Why is the tale of Rostam and Sohrab significant to the novel The Kite Runner?

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In The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, the story of “Rostam and Sohrab” is important because of the significance the characters in book attach to it and because on some level, it parallels the tragic father-son theme in the book. “Rostam and Sohrab” is a poignant ancient Persian tragedy about a father who unknowingly kills his own son in battle. Specifically, Rostam, the father, had a child with a lover many years earlier, but he never knew the identity or even the gender of the child. During a battle, Rostam fights a man and kills him. As the man, Sohrab, is dying, the two men realize that they are father and son. Thus, “Rostam and Sohrab” is about complex paternal-filial relationships. The Kite Runner is also about complicated relationships between fathers and sons, as well as between brothers.

Amir never forgives himself for abandoning Hassan in that dark alley when he was twelve years old. Shortly after, Amir plants cash and his watch under Hassan's mattress, and Hassan is accused of stealing. Amir is lying, and he fears that Baba will never forgive him for this. To Amir's surprise, Hassan protects Amir by not revealing the lie. At the same time, Ali protects Hassan and will not forgive Amir. Amir writes,

Baba would never, ever forgive me. And that led to another understanding: Hassan knew He knew I'd seen everything in that alley, that I'd stood there and done nothing. He knew I had betrayed him and yet he was rescuing me once again, maybe for the last time. I loved him in that moment, loved him more than I'd ever loved anyone, and I wanted to tell them all that I was the snake in the grass…I wasn't worthy of this sacrifice; I was a liar, a cheat, and a thief.

We learn that “Rostam and Sohrab” is Hassan's favorite story. The reader wonders whether Hassan loves the story because of the tragic theme of father killing son. This is, in fact, what his own biological father has done to him metaphorically. By the end of the novel, the narrator (Amir) realizes that his own father also fathered Hassan, so the two boys are really brothers.

However, Baba never acknowledged Hassan as his son, thereby “killing” him in a metaphorical way. When Amir realizes this, he writes,

I was learning that Baba had been a thief. And a thief of the worst kind, because the things he'd stolen had been sacred: from me the right to know I had a brother, from Hassan his identity, and from Ali his honor.

Years later, Hassan names his own son Sohrab after the murdered son in the “Rostam and Sohrab.” Does Hassan give him this name because on some level, he forgives his biological father—and brother—for abandoning him? Throughout his life, Amir seeks redemption. After Hassan dies, Amir finally achieves it when he becomes the father to Hassan’s son Sohrab.

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In addition to the parallel between the story of Rostam and Sohrab and the friendship between Amir and Hassan, the story of a father who unknowingly kills his long-lost son in battle reveals the broken relationship between Amir and his own father, Baba. When Amir would finish reading the story, Hassan would be in tears, which showed his ability to empathize with the father and son characters and the loss of such a precious potential relationship. Amir, on the other hand, could not understand who Hassan was crying for and did not see the father killing his son as a tragedy at all:

After all, didn't all fathers in their secret hearts harbor a desire to kill their sons? (p. 29)

This part of the story reveals the effects of Amir's broken relationship with his father. Throughout his childhood, Amir, who is nothing like his father, tries in vain to impress him and often feels the need to compete with Hassan for his father's attention. He believes that his father secretly hates him and wishes him dead, and, as a result, he feels that all fathers must naturally harbor this feeling toward their sons.

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As children, Amir would read to his Hazara friend, Hassan, out of his favorite book The Shahnamah, which is a tenth-century epic of Persian heroes. Amir mentions that Hassan's favorite story was the tragedy of Rostam and Sohrab. In the ancient story, Rostam mortally wounds his enemy Sohrab in battle, only to discover that Sohrab is his long-lost son. Sohrab's dying words to Rostam are moving, and the entire story fascinates Hassan. The story is ironic and corresponds to Amir and Hassan's complex relationship. Similar to the story, Amir hurts Hassan by refusing to intervene while Hassan is being raped by Assef. Amir is stricken with guilt and later in life discovers that Hassan is actually his half-brother. Metaphorically, Amir represents Rostam and Hassan represents Sohrab. Amir is also shocked to discover that Hassan named his son Sohrab after his favorite story, and Amir ends up finding redemption by traveling back to Afghanistan to save Sohrab from a life of abuse and hardship.

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It is in Chapter Four that we are first introduced to the story of Rostam and Sohrab. We are told that it was Hassan and Amir's favourite story. It tells of the great warrior Rostam and his fleet-footed horse, Rakhsh. Rostam mortally wounds his arch-enemy, Sohrab, in battle, only to find out that Sohrab is his long-lost son. Rostam is of course incredibly upset, especially to hear the dying words of his son:

If thou art indeed my father, then hast thou stained thy sword in the life-blood of thy son. And thou didst it of thine obstinacy. For I sought to turn thee unto love, and I implored of thee thy name, for I thought to behold in thee the tokens recounted of my mother. But I appealed unto thy heart in vain, and now is the time gone for meeting...

This picture of the grief-stricken Rostam and the dying son Sohrab, who only ever longed for his father's love, has a massive impact on Hassan, who is reduced to tears practically every time Amir reads it to him.

The importance of this tale is of course highly ironic on so many levels. Later on in the novel we discover that Hassan is actually the secret illegitimate son of Baba. What is interesting is how during the course of the novel this legend is actually played out again, in a different way and with different characters, as Amir sacrifices his half-brother to Assef's violence and does nothing to defend him. Overwhelmed with shame, Amir then completely ignores and rejects Hassan's friendship and love, even though he, just like Sohrab, only ever wanted Amir's love and respect. Amir engineers Hassan and his father's dismissal and then has to live with the guilt of what he has done for a considerable length of time.

This important legend, then, acts as a kind of symbol of the relationships and action in the novel, as hidden kinship and relations are a vital element of what drives the plot forward.

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