The Knight in Panther Skin – Shota Rustaveli

This prose translation of Rustaveli’s Georgian epic poem from the twelfth century by Katharine Vivian was praised by The Director of the Institute of the History of Georgian Literature in Tibilisi, A G Baramidze, as

an interesting attempt to render Rustaveli’s poem in prose – not to give a literal word by word translation, but rather a free rendering which may bring to the reader the contents of the poem and thus contribute greatly to Rustaveli’s popularity throughout the English-speaking world.

Prefatory note

The poem is seen as one of the greats of Georgian literature and Rustaveli is regarded there in much the same way as Shakespeare is here so it was a surprise on reading it that it doesn’t appear to have any action take place in Georgia. Instead Avtandil and his great love Tinatin are portrayed as coming from Arabia whilst Tariel and his love Nestan-Darejan are Indian. The story concerns how Avtandil and Tariel are separated from the loves of their lives and ultimately win their hands in marriage although in two very different ways. But let us start at the beginning because that is where the story is closest to Georgian history. The first chapters deal with Tinatin being raised to be Queen of Arabia by her father as he steps aside and this mirrors the ascension of Queen Thamar in Georgia who was monarch during Rustaveli’s lifetime and this is still seen as a golden age for Georgia. Avtandil is commander of Tinatin’s army and a favourite of her father Rostevan whilst Queen Thamar’s second husband was a highly successful military commander. From here onwards though the poem leads off on a mythical path.

One day whilst Rostevan and Avtandil were out hunting they see in the distance a knight on a black charger clad in a panther skin and when they get nearer it can be seen that he is weeping. Rostevan dispatches some of the soldiers with them to bring the knight to him but he seeing soldiers approach kills them assuming that they meant him harm. When the king attempts to get near the knight turns his horse and vanishes. Greatly intrigued by this mysterious knight and saddened by the loss of his men Rostevan sends Avtandil on a three year quest to find the knight in the panther skin. Now this is where the tale could have been padded out considerably in describing Avtandil’s journey, and the poem is already 200 pages long, but within a page we find ourselves near the end of the three years and all we are told is that he hadn’t found him, Rustaveli is clearly keen to get to the action.

Finally about to turn back and report failure Avtandil spies his quarry but remembering what happened to the last soldiers he saw approach the knight decides to track him rather than approach directly. He discovers his home in some caves and finally manages to talk to the woman who lives with him and persuades her to get the knight to talk to him. This knight turns out to be Tariel and king of one of the seven kingdoms of India and prospective heir to other six who are all held by one man, he is also maddened by grief. It turns out that he is desperately in love with Nestan-Darejan who is the daughter of the other king and she is in love with him but that he had killed the man who had been arranged to be her husband and fled the country to avoid the repercussions. Nestan-Darejan, once it was discovered that she was in on the plot was exiled in secret and Tariel had been looking for her ever since and this is where the story really begins to pick up.

The tale of how Avtandil returns to Arabia to report finding the knight and then heads back to him against the wishes of Rostevan, thereby making himself an outcast, but he does so in order to aid Tariel find Nestan-Darejan. The great quest he makes in this search (which this time is covered by the poem) and the ultimate success not only in defeating the many enemies he comes up against but also in rescuing her and into the arms of Tariel is the main part of the story. That all ends well for our heroes, including the other characters that assist them greatly is happily the result and the way the story builds in excitement is really well done. Avtandil and Tariel are endowed with mythical abilities in war and either singly or with a few hundred men are capable of taking on foes with considerably greater numbers whilst emerging with at worst a minor injury to themselves. This truly is a tale of the Heroic Age and what would probably have been a daunting read, a 200 hundred page poem is something to take care with, was transformed in Katharine Vivian’s prose to be a romp through a great story. Georgian literature is poorly represented in English translation so I am glad I finally took this book off the shelves.

The book was published by The Folio Society in 1977, unusually by using letterpress, and is bound in Princess Satin cloth with a very attractive device on the cover by Levan Tsutskiridze. Sadly for A G Baramidze’s hopes that this would spread the word about their great epic it was never reprinted and I cannot find Katharine Vivian’s translation being subsequently published by anyone else. In fact this appears to be the only English translation of Rustaveli’s masterwork ever printed in the UK.