Rostam & Sohrab
Western Foil for a Persian Tragedy 
Ferdowsi’s Sophisticated Morality 

Scene of the representation of "Rostam and Sohrab" by pari Saberi

By writing his own version of the story of Rostam and Sohrab found in the classical Persian epic, The Shahnama, the British Victorian Matthew Arnold has provided an illuminating perspective for examining the older work.  At first glance, Arnold’s Sohrab and Rustum, published in 1853, might appear to be a literary improvement upon the episodic, tenth century story-telling of Ferdowsi.  The latter constructed a chronological narrative of separate events sprawling from Rostam’s single visit with Tahmina at Samangan which resulted in his fathering Sohrab, to the young Sohrab’s growing up and questioning his mother about his father’s identity, and finally, to the tragic killing of the son by his unknowing father.  Arnold’s different ordering of essentially the same events is strikingly ingenious and, on the surface, more controlled.  In conventional epic fashion, he begins “in the middle of things,” at dawn of the day on which the manly Sohrab will meet his unidentified father in combat.  The entire action is confined within the boundaries of this single day, providing narrative condensation and greater dramatic intensity.  Sohrab’s identity and the details of his birth and childhood are revealed during powerful flashback scenes at the moment of his death.  And, as a highly effective climax, Arnold’s Rustum has always believed himself, mistakenly, to be the father of a girl, rather than a son, and thus is doubly amazed and horrified by the truth, in this version.  

Arnold’s ingenuity and control are superficial, however.  A comparison of the two works on a different level, that of tragedy, reveals his overriding moral concern which prevents his development of the story’s full potential in this genre.  In contrast, a capacity for recognizing ambiguity in Ferdowsi causes the latter’s story to operate on the highest level of serious tragedy, particularly in the areas of characterization, conflict, and in the quality of recognition and catharsis achieved.  Use of the Victorian work as a sort of foil for the Persian one in these areas clarifies the depth and consistency of Ferdowsi’s view and the more sophisticated nature of his morality.

Arnold’s need to instruct his audience on the dangers of excessive pride interfered with his aesthetic sense, causing him to characterize his hero in crude, broad strokes.  His Rustum is a man motivated solely by pride, who very clearly “learns his lesson.”  We meet him when he is sitting, sullen, in his tent, miffed that Kai Khosroo may no longer favor him above all others.  When he is finally persuaded to fight, he does so only to squelch the rumor that he fears youthful competition.  And his motivation for fighting anonymously is equally as monolithic and self-centered, according to Arnold:  he doesn’t want to be considered equal “in single fight with any mortal man.”  When he makes a “compassionate” speech to Sohrab, before engaging him in battle for the first time, his offer to take Sohrab to Iran with him, to be his son, is probably best interpreted as an attempt to subordinate the younger man to himself by means of the father-son relationship.  And his crucial refusal to acknowledge his identity is based, solely, as Arnold tells it, on his fear that once he has disclosed that he is Rustum, his opponent will refuse to fight, and later boast that they “changed gifts and went on equal terms away.”  Finally, this heavy-handed characterization becomes grotesque, as Arnold’s description makes it painfully clear that the hateful Rustum who taunts the dying Sohrab is simply not a well man:

“Rustum had risen,

And stood erect, trembling with rage; his club

He left to lie, but had now regained his spear,

Whose fiery point now in his mail’d right-hand

Blazed bright and baleful, like that autumn-star,

The baleful sign of fevers; dust had soiled

His stately crest, and dimmed his glittering arms.

His breast heaved, his lips foam’d, and twice his voice

Was choked with rage:”

Viewed in juxtaposition to Arnold, Ferdowsi’s natural tendency to see ambiguities comes into sharper focus.  His Rostam is a character of much greater subtlety and shading, who is not only more interesting and realistic, but also a man whose tragedy affects the reader in a serious way.  Like Arnold’s Rustum, Rostam is flawed by a quality of blinding pride.  Tahmina evidently learned this during one short night of acquaintanceship, for she warns Sohrab that if Rostam were to become aware of his powerful son, “he would become boastful and overbearing.”  And like Rustum and Achilles, he refuses to go to war when he believes he has not been deferred to by his king.  Ferdowsi has Sohrab make several references to Rostam’s aging, which indicate that his fear of being surpassed by a younger man is a definite part of his motivation.  And when he twice refuses to disclose his identity to Sohrab, we tend to conclude, along with Arnold, that he wishes to keep his name unstained, particularly after his near-defeat during the first encounter.  Yet, despite this flaw, the Rostam of The Shahnama is not a totally marred personality like Arnold’s Rustum -- a madman, foaming at the mouth, with whom the reader cannot identify.  He is, rather, “a man better than ourselves, but possessed of a fatal flaw.”  Ferdowsi may not have read Aristotle, but he saw life and human beings clearly enough to understand the elements of tragedy.  His Rostam is not a monolith, but a complex combination of exceptional qualities mixed with a proud inability to recognize his human weakness.  He is a man of whom Tahmina can also say “Not since the World-Creator brought the universe into existence has there ever appeared such a knightly warrior as Rostam... .”  His superiority over Arnold’s sullen Rustum becomes clear when his pride is overcome by his love of country, as he is convinced by the nobles that he should not allow Iran to suffer because of his own mistreatment.  Ironically, he goes to war at least partially because he believes it is a holy struggle, against Divs.  His attempt to be compassionate toward Sohrab, before the latter has managed to alienate him, is motivated partially out of his fear of being surpassed, but also out of the wisdom of experience, which tells him that this young man is able to see even less than he himself of the pitfalls that can ensnare mortal men in battle:  He says gently, according to the Reuben Levy translation, “My delicate young man, the earth is hard and cold and the air soft and warm.”  Why should one so young rush towards death, in other words?  Finally, in Rostam’s crucial refusals to identify himself, Ferdowsi indicates some possibility of motivation transcending mere paranoia.  Rostam may refuse out of simultaneous desires to protect his reputation and to protect the Iranian army.  (If the younger man were to become afraid of fighting the legendary Rostam, the battle would revert to the Turanian and Iranian forces.  The fact that Ferdowsi never explains Rostam’s actions makes this interpretation possible.)  And a third possibility, implicit in the world of The Shahnama, is that Rostam may refuse because of a momentary whim brought about by Destiny, which intervenes in all of the major events of his life.

Whatever his weaknesses, Ferdowsi’s hero is a man of such stature that his tragic misfortune provokes not merely the pity that one would feel for a mad dog, but also an awesome reminder of one’s own finiteness:  if such a man can err, so can we all.  This type of involvement on the part of the audience (or, in this case, the reader) is an essential difference between tragedy and melodrama.

In addition to the ambivalence which he portrays in Rostam’s character, Ferdowsi sees an ambivalence which pervades nature itself, intensifying the tragic condition of his hero.  Arnold delineates a simple conflict between a sick and erring man and the natural harmony of a good universe.  (The fog in Sohrab and Rustum is pure atmosphere, without the tragic dimension that Arnold found in the darkness of Dover Beach.)  Nature actually has moral overtones in the Victorian work, becoming greatly disturbed by the violent sickness of Rustum:

“And you would say that sun and stars took part

In that unnatural conflict; for a cloud

Grew suddenly in Heaven, and dark’d the sun

Over the fighters’ heads; and a wind rose

Under their feet, and moaning swept the plain,

And in a sandy whirlwind wrapped the pair.”

Rustum’s eventual recognition of his sickness and his remorse resolve the conflict for all practical purposes, even though it is sad, of course, that Sohrab dies!  The Oxus flows tranquilly at the end of Arnold’s poem.  In the world of The Shahnama, any lasting resolution is ultimately impossible, as the drama of tension between good and evil not only takes place within a man, and between man and man (Sohrab and Rostam are the opposites of the treacherous Afrasiyab), but it is part of the basic nature of all things:  Rostam best sums this up when he says to Sohrab, between their encounters, “When the sword-ray of the world-illuminating sun shows itself [tomorrow] there will be present both a gallows and a [royal] dais, for this glorious world is subject to the sword.”  There are numerous other references to a dualism of darkness and light.  In such a world, man becomes, at least partially, prey to the prevailing tensions.  References to the influence of the heavenly bodies over human destinies occur frequently:  “Nine moons” pass over Tahmina, and then her child is born.  A huge, almost malevolent Fate seems to operate against the characters.  The unfortunate outcome of Tahmina and Rostam is foreshadowed from the start, in the description of Tahmina’s mouth as being “small as the heart of a lover contracted with grief.”  Ironically, even the better qualities of men can be twisted by Destiny to bring about misfortune.  Sohrab lets Rostam go after pinning him down during their first encounter, “first out of gallantry, next because it was destinied, and again, without doubt, out of generosity.”

By developing this context, Ferdowsi indicates that one’s understanding of Rostam’s “flaw,” or tragic blindness, must be considered in light of situations in which it is impossible to choose a “correct” side (the Hegelian aspect of the tragedy), and in which it is nearly impossible to see or to know the truth.  Indeed, at times Rostam and Sohrab seem forced to wear helmets without eye holes, unable to find each other.  In addition to his twice questioning his opponent, Sohrab makes two other attempts to identify Rostam, and is either lied to or given inaccurate information, both times.  Rostam, for his part, actually believes that he is fighting for Iran, against evil, rather than against his son:  “This war is fought against Ahriman,” he says, “Such turmoil is for no human’s sake.”  A quotation from another of Arnold’s works is strangely appropriate here, for this is surely a situation in which “ignorant armies clash by night”.

The kind of understanding derived from reading Ferdowsi’s work, then, is not merely a narrow discourse upon the dangers of pride, but a consistent and unified, if highly tragic, view of life.  Ferdowsi’s story has contemporary relevance precisely because resolution of tensions is never actually achieved.  The catharsis arises not from an easy, melodramatic death-bed reconciliation (in Arnold’s conclusion, even Rustum’s horse cries), but from our astonished appreciation of thwarted humans’ continual attempts to excel.  This human ability to preserve a considerable amount of heroic integrity in the midst of tension and flux is what Ferdowsi’s morality is about.

Readers interested in insight into The Shahnameh provided by more recent translations than that of Reuben Levy should investigate acclaimed work by Jerome Clinton and Dick Davis.

@Melinda Barnhardt, 2002