Each nation’s poetry can be classified into several distinctive types. One is the poem about the beauty of a lover or the spring and the beautiful natural sceneries. A poem could be a eulogy for passing of a loved one. A poem could be composed for the purpose of celebrating and praising a king and his courtiers. A poem may describe the gallantry and valor of a nation’s heroes and their wars with other peoples and tribes. The latter is called epic. Some nations have detailed and voluminous epopees that narrate their ancient warriors and heroes’ deeds and dexterity. These heroes could be either real or invented by imagination for the purpose of stating the reason, genesis or origin of an event or characteristics of a phenomenon. Examples are the story of the birth of fire, creation of lightening, and the reason for sun and moon’s eclipse. These legendary poems are considered a nation’s epic or mythology.
Ferdowsi, the Creator of Rostam
I no longer remember any of the fascinating and sweet tales and fables that my old nanny used to tell me during my childhood years. All those demons and dragons, all those legendary treasures and all those fairies that used to fill my dreams with mystery and abstractness have now disappeared. Of Haroun the Caliph, who along with his minister, Jafar Barmaki, would spend all night long by the Tigris fishing, to the Safavid Shah who disguised as a dervish every night and would witness a new event, nothing is left in my mind but a foggy memory. For me, the existence of these legendary heroes is like the existence of indistinctive, elusive imaginary shadows; and the more distant I get from my childhood dreams, the foggier and unclear become those shadows. But, amongst all of those ancient stories etched in my memory, there is only one that does not disappear, rather it becomes clearer by the day and comes to life more than ever before. That is Rostam. Is it because Rostam is not the creation of the figment of the imagination of ordinary storytellers? Is it because it was not created by my grandmother or my old nanny?
I do not consider the stories of demons and fairies, and those of Haroun and Shah Abbas as their creations, but I have no doubt that the forgotten storytellers who had created those stories were of ordinary people. Folks who more or less, lived like my grandmother and my old nanny, and there must have been not much difference between them.
Rostam however, is a different story. If he is not the creation of a great artist like Ferdowsi, it is not but the materialization of a noble and extraordinary initiative. It is for this reason that Rostam never abandons my memory. His existence is much greater and higher than a mythological being. It would be a great mistake to seek in him just a warrior in the era of epics. Rostam is an exemplar of a perfect human being: a full-scale eternal human being yet to be made by nature. It is not only his figure and height that reminds one of the Greek and Roman gods of beauty and power, but his spiritual and ethical greatness are on par with the gods of all heavens. His superiority is not only in his fascinating gallantry. Which one of his deeds is void of wisdom, astuteness, patience, soft-temperateness, ability, and conquest? He is unique even in misery. Among our legendary heroes, nobody falls prey to the most horrifying and most ominous fates that are unbearable to any mortal: the fate of a father who takes away the life of a young, vigorous and handsome son of his own blood! Such a painful, dire and dreadful fate can be endured only by Rostam’s unrivaled, stellar magnificence that enables him to go through with sorrow and grief, but humanly fortitude, destitute and resignation. None of his deeds and manners is without grandeur and sublimity and not deserving admiration and amazement.
It is often said that epic is the epitome and cherished narration of human being and the mirror of his thought and deed, and the clearest picture of the man should be sought in this mirror. I think none of the other world’s great epics has painted a clearer and more enchanting picture of the perfect human being than this one. Thus, Rostam is the unrivaled hero of the Shahnameh; and once he leaves the scene, the great Book of Kings loses its vigor, spirit, and life.
Rostam is the embodiment of a nation’s psyche and its aspirations. This warrior is not history as it happened, but history as it is wished to happen. To understand the mentality of a nation that for years has put such an outfit to its ideas, this “history” is much more revealing than the description of wars and carnage. From this perspective, the epic of Rostam is not only truer than historical documents, but also more genuine, because he is an indication of rough waves, and the latter a manifestation of life’s hidden depths.
Nonetheless, the epic of Rostam is not solely made of wishes and desires. It is true life. This most powerful of men, too, ultimately fails in the war against Esfandiyar, and the death; that is as real as life consumes him.
The heroes of Shahnameh are a nation’s yearnings who live in the real world.
– Abdulhussein Zarrinkoub (March 17, 1923 – September 15, 1999) was a prominent scholar of Persian literature, history, and culture.
- Translated by: Badi Badiozamani