Ferdowsi, Abolqasem

Ferdowsi, Abolqasem
(ca. 932–ca. 1025)
   Abolqasem Ferdowsi is famous as the author of the Iranian national epic, the Shāh-nāmah, or “Book of kings.”Working from one known written source and doubtlessly several other sources, both written and oral, Ferdowsi put together the traditional stories that had been building for centuries into a single text of some 50,000 couplets of remarkable poetic power. Ferdowsi chose to write in Persian, even though court poets of his time wrote almost exclusively in Arabic, in order to better render the pre-Islamic past of Iran and to preserve the tales and the culture that he thought might otherwise be forgotten.
   Little is known with certainty about Ferdowsi’s life. He was born in eastern Iran, near Tus. His family was of modest means, though they were landowners. He completed his great work around the year 1000. He wrote the poem for a sophisticated court culture, and his patron was the Soltan Mahmud of Ghazna (d. 1030). Given the fact that the Soltan and all his court were Muslim, and that Ferdowsi certainly was as well, the decision to write in Persian is interesting, as is the clearly Zoroastrian religious outlook that pervades the text. The choice of Zorastrianism, the pre-Islamic religion of Iran, is a part of the nationalistic flavor of the epic, though Ferdowsi was careful to remove any references to Zoroastrian rituals or prayers, leaving only the dualistic conflict between cosmic good and evil in the poem.
   The 50,000 lines of the poem are organized into an introduction and 50 chapters, each concerned with a particular king. Indeed, one thread that helps unify the massive form of the epic is the theme of the divinely ordained monarchy. The chapters are arranged chronologically, beginning with the creation, moving in the first twothirds of the poem through mythical and legendary characters, through the conquest of Alexander the Great and a fictionalized history of the dynasties—the Parthian and Sassanian kings (247 B.C.E. through 652 C.E.)—who reigned in Iran in the centuries after Alexander. The Shāhn āmah ends with the last Sassanian shah who died in a futile attempt to stem the Arab conquest of Iran in 652.
   Thus, like the OLD ENGLISH BEOWULF, the story ends on tragic note: the ruin of the nation. This tragedy is reflected in the tone that seems to dominate the epic. The best-known section of the Shāh-nāmah is that dealing with the traditional Iranian tales known as the Seistan cycle. The great hero of this section is the noble Rostám, a superhuman warrior who is compelled by an irresistible fate to unwittingly kill his only son, the devoted Sohráb, in combat. The moving story has been popular in Western literature since the mid-19th century, when Matthew Arnold retold it in English verse.
   Like the Bible or the epics of Homer in Western culture, the Shāh-nāmah has been the cornerstone document of Iranian national literature, serving as the foundational text of modern Iranian culture and the source of allusion and artistic inspiration from the Middle Ages to the present. Ferdowsi, as its author, is a revered, almost legendary figure within Iranian letters.
   ■ Davis, Dick. Epic and Sedition: The Case of Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāmeh. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1992.
   ■ Ferdowsi,Abolqasem. Fathers and Sons. Translated by Dick Davis.Washington, D.C.: Mage Publishers, 2000.
   ■ ———. In the Dragon’s Claws: The Story of Rostam and Esfandiyar, from the Persian Book of Kings by Abdolqasem Ferdowsi. Edited and translated by Jerome W. Clinton.Washington, D.C.:Mage Publishers, 1999.
   ■ ———. The Legend of Seyavash. Translated by Dick Davis. London and New York: Penguin, 1992.
   ■ ———. The Shâhnâma of Firdausi. Translated by Arthur George and Edmond Warner. London: K. Paul, Trench, Trübner and Co., Ltd, 1905–1915.
   ■ ———. The Tragedy of Sohráb and Rostám: From the Persian National Epic, the Shahname of Abol-Qasem Ferdowsi. Translated by Jerome W. Clinton. Rev. ed. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1996.
   ■ Yar-shater, Ehsan. The Lion and the Throne: Prose Rendition. Translated by Dick Davis.Washington, D.C.:Mage Publishers, 1998.

Encyclopedia of medieval literature. 2013.

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