Persian Poets

In 1997 I was in Iran and in the Tehran museum saw fabulous hand painted pages from the great classics of Persian literature some of which were 1000 years old, so were contemporary with the great early medieval illuminated manuscripts produced by the monks in Western Europe that I was already familiar with. However these pages were on a different level being more miniature paintings surrounded by text rather than marginal images, a complete book would be a wonder of any age but few have survived intact.

The great epic poem Shahnameh by Ferdosi (also Ferdowsi, Firdusi etc. Persian to English isn’t a precise transliteration) was one of the stars of the exhibition with several wonderful pages on display and at over 100,000 lines it is the longest poem ever written by one author. Written and revised between 997 and 1010AD the 1000 year old poem tells the tale of Persia from a mythological start and the creation of the world, through a time of legendary heroes to historical accounts up to around 750AD and the fall of the Sassanid rulers of Persia. Despite the age of the text it is still perfectly readable to modern Iranians whereas Geoffrey Chaucer (who lived roughly 400 years later) is about as far back in English that you can go and  have a reasonable chance of being able to understand the meaning. Regrettably I don’t read Persian so the text is beyond me but the illustrations made me yearn for a copy for myself. So along with a couple of rugs my souvenirs of Iran included a book in tribute to this great work and the ancient illustrations that so fascinated me on first seeing them.

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The book was printed in 1991 and describes itself as a commemoration of the millennium of composing Shahnameh by Ferdosi. It was a few years early but the 1000 years have now passed and I’m glad it was early or I may not have been able to obtain this lovely, if somewhat large (42cm x 30cm), volume. The basic premise of the book is that 22 paintings by Mahmoud Farshchian done in the old style of Persian miniature art that I so admired would be used to illustrate sections from the heroic phase of the poem, it is written mainly in Persian with some English to explain the paintings.  The introductory pages are truly beautiful

and then we get into the main work which is the 22 modern interpretations of pages from the ancient works, I love the way that the pictures reach out beyond the frame. Click on the pictures to access full screen versions.

I have chosen 5 pages from the book to illustrate it and these are:

  • In his third labour, Rostam slays the dragon
  • Sohrab launches an offensive against Persia
  • Siavosh undergoes the ordeal by fire which Keykavus has arranged
  • Rostam sets Bijan free from the well where he has been imprisoned by order of the Turanian ruler
  • View of the Hunting Ground, with Bahram Gur talking to the harpist maiden

Ferdosi is not by any means the most famous of the Persian poets, that honour probably goes to Hafez and the annual Hafez festival was on when I arrived in his birthplace of Shiraz. He lived from 1315 to 1390 and like Ferdosi his name is more of an honorific, the difference is that we don’t know the real name of Ferdosi but Hafez was Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad. Being called Hafez indicates somebody who has memorised the Koran, which apparently he did at a remarkably early age and that is the name with which he has gone down in posterity. Also on my bookshelves is the programme for the event.

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and I took several photographs at his mausoleum which is where recitals and singing of his poems were taking place. He is a much loved poet in Iran which is odd when you consider that most of his poems involve wine, love or the beauty of women; hardly the subjects that are approved of in conservative Iran.

There are fortunately several good English translations including Penguin paperbacks of Hafez’s works, and now Ferdosi has also been included in Penguin Classics so let us leave this blog post with some words by Hafez from The Penguin Little Black Classic “The nightingales are drunk”

With wine beside a gently flowing brook – this is best;

Withdrawn from sorrow in some quiet nook – this is best;

Our life is like a flower’s that blooms for ten short days

Bright laughing lips, a friendly fresh-faced look – this is best.


Norse Mythology – Neil Gaiman

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Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology is a retelling of the Old Norse myths in a straightforward style aimed at the young adult market. He begins with a brief introduction to Odin, Thor and Loki and then the other characters that populate the myths are explained as we meet them.  The book has had a small number of poor reviews on Amazon, but mainly by people who were expecting a Neil Gaiman story rather than an introduction to the Norse mythology and were therefore disappointed not to find one. For me however it took me back to my childhood in the 1960’s and 70’s reading childrens’ magazines such as Look and Learn and World of Wonder, both of which regularly dipped into mythologies from around the world for features or retellings.

The dustwrapper is beautiful, featuring Thor’s hammer Mjollnir against a background of stars but how many people have taken this off to find the hammer again on the cover of the book

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There are 15 tales included, ranging in length from 3 to 23 pages, so this can be dipped into as a quick read over a period of a few days, but equally it doesn’t take long to read the whole thing. They are easily approachable, avoiding the temptation to explain everything with additional notes which can be a failing in editions aimed at adults which can fall into a scholastic tone. As Neil himself says in his introduction

As I retold these myths, I tried to imagine myself a long time ago, where the stories were first told, during the long winter nights perhaps, under the glow of the Northern Lights, or sitting outside in the small hours, awake in the unending daylight of midsummer, with an audience of people who wanted to know what else Thor did, and what the rainbow was, and how to live their lives, and where bad poetry comes from.

And that I think is the essence of Neil’s book, they feel like they are tales as told to an audience rather than pinned to the page like a specimen butterfly, they have a narrative flow and it doesn’t matter that Yggdrasil and the nine worlds is only 3 pages long, it tells you what you need to know and that information will illuminate later tales.

The book is of course just a brief introduction to the huge body of Norse tales and it would be nice to think that readers today will be inspired, as I was all those years ago with the magazines, to explore further and then maybe try some of the Icelandic sagas which I have enjoyed over the intervening years. More of those I think in a later blog. So thank you Neil for reminding me of the pleasure I got when I first encountered the Norse myths when I was 6 or 7 years old and the joy they still give me.

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Footnote: I thought the UK hardback cover was beautiful and then saw the American paperback due out next month…

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