Finally finished reading Shahnameh today, the Persian Book of Kings, translated by Dick Davis. Arranged like a royal chronicle, the book falls into two parts, the first legendary half, teeming with hero-kings and demons, and the second more "realistic" half, closer as the history is to Ferdowsi's own time. The turning point lies in the reign of Sekandar (Alexander the Great), who is depicted initially as a world conqueror, but later, more importantly, as a seeker of knowledge.
I like the legends better. They have more colorful characters, and livelier adventures.The defeat of Zahhak the Demon King by Feraydun, the Simorgh (magical bird) that raised Sam and helped him in his distress, the riddles posed to Zal by Manuchehr's priests, the seven trials of Rostam, the duel between Rostam and his son Sohrab, which I first read as a poem by Matthew Arnold. The characters in the second half may be more complex, less easy to pin down, but the struggle between hero and king is played out in never-ending, repetitive warfare.
The prose of the translation reads well, but the poetry is rather lame. Too much is sacrificed to rhyming the couplets. I don't know Ferdowsi's method of versification, but Davis's poetry reads like Pope's translation of The Odyssey. Fortunately, most of the translation is in prose. I know I will return to this treasure house of stories again and again.