The Problem of Ferdowsi's Sources

By Davis, Dick | The Journal of the American Oriental Society, January-March 1996 | Go to article overview

The Problem of Ferdowsi's Sources


Davis, Dick, The Journal of the American Oriental Society


Though Ferdowsi's sources have disappeared, there has been a general consensus that his major source was a written composite translation from Pahlavi texts commissioned by Abu Mansur Abd al-Razzaq, who was governor of Tus during the first twenty years of the poet's life.(1) The so-called "older preface to the Shahnameh" has been identified as the preface to this translation (and as the only portion of the work to have survived); this is taken as confirmatory evidence of the existence of the translation, of its availability as a source for Ferdowsi, and of Ferdowsi's dependence on it when he was writing the Shahnameh.(2) In this paper I wish to voice doubts as to the probable truth of this generally held belief. I emphasize at the outset that I do not propose that the story be wholly rejected, and certainly I do not have another text to produce as the poet's major source, but I wish to indicate certain problems, parallels, and discrepancies that make the story seem somewhat dubious, at least in the form in which it is generally assumed to be true.

Here is an edifying tale. There was once a nation that prided itself on its traditions of heroism and independence. This nation was overrun by a foreign power; its rulers were changed and foreign manners and customs assumed the privileged position once enjoyed by the native culture. The local language survived but so profound were the social and cultural transformations that had taken place that it was many years before literature was once again written in that language. The language itself, despite its survival, had changed so much that the earlier texts were now indecipherable to the layman. Fortunately a lover of his country's past, as it had existed before the foreigners' conquest, heard of a history that had recently been put together and that was drawn from authoritative sources in the ancient language. A friend contrived to enable him to have access to a copy of this work, and so, moved by motives of "racial patriotism," he was able by drawing on its narratives to write the legendary pre-conquest heroic history of his native land, thus preserving it, as he himself boasted, for future generations of his countrymen.

Students of Middle English and medieval Latin will recognize this as the story of how Geoffrey of Monmouth's history of the kings of Britain (Historia Regum Britanniae, c. A.D. 1150) came to be written. They will recognize the narrative about the "friend" (one "Walter of Oxford") who provided the "authoritative" chronicle (since lost), which the author drew on, as appearing near the beginning of Geoffrey's text. Students of medieval Persian will recognize it as the story of how Ferdowsi's history of the kings of Iran (the Shahnameh, c. A.D. 1000) came to be written. And they too will recognize the narrative about the "friend" who provided the "authoritative" chronicle (since lost), which the author drew on, as appearing near the beginning of Ferdowsi's text.

The coincidence seems too good to be true, and perhaps as factual narrative it is. Certainly few if any students of medieval Latin or Middle English now accept that Geoffrey of Monmouth was telling the unvarnished truth. A few quotations from the standard work on the subject, by J. S. P. Tatlock,(3) will suffice to indicate the general view: "Needless to say, no experienced medievalist believes a word of his [Geoffrey's] opening statement to this effect" (p. 422). "The statement that the book was very ancient . . . was inserted merely to invite belief . . . and also respect for the antiquity of the tradition" (p. 423). "[It is] hardly necessary to say how often in all times documents and whole books have claimed a false author, history, age or original language in order to secure authority or credit." Tatlock refers to Geoffrey's waving his very ancient book ("vetustissimum librum") in our faces as an example of the relatively common medieval practice by which an author ascribed his "original to a unique and unavailable copy in a little known language.

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