Shanameh: The Persian Book Of Kings, written by Abolqasem Ferdowsi, translated by Dick Davis
This is a large book to get through and it is likely that few readers will try. For those who are aware of Persian history, this book is going to be somewhat frustrating for most of it, since the tragic history of Darius and Alexander is the first incident in the book that even comes off as somewhat historical and even that has a lot of legends attached to it. The provenance of this book is at least as interesting, if not more so, than the book itself. The author wrote this epic poem (it extends more than 50,000 lines in its Persian original–this version is a prose translation that lasts more than 800 pages but is still an abridged version) over the span of decades, and towards the end of his poem he mourns the death of his son, who died before him and before he could finish the poem. Also, he wrote the poem while one dynasty was ruling over the area that is now Iran, and that dynasty had fallen to a Turkish one which was not as thrilled with the way the book showed a particularly fierce Iranian nationalism and consistently showed the Turks in a bad light.
The book itself is divided into a large number of stories of various length and quality. There is a roughly halfway division in the book, where the first half of the book consists of legendary stories related to imaginary rulers over Persia. The second half of the book consists of stories that have at least some pretension to factuality, but which present serious interpretive problems. A lot of the stories end up doubling, as the tragic story of Dara (Darius III) and that of Yazdegerd show a great deal of similarity in their military defeats and their efforts to escape and survive that are thwarted by the treachery of their own officers whose attempts at securing their own power are unsuccessful. The author weaves stories of brave and heroic soldiers as well as rulers with a sometimes ambivalent relationship to their overmighty subjects, some of whom end up getting powerful enough that their loyalty is sometimes less than certain. There are stories of foreign brides, which tend to be celebrated in the first half and condemned in the second half of the story. There are also some interesting elements to stories that seem to resemble various Greek myths about the ordeals of famous heroes.
Overall, though, this book is not an enjoyable one to read. Aside from its massive length, the book is quite a challenge in terms of its approach. The rulers behave in ways that are often unjust, and there is a high degree of fatalism and superstition that runs throughout the stories. Endless people are talked about in terms of their present or absent farr, but while some generals serve their rulers loyally and get nothing for their troubles but an early grave and a lot of mistrust, others seek to parlay their power into greater independence or even a replacement of a previous dynasty. The author also shows a markedly anti-Christian bias, showing the Nestorian population of Iraq as being at best ambivalent if not hostile to Persian rule, and having some pessimistic views about Christian fidelity. That said, the book shows a marked bias against anyone the author does not consider Persian, as the Arabs, Turks, Greeks/Romans, Chinese, Indians, and Afghans, as well as the Iranian population of Central Asia in the pre-Turkish period, all come off as being restive or treacherous. Any time one hears of a hero going to Kabul, for example, one should be very worried about their survival. How one takes the bumptious Iranian nationalism of this poem written towards the beginning of the Islamic period in Iran is something that every reader or would-be reader has to decide for themselves.