Šāh-nāme have not been until now, very numerous. They were rather occasional and chiefly included into the...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Tragedy of Sohráb and Rostám from the Persian National Epic, the “Shahname” of Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi, translated by Jerome W. Clinton, University of Washington Press, 1987, pp. xiii-xxv.
[In the following essay, Clinton reviews the structure and themes of the Shah-Nama, observing that the work is unified by its focus on dynastic succession.]
The story of Sohráb is just one small portion of the vast compilation of stories that make up the Iranian national epic commonly known as the Shahname, or Book of Kings. The Shahname traces the history of the Iranian nation from the first mythological shah, Kiumars, down to...
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SOURCE: “Epic Poetry,” in Persian Literature, edited by Ehsan Yarshater, Bibliotheca Persica, 1988, pp. 96-108.
[In the essay below, Hanaway discusses Persian national epic poetry in general and the Shah-Nama in particular, focusing on the poem's language and the nature of its heroes. Hanaway also comments on the movement from epic to romance that occurred in the literature of medieval Persia after the Shah-Nama.]
Persian epic poetry is both extensive and little known. The following discussion will attempt to introduce this poetry by touching on several areas of literary and cultural interest. Beginning with a definition of epic poetry, it will move on to...
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SOURCE: An introduction to The Legend of Seyavash, by Ferdowsi, translated by Dick Davis, Penguin Books, 1992, pp. ix-xxvii.
[In the following essay, Davis studies the plot and themes of the Shah-Nama, focusing in particular on the Sasanian bias of the later portions of the text, including the story of Seyavash. Davis observes that the authority of God and King in the text are of major importance, but are exceeded in significance by the authority of the father over the son.]
The Legend of Seyavash is a section of The Shahnameh, written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi (c. 940-c. 1020). The Shahnameh bears approximately the same...
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SOURCE: “Ferdowsi's Oral Poetic Heritage,” in Poet and Hero in the Persian “Book of Kings,” Cornell University Press, 1994, pp. 58-72.
[In the essay below, Davidson analyzes the oral tradition from which Ferdowsi drew the Shah-Nama and in which the text figured as a recitation piece. Davidson contends that the Shah-Nama was shaped by the creativity of its oral tradition.]
The composite picture of an assembly of mōbads, whose coming together literally constitutes Ferdowsi's “sourcebook” by way of their collective recitation, can be supplemented by individual pictures, recurring throughout the Shāhnāma, of individual recitation....
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SOURCE: An introduction to In the Dragon's Claws: The Story of Rostram and Esfandiyar from the Persian “Book of Kings” by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, Mage Publishers, 1999, pp. 9-23.
[In the following essay, Clinton follows his outline of the Shah-Nama's themes with an analysis of the story of Rostram and Esfandiyar as it reflects the recurring themes of the work as a whole—ambivalence toward the demands of heroism and a critical attitude toward monarchy.]
The story of Rostam and Esfandiyār is taken from the Shahnameh, or Book of Kings, a long narrative poem in Persian that was given its present form by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (ad 932-1025). The many...
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Clinton, Jerome W. “The Tragedy of Suhrāb.” Logos Islamikos: Studia Islamica in honorem Georgii Michaelis Wickens, edited by Roger M. Savory and Dionisius A. Agius, pp. 63-77. Papers in Medieval Studies 6. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1984.
Offers a literary analysis of the story of Suhrāb, examining in particular the theme of filicide.
Davis, Dick. Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi's “Shāhnāmeh.” Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1992, 222 p.
Book-length analysis of the poem and its themes.
Hanaway, William L., Jr. “The Iranian...
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