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REVIEWS THE NATIONAL EPIC OF PERSIA" The Shah-nama, while perhaps not absolutely unique in world literature, belongs in a very small and exclusive category on several counts. In the lirst place, it is an authentic epos on the grandest scale, compiled in the full light of history: its component materials. both oral and written in their derivation, may well descend from a very remote pastj but, as it now stands, its attested author, Abu 'I-Qasim Firdausi, was a scholarly and impoverished country gentleman of northeastern han, who. spent some thirty years over his task around the year 1000 A.D. Secondly, it is, notwithstanding its near-millennial popularity, a work of forbidding bulk, in places tedious, cliche-ridden, repetitive and confused: its various recensions contain anything up to. 60,000 rhyming couplets, all regular quantitative tetrameters in one of-the least subtle of the classical Persian metrical patterns. Thirdly, while written by a doubtless pious Muslim, some three and one-half centuries after the Arabs had overthrown the Sasanian Empire ( thereby transfonrung Persia's language, culture, and religion in a degree to which the Norman Conquest of England offers some faint counterpart), it implicitly glorifies the old ways and beliefs, and that in a style which is strikingly low in Arabic-based elements. (The view, still urged in some quarters, that Firdausi's style is artificially archaic and deliberately purged of "non-Persian" elements, has been modified by the belated study in recent years of prose documents-usually of no marked literary pretensions-from the same area and period. One has but to draw the implications in literature of a long-known historical fact, namely that Firdausi's home-region was both one of the last strongholds of Iranian conservatism and the birthplace of a new and fuller Islamic-Persian national awareness.) Fourthly, the Shah-nama is remarkable in having served for nearly a thousand years as the primary organ of Persian national expression, being recited (not necessarily read) by all levels of society on all sorts of occasions: from instruction in elementary schools to the celebration of rustic festivities, from courtly entertainment to gymnastic displays in the z"T-khana (a traditional amalgam of guild, benefit society, sports club and social centre). Its continued evocative power is partly-but far from wholly-sustained by the very low rate of change in Persian morphology (and this applies in large measure also to syntax and phonology, though less certainly in the area of semantics) over the last thousand years or so. For a great part of this period, moreover, the work was regarded in East and West alike as virtually the authentic history of pre-Islamic Persia: in the homeland itself this is still "'The Epic of the Kings, Shah-nama, translated by Reuben Levy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. [Toronto: University of Toronto Press.] 1967. Pp. xxviii, 423. $8.50. 204 G. M. WICKENS sometimes the case, but Europe was scarcely more critical until well into the nineteenth centnry (vide Sir John Malcolm's two-volume History of Persia, London, 1815). Finally (in this deliberately selective catalogue of the Shahnama 's peculiar characteristics), we have a work that blends the sort of material and style and personae familiar in the West from the Greek epics, or the Northern sagas, with much that could be paralleled more closely only in the classical drama (Persia, until the last centnry, has had only the vestiges of a drama form as such). This endues the work, in many of its episodes, with a most affecting tension: these episodes are not merely paeans or laments for men and things long gone, but the very enactments of eternal tragedy, flecked with the comic and the grotesque; yet at the same time the characters themselves are not only archetypes of humanity but stand forth as sharply drawn personalities in their own right. With such an interpenetration of the immediate and the everlasting, it is not surprising that the Shah-nama should offer rich prospects to the student of anthropology and the mythologist. It is, however, regrettable that their exploitation has been largely hindered by the work's longstanding quasi· historical acceptance and also, perhaps, by...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 203-207
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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