July Books 9) The Knight in the Tiger Skin / ვეფხისტყაოსანი

9) The Knight in the Tiger Skin / ვეფხისტყაოსანი (more usally translated as “The Knight in the Panther’s Skin”), by Shot’ha Rust’hveli / შოთა რუსთაველი (more usually transliterated Shota Rustaveli), translated by Marjory Scott Wardrop with an introduction by Irakly Abashidze.

The is the grand epic poem of Georgian literature, written by a senior official of the court of Queen Tamar, in the late twelfth / early thirteenth century. I bought my copy of the 1966 edition of the 1912 translation from a street stall in Tbilisi last week, but have found the same edition transcribed on the Georgian Parliamentary Library site here. (The original Georgian, if you want to try it, is here.)

Rather grand claims are made by Georgians and their fans on behalf of this poem (vide Abashidze’s introduction, “its life-affirming passion, shining humanity and heroic spirit, the ideas of patriotism and internationalism that it embodies and the elevated human feelings and moral ideals it expresses link this great literary monument of the distant past with the spiritual world of all freedom-loving peoples”) and since I can’t read the original to appreciate its intricate metrical structure (including rhyming words to the fourth syllable) much of it is lost on me. I did wonder if the limitations of the metrical structure of the four-line stanza are in some ways reminiscent of comics – you have the box, you have to fill it with narrative, so sometimes it needs to be padded out a bit, and occasionally it feels a little cramped.

The plot doesn’t matter much – there are knights, one of whom wraps himself in a tiger skin and mourns his lost love, they go on long voyages by sea and land, fight battles in many different countries, and rescue the lost love, and all ends happily. However it is absolutely fascinating to read a work written at the far end of Europe from Eleanor’s Aquitaine and her sponsorship of the ideals of courtly love, and find exactly the same values of chivalry extolled – and explicitly sourced not in Europe but in Arabia, Persia, Africa and India. I have always tended to think of this sort of thing as linked to the Norman French of the later Middle Ages, but of course it all happened because of the Crusades and the massive injection of new material into Western European from the Islamic world.

Especially in times like these, it’s important to be reminded that there was a time when the centre of our civilisation was located in what are now Iraq and Iran (with significant overspill to Egypt and Pakistan).

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