Language and Literature-The Epic of the Kings (Shah-Nama)

By Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad | The Middle East Journal, Autumn 1997 | Go to article overview

Language and Literature-The Epic of the Kings (Shah-Nama)


Karimi-Hakkak, Ahmad, The Middle East Journal


The Epic of the Kings (Shah-nama), by Ferdowsi. Ed. by Ehsan Yarshater. Tr. by Reuben Levy. Costa Mesa, CA and New York: Mazda Publishers and Bibliotheca Persica, 1996. xlvi + 423 pages. $19.95 paper.

First published in 1967, the late Reuben Levy's abridged English translation of the Iranian national epic The Shahnameh (variously transliterated as Shahname, Shahnamah or Shah-Nama) has gone through four reprintings, the last in 1990 by Penguin's Arkana Books. Still, in 1994 the book was out of print again, and this prompted Ehsan Yarshater, general editor of the Persian Heritage Series, to present that work in a new edition. In this edition, Levy's original "Prologue" and "Translator's Note" are supplemented by important new writings that contextualize the work of the tenth-century Persian poet Ferdowsi, as well as Levy's translation, in light of new advances in Shahnameh scholarship and criticism. Since Shahnameh studies have reached new levels with the publication of several new translations or critical studies, and Levy's translation has received due scholarly attention in several review essays over the years, the discussion that follows places emphasis on the materials added to this new edition.

In addition to a foreword by Yarshater that provides some background information on the existing English translations of the Persian epic, the new introductory materials consist of a preface by Amin Banani of the University of California at Los Angeles and a new introduction by Dick Davis of Ohio State University. Banani's essay, titled "Ferdowsi and the Art of Tragic Epic," was published previously as a chapter in Persian Literature, edited by Yarshater.' Already brief and pithy in its original form, this essay has been shortened further by almost five pages, leaving out some of the author's most original and. insightful observations concerning the inner structure of the Persian epic. Thus Davis's introduction emerges as the most important material added to the new edition.

As usual, Davis does not disappoint. He begins by placing The Shahnameh within a broad comparative perspective, calling it a great literary work that gives the reader the impression that "all human life is somehow contained within it," and that "the author has seen both panoramically and profoundly" (p. xxv). He then sets the vast epic within the context of Iranian history as a saga that "marks a transitional moment" in which an entire culture begins to cast its image in a new mold. …

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