Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Simurgh: Faizah's Destiny by Marva Dasef

Simurgh, Sassanian Royal Symbol
(Public Domain)
       I recently reviewed Faizah’s Destiny by Marva Dasef, a Middle Grade book set in a fictional Middle East.  The book follows the adventures of four village children as they undergo a process of growing up and learning about themselves.  It draws on Persian and other Middle Eastern myths for its fantasy.   A main plot element is a quest to find the Simurgh, a mythical bird central to significant Persian tales.  In Dasef's story the Simurgh is a large, deathless bird that can speak and is said to know all things and to be a "great teacher and a guardian."  It has arms in addition to wings and the author gives it moving lips at the end of its beak   It resembles a peacock in appearance and proves to be quite benign, giving each child a look into their potential futures.  It is a non-frightening, benevolent creature.
        The Simurgh was mentioned briefly in my post Bird Myths Pt. 4: Greece and the Middle East.  Today I want to investigate the lore of the Simurgh, which is a good deal more complex than the version we see in Dasef's book.  Faizah's Destiny is a book for middle-graders and so some of the more grotesque or ferocious elements of the Simurgh have been adjusted.  This is not a problem in the context of this book; one of the things that makes myth so valuable as a foundation for fiction is the ability to be adapted to an author's purpose.

        The Simurgh occurs in several different Middle Eastern cultures and literatures.  The Wikipedia article is not well documented, but as usual it makes a good starting point for investigation.  The name is Persian in origin, deriving from a Sanskrit word meaning "eagle, bird of prey."  Like the Roc or the Ziz, it is described as large enough to carry off an elephant.  It has the head of a dog, the claws of a lion, and sometimes a human face, which gives it kinship with the Griffin (body, tail, and back legs of a lion; the head and wings of an eagle; and an eagle's talons as its front feet) as one of the mythological hybrids. 
       However, if you search "Simurgh" in Google Images, you will see that most of the iconography is not of the Griffin variety but depicts this creature as a true bird.  Above is a striking example (  - no copyright information given that I can see.)
       Wikipedia cites an online reference that gives an comprehensive overview of the Simurgh:  Many myths in many cultures surround this fabulous "bird."  I'll recount just two of them.
       The Simurgh is associated with the Tree of Life, which is said to stand in the middle of the primal sea.  The Simurgh nests in this tree, which produces the seeds of all plants.  When the Simurgh takes flight, it causes the branches to shake and the seeds to fall. They are then distributed all over the world by wind and rain or by other birds, producing all the plants that we know.  The Simurgh is generally associated with rain, although one source says that sometimes the weight of the bird breaks the branches of the Tree, causing it to wither, thus associating it with the burning sun. 
       The Simurgh can also have an alter-ego, a dark counterpart (quoting from the Encyclopaedia Iranica article cited above): "the exact opposite of those of the Sēnmurw: When Kamak appeared he spread his wings over the whole world, all the rain fell on his wings and back into the sea, drought struck the earth, men died, springs, rivers and wells dried up. Kamak devoured men and animals as a bird pecks grain. Karšāsp showers arrows on him day and night like rain till he succumbs. In killing men Kamak is the opposite of Camrōš, who pecks up the enemies of Iran like grain (Bundahišn 24.24)." ("Chamrosh" is yet another name for the Simurgh, or for a companion bird that sits beneath the Tree of Life and helps to scatter its seeds:
      In Ferdowsi's Shahnameh, the national epic of the Persian world, Zal son of Saam was an albino and considered the spawn of the devil. He was abandoned on a mountain top, then, prompted by God, a Simurgh rescued him, raised him, and educated him (example of the epic element of an abandoned infant raised by a wild creature). When Zal returned to the world of men, the Simurgh gave him one of her feathers, which he was to burn if he ever needed assistance. Later, when it appeared Zal's wife would die in labor, he used the feather to summon the Simurgh, who taught him how to do a Caesurean section and so save the child. This child grew up to be Rostam, the great Persian hero, who in a later part of the epic was to be aided by the Simurgh again. 
       This benevolent version had its dark counterpart.  Also quoting the Encyclopaedia Iranica article: "The Simorḡ, protector of Zāl and Rostam, has an evil counterpart called by the same name. She lives on a mountain and looks like a mountain or a black cloud; she can carry off crocodiles, panthers and elephants. She has two young ones as big as herself. This Simorḡ is one of the adversaries Esfandiār kills in the course of his seven exploits on the way to the castle of Arjāsp. To overcome the huge monster Esfandiār constructs a large chariot spiked all over with swords which cut the bird to pieces (IV, p. 509f.). It is not impossible that both birds are originally identical and the Simorḡ is ambivalent. Her benevolent behavior towards Zāl was due to God’s intervention, and went against her nature as a raptor. In the contemptuous description of Zāl’s origin it is said that the Simorḡ spared the child because she could not stomach him (IV, p. 612)."
       Fascinating stuff, isn't it?

       I also want to add quotations from the Encyclopaedia Iranica article that deal with the relationship of the Simurgh to the other giant mythical birds of the region (some of which are benevolent and some malevolent).  I have indicated in bold interesting points that tie this post to some of my other discussions and demonstrate the universality of the Big Bird concept:
       "The Simorḡ’s equivalent in Arabic sources is the ʿAnqāʾ. The ambivalent nature of this bird is attested in the Hadith: the bird was created by God with all perfections, but became a plague, and a prophet put an end to the havoc it wrought by exterminating the species (Pellat, p. 509). In the Sumerian Lugalbanda Epic the mythical bird Anzu is a benevolent being. The hero frees the young of the bird, which in return blesses him. In the Sumerian Lugal-e and the Akkadian Anzu Epic the bird represents demonic powers and is vanquished by the god Ninurta. In the Akkadian Etana Epic the hero is carried by the eagle to the heaven of Anu. The correspondence of these motifs with the Simorḡ stories in the Šāhnāma and the Kurdish folktales is obvious, showing that they are of common Near Eastern heritage (Aro, p. 25ff.). In an illustration of a manuscript of the Thousand and One Nights the Simorḡ is identified with the monstrous bird Roḵ (cf. Casartellli, p. 82f.).
       "The Sēnmurw has many traits in common with the Indian Garuḍa, the steed of the god Viṣṇu (cf. Reuben, pp. 489ff., 495, 506f., 510, 515, 517). It is of particular interest that the comparison was made already in Sasanian times. In the first book of the Sanskrit Pañcatantra (the cognate of Kalila and Dimna) is a story of the birds of the shore who complain to their king Garuḍa. In Sogdian, synmrγ is used to translate garuḍa (see Utz, p. 14); and in the old Syriac translation of the Middle Persian original of Kalila and Dimna, Garuḍa is rendered by Simorḡ (cf. de Blois). Fauth (p. 125ff.) has argued that all the mythical giant birds—such as Simorḡ, Phoenix, Garuḍa, the Tibetan Khyuṅ, and also the Melek Ṭāʾus of the Yezidis—are offshoots of an archaic, primordial bird that created the world. Thus Simorḡ as God in Persian mysticism would, curiously, represent a return to the original meaning."

       I really find it more than a little cool to regard the Creator God as a giant bird!  And I can see enough material in the many Simurgh myths to inspire any number of great fantasy stories!

Monday, May 20, 2013

Bird Myths, Pt. 5: Sinbad and the Rukh

       In The Man Who Found Birds among the Stars (see the Prologue and first ten chapters here), I made Capt. Robbin Nikalishin a birder. What better qualification for the man who will head up the mission that encountered the first intelligent lifeform known to humanity -- and who happened to be big birds? During the mission out, there was a lot of boring downtime and one way the crew entertained itself was by telling bird myths, each crewmember telling tales from his or her own culture. Now, this section will be cut or drastically emended if I ever get that monster ready for publication, but I did too much research and had too much fun writing it to let it all disappear, so what better place to display it than on a blog devoted to myth in literature?
       The following passage continued Prf. Linna Katsopolos's narration.  She had just asked the crew, "Have any of you people ever heard of Sinbad?"  Some knew the tales, but many had not.  (Parenthetically, I saw a trailer last evening on the SyFy channel advertising an upcoming series called "Sinbad," so this post turns out to be quite pertinent!)

The Rukh
(Public domain in the USA)

None of those who knew the tales objected to hearing them again and so Linna launched into her narrative.  “Back in the days of ancient Arbia, there was a young man named Sinbad, who was a merchant by trade and lived in the fabulous city of Bagda.  Bagda was actually a real city that existed for millennia, until it was wiped off the map during the 24th century depredations.  Sinbad is one of those resourceful trickster characters who are so common in folktales; he was always going on trade voyages to distant lands and getting into trouble.  So, during his second voyage it happened the ship put in at a deserted island for a while and Sinbad fell asleep under a palm tree.  When he woke up, there he was, alone!  The ship had sailed off without him!  He fell into despair, for he had no food or other provisions and he felt he would surely die there.
“Presently, however, he began to explore his surroundings and he climbed a tree to get a better look.  And off in the distance he saw a great white dome.  Heartened by what he thought was a human habitation, he made his way toward it, only to be disappointed and perplexed.  It turned out to be a full fifty paces in diameter but completely smooth and lacking any evidence of windows or doors.
“At that moment the sky went dark, even though it was a cloudless day.  Looking up, Sinbad was horrified to see an enormous bird flying down toward him, big enough to block the sun with its wings … yes, sounds familiar, doesn’t it?  Suddenly Sinbad remembered tales he had heard of the rukh and how it kills elephants to feed its young, and it dawned on him that this white dome was actually a rukh’s egg!  And indeed the giant bird settled down upon the dome-egg and began to brood it.  It had not even noticed Sinbad, who must have appeared to it as insignificant as an ant to an eagle.
“Presently night came on and the rukh went to sleep.  Sinbad got an idea, so he took off his turban – that long piece of cloth that people from that part of the world sometimes wind around their heads – and used it to tie himself to the leg of the rukh … right, Avi, just like the hero did in your tale!  In the morning the bird rose up and flew away.  It carried Sinbad to the top of a pinnacle, where he untied himself and dropped off.  The bird then seized a giant snake as prey and flew away.  Shades of Garuda!
“Sinbad immediately began to look around and he discovered that he was boxed in by impassable mountains.  He began to wish he had stayed on the island, where at least a ship might have come by.  A deep valley spread out below him and, when he descended to it, he found the ground paved with diamonds!  And then all of a sudden the skinned carcass of a sheep fell to the ground near him from the heights above, and he recollected a story he had heard – how in the Mountains of the Diamonds, the jewels are inaccessible, and so the people throw down the flesh of slaughtered animals, to which some of the diamonds adhere.  Then they wait for vultures to come and seize the carrion in their talons and carry it back to the heights above, where the people drive off the birds and collect the gems.”
Robbie interrupted.  “Now, no good natural historian came up with this tale, because unlike eagles vultures have very weak feet and couldn’t possibly pick up something as large as a sheep carcass.  They would simply have eaten it on the spot.”
“Now, Robbie,” scolded Linna, “don’t lose the spirit and go all scientific on us!”
“Sorry,” said Robbie cheerfully.  “I’ll just regard the bird as some imaginary raptor!  Please do go on, Professor.”
Linna cleared her throat.  “So Sinbad filled his pockets with diamonds and then bound himself beneath one of the carcasses, and sure enough a … yes, I’m going to say ‘vulture’! … came along and carried the meat and the man up to the top of the cliff!  There, people were waiting to harvest the gems and you can imagine how astonished they were to see a man crawl out from under the carrion!  Of course, Sinbad went on to sell the diamonds and become rich, whereupon he returned to Bagda and lived a comfortable life.
“That wasn’t the last of his voyages, however, or of his encounters with the rukh.  During his fifth voyage, his ship stopped at a different island.  While the crew disembarked to draw water and explore, Sinbad remained on board.  Presently, someone ran to him in great excitement, calling him to come and see what they had found.  ‘We thought it was a dome, but it seems to be an egg!  The men are breaking it even now!  We can have a feast!’ 
The merchants break the egg.
(Public domain)

“Well, Sinbad knew exactly what they had found and he knew they were making a disastrous mistake.  He rushed out, but he was too late.  The fluid had already poured out, revealing a immature rukh, which the men were about to butcher.  And at that moment the sun was once again darkened as the parent circled above them.  Naturally, it was highly incensed at the destruction of its egg.  It shrieked to call its mate, and soon there were two giant birds bearing down upon the hapless sailors.
“The men rushed madly for the ship and put off from the island while the infuriated birds pursued them.  But then the rukhs disappeared and the ship, beating rapidly out into the open ocean, appeared to be safe.  But not so – the birds had only gone away to pick up big boulders in their claws.  The male rukh’s stone missed the dodging ship, but the female’s stone landed on the stern and broke the rudder, and the ship sank to the depths of the sea.
“However, like all the Sinbad tales, this one has a happy ending – our hero was able to swim to land, and ultimately he garnered even more riches for himself and returned home to live contentedly until his next adventure.  And so comes the end of my narration …   Don’t you all make those disappointed noises – our purpose is to tell bird tales, and there are no more birds in Sinbad’s story.  If we complete every tale no matter what, we’ll be here for the whole thousand and one nights!”
“All right, Professor, I’ll concede that!” said Robbie.  “So – now we know all about the rukh, and it seems to be a lot like Lt. Oman’s Ziz bird.  That just leaves us with Lt. Brokenbow’s story.  Have you got anything that can match all these others, Howie?”
Coming next:
Native American Bird Myths 
But first we'll learn something about the
Aboriginal Ammeriken Enclave

Monday, May 13, 2013

The Cross and the Sword, by Evangeline Walton: Analysis

       People may know that Evangeline Walton is one of my favorite authors.  I set out some time ago to write analyses of the four volumes of the Mabinogion Tetralogy and so far I've succeeded in covering only Prince of Annwn, the First Branch.  Now I've read a book of Walton's that I had missed earlier, The Cross and the Sword, a historical novel that deals with the conflicts between the English and the Norsemen in the 10th and 11th centuries -- events leading up to the reign of the Danish King Knut. It was a tempestuous period, when Christianity was trying to establish itself in the world of Odin-men, feeling its way along a tentative path and not doing such a good job of living up to its own principles. 
       This tale is every bit as powerful as Island of the Mighty, but it's far less well known.  I was puzzled to find a whole slew of 3-star rankings on Goodreads (and even one 2-star) because I can't imagine giving it less than 4 and of course personally I give it 5.  However, I think that's because this isn't an easy book.  People may buy it expecting it to be light bedtime reading or popular entertainment -- airheaded sword-and-sorcery with romanticized, plastic heroes and heroines, simplistic villains, and maybe even knights fighting dragons.  If that's your preference in reading matter, don't bother with this book.
       In fact, it's a dark, meaty tale that requires the reader's full attention.  It's fraught with profound themes, its style is strenuous, and its diction is not easy.  It has enough violence to please the most calloused aficionado of barbaric battle tales, but underlying the brutality is a question:  Why does such violence have to exist?
       One thing that makes reading this book difficult is the names.  There is a plethora of characters and most of their names begin with the letter "E"!  The author had no control over this -- she's writing about real historical figures, and all the English kings and warriors of the period had names like Edmund, Edgar, Edwy, Ethelred, Edric, Edward -- and women ... Edith, Elfgiva, Emma, Elfryth ... well, you get the point.  Then there are the Danes.  There are two different Sweyns -- our protaganist Sweyn Haraldsson and Sweyn Forkbeard, the Danish King -- and at least two different Olafs.   Even the surnames can be confusing --  Sweyn Forkbeard and Harald Firebeard, for example.
      Fortunately, the author provides a genealogical table of the English Kings and also a list of characters at the beginning of each of the three sections of the book.  Prepare to consult these frequently!  This is a surmountable difficulty, however, and shouldn't deter you from relishing the book.
        A second problem the casual reader might encounter is the pithy style.  The dialogue is written in a semi-archaic, slightly formalized style that could be off-putting if you aren't prepared to pay attention.  Personally, I found it highly effective.  I get annoyed at period fiction or high fantasy where the characters talk in 21st-century colloquialisms, and I think by adjusting word order and attending to diction Walton achieves an appropriate archaic effect.  Let me give an example.
       " 'And so he is enraging them by raising up kinless men like this duke Leofsy of Essex?  Stirring up trouble in his own house while I am knocking at the door?'  Forkbeard yawned.  'The more fool he.  When I am King of the English I will love those great lords like brothers until the land is quiet -- then each will find himself a head shorter.'
       " 'Glad I am to have only the love you give a foster-brother, King!'  Palli laughed shortly."  (p. 146 of the Ryerson hardback edition)

       One additional word concerning language, something I generally think about.  The languages being spoken in this book are never discussed -- everyone speaks the same.  Actually, the English have to be speaking Anglo-Saxon and the Norsemen Old Norse or some variation thereof.  I really don't know what lingua franca the Norseman and the English used to communicate during the period of invasion -- surely not Latin -- but Walton chooses not to make it an issue.  I agree with that -- such pedantry would have merely been a distraction from the serious intent of the book.

       So now we get to the heart of the book, its themes and purpose.  It is a study in the Christianity and culture of the time, and to some extent a commentary on the Christianity and culture of today.  But it's also a study in what it means to be human, revealed through the main character and narrator, the Norwegian Sweyn Haraldsson.  Walton took a few terse references from the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and weaves a credible fictional tale around these bare-bones remarks, building a fully developed character who fits seamlessly into the larger context.  We follow Sweyn on a quest from his beginnings as the son of Harald Firebeard in a culture of Odin-worship, which could be brutal and violent but which was honest, true to its beliefs, and decent to its own people, if not to others.   We follow him to England where he encounters Christianity and isn't impressed, especially by the doctrine that dooms all men to burn in hell if they don't accept Christ.  The Christianity of the time was fraught with hypocrisy and had not yet learned how to live what it preached.  Sweyn converts (becoming Edwy the Dark) but not with any spiritual conviction -- it is merely that if he wants to marry the woman he has fallen in love with, he has to have been baptized.  We see the results of Christian hypocrisy when some of the few Christians who are sincere in their beliefs in loving and caring for their fellow human beings are brutally murdered in the St. Brice's Day Massacre.  Afterwards, Sweyn becomes Black Thrym, one of the worst marauders and slaughterers of the English, even while hating himself for his own dark deeds.  He sees those deeds as the only means to gain vengeance on the man who perpetrated the massacre.  Ultimately, an act of sacrifice -- the martyrdom of Elfeah -- causes him to experience an almost miraculous revelation of what God is really all about.

       "This man was good, so goodness was.  He was dying as he said his Master had died, to save others.  Such goodness could be.  It was.  No mistake in men's minds, that were too small to understand it, no doctrine, or folly or ugliness, could cloud it.  What were mistakes, or suffering, in the goodness that was eternity?  For eternity must be, because goodness was, and therefore justice must be." (p.281)

       It's interesting to contrast the presentation of Christianity in this book with that in Prince of Annwn.  In both books the consignment to hell of anyone who does not profess faith in the Christian god forms a major discussion point.  But where the treatment of Christianity flounders in Prince of Annwn and keeps being restated as if the author is never quite satisfied with her rendition, the pithy style of The Cross and the Sword serves the subject well.  Frequent striking, almost aphoristic remarks encapsulate the attitude toward Christianity, and character development serves to give the depiction flesh.

       I must say a word about Chapters 10 and 11, which present what has got to be one of the most mesmerizing descriptions of horrific slaughter ever written.  When you read about Evangeline Walton, she seems like such a mannerly, sensitive, kind, and compliant person and yet she was able to write about such visceral violence with only the barest modicum of sentimentality, never pulling any punches.   It's an absolute tour-de-force.  We see the destruction of the characters whom I consider to be the true heroes of the piece, as they live out a brutal affirmation of their beliefs.

       Unfortunately, this book is out-of-print, but maybe that's a good thing.  I have occasional correspondence with Douglas Anderson, the current editor of Evangeline Walton's works (she left a quantity of unpublished manuscripts) and he told me that The Cross and the Sword was hacked up by the publisher, who chopped out whole paragraphs and pages.  The publisher also changed the author's title, substituting this generic phrase The Cross and the Sword that could fit anything from a Roman gladiator tale to a Crusader novel to a story of the Knights Templar.  (Why publishers insist on doing that is beyond me!)  A new edition is in the works and it likely  will appear under the author's chosen title: Dark Runs the Road.  That phrase appears near the end of the book, as part of a cautionary statement:

       "I have nothing to complain of.  I have lived my life; known goodness as well as evil, joy as well as sorrow.  I wish for nothing save that I might have made the world a little better place before I left it.  Such a world as men like Elfeah and Eric might have built.  But it is the Knuts and the Olafs and the Ethelreds who get to be rulers of men.  Dark runs the road ahead of mankind and womankind that are yet to be; dark as it ran before me." (p.300)

       If in its present garbled state this book is still such a treasure, imagine how great it will be when it can be read the way the author intended it!

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Special Price on The Termite Queen!

Purchase at these links:
Smashwords, v.1 (for all e-formats)
Smashwords, v.2 (for all e-formats)
I'm hoping that this special price will inspire some new readers to discover The Termite Queen and will give those who have read only v.1 an opportunity to get v.2 at a discount. Take advantage of this offer while you can, because I doubt it will come again soon!
And you can buy both volumes at once for the incredibly low price of $1.98! What else can you buy for $1.98 that will provide you with so many hours of stimulating reading?
Here is the description of v.2, which also covers v.1:
Volume Two
In The Termite Queen, v.1, the death of a specimen of intelligent giant termite impels a team of scientists to mount a new expedition to the alien planet where the specimen was captured. During the voyage out, the linguistic anthropologist Kaitrin Oliva and the expedition's chief, the entomologist Griffen Gwidian, fall in love and form a union, after which Prf. Gwidian begins to exhibit some troubling changes of mood and behavior. Meanwhile, on the alien planet, civil discord is brewing among the termites; Mo'gri'ta'tu, the Queen's Chamberlain, hatches a plot to murder the Holy Seer Kwi'ga'ga'tei, a plot foiled only by the sudden reappearance of the Flying Monster.
In Volume Two, the team arrives at the planet to a combative reception, but, aided by Kaitrin's insights into the termites' unique language, the "Star-Beings" and the Shshi are soon communicating and learning to know each other. The Shshi accept Kaitrin as a friend and even come to revere her as the Mother of her people. Meanwhile, Griffen's inexplicable insecurities escalate, while the dastardly Mo'gri'ta'tu continues to foment conspiracies. Ultimately, the two plotlines intersect in an explosive climax, after which the team must return to Earth and try to come to terms with what they have experienced.
Quotations from 5-star reviews:
v.1: "In the Termite Queen, author Lorinda Taylor takes the reader 1000 years into the future where planet Earth is radically changed by wars, pollution, revolutions, political upheavals, dark ages, and technology. Despite all, human society remains resilent and progressive. Humans remain human, with all their foibles and insecurities, striving for knowledge and understanding, having an abiding need for love. ... The inquisitive mind will find this an irresistible and intoxicating tale."
v.2: "Taylor gives just enough description of this far future world, its technology and history to set the stage; then lets her characters act out the story. It really is the story of people -- humans and off-worlders alike -- engaged in the whole gamut of sophont existence. From the highs of the quest for new knowledge to the depths of jealousy and hatred of what is not understood, Taylor gives us a well and rather tightly woven web of story. ... Altogether, I'd say that both volumes of Termite Queen constitute a good read and I highly recommend it."