Feral Words

Blog posts/essays & photos by William A. Young, linking travel, hiking, mythology, and some associated odds-and-ends

Books- the Past & the Future

Folio Painting, Shahnameh of Shah Tamasp, Safavid Era, c. 1523Something in honour of World Book Day. The painting shown is from the Shahnameh; the ‘Book of Kings’- you can click on the image to open it up and take a closer look. The fine detail is extraordinary…

The Shahnameh is a piece of writing from what was once called Persia and is now called Iran, and is honoured as the national epic of that ancient land. Its one of the great classics of Middle Eastern writing in general. The tales gathered within it tell of the Persian race before the coming of Islam; of the kings who Alexander fought, and the heroes who hunted on the edge of the steppe. It was culled from oral stories, recounted by itinerant bards, disinherited royalty and the down-cast priests of Zarathustra. It was commissioned by a king who claimed descent from the ancient aristocracy, and written by a poet, Ferdowsi, who shared their inheritance. Before it was finished, their kingdom fell, and the completed work was finally handed over to Afghanistan’s great sacker of cities, Mahmud of Ghazni. His reaction to its content has inspired mixed reports… 

The image above is a folio painting, a single page from the great illuminated version of the book that was commissioned, half a millenium later, by the great Shah Tamasp of Iran. The illustrations it contains are among the finest examples of Persian miniature painting ever produced. They bear the strong stamp of traditions of painting from further east; under the dynasties of the Ilkhans and the Timurids, Persia had experienced Mongol rule, and had been exposed to styles of painting originating in the far east. Chinese influence can be perceived strongly in the arrangement of the figures, the shapes of their faces, and the forms of the trees. There is even something of the compositional sense of the Vajrayana Buddhist thangkas so well-known from Tibet in the painting; by no means an impossibility, given that the early Ilkhans much favoured the Tantric variant of Buddhism.

I first saw this image as a small colour photograph in a paperback version of the Book of Kings I borrowed from my local library in Scotland at the age of around 11. I have absolutely no idea how it came to be there, but I found the stories as exciting and as fascinating as the Odyssey, the Iliad or even the Lord of the Rings. Although the stories were strong, the images that had been designed to accompany it, however, were stultified; twisted and dwarfed like the stunted trees that cluster on the rock-faces of the illustration, prevented from blooming by the limitations of the paperback environment.

Now, today, I come again upon this image. I have been reading “My Name is Red” by Orhan Pamuk; a novel on the subject of the master illuminators of Renaissance Istanbul. Seeking out the names he checks on the pages of Wikipedia I stumble again and again over the Shahnameh- and now, the illustrations that were deformed and diminished in the paperback format I find burning brightly before me in the lightning light of digital reproduction. Removed from parchment, freed from paper, the souls of the images multiply in the ether to appear instantaneously before anyone who would view them. The treasures of kings shaped from ancient things, scattered across the firmament like stars, ready to be seen by anyone who looks in the right direction. Or clicks on a relevant blog-post…

The demise of the paper book is much bemoaned. As this little un-narrative shows, literature has been a thing of great variety for its whole history; and the transition from paper to chained lightning is a transition that entails not necessarily loss, but the opening up of the possibility of forms of literature that were once the preserve of only the very wealthiest, becoming accessible to normal people like you and I. Illumination, in a world of illuminated screens, is an option open to all.

I am intrigued to explore this. I am intrigued to see how far we can go- and, coming from the land where the Book of Kells was laid down, I have a notion of just how far that might be. Given my profession and my activities, I’m very well-placed to take such ideas forward- and I’d love to give some time to potential collaborators. If you have some ideas, do get in touch- let’s find a way to bring something beautiful into being.

© William Young and Feral Words, 2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to William Young and Feral Words with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.


6 comments on “Books- the Past & the Future

  1. Jo Woolf
    March 5, 2015

    What a paradox! The ancient image viewed at its best through digital technology. I like your idea of illumination in the era of illuminated screens. Your idea sounds intriguing. I think the changes you’re talking about affect not just the books themselves but the ways in which we read and absorb information. If I can be of any help, I’d be interested to know! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • williamayoung
      March 10, 2015

      Thanks for the interest- I shall send you an email in the next few days.


  2. Hanne T. Fisker
    March 5, 2015

    William, I’m not the word-smith as you are and neither am I even half as well-read as you are (not anymore, but I have visited the Book of Kells 😉 ) however, I am still tremendously curious to about in what kind of direction you are considering, if any yet, to put beautiful ideas into being? If it is even possible to answer at this stage?

    Liked by 1 person

  3. lexklein
    March 6, 2015

    I’ve seen the Book of Kells, read Orhan Pamuk, and immediately thought of the connection of this image to Tibetan thangkas, but that does not make me smart enough to be a valuable collaborator, I’m afraid. I’m curious to follow along, though!

    Liked by 1 person

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