Mansur Abu'l Qasem Ferdowsi Critical Essays


(Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism)

Mansur Abu'l Qasem Ferdowsi c. 935-c. 1020

Persian poet.

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Works

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.

Critical Reception

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.