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by Elizabeth Hand

The Adventures of Amir Hamza, Lord of the Auspicious Planetary Conjunction, by Ghalib Lakhnavi and Abdullah Bilgrami, new translation by Musharraf Ali Farooqi, Modern Library, 2007. $39.95.

Beowulf: A New Translation for Oral Delivery, by Dick Ringler, Hackett Publishing Company, 2007, $27.95/$9.95.

WORLD OF WONDERS

"The zephyr-paced sojourner, the stylus of fascinating accounts of the expert chroniclers, and the flying arrowhead—to wit, the pen that must detail the messages of intelligencers—also records a few words concerning events on Mount Qaf, and regales those enamored of fables and legends of the past with some choice phrases from this wondrous tale…."

Thus begins a chapter sixty-four pages into the extraordinary Adventures of Amir Hamza, a breakneck-paced, lapidary setting of the great Persian epic Dastan-e Amir Hamza, just published by Modern Library in its first complete English translation in three centuries. Like many readers of fantastic literature, I'd heard of the Shah-Namah, the Persian Book of Kings, and read tales excerpted from it. But The Adventures of Amir Hamza, a fantastical saga of the uncle of the Prophet, was a discovery for me.

And what a find it is! For classic reference points, imagine a more exotic, populous, Eastern variant on Le Morte d'Arthur or Orlando Furioso; contemporary readers might cite Isak Dinesen's Gothic stories (for sheer elegance); the Kai Lung tales of Ernest Bramah (for highly perfumed prose), Stephen Goldin's Parsina novels (for Persian myth), Robert E. Howard's Conan novels (for sloe-eyed enchantresses and numerous decapitations); Clark Ashton Smith's Zothique (all of the above), or even J. K. Rowling's magnum opus (for page length). The Adventures of Amir Hamza most obviously evokes the world of the One Thousand and One Nights, yet despite the parade of magical beings and wicked warrior-kings (and a side trip to the magical land of Serendip), Amir Hamza's saga feels more grounded in the dust and chivalry and court protocol of the Middle Ages, rather than the dream-caliphates of an imaginary Araby.

Musharraf Ali Farooqi, the Toronto-based author of the Modern Library edition, is a renowned translator of classical works in Persian and Urdu, and creator of the online Urdu Project. But the advance reading copy of Farooqi's piquant new translation didn't include his introductory notes (they will appear in the finished book). So I turned to the research of Frances W. Pritchett, Indic language professor at Columbia University and the author of an abridged version of the same material, The Romance Tradition in Urdu: Adventures from the Dastan of Amir Hamzah (Dr. Pritchett's work is available online for noncommercial purposes via free share).

The thumbnail history of Amir Hamza's saga is itself an amazing account.

Pritchett details its origins as a dastan (Persian for "story"), epic tales narrated by professional storytellers in medieval Iranian courts and coffee houses from the ninth century on. The tales were embellished or abridged to suit a particular audience, and in their emphasis on chivalry, warfare, courtly love, and enchantments, they anticipate the European romances popularized by troubadours a few hundred years later. Remarkably, this Persian oral tradition continued into the last century—Pritchett cites evidence of Hamza's adventures still being told in coffee houses in Teheran and Turkey in the mid- to late-1900s.

In short, it's a story with legs, dating to the eleventh century. During the Middle Ages it was popularized throughout the Muslim world, translated into Arabic, Turkish, Malay, Javanese, Balinese, and Sudanese. By the fifteenth century, Amir Hamza's tale had made its way to the Indian subcontinent, and a hundred years later was the favored romance of the Mughal Dynasty. The sixteenth-century Emperor Akbar commissioned a version in twelve manuscript volumes with 1,400 illustrations, and the 150 paintings that survive are considered the crowning achievement of Mughal art. The Emperor so loved Amir Hamza's adventures that he would recite them to his harem. When Delhi was looted in the sevemteenth century, these manuscripts were the sole item a later Emperor begged to have returned. And in 1834, an Englishman living in India tells of a fellow colonial…

…ill with a dangerously high fever. "[T]he nabob sent him two female story-tellers, of respectable Mogul families, but neither young nor handsome. Placing themselves on each side of his pillow, one of them in a monotonous tone commenced a tale, which in due time had a soporiferous effect." Whenever the patient woke, "the story was renewed exactly where it had left off." The women relieved each other day and night by his bedside, until they "wrought a cure." [citation Pritchett]

Impossible to read this and not think of Hans Christian Andersen penning "The Nightingale"(usually translated as "The Emperor's Nightingale") just ten years later. Dastan publishing became a literary phenomenon in India in the 1900s, with multi-volume works dealing with tilism, magic worlds that rivaled Harry Potter's in popularity—Pritchett cites The Tilism of the Land of Jinn, The Deadly Tilism, The Tilism of the Underworld, among numerous others. Yet Amir Hamza's epic was the Ur-text, and for the Modern Library edition, Farooqi has drawn on two nineteenth-century versions of the work.

So: there's the backstory. The tale itself regales us of one Amir Hamza—amir means commander—paternal uncle of the Prophet and Defender of the Faith, "Indomitable Champion and Wringer of Rebellious Necks of the World," he of the propitious birth, born under a very good sign indeed. In the best fairy-tale tradition, Hamza is blessed with an enchanter advisor, the wise but down-to-earth Buzurjmehr; some rather dubious overlords; numerous enemies of the Faith, some worthy, some not (the former tend to convert). Hamza has a magical horse, one of a race "Fairy-faced but demon-spirited, their gait outpaced thought, and their hooves barely touched the ground."

And he has many wives, but only two bosom companions who share his guiding stars, their births heralded by Buzurjmehr:

"Let two others arrive, whose boys shall be your son's companions and peers, his devoted mates and supporters, and steadfast friends."

One of these is Muqbil Vafadar, "accomplished archer and a peerless marksman and bowman."

The other is Amar bil Fatah, one of the most unforgettable figures in literature, a trickster who leaves Loki, Coyote, and Hermes in the dust. Amar's birth is problematical—a camel-driver impressed by the gold pieces given to Muqbil's parents goes home and kicks his seven-months'-pregnant wife in the stomach. She expires.

But the wickedly cunning Amar is born, causing the sorceror Buzurjmehr to laugh and predict…

"This boy will be the prince of all tricksters, unsurpassed in cunning, guile and deceit. Great and mighty kings and champions…will tremble at his mention and soil their pants from fright upon hearing his name. He will take hundreds, nay, thousands of castles all by himself, and will rout great armies all alone. He will be excessively greedy, most insidious, and a consummate perjurer. He will be cruel, tyrannical, and coldhearted, yet he shall prove a trustworthy friend and confidant to Hamza, remaining staunch and steadfast in his fellowship!"

What's not to like? Amar exceeds his reputation. Within moments of Buzurjmehr's pronouncement, the infant steals the ring from the sorceror's finger. He steals Muqbil's milk from their wet nurse's breasts.

Yet Amar and Hamza are inseparable; Hamza weeps prodigiously at the mere thought of his friend being punished. In the classroom, Amar torments their pedantic schoolteacher. Later, on the battlefield, he shows even less mercy to those who contest him. To a modern reader, Amar's trickery often seems far more sadistic than clever. For all its enchantments, the world of Amir Hamza can be a harsh one, especially to infidels and thieves. These are precursors of the unbowdlerized tales collected by the Brothers Grimm, with their red-hot shoes and eyes poked out by thorns: among myriad nasty fates, people are pulverized by an oil press, bricked up alive, have their noses and ears cut off and, in what only could have been a failure of imagination, are riddled with arrows. And readers who feel sullied by the rude entertainments of contemporary teen flicks might be interested in one of the more elaborate cruelties Amar inflicts upon that hapless schoolteacher, which involves a depilatory.

Yet most of The Adventures of Amir Hamza is beautiful and otherworldly, with its djinns and ifrits and lovely paris, its flying horses and magicians possessed of superhuman strength, its grand battles and transporting descriptions of Persian gardens. Farooqi provides a lengthy List of Characters, Historic Figures, Deities, and Mythical Beings, and there are wonderful footnotes, explaining obscure and archaic details in the text—Amir Hamza contains more fascinating, page-long excesses of arcana than Moby-Dick.

But despite its occasional digressions and forking trails, one is continually seduced by Hamza's story. Farooqi's translation is both elegant and earthy. A lovestruck prince "tried to disguise his condition, [but] he was betrayed by his wan appearance, his chapped lips, and the cold sighs flowing from the well of his ailing heart." A few pages later, the epic's narrator begins the next chapter by invoking "The singers of the pleasure garden of ecstasy and the melodists of the assembly of discourse thus create a rollicking rumpus by playing the dulcimer of delightful verbiage and the lute of enchanting story, and thus warm the nuptial assembly most exquisitely." And a giant (one of many throughout the book) who faces down Hamza's army begs to be immortalized by Ray Harryhausen.

Like the British Arthur, Amir Hamza may have been inspired by a historical warrior king; like Arthur, Hamza's doom is brought about in part by the malign actions of a baleful woman. One is tempted to think that only a malevolent enchantress of great power could have kept The Adventures of Amir Hamza from a mainstream American audience for so long.

But now, thanks to the powerful enchantments of Musharraf Ali Farooqi (and the support of Random House, publishers of the Modern Library), we can all sit, transfixed, as this most enthralling and ancient tale unfolds. Let the delightful verbiage begin!

TALES OF THE WISDOM
OF THE ANCIENTS

When I mentioned to my friend, writer Robert Morales, that I was reading a new translation of "Beowulf," he commented that most high-falutin' versions of the poem miss the point completely—he believes the original, oral work was created to be recited, very loudly, to a room full of drunks. He then quoted from memory the opening of some lost English Lit 101 edition—"Attend"—and read me the beginning of Seamus Heaney's 2000 translation:

"So. The Spear-Danes in days gone by
and the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.
We have heard of these princes' heroic campaigns …"

Morales then offered his own take on how the poem should begin: "Listen up!" Later this fall, filmgoers can see for themselves how Neil Gaiman measures up with his screenplay for the Robert Zemeckis film version, which features Angelina Jolie as Grendel's mother, a role I personally feel should have gone to Shelob, or maybe Gorgo's mother.

Anyone who wants to prep for this viewing experience should get thee to Dick Ringler's masterful new translation for oral delivery. The publisher's subtitle makes it sound rather like a drug that's not yet met FDA approval, but the book itself is indispensable for readers with an interest in the history of the literature of the fantastic, as well as teachers and anyone steeped in early English literature and lore.

Ringler, an Emeritus Professor of English and Scandinavian Studies and the highly honored author of works on Icelandic literature and Old English, has created a vibrant translation that combines Heaney's earthy poetry with a straightforward narrative that will also appeal to first-time readers. Best of all is a lengthy and fascinating introduction that provides a pocket-history of the text and its anonymous scop, or poet, as well as a character index and informative discussions of the poem's structure—meter, alliteration, all that stuff you learned in college and which will doubtless be on display in Ms. Jolie's interpretation.

"Beowulf'" casts a long shadow on fantastic literature, from the Scandinavian epics to Tolkien—and wouldn't this also be a good time to reread "Beowulf: The Monster and the Critics"?—to John Gardner's Grendel (still his best-known work of fiction) and several recent theatrical productions. (In college, I began work on a musical version with a composer friend—if only we'd stuck with it!) Ringler's translation avoids the strangled verse I recall from my own university readings of the poem; it's straightforward and brutal, and hits the high notes in its evocation of the monsters, which is what most of us skip to when reading the text.

" …the monster
stalked and slaughtered
old men and young,
an eerie death-shadow
lurking at night,
lying in ambush
on the misty moor.
Men never know
where wandering fiends
wait in the dark!"

Ringler opens with some restraint —

"We have heard tell
of the high doings
of Danish kings
in days gone by,
how the great war-chiefs
gained their renown …"

But he doesn't stint on the violence. Here's Hrothgar's hall, after an attack by Grendel:

"But when the light of dawn
at last appeared,
these spacious walls
would be spattered with gore,
the bench-planks splashed
with bloody stains
the floor dripping."

There's something reassuring in the thought that, for nearly two thousand years, the most appropriate response to this remains a shuddering "Ugh."

A bonus to this edition is the inclusion of three short Old English poems. The second of these, "A Meditation" (sometimes published as "The Wanderer") is a beautiful and haunting piece on loss and the fall of empires. It gave me goosebumps of a different sort than those generated by Grendel.

And, while Ringler dates it to the tenth century, its sentiments have chilling import for those of us reading it today —

"A wise man knows
how weird it will be
when the world's riches 
lie wasted, just as now—
almost everywhere
on earth—you can see
wild-blown, desolate
walls standing,
snow-swept ramparts
slick with hoarfrost.
…the wealthy builders
lie silent and joyless;
their soldiers fell
defending the wall,
and when fighting ceased
the bodies were scattered.…
A person who wisely 
ponders these ruins
and deeply meditates
this dark life,
remembering the many
merciless wars
of ancient times…
How their glory passed,
annulled by darkness,
as if it had never been!
Now the silent wall…
is all that remains
of that absent host;
its builders were slain,
by bloody spears,
by scudding missiles,
by inscrutable fate.…"

Centuries after these words were composed, we can thank Professor Ringler for allowing us to still contemplate the beauty and mystery of this dark life.

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