And now, O expert storyteller, make
A well-turned narrative for us; whenever
A poet's words conform to wisdom's ways
His spirit brings us comfort.
It's a tough job, being a court poet. Take Abu al-Qasim Firdawsi (c. 940-1020), for example. Thirty years he slaved over his poetic magnum opus, the Shahnama ("Book of Kings"): Persian history from Creation to the Islamic conquest, in 60,000 epic lines. And how did his royal patron, Sultan Mahmud of Ghazna, reward him? A lousy dirham (silver coin) per verse (he'd promise a golden dinar), a public snubbing, and nary an acknowledgement of his genius. Sultans, eh?
So the story goes, anyway, undoubtedly embellished by suitably outraged later biographers with an axe to grind against Turkic warlords (and perhaps by Firdawsi himself; six verses survive of a satirical poem thought to be his work, aimed at said ruler). In fact, Firdawsi begun his work a good while before Mahmud was ruling his corner of Persia and only sought patronage when his resources ran out. For his part, Mahmud was more accustomed to hearing flattering panegyrics; it is not difficult to imagine why he (a Turk) might have been put out at a poem whose central conflict sees noble Iran/Persia pitted against barbarian Turan - that is, the Turks.
For, while the Shahnama was a national epic whose events did not venture beyond the seventh century, its origin, form, and reception were all steeped in the circumstances of those three hundred and fifty or so years in between. Persia - historically a much larger entity than today's Iran, incorporating present-day Iraq, Afghanistan, and much of Central Asia, including the lands beyond the Oxus - was conquered by the Muslim armies in the 640s, barely a decade after the Prophet Muhammad's death. The overriding ethos of the new empire (the Caliphate) was, in its earliest days, a glorification of Arab identity; although Islam was an egalitarian movement, the scriptures which promised it so were nevertheless in Arabic, and elite society was centred around real or adopted membership of Arab tribes.
In the eighth and ninth centuries, things began to change as increasing numbers of non-Arab converts brought their grievances and their talents to bear upon the Caliphate's administration. Persian culture absorbed the blow, emerging strong and self-confident. The Persian language adopted a modified version of the Arabic alphabet, and many of its poetic forms, fostering a new flowering in Persian literature. With the weakening of the Caliphate in the tenth century, the way was opened for a host of minor successor dynasties to carve out their niches - acknowledging the Caliph, while providing localised patronage to poets and employment for skilled administrators. It was a renaissance (there's that word again) of Persian culture, within a new Islamic context.
But the successor dynasties were not only - or even mostly - Persians. Many were Turks from the steppes to the north and east of the Persian heartlands; some came as clans, others were ex-slave soldiers and mercenaries who had been in the pay of the Caliphate, or of previous dynasties. Mahmud of Ghazna was one such, and there can be no doubt that there was some considerable antipathy to these new overlords. Still, like many of his Turkic compatriots, he sought to ground his regime's legitimacy in piety, patronage, and Persiana (local conceptions of kingship must have been particuarly compelling; more below). He was thus an active patron of Persian letters, if not so refined a one as Firdawsi might have wished.
The Shahnama, as has been said, is a vast poem. The organisation of the material is tripartite: myth/cosmogony (a decidedly non-Qur'anic account of Creation - the first man is a Persian - and the ordering of the world by the first Persian kings, plus lots of demon-fighting); legend/heroic epic (Iran vs. Turan); and semi-history (Alexander and the Sasanians, the final dynasty to rule before the coming of Islam). It is a national epic, a celebration of Persia.
The Legend of Seyavash is an episode from the middle, Homeric section, and a fraction of the whole at a a mere 2,500 lines (I read the now out-of-print Penguin Classics edition, translated by Dick Davis). The context is the endemic, cycle-of-vengeance warfare between the Iranians and the Turanians, the result - in typical epic causation - by a dispute between royal brothers:
If Tur had not been discontented with
The portion of the world his father gave him,
He'd not have wronged Iraj - but now these lands,
Irreconcilable as fire and water,
Feel hatred for each other in their hearts.
Seyavash is the son of Kavus, the Persian king. His birth is, naturally, a occasion for wonder ("a splendid child / Has come" Kavus is told, "your throne should touch the clouds for joy!"), but the omens are ominous. In time, Seyavash's dire fate duly takes hold. He is already experiencing a conflict between his father's commands and the dictates of his conscience when Kavus' principal wife, Sudabeh, conceives a great desire for him. Like Phaedra, or Potiphar's wife - will stop at nothing to gain her revenge when the virtuous young man turns her down.
What possible excuse is there for you
To slight my love? Why do you twist away,
Evading all my body and my face?
Since first I saw you I'm your slave, I weep
In wretchedness and long for you; my pain
Has blotted out the light of day for me,
To me the sun is like a darkened cloud.
For seven years my tears and blood have stained
My cheeks for you - give me one moment now
Of secret happiness, grant me one day
Of youth again, and I'll provide you with
Far great treasures than the king has given
Such crowns and thrones and royal ornaments!
But if you turn your head away from me,
Hardening your heart against my love and longing,
Then I'll destroy you...
Although Seyavash survives an ordeal by fire to prove his honesty and purity (shades of Sita?), his relationship with his father is ruined, and he must leave. The desolate chap soon finds a surrogate father, however, in the shape of the Turanian king, Afrasyab (not, perhaps, a wise move in the grand scheme of things, but then Fated heroes are so rarely wise). Things soon turn sour here, too - this time thanks to the king's jealous brother, Garsivaz:
But Garsivaz, whom rancour filled, noticed
His monarch's freshened face and went out in
The deep blue dusk of sunset, all his heart
A mass of pain and hatred. All night he writhed,
Until day came and night's black cloak was torn.
Tricked and betrayed, Seyavash dies. He leaves a secret son behind him, who will become the great king Khusrau - but that is another story entirely.
One of the major themes of both this episode and the Shahnama as a whole is, not surprisingly given its title, kingship and hierarchy. The ancient Persian conception of kingship - enjoying a revival in the author's day as minor monarchs tried to make themselves look big - was very much in the Divine Right mode. The king was the centre of the world, representative of deity - in Zoroastrian beliefs, Ahura Mazda - on earth and repository of unique authority and glamour (farr). His supreme authority was mirrored, in theory, in all social relations - in particular, father-son.
Yet while this worldview permeates Seyavash's story, it does so as a source of profound conflict. Kavus, in particular, emerges as a weak, vacillating ruler, at the mercy of his scheming harem; Afrasyab, too, is vulnerable to bad counsel (criticism of "evil counsellors", of course, has long been a covert way to express dissatisfaction with a king, in many different cultures). Even before he banishes him, father-king Kavus puts Seyavash in an impossible situation, ordering him to break a peace treaty he has made with the Turanians, and thus forcing him to choose between his duty to his king and the less tangible but more urgent demands of his moral compass. The poet leaves no doubt as to his own allegiances, letting us into Seyavash's inner turmoil on numerous occasions:
[H]e stared at him, dumbfounded,
Debating for a while within himself
How he could clear the dust that dimmed his heart,
Believing that his father sought to test him
(Kavus was highly knowledgeable, glib,
Suspicious, wary, always on the watch).
He writhed with inward pain, attempting to
Foresee the outcome of all this...
[ Unlike in our own culture's skewed image of masculinity, an epic hero's public displays of emotion are not limited to being on the losing side in football matches. Seyavash's are of suitably epic stature, including several bouts of weeping (on thinking of home: tears flowed / Freely from his eyes). Cf. Aeneas, Odysseus, et al, who also have no problems crying - and wonder where we went wrong in the meantime. Anyway, back to your scheduled programming... ]
Firdawsi thus uses his hero's downfall to examine the disconnect between divinely-ordained authority and divinely-proscribed morality; the clear implication being that rulers can, and do, lose their moral authority. Yet it is hard to say if he is going so far as to preach rebellion. Rather, Seyavash's death is the result of his cruel Fate, inescapable. The poem is heavy with foreshadowing, both directly from its author, and glimpsed through dreams and omens - such as Afrasyab's:
I saw a desert in my dream
And it was full of snakes; the world lay deep
In dust and eagles thronged the sky. The ground
Was parched, as if the heavens had never smiled
On it with rain. To one side stood my tent,
Around it was an army of fierce warriors;
A dust-storm started blowing and overturned
My banner; blood flowed freely, streaming down
From every side, and swept away my tent.
Then like a raging wind an armoured host
Of horsemen from Iran attacked my throne
Seyavash gets a noble death, despite its apparently ignominious circumstances. This is demonstrated by the attitudes of his executioners, who - in one of several signs of the poet's acquaintance with Turkic custom - show caution and profound respect in their efforts to keep his blood from spilling on the earth. (But see the ground does not / Absorb the blood of Seyavash since, if / It does, the plant of vengeance will spring up). It is also apparent in the dying sentiments the poet gifts him with: whatever his Fate, Seyavash has lived a good life, in fidelity to his principles. He has done all that, in Firdawsi's mind, any man can do in the face of a senseless and often cruel world - obeyed his reason, and acted with as much goodness as he could. As he concludes:
Such is the way this ancient crone we call
The earth will act; she pulls the mother's breast
Back from the suckling child, and when the heart
Has learnt to love the world she drags the head
Down - suddenly - into the dust. But give
Yourself to joy, and in the garden of
This world avoid the scent of sorrow's leaves;
For whether you are crowned or live in want,
Your life will not be long. Do not torment
Your soul, this world is not your dwelling-place,
All you inherit is a narrow bier.
Why strain and strive and struggle? Sit and eat,
And put your trust in treasure that is God's.
Just time for a closing thought on the vagaries of fate. In 1040, thirty years after Firdawsi had been so offended by Mahmud's lack of taste, the Ghaznavid dynasty was routed by the Saljuqs (another Turkic clan) at the battle of Dandanqan. Pushed back from the centres of its power, the dynasty soon faded from the political landscape.
[--Seyavash playing polo with Garsivaz (boo hiss); click for larger version. Taken from here]
Firdawsi's work, meanwhile, eventually got the recognition it deserved, as attested by a vibrant manuscript tradition - and the equally-popular and enduring illustrative tradition that went with it. The last laugh, perhaps.