Worth a read... Not necessarily masterpieces or artistically outstanding. Yet none will disappoint the lover of literature. Reading them one will always find something of value... Armenian News Network / Groong July 6, 2015 By EDDIE ARNAVOUDIAN `The Daredevils of Sassoon' - a superb study and three essays I. Azat Yeghiazaryan's `The Poetics of the Epic "Sasna Dzrer"' (282pp, 1999, Yerevan) is a welcome reading of the Armenian national epic popularly known in English as `The Daredevils of Sassoon'. A literary critic and intellectual of the best sort, Yeghiazaryan with his customary temperate, gentle but erudite and perceptive intelligence draws out from an artistic and cultural examination those issues that touch on the concerns and the dramas of our own times. The result is an enthusiastic urging not to passively bend to the deformations of our era, to reconsider our individual and social morals and principles in the light of the legacy left us in `The Daredevils of Sassoon'. Born among the common people in the wake of the 7th century struggles against Arab imperial invasion this tale of daring do by heroes gifted with superpowers survived for over a thousand years in exclusively oral form before being written down for the first time in 1873. It was this oral tradition in fact, that across the centuries, facilitated enhancement and enrichment by wandering troubadours who wove into it the experience, the wisdom and the values of the common people of their own particular epoch. Ignored by classical Church historians, unrecognised by official culture and condemned to disdain `The Daredevils of Sassoon' survived, nevertheless, because in four cycles of drama and adventure, in stories of courage, strength, heroism and bravery, it offered something Church ideology was incapable of supplying. It offered a vision of social and national harmony, of freedom and collective solidarity as experienced at moments and dreamt of always by the common people of historic Armenia. Though the heroes of this tale are formally of noble or royal stature, throughout absolutely no significance is attributed to this. No virtue ever derives from formal title. It is manifest rather in the personal qualities of individuals, in their strength and power and centrally in their readiness to devote themselves without reservation to protecting the collective, common good of ordinary men and women. Princes they may be, but they remain always equal members of a society of common people and they have no privileges or rights over others. No contradiction exists between protagonist and society. Living no contradiction with the collective, they enjoy inner harmony too. They have nothing to hide and exist without self-repression. They act as they are, expressing an individuality that is seamless and in harmony with the whole. The main actors as with almost all grand epics possess extraordinary physical strength that together with power, force and violence all feature prominently in their adventures. These however are never used to obtain individual advantage, serving the common good alone and fired always by social solidarity. The protagonists are not pacifists and when they do resort to violence they can be ferocious, bloody and terrifyingly deadly. But anger and rage that sometimes ends with crushing, overwhelming violence is never self-serving or gratuitous, always for the defence of the community. A stirring tale of struggle for freedom and justice, a record of dreams of social harmony, of the absence of contradiction, of freedom from alienation, `The Daredevils of Sassoon' can be appreciated as a critique of the fragmented individualism prevailing in our world today. It can be appreciated indeed as a timely challenge to the more obnoxious manifestations of a modern individualism that pit individual and collective in hostile opposition. Azat Yeghiazaryan's scope is broad. Almost everything one could possibly wish for in a serious critical examination is there. There is scrutiny of artistic structure and aesthetic and poetic quality, of social and historical context and content, moral vision animating protagonists, of codes of honour as they are manifest in domestic, community and international relations, the epic's historical evolution, comparatives with those of other nations and more. And all are put to the service of philosophical, social and artistic discussion on the relationships between individual and society, between nations and between faiths as well as a consideration of the question of force, violence and power in society. Scholarly in the best sense of the term, rich with reference and quotation, this volume suffers no ivory tower aridity. Besides providing a wonderful artistic and intellectual feast, it drives the reader to compare and to contrast the times in which we live with that which has been preserved in this epic - a vision possibly more moral and human. II. Levon Mkrtchyan who elsewhere has written a fine essay on the art of translation urging improvement on existing efforts, offers here another impressive commentary on the `The Daredevils of Sassoon' (`To Grasp the Word of Genius', 1985, pp9-78). His argument is that the epic encapsulates something of a specifically Armenian popular worldview. Though originating in resistance to imperial Arab domination the epic absorbed substantial elements of Armenian mythology and history from both before and after that recorded by Movses Khorenatzi the 5th century founder of Armenian historiography. Allusions stretch back to include for example the sea as the source and origin of all life and there are suggestions too that some events occur in a matriarchal age. In what has become orthodoxy, Levon Mkrtchyan presents adventure as that sole space in Armenian literature available to reflect the worldview of the common people. Its plebeian substance is underlined by its dominant personality David of Sassoon who despite repeated triumphs in war never dons royal or aristocratic crown and treats all men and women as equals. In addition in the treatment of friend or foe, national or religious affiliation plays no role. Between Armenian Christian and Arab Muslim there is no hint of animosity caused by national, religious or racial factors. David of Sassoon's battle for `faith' is patriotic and not religious. It is battle only against a foreign assault. Indeed textual evidence affirms a sophisticated difference between faith and organised religion, the latter subjected to scorn that is evident in sarcasm and humour at the expense of the Church and its officials. Mkrtchyan closes his essay with a reference to a poem by Avetik Issahakian. In contrast to the dispirited Church chroniclers of Armenian disaster and defeat, this people's epic burns with hope, registers battle and struggle, construction and ambition. And though ending with Little Mher exiled and locked in a cave, he lives forever in the hope of one day returning home to destroy a world that has become evil and rebuild it as a land of freedom. III. Mktrchyan's may have been inspired by Joseph Orbeli's wonderful introduction to the first, 1939, comprehensive edition of the epic published to celebrate the 1000th anniversary of its birth (David of Sassoon, 2nd Edition, 1961, 335pp, III-LXI). Orbeli also sees `The Daredevils of Sassoon' as the common peoples' alternative history, a people's history of Armenia as it were. Around the axis of resistance to Arab invasion troubadours knitted into the drama the moral vision of the common people across time. Again, an essential claim is the epic's rejection of national and religious hatreds, its honourable code of honour that among other things required confronting enemies on a level playing field, a dedication to battle against feudal whim, a Robin Hood style generosity and readiness to come to the aid and succour to the weak. Orbeli's introduction is rightly dismissive of those who seek for aristocratic prototypes among the protagonists. Nobility, honour, courage, military prowess, loyalty and generosity of spirit appear throughout. In official literature such qualities are usually associated only with feudal elites. But in `The Daredevils' they appear as characteristics of ordinary men and women. Our heroes not only shun princely title, they don't raise taxes on the people and oppose looting and plunder. When triumphant in war they take back only what was taken from them. Though possessed of extraordinary powers they remain still ordinary people beside whom king and priest, when they do appear, are shown to be grubby parasites usually presiding over and blocking the sources of water - the sites indeed on which Armenian feudal lords built their castles. A conclusion touches on analogies between different national epics where Orbeli challenges Eurocentric intellectuals who appropriate for Europe alone all originality, refusing to see different epics to have been born of independent national traditions albeit sharing common, socio-economic features. IV. Two essays from Terenig Temirjian's (Collected Works, Volume 8, 1963, pp158-163, 169-178) reinforce orthodox appreciation of the epic as a manifestation of the common people's worldview, but with a particular edge. Temirjian focuses on `The Daredevils of Sassoon' as an expression of an overarching history of national resistance beyond the imperial Arab age, absorbing into the story of battle against Arab invasion earlier episodes of struggle from those of Haig and Bell, of the Persian Wars and others. Like Orbeli, Temirjian also demolishes attempts to tie the tale to the feudal nobility noting in particular the humane regard and treatment of the ordinary Arab solider, something so alien to the feudal nobility. Told by troubadours this story of harmony between peoples and of struggle against domestic injustice is to the point, with narrative focused on action, shorn of all ornate, flamboyant language, no bombast, no honeyed tunes or flowered, courtly pomposity. -- Eddie Arnavoudian holds degrees in history and politics from Manchester, England, and is Groong's commentator-in-residence on Armenian literature. His works on literary and political issues have also appeared in Harach in Paris, Nairi in Beirut and Open Letter in Los Angeles.
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