07 November 2015

The Iranian principle in Rustaveli’s epic

Tariel, Avtandil and Pridon

Man in the Panther’s Skin (ვეფხისტყაოსანი Vefxistyaosani) is a marvellous work of literature, Georgia’s national epic poem, composed during the reign of Holy Right-Believing Tamar, Empress of Georgia, by the poet Shota Rustaveli. Even in the English translation by Marjory S. Waldrop, some portion of the original poem’s power and depth shines through; the tales of love between Avtandil and Tinatin, and between Tariel and Nestan-Darejan, would be moving enough in any language. Western readers can understand easily enough the martial ideals, those of knight-errantry and courtly love, at play in Man in the Panther’s Skin. But the cultural context of the entire work is in fact Iranian; as Shota Rustaveli himself notes, his is a ‘Persian tale, now done into Georgian’ (Vefxistyaosani 16). In fact, it is typical of the reign of Holy Right-Believing Tamar – herself more than half-Ossetian; who used for herself the Persian Imperial title ‘Shahanshah’; whose second marriage and love-match was to her Ossetian general and distant cousin, David Soslan; and whose most trusted nobles, the brothers Mkhargrdzeli, were Christian Kurds – that the cultural output of Georgia’s Golden Age of political independence should be Parsophil in the strongest possible degree.

Georgia has had a long and amiable contact with the Alans (Ossetians), a Christianised Iranian people, manifested both in Tamar’s heritage and her choice of husband. Its on-and-off imperial-tributary relationship with Iran stretches all the way back to the Achaemenid and Arsacid dynasties and all the way forward to the Qajars. This history gives it a prime vantage point at the edge of the Iranian mir, the world of Greater Iran. The Iranian principle hinted at by Aleksey Khomyakov, the Oriental civilisational principle of spiritual and creative freedom, the preference for poetry and song, is exemplified firstly by the fact that it is an epic poem in the tradition of Abolqasem Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh that crowns Georgia’s Golden Age. But further than that, the Iranian principle is manifested in the poem itself, in its character and in its moral outlook.

Rustaveli’s continued use of celestial metaphors for each of his main characters – the knights Tariel and Avtandil, and their respective lovers Nestan-Darejan and Tinatin – is the first hint. Many times they are referred to as ‘sun’ and ‘moon’; at other times they are described in the language of ‘rose’ and ‘nightingale’, or likened to various precious stones. Another such hint is the all-important value that each of the characters places on the spoken word – an oath unbreakable even to the point of death. Tariel swears himself to Nestan-Darejan, and after she is engaged to the Khwarazmshah has to prove his oath to her in the bloodiest possible way. Likewise Avtandil, who swears a brotherly pact with Tariel, absconds from the court of his king Rostevan in order to fulfil his oath, even though doing so certainly means alienating the king and possibly never seeing Tinatin again. The tragic potentials of the oaths sworn by the lovers in this epic are what drive the story; an audience steeped in Iranian cultural expectations would have seen the spiritual struggles as much an integral part of Tariel’s and Avtandil’s heroism as their feats of physical and martial prowess.

But there is even in these unbreakable bonds, a joy that surpasses and eclipses the entire realm of necessity. As Tariel exclaims to Avtandil toward the end of the poem, ‘I greatly hate too much fear, respect and ceremony in a friend, I hate unbroken sternness, gloominess, majesty; if one be a hearty friend let him tend towards me!’ (Vefxistyaosani 1464) In matters of love no less, Rustaveli condemns necessity and champions a spiritual freedom: Nestan-Darejan’s choosing Tariel as her husband is something Rustaveli celebrates without reservation, and the rebellion she inspired in Tariel against her parents’ intention to marry her to a Khwarazmian Turk is ultimately cast in a heroic light.

However, in plain keeping with the Iranian civilisational principle as described by Khomyakov, Rustaveli is also clear: spiritual freedom does not entail libertinism, levelling or political democracy. Rustaveli has a natural inclination toward a strong and vigorous monarchy, impressing on the reader the virtues of Rostevan and Tinatin as ideal monarchs, characterised by generosity and fair dealing with those they rule. Rustaveli’s inclination is hierarchical and anti-bourgeois. The passionate heroism of the nobility (in Avtandil and Tariel) and the steadfast honour of the labouring classes (in Avtandil’s servant Shermadin) are both cast in a favourable light; however, the representatives of the capitalistic merchant class (Usen in particular) are regularly depicted as cowardly, drunken, greedy, lascivious and false-to-oaths. Usen’s wife Patman, though, proves herself capable of heroism on multiple occasions, on behalf of Nestan-Darejan, a fellow woman in distress and captivity.

Rustaveli is sometimes cited as a ‘humanist’, though this would entail a parallel with Renaissance-era Italy that is wholly unwarranted and out-of-tune with his cultural, moral and religious commitments. It is still somewhat anachronistic, but probably closer to truth, to claim Rustaveli as a neo-Platonist and as a personalist, concerned as he is with the spiritual lives of his characters. Yet even this does not entirely capture the close kinship either in form or in substance that Rustaveli’s work has with the Persian poetic tradition, and casts Rustaveli unwitting into the role of a Western-facing writer – which, as might be discerned from his subject matter, is far too simplistic a role for such a talented and sensitive poet. Greater attention ought to be paid to the transmission of Parsophil ideals in Holy Georgia’s most celebrated author.

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