Armenian News Network / Groong

The Critical Corner - 11/20//2017

The Daredevils of Sassoun Ride Again!

Armenian News Network / Groong
November 20, 2017

By Eddie Arnavoudian


Welcoming the traveller at Yerevan's Central Railway Station is a
commanding statue of David of Sassoun the main protagonist of the Armenian
national epic `The Daredevils of Sassoun'. For their own sake no
representative of the Armenian elite should pass before him!  Astride his
famous talking Colt Djalali, wielding a Thunderbolt Sword, David is ready
to strike - but today not so much against foreign invaders, as against the
ruling classes of his own nation that have hijacked the land and devour it
like any foreign conqueror. Not just David but all the Daredevils, in
their morality, their principles and their actions, are as stern judges
before whom our contemporary state and elite, rotten to the core, stand
condemned.

Anyone with a heart, anyone with a sense of solidarity for her/his fellow
beings will see in the tale of these Armenian Daredevils a passionate
damnation of contemporary global elites, the 1% and their accomplices
whose greed and injustice wreak havoc for humanity. It would insult the
common folk and their troubadours who created and spread the tale to
narrow it to a battle against imperial-colonial conquest alone. This it
surely is and majestically so. But it is a great deal more! It is also an
envisioning of a just and egalitarian social order; it is the constructing
of a universal common people's Utopia dreamt of and fought for throughout
the world and throughout history.

Two welcome volumes help us appreciate `The Daredevils of Sassoun' in our
brutal century: Artashes Emin's English translation of Nairi Zaryan's
masterly 1966 prose rendition `Davit of Sassoun' (2016, Kindle NOTE 1) and
Azat Yeghiazaryan's `The Poetics of the Daredevils of Sassoun', (282pp,
1999, also available in English! See NOTE2). Both show the Daredevils
riding again, this time for us, to rid our world too of the pestilence
that has gripped it.


I.  An Armenian Utopia, a peoples' history of Armenia

`The Daredevils of Sassoun' was born in the age of 9th century Armenian
resistance to imperial Arab invasion. For over a thousand years it was
preserved orally, exclusively by the common people. Until 1873 when it was
first put into print there had not been a single acknowledgement of its
existence in written, `official' Armenian literature. For the elites the
epic simply did not exist! Never told to aristocratic courts, so never
having to pander to ruling class prejudice, never censored by Church
ideologues, across the centuries the epic was infused with the concerns,
preoccupations and hopes of ordinary men and women.

Azat Yeghiazaryan cautions against tying protagonists and their adventures
to any particular historical personalities or events but argues
persuasively that in its substance `The Daredevils of Sassoun' grasps
defining features of the Armenian common people's socio-historical
experience of oppression, exploitation and resistance and their dreams and
ambitions of a better world too. This socio-historical veracity is vouched
for by many a troubadour who circulated the tale from village to village.
Even as they gave the story their own individual artistic stamp they
adhered consistently to a core they affirmed as the `History Of Our
Forefathers', `The History Of Our Betters' or even as a `History Of
Armenian Kings (AY226). 20th century short story writer Stepan Zoryan, an
Armenian Sean O'Faolain if you will, or a Turgenev, hearing the tale told
when a young boy remembers that: `Tellers and troubadours...passing through
town and village acted as if they were books or history teachers (Stepan
Zoryan, Collected Works, Volume 12, pp396-416)

For Stepan Zoryan, as for many others this Armenian national epic lives as
an alternative history of the Armenian common people that telling of their
suffering also figures the kind of world they desire. In its
socio-historical substance `The Daredevils of Sassoun' is wholly at odds
with the classical, `official' tradition of Armenian historiography
written generally by men of the Church. Adorned with kings, princes,
bishops and generals classical texts, always valuable and often literary
and historical masterpieces still represent history only from the point of
view the elites, the aristocratic and Church feudal estates. Here the
common people are usually depicted with scorn and contempt. Their social
and economic experience, their suffering and their hopes are absent.

In the case of `The Daredevils of Sassoun' however, Stepan Zoryan writes
that: "...independent of our historians, the common people produced their
own, oral, history...that in many respects was more extensive and
profound... (It) performed a vital role in darker times encouraging the
people with stories of David's heroism, assuring them that evil lords
cannot reign for ever and that one should never resign oneself to
oppressors...
While our religious leadership and in part our historians explained the
disasters that befell the people to have been caused by their sinfulness
and then sought to console them with visions of afterlife, the people
themselves (through this epic) explained those disasters as the result of
rapacious plunderers' greed. The people consoled themselves with a far
more realistic hope - the fight for freedom (ibid)."

The classics are not a history of the people of Armenia. But `The
Daredevils of Sassoun' is!

Knitted into fast paced fantastical episodes of derring-do by gigantic
superhero Daredevils battling against monsters, dragons and invading
tyrants - all metaphors for or direct agents of oppressive and exploiting
forces - `history teaching' folk troubadours describe the foundation and
defence of the state and society of Sassoun. Before us we see erected a
state in which there are no ruling classes, one in which the people can
live without being subjected to the selfish whim and whip of Emperor,
Sultan, King, Prince or Bishop or their agents. Colouring their tales with
threads and themes from previous epics, myths and fables, troubadours
secured the mass circulation of a social vision that forms a veritable
`peoples manifesto'. One could venture to suggest that it also contains
and preserves something of the programme of the violently suppressed
10-12th century peasant Tontrag movement whose radical demands and
proclamations were put to flame by Armenian feudal elites.

To appreciate the radical, nay revolutionary, impulse of `The Daredevils
of Sassoun' one must try to imagine the world inhabited by teller and
audience. Foreign domination, plunder, destructive taxation, violence,
abduction and enslavement, forced religious conversion, land confiscation
and forced migration. Almost intolerable conditions were made worse by
selfish Armenian elites sitting atop a social order exploiting its own
people. Worse still, in this hellish world bishop and priest insistently
counselled obedience, resignation and passivity.

The Daredevils of Sassoun stand opposed to this! Against the Church's
slavish knee bending this is a paean to armed resistance. Listeners could
not but have been enchanted by a tale that preserving the historical truth
of their social experience also contained a message of hope for a possible
future. For a people downtrodden as was the Armenian peasant in the 18th
and 19th centuries to be told of the Daredevils' resistance and this as
the history of their forefathers and ancestors, to be told of their
fighting spirit and this in defence of a land free of all exploiting and
oppressing estates, free of plunder, pillage or taxation, all this would
certainly serve to inspire self-respect and hope among a humiliated
people.

Something of the force of the hope inspired by the tale is captured by
Raffi in his massive two-volume novel `Sparks'. In Branch Four Little
Mher, David's son is chained for centuries in a cave. But, Raffi reminds
his readers that: `One day Mher will smash the chains and atop his colt
will leap from his cave to wreak revenge on our enemies and cleanse
Armenia of evil...One day he will come forth from his dungeon and spread
light and justice across the land.' (Quoted in `Bibliographic Notes on
`The Daredevils of Sassoun' by Manouk Abeghian, Collected Works, Volume 1,
p520-521)

Today the evil plaguing Armenia that needs cleansing is that of a corrupt,
greedy and plundering Armenian elite that has brought darkness and
injustice to the land and its people.


II.  The ideal state

Unfolding in Four Branches `The Daredevils of Sassoun' traces their
fortunes across four generations. The longest and most popular is the
Third that tells of David of Sassoun's monumental battles against foreign
invasion and conquest. However, Branch One being about the character of
the House of Sassoun founded by David's grandfather Sanassar is critical
to grasping not just the battle against foreign forces but the entire saga
that is immensely broader. In its first cycle this folk drama shares
something with the earlier Armenian `Pagan Epics' (AYp23), both containing
state-building narratives. But in Sassoun the state being established is
of a radically different order to that recorded in classical Armenian
historiography. In its essential forms it is a free egalitarian peoples'
state.

Returning to Armenia from extraordinary boyhoods in Baghdad, Sanasar and
his brother Baghdasar (Baltasar) are twice offered `official' Armenian
thrones.  Intent on building their own state they twice decline. They
first request a plot of land from King Tevatoros on which to set
themselves up. Tevatoros responds `I have no heirs when I die, the whole
kingdom will be yours, make it your home (loc 430).' Sanasar refuses (loc
432) and a generous Tevatoros offers them Sassoun. Having established
themselves, the brothers go off to seek the blessings of King Gagik of
Armenia. `My boy' Gagik says, `I have no son, when I die, this Kingdom
will be yours (loc590).' Sanasar declines informing King Gagik that he has
his own state of Sassoun.

The state that Sanasar builds has nothing that resembles the hierarchical
oppressive class feudal order that existed in `official' Armenia. A
discussion as they set about their business says it all. Baltassar asks:
`Shall we build our fort first, or shall we begin with houses for these
poor people?

And Sanasar replies:
`Their houses come first. These poor people will not survive in the open
under the sun.' So they started building (loc460).'

Sassoun is free of exploiting and pillaging classes and soon becomes a
magnet for peasants and labourers from surrounding lands.
`People in other lands heard of him (Sanasar) and said to each other:
`Brother why are we sitting here waiting for robbers to hit us once and
again and take away our possessions? By God, let us move to Sassoun where
Sanasar and Baltassar reign; two powerful, fair strongmen. They levy no
taxes and there is no pillage (loc606).'

In Sassoun there are no whip-wielding Sultans, Kings, Lords or Bishops.

Though formally king and prince Sanasar and Baltassar live life in the same
conditions as the common people. They are socially speaking equal, not
superior to any other `citizen' in a society of egalitarian principles
(AY50-53). So:
`Slowly but surely people from other lands moved to Sassoun, its
population grew and the town became a true city (loc606).'

Contrast this with our modern Republic of Armenia whose thieving `leaders'
impoverish its people and drive hundreds of thousands from the land!

Sanasar and Baltassar, Sanasar's son Big Mher and grandson David of
Sassoun possess the qualities of genuine popular leadership that are in
harmony with the nature of the state of Sassoun. Everything they do is
driven by an imperative to serve people and community. They have nothing
of the ugly greed, the grasping, the violence, oppression and exploitation
that is the defining feature of ruling elites in unequal societies.
Remarkably, and most telling for our day, the Daredevils strike out not
only against foreign conquest and oppression but against wage-cutting
employers, price fixing merchants and, yes, forces that destroy the
environment!  Moreover their solidarity and support for the common people
is not limited to nationality or to any given state boundaries.

Having consolidated the House of Sassoun, Sanasar strives for the welfare
of people and environment beyond Sassoun's own borders. Leaving Sassoun on
an adventurous journey to win over his beloved he encounters and slays a
greedy monster who drinking the river dry causes drought and
desertification. Sanasar with his: `...Thunderbolt Sword split the
insatiable man in two and said `Your thirst is quenched, you will no
longer crave water.' The waterway opened up and the river flowed freely
over the field, the trees revived and the grass became green, the flowers
cheered up, and they all exclaimed from every side: `May your road grow
green wherever you go Sanasar (loc705).'

Further on Sanasar lays low a sadistic dragon `that sits at the source of
water' and threatens `the whole Green City with death by thirst (loc871)
unless its citizens `give him a virgin maid to devour every week, so that
they make take a little water (loc884)'.

Sanasar's son Big Mher is everything modern heads of state are not! While
still a teenager he feeds the people with game he hunts on his estates. He
bare-handedly kills a lion that blocks imports of wheat and bread and so
causes shortages, price rises and starvation (loc1128). Acquiring the
reputation of being `father and mother of the poor' the people of Sassoun
hope that Mher's son David will be `his father's son' (NZ95). And so he
is!

David represents a genuine national leadership. Though a King he does not
use this formal status or his super-strength to live at the expense of
others. He insists on finding a job `so that I can earn my living
(loc1830).' `You shouldn't be the only one to feed us' he tells his
uncle. `Get us work to do, so that we may sustain ourselves (loc1942).' A
far cry from modern elites living as parasites at the expense of the
laboring population!

This remarkable `King' also acts as a protector of laboring classes. He
explodes with rage when told that cattle herders have to wait for their
food and be satisfied with leftovers. `Leftovers are for dogs' he exclaims
as he forcibly takes away the portions he needs (NZ89). Elsewhere this
`king' warns that `if anyone cuts a grain of millet from the wage of my
brothers, David's doom shall descend on your houses (loc2036). When
rebuilding the Maruta Monastery he not only joins in the hard physical
labour but insists that `workers and master craftsmen' are paid well and
threatens `don't ever let me hear that any of them was left unpaid
(loc2247).'

The actual social relations that prevail in the House of Sassoun are not
feudal. They are those of an imagined collectivist egalitarian community.
But any explicit or `realist' depiction of an ideal state without
oppressing and exploiting classes, a society without Sultan, King, Prince
and Bishop would have been beyond the scope of those who fashioned this
epic in the deepest feudal ages when the social hierarchy would have been
regarded as eternally fixed, by Divine ordination! The troubadours
circumvented these limits in creative style using all the facilities
offered by the epic folk genre with its combination of elements of fable,
myth, fantasy and folklore.

Using epic forms troubadours retained a formal feudal hierarchy but
eliminated its essence. Labels denoting the class structure of feudal
society remain in place but royal or princely titles accord no privilege
or status and no social, economic or political power over others. Kings
and Princes, Bishops and Priests have either been reduced to figures of no
social importance or their titles have become almost personal names and no
more. It bears remarking here that with written classical Armenian culture
suffused with religious and Christian sensibility `The Daredevils of
Sassoun' is singular in its rigorously secular narrative, one in which
religious ritual, observation and fervour is absent.

In most epics royal, aristocratic or privileged protagonists exploit
extraordinary strength and prowess to secure power, advantage and wealth,
to conquer and subjugate for their personal advantage. But not with the
Daredevils! In his battles David has nothing in common with Msra-Melik's
imperial-class theme tune of `where is my war booty, where are my taxes,
where is David's head?' David `from the field of battle takes neither
slave nor booty' (p109, 130) and wants only for the people to be free of
pillage, plunder and usurious taxation.  The Daredevils do not abuse their
strength and their powers. They are modest and display no tendency to
boast, or to act in domineering or authoritarian manner. In this epic
moreover there is none of that humble subordination or obsequious bending
to one's superiors one encounters in epics fashioned for royal or
aristocratic courts (AY78, 79, 82).

Such is the state and society that the Daredevils and David in particular
will wage awesome and fierce battle to defend.


III.  Defending the people's realm

Some of the most colourful and uplifting passages in the adventures of the
Daredevils are those of resistance to the Caliph of Baghdad and the Meilk
of Msra, known otherwise as Msra Melik. In rapid-fire dialogue there glows
an uncompromising dedication to the right of people to independent
statehood. Conflicts reach a peak when David of Sassoun personally
measures strength with Msra Melik who seizing the opportunity of Big
Mher's death when David is `still in the cradle', subjugates Sassoun. In
images redolent of Ottoman violence:
`Msra Melik raised an army and came to wage war on the House of Sassoun.
He took Sassoun and put its people to the sword. He rampaged and plundered
Sassoun, enslaved the people, levied heavy taxes and took away cattle,
sheep, horses and gold without count, to the land of Msr. Msra Melik made
Sassoun his vassal and taxpayer, appointing Craven Vergo governor
(loc1535-37)

But David grows to become an indomitable giant of a strongman and takes up
the cudgels for Sassoun's right to self-determination. `I am no taxpayer
to Msra Melik' he announces. `Msra Melik shall rule over Msr, I shall rule
over Sassoun (loc2272).' About this there will be no negotiation!

Having endured centuries of foreign conquest it is understandable that a
dream of independent statehood would be integral to the Armenian popular
imagination. So it is in `The Daredevils of Sassoun' that was almost
certainly appreciated as a tale of resistance against imperial conquest.
Msra Melik is after all little different from Ottoman Sultans who for
centuries made life for Armenians a hell on earth.  But in the same vein
as its radical envisioning of the state of Sassoun, `The Daredevils of
Sassoun' presents the question of national liberation in extraordinary
form!

Consistent with the social structure that prevails in Sassoun and of the
moral constitution of its leadership, the struggle for national
independence is indivisibly a struggle to defend Sassoun's egalitarian
order. It is a battle for national independence intended to secure and
sustain the principles of an established egalitarian society. It is battle
waged against attempts to impose not just foreign rule but an exploiting
class structure alien to the character of Sassoun. It is impossible to
imagine the Daredevils fighting to free Sanasar's Sassoun only to impose
on it a feudal social hierarchy of `official' Armenia that would have
ruthlessly taxed and pillaged the peasant, in a manner not terribly
different than Msra Melik.

Conflict that pits Armenian against Arab in national terms is entirely
secondary and of no significance. What fixes Msra Melik as an enemy is not
that he is Arabic or non-Armenian - after all the Daredevils as the epic
shows are linked to foreigners and Arabs through scores of blood, family,
marriage and other ties - but that he is seeking to force on Sassoun an
unjust social regime. Msra Melik is the epic anti-hero not on account of
his foreign, Arab nationality but on account of his role as representative
of a pillaging and plundering class that is foreign and alien to the
social, egalitarian character and the common people of Sassoun.

At every stage of action-packed adventure it is the social rather than the
national aspect that is the driving force of the narrative. At the opening
of Branch Two, on Sanasar's death Msra Melik `enters Sassoun without a
fight' and demands:
`Forty bushels of gold and precious gems/Forty short women to turn the
millstones/Forty tall women to load animals/Forty gorgeous virgin
maidens/Forty stallions of identical stature and colour/Forty heifers of
the same stature and colour/Forty draft oxen and forty milch cows.'
(loc1037)

The contest between Sassoun and the invaders will reach its peak when an
enraged Msra Melik launches war against David to assert and reclaim his
rights to such exploitation, and that with seven years of arrears!

David's response underlines the radical, social and indeed the egalitarian
quality that defines the Daredevils' struggle for national freedom.
Proclaiming that `Msra Melik shall have Msr' David does not say in
parallel that `David shall have Sassoun'. He says that `Sassoun shall
belong to its people'.

`Msra Melik shall have Msir and the land of Sassoun shall belong to its
people! Let them live on their own, and we shall live here on our own
(loc2400).

There is no doubt that speaking of the `people' David refers only to the
common people not to a ruling, exploiting privileged landowning
aristocracy or clergy. The Daredevils are defending Sanasar's Sassoun in
which such an aristocracy or clergy did not exist.

David of Sassoun and Msra Melik represent two opposed state-social
systems, one egalitarian and serving the common people, the other a state
in the service of greedy and violent elites now attempting to impose their
cruel regime on Sassoun. In this sense the Daredevils' struggle against
foreign conquest takes on a double aspect. It is war against foreign
powers seeking to conquer Sassoun. But it is also war against attempts to
impose a social order utterly foreign to the principles governing the
State of Sassoun. Today without doubt the Daredevils would certainly do
battle against contemporary Armenian elites whose conduct and the social
order they defend are indeed as foreign to the common people of Armenian
as any imposed by Msra Melik's conquistadors!

The social and class rather than the national core that defines the drama
of the independence struggle appears again at the conclusion of a
monumental duel between David and Msra Melik. Msra Melik is now shown to
be a tyranniser over his own people as well. As the grand duel comes to
its end one of Msr Melik's soldiers approaches David and says:
`May God keep your house erect, Davit! If Msra Melik has called you to
war, why do you fight us? What are these unfortunate men to blame for?
Each one is the light of a destitute home, the sole-begotten of a
family. Some have left senile parents behind, some young brides, others a
house full of kids. Msr Melik has brought them all here by force; He is
the enemy of Sassoun, the one you should fight (loc2892)

This David understands completely! So after slicing Msra Melik in half, he
dispatches Msra Melik's troops with a declaration of humanist solidarity,
one that recognises Sassoun's non-negotiable rights to independence but
simultaneously also affirms the common interests and visions of all common
people irrespective of race or nationality:
`Davit said: `Go poor men, farmers, workmen, rank and file, enjoy peace in
your homes. Let your land be yours, and our land shall remain to us. You
will plough your land, we shall plough our land, you will reap your
harvest we shall reap ours, you will eat your bread, we shall eat our
bread. Let us live together in peace. There is no harm in peace
(loc3075).'

Here again a standard in foreign policy. Yes resist foreign elite
aggression and expansionism but do so through building solidarity with
their common people of your neighbouring lands.


IV.  A critical reservation

`The Daredevils of Sassoun' is rich in its emancipatory, egalitarian and
critical drive. Unfortunately, there is nothing radical, emancipatory or
egalitarian in its depiction of women and their treatment in society.

The position and role of women never rises above the subordination and
subjugation characteristic in medieval or rural village communities. It is
for women to obey and not to speak. When against his wife's wishes Big
Mher prepares to visit Ismail Khatoun, his wife Armaghan surrenders saying
`I have no power over you. I am a woman. My tongue is tied (loc 1342)'. On
Big Mher's return, Armaghan first refuses to have him back but again
succumbs: `what can I say, a man is the head of the house, woman is the
feet; a woman cannot go against man's wishes. Come to my bed (loc1453).'

Casual violence against women, regarded as normal, is presented in an
almost light-hearted manner. `Stentor Ohan became furious and kicked his
wife in the ribs (loc2945).' Women appear as objects of men's desires,
mothers for their children and in their beauty as trophies for winners in
male competitions (NZ143). Male sexuality is laudable but women's is
dangerous. Women never feature in commanding or independent roles. If they
do, they are malicious as in the case of Ismail Khatoun or licentious as
in Stentor Ohan's wife.

Demeaning, deprecatory references to women are standard fare. `Now they
know that they are the only real men, while our men are mere girls (loc
420).' `Should we have a whole nation slain for the sake of a girl
(loc222)?' `Braid Peach has ruined many a man already (loc752).' `If you
fail to come, you'll be more of a woman than myself and should wear this
veil on your head (loc1317).' `Even old hags of Sassoun can catch a jailed
beast (loc 2164).' `Being a woman, she put up with her womanly fate
(loc3733).' One cannot but ask if women so disdained were part of the
enraptured audiences listening to the tale?

The dissonance between the epic's radical, critical spirit and its
accommodation to the subordination and subjugation of women juts out ugly
from an otherwise wonderfully beautiful tale. Can anything be done to
cleanse and redeem it? A positive answer emerges in any reading of the
text and an appreciation of its historic plasticity.

Transmitted orally for a thousand years the 'The Daredevils of Sassoun'
constantly evolved and developed. It has reached us endlessly altered and
enriched, enhanced and sometimes tarnished, all in accord with the spirit
of the times in which it was told. Just because it today exists in written
form does not forbid further evolution. A 21st century rendering could
enrich it further with a universal spirit of equality between women and
men. And for such an enterprise there is within the epic itself solid
foundation.

When David's marriage is being considered, the role and function of
marriage recalls Royal Courts where women are betrothed by men to secure
advantageous political alliances (NZ134). David rejects such arranged
marriages (NZ139). He loves Khantut, not Chmshkik and he will court the
woman he loves. So he sets off for Khantut's home. On arrival David's
first instinct is to satisfy his sexual passions (NZ144)! But Khantut will
have none of this. Yes, she is happy for sex but it must be part of fuller
human relationship! She demands to be treated as a human being, not as a
sexual object (NZ145). `Well read and shrewd' (loc3571) she is conscious
of and insists on women's equality:
`If you are your father's son, I am my father's daughter. A lion is a
lion, whether male or female (loc3448)

Here textual and historical licence for a narrative that would generalise
Khantout's consciousness to all women and would present a vision of
society in which women and men of all races, of all nationalities, of all
faiths are equal in every respect!


V.  Twin peaks of Armenian culture

The visionary and utopian quality of `The Daredevils of Sassoun' is
testimony if any were needed that radical, egalitarian even revolutionary
thought is no artificial, foreign or alien contraband smuggled into
Armenian life. That it has deepest indigenous roots has been noted by
many, including Yeghishe Charents in his much maligned but ruthlessly
honest `At the Crossroads of History'. Against the dismal and the
disastrous, the absurd and the pathetic, the humiliating and the useless
history of sycophantic, selfish and exploiting Armenian elites that have
brought the people and nation to the edge of ruination, Charents writes of
the common man/woman:

    `They lived life as serfs;
    Yet in this deepest dark they dreamt of the sun
    For centuries, with folk rhymes
    They sung their just and noble thoughts,
    And alongside fables
    They created their genius ancient epic
    Into which they put the red idea, the immortal vision
    Of their future life...' (Yeghishe Charents, Collected Works, Volume 4, 
1968, p210)

Beyond its utopian and egalitarian dimension, or rather woven into it, the
9th century `The Daredevils of Sassoun' is a powerful statement of
universal humanism that invites us to place it besides Grigor of Narek's
10th century `The Book of Lamentations' as one of the twin peaks of
Armenian culture. One secular, the other deeply Christian, both are
magnificent artistic offerings of a promise of emancipation from the dark
forces of human history, delineations of a perfected human being in a free
society that has appeared and reappears in the best of human life, culture
and history.

If the state of Sassoun built by Sanasar, represents an imagined popular
political ideal, then the moral qualities of its protagonists and of David
in particular represent an imagined ideal individual who is the
realisation of human potential at its noblest. In his revolt against
injustice, in his determination to give his all to vanquish evil, in his
challenge to all illicit power and authority, in his dedication to
community and people, in his moral rectitude and generosity David is
representative of a healthy, unbroken, dignified and free human being.

In Narek's `Book of Lamentations' the protagonist appears as the
refutation of everything David of Sassoun is. Man/woman is greedy selfish,
violent, warlike, oppressive, deceitful, and destructive. But in
magnificent poetry Narek's ambition is to convince all that they can
emancipate themselves and become 'ideal' even godlike. Put differently one
could say that Narek's project was to help men and women develop in the
inspiring image of the Daredevils of Sassoun that the poet may even have
known about!


*****

Hovhannes Toumanian judged this national epic to be `an expression of
popular collective experience accumulated across the centuries, a
`treasury of spiritual potential' and the `expression of the moral
principles espoused by the people' (AY276). Leo, that demanding and
unsparing historian and critic, was also correct when writing that in `The
Daredevils of Sassoun':
`Before every Armenian (we can add `and every reader of English too') is
placed a story that the more you think about it, the greater the beauty
you see in it.' (From Manouk Abeghian, Collected Works, Volume 1, p533)

But alas today, as Azat Yeghiazaryan notes in his introduction to Artashes
Emin's translation, among us Armenians the epic `lacks freshness', has
become bookish and removed from everyday life:
`We know and love our epic, but at the same time we conceive it as a
purely literary text; its real characters departed from this world long
ago# (loc135)'

Do we have the artist, the poet, the novelist, the writer who will help to
restore freshness, who can free the tale from being a purely literary
text, who is able to recover its vision for our times, who will take the
grand Utopia of the Daredevils and the form of state they fought for and
reintegrate these as intellectual and artistic weapons into our 21st
century battles for a better world for all, for Armenian, Arab, Turk,
Kurd, Irish, Palestinian, English, Native American, Indian and all other
peoples across the globe.



NOTE 1
Most of the quotations are from this text and are referenced according to
Kindle locations of Nairi Zaryan's text as for example loc1234. Where I
have not been able to refer a quotation to this version, I indicate the
page reference to Zaryan's original 1966 Armenian version as follows NZ
followed by page number.


NOTE 2
I am hugely and deeply indebted to and inspired by Azat Yeghiazaryan's
commentary - the best ever written I wager! I have tried to indicate
wherever I have borrowed ideas, examples, quotations or other information
by referring to AY and then a page reference - thus for example AY123. For
those unable to read Armenian here details of the English edition:
Daredevils of Sasun: Poetics of an Epic, Translated by S. Peter Cowe.
 Costa Mesa, CA: Mazda Publishers, 2008. 270pp. References are to the
Armenian version.

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