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The Critical Corner - 07/06/2015

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Armenian News Network / Groong
July 6, 2015


`The Daredevils of Sassoon' - a superb study and three essays


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

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.


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.


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.


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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