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C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
 
Antar (Antarah ibn Shaddad) (Sixth Century)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Edward Singleton Holden (1846–1914)
 
ARABIA was opened to English readers first by Sale’s translation of the ‘Kuran,’ in 1734; and by English versions of the ‘Arabian Nights’ from 1712 onward. The latter were derived from Galland’s translation of the ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ which began to appear, in French, in 1704. Next to nothing was generally known of Oriental literature from that time until the end of the eighteenth century. The East India Company fostered the study of the classics of the extreme Orient; and the first Napoleon opened Egypt,—his savans marched in the center of the invading squares.  1
  The flagship of the English fleet which blockaded Napoleon’s army carried an Austro-German diplomatist and scholar,—Baron von Hammer-Purgstall,—part of whose mission was to procure a complete manuscript of the ‘Arabian Nights.’ It was then supposed that these tales were the daily food of all Turks, Arabians, and Syrians. To the intense surprise of Von Hammer, he learned that they were never recited in the coffee-houses of Constantinople, and that they were not to be found at all outside of Egypt.  2
  His dismay and disappointment were soon richly compensated, however, by the discovery of the Arabian romance of ‘Antar,’ the national classic, hitherto unknown in Europe, except for an enthusiastic notice which had fallen by chance into the hands of Sir William Jones. The entire work was soon collected. It is of interminable length in the original, being often found in thirty or forty manuscript volumes in quarto, in seventy or eighty in octavo. Portions of it have been translated into English, German, and French. English readers can consult it best in ‘Antar,’ a Bedouin romance, translated from the Arabic by Terrick Hamilton, in four volumes 8vo (London, 1820). Hamilton’s translation, now rare, covers only a portion of the original; and a new translation, suitably abridged, is much needed.  3
  The book purports to have been written more than a thousand years ago,—in the golden prime of the Caliph Harún-al-Rashíd (786–809) and of his sons and successors, Amin (809–813) and Mamun (813–834),—by the famous As-Asmai (born 741, died about 830). It is in fact a later compilation, probably of the twelfth century. (Baron von Hammer’s MS. was engrossed in the year 1466.) Whatever the exact date may have been, it was probably not much later than A.D. 1200. The main outlines of Antar’s life are historical. Many particulars are derived from historic accounts of the lives of other Arabian heroes (Duraid and others) and are transferred bodily to the biography of Antar. They date back to the sixth century. Most of the details must be imaginary, but they are skillfully contrived by a writer who knew the life of the desert Arab at first hand. The verses with which the volumes abound are in many cases undoubtedly Antar’s. (They are printed in italics in what follows.) In any event, the book in its present form has been the delight of all Arabians for many centuries. Every wild Bedouin of the desert knew much of the tale by heart, and listened to its periods and to its poems with quivering interest. His more cultivated brothers of the cities possessed one or many of its volumes. Every coffee-house in Aleppo, Bagdad, or Constantinople had a narrator who, night after night, recited it to rapt audiences.  4
  The unanimous opinion of the East has always placed the romance of ‘Antar’ at the summit of such literature. As one of their authors well says:—“‘The Thousand and One Nights’ is for the amusement of women and children; ‘Antar’ is a book for men. From it they learn lessons of eloquence, of magnanimity, of generosity, and of statecraft.” Even the prophet Muhammad, well-known foe to poetry and to poets, instructed his disciples to relate to their children the traditions concerning Antar, “for these will steel their hearts harder than stone.”  5
  The book belongs among the great national classics, like the ‘Shah-nameh’ and the ‘Nibelungen-Lied.’ It has a direct relation to Western culture and opinion also. Antar was the father of knighthood. He was the preux-chevalier, the champion of the weak and oppressed, the protector of women, the impassioned lover-poet, the irresistible and magnanimous knight. European chivalry in a marked degree is the child of the chivalry of his time, which traveled along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea and passed with the Moors into Spain (710). Another current flowed from Arabia to meet and to modify the Greeks of Constantinople and the early Crusaders; and still another passed from Persia into Palestine and Europe. These fertilized Provençal poetry, the French romance, the early Italian epic. The ‘Shah-nameh’ of Firdawsī, that model of a heroic poem, was written early in the eleventh century. ‘Antar’ in its present form probably preceded the romances of chivalry so common in the twelfth century in Italy and France.  6
  Antarah ben Shedad el Absi (Antar the Lion, the Son of Shedad of the tribe of Abs), the historic Antar, was born about the middle of the sixth century of our era, and died about the year 615, forty-five years after the birth of the prophet Muhammad, and seven years before the Hijra—the Flight to Medina—with which the Muhammadan era begins. His father was a noble Absian knight. The romance makes him the son of an Abyssinian slave, who is finally discovered to be a powerful princess. His skin was black. He was despised by his father and family and set to tend their camels. His extraordinary strength and valor and his remarkable poetic faculty soon made him a marked man, in a community in which personal valor failed of its full value if it were not celebrated in brilliant verse. His love for the beautiful Ibla (Ablah in the usual modern form), the daughter of his uncle, was proved in hundreds of encounters and battles; by many adventurous excursions in search of fame and booty; by thousands of verses in her honor.  7
  The historic Antar is the author of one of the seven “suspended poems.” The common explanation of this term is that these seven poems were judged, by the assemblage of all the Arabs, worthy to be written in golden letters (whence their name of the ‘golden odes’), and to be hung on high in the sacred Kaabah at Mecca. Whether this be true, is not certain. They are at any rate accepted models of Arabic style. Antar was one of the seven greatest poets of his poetic race. These “suspended poems” can now be studied in the original and in translation, by the help of a little book published in London in 1894, ‘The Seven Poems,’ by Captain F. E. Johnson, R. A.  8
  The Antar of the romance is constantly breaking into verse which is passionately admired by his followers. None of its beauties of form are preserved in the translation; and indeed, this is true of the prose forms also. It speaks volumes for the manly vigor of the original that it can be transferred to an alien tongue and yet preserve great qualities. To the Arab the work is a masterpiece both in form and content. Its prose is in balanced, rhythmic sentences ending in full or partial rhymes. This “cadence of the cooing dove” is pure music to an Eastern ear. If any reader is interested in Arabic verse, he can readily satisfy his curiosity. An introduction to the subject is given in the Terminal Essay of Sir Richard Burton’s ‘Arabian Nights’ (Lady Burton’s edition, Vol. vi., page 340). The same subject is treated briefly and very clearly in the introduction to Lyall’s ‘Ancient Arabian Poetry’—a book well worth consulting on other accounts.  9
  The story itself appeals to the Oriental’s deepest feelings, passions, ideals:—
          “To realize the impetuous feelings of the Arab,” says Von Hammer, “you must have heard these tales narrated to a circle of Bedouins crowded about the orator of the desert…. It is a veritable drama, in which the spectators are the actors as well. If the hero is threatened with imminent danger, they shudder and cry aloud, ‘No, no, no; Allah forbid! that cannot be!’ If he is in the midst of tumult and battle, mowing down rank after rank of the enemy with his sword, they seize their own weapons and rise to fly to his rescue. If he falls into the snares of treachery, their foreheads contract with angry indignation and they exclaim, ‘The curse of Allah be on the traitor!’ If the hero at last sinks under the superior forces of the enemy, a long and ardent sigh escapes from their breasts, with the farewell blessing, ‘Allah’s compassion be with him—may he rest in peace.’… Descriptions of the beauties of nature, especially of the spring, are received with exclamations. Nothing equals the delight which sparkles in every eye when the narrator draws a picture of feminine beauty.”
  10
  The question as to the exact relation of the chivalry of Europe to the earlier chivalry of Arabia and of the East is a large one, and one which must be left to scholars. It is certain that Spenser and Sir Philip Sidney owe far more to Saladin than we commonly suppose. The tales of Boccaccio (1350) show that the Italians of that day still held the Arabs to be their teachers in chivalry, and at least their equals in art, science, and civilization; and the Italy of 1300 was a century in advance of the rest of Europe. In 1268 two brothers of the King of Castile, with 800 other Spanish gentlemen, were serving under the banners of the Muslim in Tunis. The knightly ideal of both Moors and Spaniards was to be
  “Like steel among swords,
Like wax among ladies.”
  11
  Hospitality, generosity, magnanimity, the protection of the weak, punctilious observance of the plighted faith, pride of birth and lineage, glory in personal valor—these were the knightly virtues common to Arab and Christian warriors. Antar and his knights, Ibla and her maidens, are the Oriental counterparts of Launcelot and Arthur, of Guinevere and Iseult.  12
  The primary duty of the early Arab was blood-revenge. An insult to himself, or an injury to the tribe, must be wiped out with the blood of the offender. Hence arose the multitude of tribal feuds. It was Muhammad who first checked the private feud by fixing “the price of blood” to be paid by the aggressor or by his tribe. In the time of Antar revenge was the foremost duty. Ideals of excellence change as circumstances alter. Virtues go out of fashion (like the magnificence of Aristotle), or acquire an entirely new importance (as veracity, since England became a trading nation). Some day we may possess a natural history of the virtues.  13
  The service of the loved one by the early Arab was a passion completely different from the vain gallantry of the mediæval knight of Europe. He sought for the complete possession of his chosen mistress, and was eager to earn it by multitudes of chivalric deeds; but he could not have understood the sentimentalities of the Troubadours. The systematic fantasies of the “Courts of Love” would have seemed cold follies to Arab chivalry—as indeed they are, though they have led to something better. In generosity, in magnanimity, the Arab knight far surpassed his European brother. Hospitality was a point of honor to both. As to the noble Arabs of those days, when any one demanded their protection, no one ever inquired what was the matter; for if he asked any questions, it would be said of him that he was afraid. The poets have thus described them in verse:—
  “They rise when any one calls out to them, and
they haste before asking any questions;
they aid him against his enemies
that seek his life, and they return
honored to their families.”
  14
  The Arab was the knight of the tent and the desert. His deeds were immediately known to his fellows; discussed and weighed in every household of his tribe. The Christian knight of the Middle Ages, living isolated in his stronghold, was less immediately affected by the opinions of his class. Tribal allegiance was developed in the first case, independence in the second.  15
  Scholars tell us that the romance of ‘Antar’ is priceless for faithful pictures of the times before the advent of Muhammad, which are confirmed by all that remains of the poetry of “the days of ignorance.” To the general reader its charm lies in its bold and simple stories of adventure; in its childlike enjoyment of the beauty of Nature; in its pictures of the elemental passions of ambition, pride, love, hate, revenge. Antar was a poet, a lover, a warrior, a born leader. From a keeper of camels he rose to be the protector of the tribe of Abs and the pattern of chivalry, by virtue of great natural powers and in the face of every obstacle. He won possession of his Ibla and gave her the dower of a queen, by adventures the like of which were never known before. There were no Ifrits or Genii to come to his aid, as in the ‘Thousand Nights and a Night.’ ‘Antar’ is the epic of success crowning human valor; the tales in the ‘Arabian Nights,’ at their best, are the fond fancies of the fatalist whose best endeavor is at the mercy of every capricious Jinni.  16
  The ‘Arabian Nights’ contains one tale of the early Arabs,—the story of Gharib and his brother Ajib,—which repeats some of the exploits of Antar; a tale far inferior to the romance. The excellences of the ‘Arabian Nights’ are of another order. We must look for them in the pompous enchantments of the City of Brass, or in the tender constancy of Aziz and Azizah, or in the tale of Hasan of Bassorah, with its lovely study of the friendship of a foster-sister, and its wonderful presentment of the magic surroundings of the country of the Jann.  17
  To select specimens from ‘Antar’ is like selecting from ‘Robinson Crusoe.’ In the romance, Antar’s adventures go on and on, and the character of the hero develops before one’s eyes. It may be that the leisure of the desert is needed fully to appreciate this master-work.  18
 
 
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READER’S DIGEST · STUDENT’S COURSE · BIBLIOGRAPHIC RECORD
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