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.
  • Action Girl: Gordafarid, who manages to stalemate Sohrab.
  • Bigger Bad: Ahriman
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Evil Vizier: Zahhak was an official in the king's court before his bargain with Ahriman made him king, and some other episodes in the poem involve evil viziers as well.
  • God of Evil: Ahriman, who is opposed by his brother (or creator) Ohrmazd.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Mix-and-Match Critters: The Simurgh is a bird with the head of a dog and the claws of a lion.
  • 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.
  • Poor Communication Kills: Through a combination of accidents, deception, and well-intentioned mistakes, Rostem ends up killing Sohrab, an outcome neither of them wanted.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • The Uriah Gambit: What Gushtasp plans for his son Esfandiyār to avoid relinquishing the throne by sending him against Rostem.

Alternative Title(s): Shahnameh