The Knight in the Tiger's Skin
By Shot'ha Rust'hveli
New York: International Publishers. 347 pages. $4.50.
Tariel, the sunlike, the cypress-formed, may be inferior, spiritually and intellectually, to his Western brethren, King Arthur's knights, but, otherwise, he puts them rather into the shade. Matched with this mournful, moaning, "mad-minded" rover, great Lancelot of the Lake would seem almost perky, and romantic Sir Tristram a very lukewarm lover. The mysterious Meskhian bard, Shot'ha Rust'hveli, who some time between 1184 and 1207, in remote Georgia, where the vine in the valley looks up at the snow of the heights, composed a 60,000-word poem, certainly had both genius and leisure.
An author's worth is tested by his manner of introducing his characters. Rust'hveli's approach is enchanting. "They [the King and his hunters] saw a strange knight on the bank of a stream"--no, this is not Keats, and the fair ladies here are anything but "sans merci." Fate, court intrigues and two purple-black Negroes who smuggle a moon-pale princess to a land beyond the sea, these are the instruments of a lover's woe. The poem is unrolled like an Oriental rug. Such symbols as "cleft roses" and "opening pearl" are delightfully used for defining the actions of speech when lovers or friends converse. More often, however, Tariel and his boon companion, those two "pale lions," those raven-haired knights, shed torrents of ruby tears, scratch their violet cheeks, and swoon at the mere mention of the fair one's name; but between fits they are tough customers, demigods in subtropical forests, slaughtering beasts and men with Homeric ease and gusto (note that splendid passage where Tariel tries to kiss a roaring tigress before killing her). And, as the tale proceeds, and adventures, feasts, deceits and disguises accompany the quest for the moonlike crystal-ruby-faced Nestan-Daredjan, and "crystal and ruby become bluest indigo" and "the aloe-tree opens not its pearl," and dazzling metaphors are heaped and scattered this way and that, with the poet finding voluptuous delight in the paradox of blending variety with repetition, more than one reader will exclaim (falling into the style of the poet): this is like a drunken florist fighting a mad jeweler!
But we succumb in the end to the writer's charm. I have especially enjoyed such details as Rust'hveli's fondness for describing eyelashes (which are such a prominent feature in Persian miniatures), and all the comparisons he finds for them: they "droop like the tail-feathers of the raven" and rise "like a host of dusky Hindus" (which, again, reminds one of that other Oriental poet--was it Hafiz?--who called the dark eye of his mistress, "you cruel Negro"). The Knight in the Tiger's (or rather Panther's) Skin" can be likened as a whole to that giant gem of whose radiance Rust'hveli says that "before it at night a painter could have painted a picture."
Has the original Georgian, perchance, passed into English via the Russian medium? I wonder. Anyway, Mrs. Marjory Scott Wardrop's translation looks beautifully done, and the tone sounds right everywhere. In regard to the incredibly cheap illustrations by J. M. Toidze, my roses would prefer to glue together. Then there is the preface by Comrade Pavle Ingorokva. Containing as it does some valuable information about Georgian poetry, it would have been much more to the point (though much less amusing) had it not advertised with such primitive pomp "the land of the Soviets where mankind's dream of freedom has in truth been realized . . . the land of emancipated labor and free thought." . . .By the way, I have a queer inkling that readers of the Russian version are supposed to understand that the hero of Rust'hveli's poem is really St'halin, the sunlike, the cypress-formed.