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The Shahnama (The Book of Kings or The Epic of Kings) also written Shahnameh, written by Ferdowsi around 1000 AD, is the national epic of Iran and one of the definite classics of world literature. The contents and the poet's style in describing the events takes the reader back a thousand years and allows the reader to sense and feel the events in the magical theater of mind. It is based mainly on an earlier prose version which itself was a compilation of old Iranian stories and historical facts and fables. For over a thousand years the Persians have continued to read and listen to recitations from this masterwork in which the Persian national epic found its final and enduring form. It is the history of Iran's past, preserved in hypnotic and majestic verse. Though written over 1000 years ago, this work is very much intelligible to the modern reader. The language used in composing the Shahnama is pure Persian with very few Arabic loanwords used.
The Shahnama of Ferdowsi, an epical poem book of over 60,000 couplets, is based mainly on a prose work of the same name compiled in the poet's earlier life in his native Tus. This prose Shahnama was in turn and for the most part the translation of a Pahlavi (Middle Persian) work, a compilation of the history of the kings and heroes of Iran from mythical times down to the reign of Khosrau II (590-628 A.D.), but it also contains additional material continuing the story to the overthrow of the Sassanids by the Arabs in the middle of the 7th century A.D. The first to undertake the versification of this chronicle of pre-Islamic and legendary Persia was Daqiqi , a poet at the court of the Samanids, who came to a violent end after completing only 1000 verses. These verses, which deal with the rise of the prophet Zoroaster, were afterward incorporated by Ferdowsi, with due acknowledgements, in his own poem.
After Ferdowsi's Shahnama a number of other works similar in nature surfaced over the centuries within the cultural sphere of the Persian language. Without exception, all such works were based in style and method on Ferdowsi's Shahnama, but none of them could quite achieve the same degree of fame and popularity.
Some experts believe the main reason the Modern Persian language today is more or less the same language as that of Ferdowsi's time over 1000 years ago is due to the very existence of works like Ferdowsi's Shahnama which have had lasting and profound cultural and linguistic influence. In other words, the Shahnama itself has become one of the main pillars of the Modern Persian language. Studying Ferdowsi's masterpiece also became an absolute requirement for achieving mastery of the Persian language by all the subsequent great Persian poets, as evidenced by numerous direct and indirect references to the Shahnama in their works.
There are several aspects of the Shahnama that are remarkable. One is that it is one of the few original national epics in the world. Many peoples of the world have their "own" national epics, but more often than not, the original theme of such national epics are borrowed from other cultures (usually from neighbouring cultures). This is not the case with the Shahnama, which is based on the original Iranian stories. Another remarkable aspect of the Shahnama is the language element itself, which is nearly pure Persian, and yet very much natural. After studying the Shahnama, one can clearly see that Ferdowsi must have had a solid command of the Pahlavi language (Middle Persian) as well, with an astonishing linguistic understanding of the transitional patterns from Middle Persian to Modern Persian. Yet another important aspect of the Shahnama is the honesty with which the author has delivered the stories without allowing his personal views enter or alter the original story; in this regard, if he has had something to say, he has said it on his own account and in between the narrations of the original stories. The language that Ferdowsi has used is uttermost clean and free of any vulgarism, sarcasm or offensive expressions. That, combined with Ferdowsi's unparalleled artistic and linguistic magic, has produced a masterpiece which has captivated its audiences for over a thousand years now. Many Iranians consider the Shahnama to be their true certificate of national identity.
The Shahnama is remarkable for its epic length. It has 62 stories, 990 chapters, and contains 60,000 rhyming couplets, making it more than seven times the length of Homer's Iliad. There have been a number of English translations, almost all abridged. In 1925 the brothers Arthur and Edmond Warner published the complete work in nine volumes, it is now a rare volume and out of print, although an electronic scanned version has recently become available.
Sources and references
- Text of the Shahnameh highly abridged English translation.
- Shahnameh website
- Images from illustrated versions of Shahnameh
- Arthur and Edmond Warner complete translation
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