Literature / The Shahnameh

The Shahnameh is a 50,000 verse epic poem written by the Persian poet Ferdowsi, started in 977 and finished in 1010. Its name translates as Book of Kings, and that's basically what it is: A recounting of the Persian kings from the creation of the world to the Arab conquest. Most of these kings are mythical, though. The closer the narrative gets to the time of Ferdowsi's writing, the more historically accurate it becomes.

Ferdowsi made a point of writing his poem in Persian when most literature at the time was in Arabic. He also refused to adapt the pre-Islamic legends to accommodate Muslim beliefs. The popularity of The Shahnameh pretty much revived the Persian language, and it continues to be revered as a classic of Persian literature.

The Shahnameh is Older Than Print, having been written a few centuries before the printing press. However, since a good chunk of it comes from Sassanid-period historiographies (224-651 CE), many episodes of the work are probably Older Than Feudalism, at least in outline.

This work provides examples of:

  • Achilles' Heel: Esfandiyār bathed in a pool of invincibility, except he closed his eyelids, leaving him vulnerable to Eye Scream. The Persian expression for 'Achilles Heel' is literally "Esfandiar's eye" in Persian.
  • Action Girl: Gordafarid, who manages to stalemate Sohrab.
  • And This Is For...: Two examples involving Rostm are:
    • Rostam cuts queen Soodabeh in half, for her role in Siavash leaving Iran for Turan and his eventual death.
    • Rostam impales his half-brother Shoqad to the tree his hiding behind with an arrow for essentially killing Rostam himself! That's right, Rostam is so badass he avenges his own death right before he dies!
  • Badass Boast: The Shahnameh is full of these.
    • Some very good examples in the fight between Rotam and Ashkboos. Here is an excerpt:
When Ashkboos beats the Persian champion Roham and sends him riding for the hills, Rostam decides to step in and restore morale to the Persian army and goes to the battlefield on foot, armed with only a bow and a few arrows. Ashkboos asks Rostam, "What is your name? Who shall weep for your headless body?" to which Rostam replies,
My mother named me Your Death!
Fate made me the hammer that smashes your helmet!
Ashkboos declares that because Rostam has come to challenge him on foot he's as good as dead, to which Rostam replies:
Where you come from, lions, whales and panthers...,
Do they all come riding to a fight?!
I shall dismount you like myself,
And both sides will laugh at you!
Ashkboos says the only weapons he sees on Rostam are sad jokes (mocking the fact that Rostam is minimally armed). Rostam shoots a giant arrow at Ashkboos's horse, making good on his earlier promise and laughs:
Hold it's head in your lap and mourn him!
That way you can delay the fight for a while!
Trembling with fear, Ashkboos starts shooting arrows at Rostam which all miss. Rostam simply says:
You trouble yourself in vein...
Your two arms and malevolent soul!
Ashkboos joins his beloved horse...
  • A decidedly tragic example is when Sohrab delivers one to his opponent as he lies dying:
Whether you become a fish in the sea,
Or fade into the darkness of night,
Or If you become a twinkle in the starry sky,
And forsake the earth all together,
My father will come seeking vengeance,
When he learns, my bed is in the ground!
Of all these warriors present,
One will bring the news to Rostam,
That ‘your son Sohrab is stricken down’
Then he will come looking for you!!!
The irony is of course, he is saying all this to his father Rostam.
  • When Esfandiar tell's Rostam that he's is there to arrest Rostam and take him to his father with his hands tied, Rostam goes on a long badass boast which culminates in:
Who told you to go tie Rostam's hands?!
Not even the heaven's can tie my hands!
For even if the heavens tell me to accept this
The heaven's will feel the weight of my mace!
Since I grew to old age from childhood,
I have never stood by for such dishonor!
  • Big Bad: Three of the most famous examples would be:
    • Zahhak, a tyrant with two snakes growing out his shoulders whom Zahhak must feed human brains to.
    • The White Demon, a cave-dwelling albino who rules Mazandaran.
    • Afrasiab and his brother Garsivaz who commit many atrocities including the execution of Siavash, which sends Rostam and the Persians on a Roaring Rampage of Revenge.
  • Bigger Bad: Ahriman, the source and representation of all evil.
  • Body Horror: The devil disguised as a young cook, asks Zahhak permission to kiss him on the shoulders and when Zahhak grants the request, the disguised devil vanishes and from Zahhak's shoulders grow two hideous snakes! They try cutting the snakes off but they just grow back and would only leave Zahhak alone if they are fed the brain of young men! Eventually when Fereydoon defeats Zahhak, he decides the most fitting punishment for Zahhak is to lock him up in a cave in mount Damavand and let the snakes do the rest!
  • Brain Food: What Zahhak's cursed shoulder snakes do, requiring sacrifices to prevent them from eating his.
  • Carry a Big Stick: When he isn't wrestling his foes, Rostem prefers to carry around a mace.
  • Cool Horse: Rakhsh, the only horse strong enough to carry Rostem, and wary as well.
  • Crushing Handshake: Esfandiar gives one to Rostam. Rostam does not flinch but his hand is so badly crushed it bleeds! It does nothing to intimidate Rostam though.
  • Curse: Whoever kills Esfandiyār is cursed to die and suffer in this life and the next. Fortunately for Rostem it can take into account Uriah Gambits.
  • Determinator: Rostam undertakes seven labors to liberate Key Kavous and the Persian army, namely:
    • Travels two days distance in one and Rakhsh kills a lion.
    • Endures extended dehydration and desert heat.
    • Slices a dragon in two, with some help from Rakhsh.
    • Slices a seductive witch in two. More of a moral test than a physical one.
    • Kills multiple warriors and captures their chieftain.
    • Tears off a demon's head with his bare hands.
    • Kills the White Demon in a long and bloody fight.
  • The Dreaded: Zahhak and Afrasiab are this to the Persians. Zahhak is an abomination in appearance and deed and Afrasiab's name litéally means the 'the terrifying one'.
    • Sahm and Rostam are this to the Turanians. As soon as Sahm dies Afrasiab suggests invading Iran and Rostam is so dreaded among the enemy that when he finally meets an opponent he thinks can beat him, Rostam keeps his identity secret so that if he dies the Turanians will still have something to be afraid of.
  • Evil Vizier: Jamasp, who serves king Goshtasp, conspires with him to get his son Esfandiar out of the picture so he can remain king. In Zoroastrian texts he is a good guy though.
  • Fatal Flaw: Esfandiar's obsession with becoming king is how he's manipulated into fighting his tutor Rostam, even though he knows it's the wrong thing to do. Going up against Rostam of course, is as fatal as it gets!
  • Femme Fatale: Soodabeh is the very attractive wife of Key Kavous who tries to seduce her stepson, Siavash. When Siavash turns her down twice, she claims Siavash sexually assaulted her. Even though the evidence is against her, she uses the aborted deformed babies of a witch to cast doubt on Siavash, who finally proves his innocence by riding through a huge fire and coming out unharmed. Even then she tries to frame Zal for losing the babies which doesn't work and Key Kavous sentences her to be hanged. Siavash knows his father will soon regret having her killed and will hold Siavash in contempt for her death, so he asks for Soodabeh to pardoned. Soon despite all she's done she bewitches her husband once again and starts poisoning his mind against Siavash. When Afrasiab wages war on Iran, Siavash volunteers to go to battle to get away from Soodabeh and her schemes and this ultimately leads to his tragic death.
  • Foregone Conclusion: At Least for Persians. One of Ferdowsi's main sources for his material was oral traditions. The stories were passed down from generation to generation for thousands of years (hence the hyperbole), so when people read the Shahnameh for the first time, they already had a pretty good idea how the stories were going to end. Ferdowsi was aware of this and has no qualms about spoilers.
    • Even today most Iranian children know the more famous stories before they're old enough to read the book.
  • God of Evil: Ahriman, who is opposed by his brother (or creator) Ohrmazd.
  • Genius Bruiser: Rostam, Siavash, Esfandiar and many other heroes are not only strong fighters and good tacticians, they're quite eloquent, witty, and knowledgeable. Rostam is mentioned to have played the tanbour and he could sing.
  • Heroic Albino: The prince Zal, rejected by his father because of his albinism. He was raised by the mystical bird the Simurgh.
  • Hijacked By Mohammad: Deliberately averted. Other authors at the time tried to match up Persia's ancient legends with Muslim beliefs, but Ferdowsi let the original legends stand on their own.
  • Historical Hero Upgrade: The second third of the book mostly concerns semi historical characters or characters based on historical people performing greatly exaggerated or outright fantastic feats, i.e., a strong and patriotic warrior named Rostam probably did live and rule in Sistan, but he sure as hell never killed a WHALE or behead a demon!!!
  • Hot-Blooded: Sohrab fits the trope. He angrily smacks down a captured Persian when he (rightfully) suspects the soldier is giving him false information, then he rides alone to the Persian army, demands a single combat, and vows to hang their king!
  • Hypercompetent Sidekick: Rostem is this to Kay Kavus, who keeps on getting the kingdom of Iran into problems and needing the ever-more reluctant Rostam to bail him out.
  • Hypocrite: When he was a prince, Goshtasb is anxious to become king and gives his father Lohrasb who (rightfully) believes he is not ready a hard time for it, going so far as abandoning Iran and going abroad for years in protest. When he finally get's what he wants and has been king for many years and prince Esfandiar's turn to rule is overdue, Goshtasb makes false promises to him, locks him up, sends him on suicide missions and finally resorts to a Uriah Gambit to remain king.
  • It's All About Me: Goshtasp is willing to send his son Esfandiar to his death to stay king. Unfortunately the prince takes after his father in this regard. Esfandiar is willing to dishonor Rostam to become king, even after all Rostam has done for Iran. Esfandiar is decidedly the more honorable of the two though.
  • It's All My Fault: Rostam feels this way about Sohrab's death — he is somewhat right. Losing his son like that is why he's so attached to Siavash and why he goes on a rampage when he is killed.
  • It's Personal: Rostam has gone to war against the Turanians on many occasions, simply as a patriotic Persian defending his country. But when the Turanians kill the innocent Siavash (Rostam's surrogate son) he goes to war for the sole purpose of killing everyone responsible. Same can be said about king Key Khosro who was Siavash's son and the Persians in general.
  • Manly Tears: Like most epics the Shahnameh contains many examples. Most prominent would be Rostam, the manliest character in the entire book, bitterly crying when he realizes he's just killed his own son.
    • Goodarz kills his long time rival and Turanian counterpart Piran, then sheds tears for him out of respect.
    • Bijan the grandson of previously mentioned Goodarz cries as he is led to the gallow to be hanged by the Turanians, but not because he's about to die... he cries because he was tricked into giving up his weapon and captured under the pretense of a parley, and he's worried that because his body is unharmed people will say he surrendered without a fight and he would bring shame to his family!
  • Meaningful Name: many examples in the early and middle parts of the book.
    • Rostam: tall and powerful
    • Zal: white hair
    • Sohrab: rosy complexion
    • Siavash: (rider of the) black stallion
    • Afrasiab: The terrifying one
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The Simurgh is a bird with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion.
  • My God, What Have I Done?: This is Rostam's reaction when he realizes he's killed his son Sohrab.
  • Obviously Evil: The wicked king Zahhak. He has a snake growing from each shoulder! Oh, and he feeds them human brains. See Squick under YMMV.
  • One-Man Army: Rostam singlehandedly conquers the land of Mazandaran where Key Kavous fails to do so with an army and frees the captured king and Persians.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Through a combination of accidents, deception, and well-intentioned mistakes, Rostem ends up killing Sohrab, an outcome neither of them wanted.
  • Rated M for Manly: this is a book full of tough warriors battling each other, wild beasts and mythical creatures.
    • optimized in Rostam, a towering muscular man with a long beard, who wears tiger skin under his armour plates, and (according to tradition not Shahnameh) the skull of a demon he killed as his helmet, while riding a huge horse and carrying a mace shaped like a bulls head!!!
  • Required Secondary Powers: Rostem actually had to pray to make his legs weaker so he wouldn't dig himself in the ground up to his waist with every step.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: Rostam will not rest until EVERYONE responsible for Siavash's execution is dead, even his own king's wife!
  • Saving the World with Art: Talhand and Gav, two half-brothers, vie for the throne of Hind, but Talhand dies in battle against a mutual enemy without a wound. Their mother suspects that Gav killed him and threatens to start civil war. But then the sages of the court invent the game of Chess and use the piece movements to reenact the battle, ending with the King capturing several pieces and then ultimately being checkmated, thus representing how the half-brother died of battle fatigue. In the end, the mother was appeased and the game of Chess averted civil war.
    • In a Meta example, the Shahnameh essentially saved the entire Iranian culture from being completely subsumed by Arab traditions. Ferdowsi made it cool to write in Persian again.
  • Scaled Up: King Faridun turns into a dragon. Notably, this isn't for fighting; it's to test his sons, and the son who he believes is worthy is the one who doesn't attack the dragon right away and talks to him instead.
  • Take That!: The fact that Ferdowsi wrote in Persian instead of Arabic and that most of the villains in the tale (including the aforementioned brain eating Zahhak) come from Arabia might suggest Ferdowsi was a little peeved about the Arabs conquering his country.
    • Then there's the other main villain, Afrasiyab the Turanian/Turk. The Turks had by this point overrun large parts of Persia, and had been enemies of the Persians since before Islam. Afrasiyab gets subjected to a near-endless Humiliation Conga all through the story of Rustam. This lead to trouble for Ferdowsi when he was taken prisoner by the ferocious warlord Mahmud of Ghazna, who was Turkish.
  • Tragic Mistake: Being an epic, there are many examples. Some of the more famous ones are:
    • Sohrab's naivete causes him to keep his identity and the armband that Rostam had given to his wife (Sohrab's mother) specifically so that he would be able to identify his child, hidden. This eventually leads father and son to unknowingly face each other in battle with tragic consequences.
    • Rostam is cautious and untrusting to a fault when it comes to fighting the Turanian champion who unknown to him is his son. Considering Sohrab's immense strength and fighting prowess and considering his own age, Rostam denies his true identity even when Sohrab repeatedly asks him if he is indeed Rostam, because Rostam fears that he might lose and the Turanians would be unstoppable if they no longer feared the threat of Persia’s greatest warrior. Lying mortally wounded in Rostam's arms Sohrab tell his father, "I gave you every hint there was, your love did not budge an inch!"
    • Esfandiar's obsession with becoming king causes him to ignore his mother's advice and play into his father's hand by fighting Rostam to gain the crown. It's never a good idea to fight Rostam, even if you are invincible like Esfandiar!
  • Undying Loyalty: When Manijeh's father, Afrasiab learns of her relationship with the Persian warrior Bijan, she is degraded, roughed up, kicked out of her home and all her possessions are confiscated. The princess goes door to door each day begging for food so she can keep Bijan, who's chained at the bottom of a hole sealed by a giant boulder alive.
    • No matter how much trouble and grief Key Kavous causes Rostam, including not helping him save Sohrab, Rostam is always loyal to his king even though he could easily abandon or even overthrow Key Kavous.
    • Rostam and the Persian champions toward Persia! This is the most important theme of the whole book and applies to the author Ferdowsi too. Undying loyalty to Iran!
  • The Uriah Gambit: What Gushtasp plans for his son Esfandiyār to avoid relinquishing the throne by sending him against Rostem.
  • World's Best Warrior: Rostam is a One-Man Army /Genius Bruiser who regularly kills wild beasts, monsters, multiple foes and seemingly unbeatable challengers and ALWAYS comes out on top.

Alternative Title(s): Shahnameh