Daredevils of Sassoun is billed as the Armenian national epic, dating back to the first millennium in oral tradition, written down in the nineteenth century. Its subject is several generations of ‘daredevils’/strongmen/heroes defending their country against foreign enemies, among other adventures.
It delivers well more than I expected. Not just in the dynamism and entertainment value of the language, which could be put down to the translator (who certainly deserves credit regardless for retaining it); but its level of psychological detail elevates it well above the bare bones “and then David smote thirty men” I’m used to reading in epics.
From the very beginning I fell in love with Dzovinar who marries to save her father’s kingdom then, by her wits, saves the lives of herself and her sons. The story then follows those sons, and three more generations after them. All are literally giants among men, performing feats of mythic proportions, but none are alike in character – all are at once admirable and relatable.
And the side characters – their wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, seductresses – are equally well-rounded, brave, clever, loving, angry as the case may be. Though the standout has to be Barav and her poor millet field. The development of her relationship with David from irritation at this feckless hoodlum to fond-but-firm adoptive mother is just adorable.