Spotlight | 'The Teller of Tales': Nobility Is Not in the Title, But the Deed
by ARIA FANI
02 Nov 2011 00:33
In the name of the Lord of soul and of wisdom;
Whose throne sits higher than thought can reach
[ spotlight ] The Shahnameh, written in the tenth century by Abolqasem Ferdowsi (940-ca. 1019), is arguably the literary text that has most dominated and shaped the national psyche of Iranians. Documenting their dialogues with the cultural past, contemporary Iranian writers and artists continue to evoke the tales of the Shahnameh in their works. One such example is Bahram Beyzai's A New Prologue to the Shahnameh, which appears in the collection Sohrab's Wars: Counter-Discourses of Contemporary Persian Fiction. Placing the Arab invasion of Iran in 651 at the heart of its narrative, Beyzai's screenplay depicts Ferdowsi's Shahnameh as a locus of the Persian language and identity and limns the similarities between the invaders and the current Iranian regime in their rejection of the nation's heritage. Whether the emphasis is on safeguarding the Persian tongue or resisting the loss of identity, the Shahnameh continues to inspire those who are willing to listen to its "noble words."
The world holds nothing worth more
than noble words
The nature of the social order is the central theme of The Teller of Tales (Junction Press), a new selection of stories from the Shahnameh translated by Professor Richard Jeffrey Newman. The tales in this collection include excerpts from the Poet's Preface, as well as stories of the five kings: Kayumars, Hushang, Tahmures, Jamshid, and Zahhak. The concept of social order devolves from the kings as well as from divine approval, known as farr, a divine light bestowed on chosen people. The royal throne may be a fated inheritance, predetermined through bloodline, but the monarchs' commitment to values such as justice and selfless righteousness is always challenged in the Shahnameh. The Teller of Tales fully develops the notion that nobility is earned through action and not gained through station.
finally, is a tale we're told: the evil in it,
and the glory, end at the end of the story.
The Shahnameh has been previously translated into prose, heroic couplets, and blank verse (standard for dramatic poetry and widely used for narrative poems). Richard Newman has chosen alliterative verse to reflect the original's "rich sonic landscape." The standard form of verse in English until the 11th century, revived again in the 14th century, it employs alliteration -- the repetition of the same sound -- to link lines of poetry. Even though Newman loses the Shahnameh's original rhyme scheme, and does not strictly adhere to the English alliterative form, his translation is creative, smooth, and delightful to read.
All that I tell here has been told
all of it gathered in folklore's garden
The story of Jamshid reflects the character development of a king who gradually loses sight of the virtues of humility and servitude, blinded by self-involvement and self-righteousness. Blessed with divine approval, at first he invests in his people's future. He respects the traditions that predate his rule, and as a symbolic gesture, marks Nowruz (or Norooz) as a day of festivity and rejuvenation. Arrogance gradually comes to dominate his imagination until he proclaims himself as the "Lord." His word becomes the word. His popularity fades, even as his egotism distances him from the people's realities. Ultimately, the farr departs him and he is left to a "darkened destiny." Modern popular uprisings have doomed rulers to similar fates and brought renewed attention to Ferdowsi's emphasis on wisdom and justice. Richard Newman's Teller of Tales offers a compelling look at this aspect of the Shahnameh.
Filled with his father's wisdom, when the world
was done mourning the Demon Binder,
Jamshid joined the line of men
to ascend the throne and wear the crown.
Peace spread across his kingdom,
And the birds and peris bowed to him too.
"I will," he said, "keep evil from evil-doers'
hands, and I will guide souls to light.
The royal farr rests with me. I rule
as monarch and priest."
He turned first
to making weapons, paving for his warriors
a road to glory and renown. Iron,
beneath his farr, softened, became swords
and helmets, chain mail and horse armor,
and he gave fifty years to training
the men he charged with building his armory.
Jamshid devoted the next five decades
to clothing, contriving different fabrics --
linen and silk, brocades and satin --
teaching people to spin and to weave,
to dye what they'd woven and then sew a garment
for feasting or fighting. When he finished, divided
men by their professions, sending
first to the mountains, to worship their Master
and live lives of devotion, the Katuzi.
Second, he summoned the Neysari,
lion-hearted fighters whose luster
lit the entire land, whose leadership
and courage kept their king secure
and whose valor ensured the nation's reputation.
Those who farmed the fields came next,
the Basudi, who sow and reap,
who receive no thanks, but whom none reproach
when there's food to eat. Free people
who kneel to no one and seek no quarrel,
despite the rags they wear, their care
makes the earth flourish and nourishes peace.
A wise elder once said,
"If a free man finds himself a slave,
he has only his own laziness to blame."
Jamshid gathered the craftsmen last,
the insecure and stubborn Ahtukhoshi.
Haughty and contrary, they work with their hands,
Making the goods sold in the market,
and they are always anxious. Fifty years
marched by while Jamshid showed
each person breathing earth's air
his proper place and path, teaching
the scope of the life he'd been given to live.
He ordered the demons to pour water
over earth, stirring it into clay
they filled molds with to form bricks.
With mortar and stone, they laid foundations
for public baths and beautiful palaces,
and castles to protect against attack.
From rocks, Jamshid's magic extracted
the lustrous gems and precious metals
he found hidden there, filling his hands
with gold and silver, amber and jacinth.
He distilled perfumes for his people's pleasure:
balsam and ambergris, rose water and camphor,
musk and aloe. He made medicines
to bring the sick back to health
and to help the healthy stay that way.
Jamshid revealed these secret things
as none before him had done. No one
discovered and ordered the world as he did.
Yet another fifty years
saw Jamshid building ships
he could sail quickly across the sea,
making port in each realm he reached.
Then, although he was already great,
Jamshid stepped past greatness.
He fashioned with his farr a jewel encrusted
throne, decreeing the demons should raise it
high in the sky, where he sat shining
like the sun, and the world's creatures gathered
around him, staring in awe, scattering
gems at his feet. It was the first of Farvardin,
and Jamshid set that day aside,
naming it Norooz, "new day,"
the day he rested, the first of the year.
His nobles declared a feast, a festival
of wine and song we will celebrate
in Jamshid's memory
For three centuries,
Jamishd ruled in peace. His people
knew neither death nor hardship; the demons
stood ready to serve, and all who heard
the king's command obeyed it. The land,
filled with music, flourished. Jamshid,
however, gave himself to vanity.
Seeing he had no peer in the world,
he forgot the gratitude that is God's due
and called the nobles of his court before him,
making his fateful proclamation:
"From this day forward, I know no lord
but me: my word brought beauty
and skilled men to adorn the earth!
My word! Sunshine and sleep, security
and comfort, the clothes you wear, your food --
all came to you through me!
Who else ended death's desolation
And with medicine vanished illness from your lives?
Without me, neither mind nor soul
would inhabit your bodies. So who besides me
can claim, unchallenged, the crown and its power?
You understand this now. So now,
who else can you call Creator but me?!?"
The elders bowed their heads and held
their tongues, silenced by what he'd said.
When the last sound left his mouth,
The farr left him and his realm fell
into discord. A sensible, pious man
once said, "A king must make himself
God's slave. Ingratitude towards God
will fill your heart with innumerable fears."
Jamshid's men deserted; his destiny
darkened, and his light disappeared from the world.
Richard Jeffrey Newman is the translator of Selections from Saadi's Gulistan and Selections from Saadi's Bustan, and cotranslator, with John Moyne, of the verse selections in the Rumi reader A Bird in the Garden of Angels. His first book of poetry, The Silence of Men (2006), documents his experiences with abuse and confronts broader issues of sex and violence. He is professor of English at Nassau Community College in Garden City, New York. Visit the author's website, richardjnewman.com. To order The Teller of Tales, visit junctionpress.com.
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