Rodney's Reviews > Shahnameh: The Persian Book of Kings

Shahnameh by Abolqasem Ferdowsi
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Mar 26, 2010

it was amazing
bookshelves: poetry
Read in March, 2010

Dick Davis’s English is the closest I’ll ever get to Persia’s national epic, a multivolume poem condensed here to a version that leavens the inevitable tedium of the chronicle with a remarkable string of well-realized vignettes related in supple, vivid language. In Dick’s translation, each of the many kings and heroes of Ferdowsi’s giant epic miraculously stay distinct, and you get enough of each story—especially the famous Rostam’s—to develop a feel for the aesthetic predilections of classical Persian poetry: the jewels spilled out from goblets, the kingly demons, the cypress-statured heroes, the thwarted loves, the splendiferous banquets, the raven-haired princesses, and shah after shah passing along the regal glow of his farr. Undercutting the bling is Ferdowsi’s insistent warning that glory’s born to fade, and death meets us all when the wine cup’s dry: a little sour pathos to season the narrative sweet.

For the historian, the Shahnameh gives one of the few windows onto pre-Islamic Persia, as Ferdowsi carefully collected the myths and stories preserved in sources that were willfully forgotten at the glittering Muslim courts: “No one has any knowledge of those first days, unless he has heard tales passed down from father to son.” Ferdowsi, who ended his days (and this volume) lamenting how little his efforts brought him, created a way to be distinctly Persian but still Islamic, and his work lives on in the plots of a thousand and one Bollywood films, as well as in this terrific one-volume translation by the man the backflap calls without blinking “the greatest translator of Persian poetry.”
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