The Knight in the Panther's Skin
The Knight in the Panther's Skin
17th-century manuscript of Vepkhistqaosani
|Dedicated to||Queen Tamar of Georgia|
|First printed edition||by King Vakhtang VI in 1712|
|Genre||epic poetry, national epic|
|Subject||love, friendship, heroism, loyalty|
Reign of Queen Tamar of Georgia |
Georgian Golden Age
The Knight in the Panther's Skin (Georgian: ვეფხისტყაოსანი pronounced [vɛpʰxist’q’ɑosɑni] literally "one with a skin of a tiger") is a Georgian medieval epic poem, written in the 12th century by Georgia's national poet Shota Rustaveli. A definitive work of the Georgian Golden Age, the poem consists of over 1600 Rustavelian Quatrains and is considered to be the "masterpiece of the Georgian literature". Until the early 20th century, a copy of this poem was part of the dowry of any bride.
Taking place in the fictional settings of exotic "India" and "Arabia", the poem is a colorful allegory of the rule of Queen Tamar of Georgia, and the size and glory of the Kingdom of Georgia in its Golden Age. It tells the friendship of two heroes, Avtandil and Tariel, and their quest to find the object of love, Nestan-Darejan, an allegorical embodiment of Queen Tamar. These idealized heroes and devoted friends are united by courtly love, generosity, sincerity, dedication, and proclaim equality between men and women, which is a recurring theme. The poem is regarded as the "coronation of thought, poetic and philosophical art of medieval Georgia", a complex work with rich and transcending genres. It has been described as "epic", "chivalric romance", "epic romance" and "epic poem of lyric poetry." Despite its formal complexity, it bears to this day "the Georgian vision of the world."
History of the work
Context and time
The creation of the poem corresponds to the Golden Age of the Kingdom of Georgia and the reign of Queen Tamar who was enthroned by her father King George III of Georgia. Tamar was celebrated by poets for her beauty, intelligence and diplomatic skills. She magnified the Georgian kingdom to its historical maximum extension, repulsed the invasions and established protectorates over many Muslim and Christian lands around. Under her reign, the economy prospered and the Georgian caravans reached Ayyubid Egypt, the Kievan Rus and the Byzantine Empire. Medieval science grew and the largest monasteries and churches in Georgia were built, secular literature developed to the point of equaling the greatest religious texts. It was with the backdrop of this "remarkable growth" that Shota Rustaveli composed his poem. Rustaveli, a Meskhetian from the south-western Georgian town of Rustavi, was close to Queen Tamar and possibly served as her treasurer. He likely participated in many military campaigns and the stories in his poem are set in faraway lands, but allegorical representations of his contemporaneous Georgia are recognizable in his work by many things, such as references to wine culture and a female king who became an heir of her father.
In the very prologue, Rustaveli mentions that he wrote this poem for praising the "King" Tamar.
თამარს ვაქებდეთ მეფესა სისხლისა ცრემლ-დათხეული,
ვთქვენი ქებანი ვისნი მე არ-ავად გამორჩეული.
მელნად ვიხმარე გიშრის ტბა და კალმად მე ნა რხეული,
ვინცა ისმინოს, დაესვას ლახვარი გულსა ხეული.
By shedding tears of blood we praise King Tamar,
whose praises I, not ill-chosen, have told forth.
For ink I have used a lake of jet, and for pen a pliant crystal.
Whoever hears, a jagged spear will pierce his heart.
ქართველთა ღმრთისა დავითის, ვის მზე მსახურებს სარებლად,
ესე ამბავი გავლექსე მე მათად მოსახმარებლად,
ვინ არის აღმოსავლეთით დასავლეთს ზართა მარებლად,
და ორგულთა მათთა დამწველად, ერთგულთა გამახარებლად.
God of the Georgians, David, who the sun is his servant,
And here I wrote this poetry for their use,
The one who rules on the east and west,
To burn the infidels, and please the devoted.
Content and form
Georgian title ვეფხისტყაოსანი (vepkhistqaosani) literally means "one with a skin of vepkhi". The identity of the animal that it refers to is not certain and it can be a tiger, panther or leopard. In modern Georgian, it refers to the tiger. However, according to more modern research it would rather mean a panther. Similarly, the qualification of "knight" is not derived from the original title and its alternative translations exist, such as the "valiant" or simply a "man." The alternative English titles of the poem also are "Lord of the Panther Skin" and "The Man in the Panther's Skin".
The story can be divided into two parts: the first part is Avtandil's quest for Tariel, the titular "knight in the panther's skin", and the second part is Avtandil's quest for Nestan-Darejan, Tariel's love.
Search for Tariel
The King of Arabia, Rostevan, has no sons and confers the kingship on his only daughter, the beautiful and wise Tinatin. She has a tender affection for Avtandil, the knight and commander-in-chief of Rostevan's armies. One day, Avtandil challenges King Rostevan to a hunting competition. They've spent three days shooting game when they encounter a knight crying by a river, dressed in a panther's skin, who kills the slaves sent by the king to contact him before disappearing. Rostevan sends parties across the world to search for the mysterious knight, but becomes disheartened when he fails. Tinatin then asks Avtandil to find the strange knight in three years, promising him her hand in marriage in return. After two years and nine months of searching, Avtandil finally finds the knight in the panther's skin hiding in a cave with only a maiden for company. His name is Tariel, son of the king of the seventh kingdom of India, King Saridan. He had served as heir to King Pharsadan, king of the other six kingdoms, for many years when he fell in love with Pharsadan's daughter, Nestan-Darejan. Tariel wages war with the Khatavians to earn the favor of Nestan, but is dismayed to find she has already been promised to the Khwarezmian prince. Tariel could not bear the idea of marriage, and at the request of Nestan he killed the suitor. The princess was then placed on a boat and adrift on the seas. Despite Tariel's lengthy search for his love he could not find her. Later he met Nuradin-Phridon, ruler of Mulgazanzar, who told him that Nestan was alive but trapped on a distant boat. Tariel retired to a cave to live a wild life with Asmat, the former servant and messenger of Nestan. Moved by this story, Avtandil promises his friendship and brotherhood to Tariel and agrees to help him find his love, Nestan-Darejan. Avtandil returned home to Arabia, he tells Tinatin the story of Tariel and returns to his new friend, going against the king Rostevan's will.
Search for Nestan-Darejan
Avtandil then leaves Tariel to get into the kingdom of Phridon, where he did not hear anything about new on Nestan. Continuing his quest, he arrives at city of Gulansharo. He met Patman, wife of the chief Usen, who falls in love with him. Avtandil, sensing she knows the fate of Nestan, gives himself right to be seduced by her. She tells him she has hosted Nestan and, as she was promised to the son of the king, she helped her escape, but in her flight she was abducted by the Kaji, a demon king. Avtandil then returns home to Phridon and then in the cave of Tariel and later all three friends decide to go to the country of Kaji with an army of three hundred men to find and deliver Nestan. When she's released, all return to Arabia, where King Rostevan, having forgiven Avtandil his flight and breaking the king's order they all celebrate the marriage of the latter with his only daughter, Tinatin. They then leave for India where Tariel marries his love Nestan. Phridon also returns to his homeland and the three friends reign happily with prosperity and generosity in their own respective realms.
Places and characters
The poem is placed far away from Georgia in countries that the poet has certainly never visited: Arabia, India and "Khataeti" that is to say, China. The indications are vague and not designate any particular site. It is the Georgian kingdom that has existed through these distant lands. It seems that the choice of places refers primarily to the national character of these peoples: the Arabs are portrayed as more rational, as the king Rostevan and his knight Avtandil with their communication skills and action help to break deadlocks. Conversely, the Indians appear to be more emotional and impulsive and cause unintended disasters, as of the image of Tariel and Nestan. Other locations mentioned as the Kajeti or country of Kaj demons are imaginary. Gulansharo, capital of the "Kingdom of the Seas", has been compared to Venice.
The brave and loyal knights: Avtandil and Tariel
These two characters represent the most devouted and friend lover characters, both heroes capable of courtly love and men endowed with free will. They initially were actively involved and served the kingdoms held position of modern "steward" or "Mayor of the Palace". Besides their position they only obey their beloved therefore their love and dedication is unwavering. Their mutual commitment friendship they swear, also extends to a third person who is Nuradin-Pridon who is also endowed with the same heroic qualities. Tariel is however distinguished by his wild character as he's attributeed with the panther's skin. The qualities associated with him of animal what is the power, intelligence or passion adds the impression of his feelings, his dedication and courage, as his hatred and violence could be extreme and uncontrollable. It is also close to Saint George slaying the dragon whose cult was particularly strong in the 12th century especially in the episode where Tariel kills a lion and a panther.
The faithful and patient lover: Tinatin and Nestan-Darejan
Although they take little action, these female characters, Tinatin and Nestan-Darejan are constantly present in thoughts of the knights and in the narrative tension as a whole. Princesses, a higher rank than their servant knights, they are inspired by the Queen Tamar or reflect the fact that each of them is the sovereign in their own realm. Tinatin chooses her own husband, and it references to Queen Tamar as her role of the king and his father Rostevan, ceding his throne to his daughter references King George III of Georgia who was succeeded by her daughter in 1178, after his death. Tinatin is a static character who leaves no time to the court of his father in Arabia. Nestan being a prisoner in the distant regions, is also passive. But their confidence, righteousness, shows these two women being faithful and respective lovers. As for Patman, she is an altered representation of their type but an infidel during the absence of her husband. Patman takes little account of family honor as she humiliates her husband on account of his bodily defects. Patman's character is true to life from the artistic point of view. Despite everything, she is capable of displaying both affection and sincere warmth peculiar to a woman. She spares no effort to save Nestan. It is very characteristic that when Patman learns of the purpose of Avtandil's journey, she makes no attempt to keep the man she loves at her side even for a short time.
Rustaveli is a great humanist. The poet focuses his attention on a man as a complex of sincere feelings, emotions, passions and aspirations. To counterbalance the mentality of the Middle Ages and the ecclesiastic morality of asceticism Rustaveli's poem proclaims the freedom of man as a personality, freedom of thought and feeling.
In the prologue, Rustaveli describes three types of love: an inaccessible due to the divine, heavenly love; physical love; and finally, a higher earthly love or passionate love. Rustaveli thinks that pure and constant love does not expect love in return. Such kind of love can not be felt without a strong spirit and the only possibility of experiencing love of this order is determined by the natural qualities that should have a real human being. Therefore, the valiant must have its beautiful with impeccable behavior including a constant devotion, the rejection of social duties and selfless loyalty. And as the author puts it "love is a severe trial for man as for woman".
Loyalty of Nestan that fills the work and supports the dramatic tension well before the appearance of the character, is a model of righteousness. When it was announced that she would be married against her own will, she protests with force and supports its consequences with her heroic courage and stoicism. For three heroes who go to her aid, fearless and selfless, the fight is intended as a quest for justice. Amorous conquest is also noticeably absent from the poem. Both romantic relationships are paralleled and never mixed as the true brotherhood between the two heroes prevent such incidents. Love, like friendship, often gives rise to hyperbolic descriptions in the poem.
The friendship between the three heroes sworn, Avtandil, Tariel and Pridon, a clear narrative of the entire epic, binds them together and at the same time it binds their peoples. These three men belong to different nations, they find themselves with the same aspirations and the same goal and that is their union of forces that can and will destroy a tyranny and evil what is represented by the Kajs. This friendship, full of honesty and courage, free of cowardice and sycophancy, must go to the death if necessary. Such friendship is also possible between persons of different sexes in this case of Tariel and Asmat who share the same cave in brotherhood. However, love and friendship are intertwined as love of a knight with his heroism is fully realized with the help of a disinterested friendship and absolute loyalty. Both feelings are also expressed in the terms when Avtandil even against the will and order of his king departs to help his friend in need. Moreover, the happiness of each is conditioned by the happiness of others. Tinatin allows Avtandil to leave for Tariel, because it is the duty of her suitor to rescue his friend to whom he has promised to help.
Morals, religion and philosophy
With the glorification of courtly love, Rustaveli leads to strongly condemn forced marriages. Poem also shows an admiration for the woman and demands for gender equality. Even though Queen Tamar is the first female monarch and the sovereign of the kingdom, women's political function, position and leading role in Georgia was very high be it the patronage of Georgia by the Virgin Mary or conversion of Georgians to Christianity by a woman, Saint Nino in the 4th century. This "cult of woman" celebrates her honor and freedom to choose her own husband and Nestan is the model of a noble woman who puts reason above passion. In equal rights, women can develop a sincere friendship with the opposite sex without love and desire and Asmat is dedicated to Tariel. Slavery is also condemned in the poem.
In general, the poem is a "manifest of living with joy". The success of the three heroes in the liberation of Nestan shows that justice can exist on earth, as with enough courage and perseverance, one can find the happiness here.
Religious and philosophical views
The poem sometimes gives the impression of being a pagan work. In fact, no prayer is inserted into the poem, and never appear references to Christ or the Virgin Mary, or the Trinity but only to Paul the Apostle. Paul is mentioned, although references to the Gospels and the Old Testament are many (ten occurrences of Garden of Eden, including references to the Euphrates, Gibeon and Levi).
However, the moral framework of the work is Christian, with a clear dichotomy between a good god and a hard and disappointing world. This Christianity yet has no fanaticism, even though its references to Islam, its prophet Muhammad (st. 1019), to Mecca (st. 1154) and the Quran (st. 344, 523 and 1154) are not particularly benevolent, and it is sometimes mocking, they nevertheless clearly show some knowledge of this religion.
Philosophical references of the poem is the Pseudo-Dionysius (st. 1478) which could be identified with the Georgian monk Peter the Iberian, an idealist, who believes in the oneness of God but sees the impossibility of knowing God's real existence.
Outside of Georgia, first interest in the poem appeared in 1802, when Eugene Bolkhovitinov published a verbatim translation of the first stanza of the poem into Russian. In France in 1828, Marie-Félicité Brosset made his first partial French translation. In the 19th century the poem saw full translations into Polish, German and Russian. In 1845, extracts were published in Russian, French and Armenian. In 1912, Marjory Wardrop published the first English translation available. In 2015 the first English poetic translation was made by Lyn Coffin, combining literary achievement with academic precision.
Today, unabridged editions are available in many languages: Hungarian, Ukrainian, Armenian, Azeri, Uzbek, Kazakh, Abkhaz, Chinese, Ossetian, Italian, Romanian, Kyrgyz, Turkmen, Japanese, Spanish, Mongolian, Belarusian, Moldovan, Hebrew, Chechen, Kurdish, Bashkir, Chuvash, Tatar, Esperanto, Serbian, and also in Persian.
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°Shota Rustaveli The Knight in the Panther Skin, new translation by Lyn Coffin. Poezia Press, 2015 Tbilisi, Georgia
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