C.S. Lewis proclaims in Surprised by Joy: The Shape of My Early Life that being introduced to Matthew Arnold’s epic poem Sohrab and Rustum was the pinnacle of his experience at Campbell College. In his own words,
I loved the poem at first sight and have loved it ever since. As the wet fog, in the first line, rose out of the Oxus stream, so out of the whole poem there rose and wrapped me round an exquisite, silvery coolness, a delightful quality of distance and calm, a grave melancholy (Lewis 64).
Indeed, this is exactly what the poem offers. The key characters of this epic poem are warriors of the Tartar and Persian armies. However, what might be perceived as a story of intense battle and military exploits is actually a story of longing for familial connections, the exercising of youthful foolishness, and the realization that sometimes overkill can actually kill.
A victim of a mother’s fear and of mistaken identity, the young warrior Sohrab ventures away from his native land in search of his father, Rustum. However, Rustum is no ordinary soldier. He is the crown prince of the Persians and a legendary warrior. Reconciliation with the father that he never knew, and who does not know that Sohrab even exists, drives the young prince to join the army of the Tartars. This enables him to both search for Rustum and gain recognition as a warrior at the same time.
Many a reader enthralled in the vibrancy of a youthful mindset might find themselves, no doubt, able to follow Sohrab’s line of thinking. He is young and existing in a time when war bred rapidly and one was able to secure recognition through violent, impetuous behavior. Arnold’s descriptions of the poem’s epic events extend a hand to readers, allowing them to become immersed in the action. No doubt, the central action of the story is the duel between Sohrab and Rustum. Of that fatal battle, Arnold describes the two as “as eagles on one prey/Come rushing down together from the clouds” (Arnold 471-2). Others might find themselves allured by the pleasant voice of eccentricity and rich metaphor. Lewis himself, before he became more aware of the tragic aspect in later years, was enchanted by this voice. “What enchanted me was the artist in Pekin with his ivory forehead and pale hands, the cypress in the queen’s garden, the backward glance at Rustum’s youth, the pedlars from Khabul, the hushed Chorasmian waste” (Lewis 64).
Although all of these elements cast an epic light, add intensity, and create a mood of excitement, it is all a trap. It is this trap, precisely, that Sohrab and Rustum themselves end up caving into. Like many epic stories of old, this one features a dreadful foreboding near the onset of that fateful day’s events. Having located Rustum’ army, Sohrab, now a part of an enemy camp, rushes to his leader, Peran-Wisa, to make a request to challenge Rustum to a duel. The older man, full of wisdom, behests Rustum to “seek him not through fight!/Seek him in peace, and carry to his arms, O Sohrab, carry an unwounded son!” (Arnold 75-7). He grants Sohrab his desire seeing that he will not be perturbed, however, he admits that “Yet my heart forebodes/ Danger or death awaits thee on this field” (Arnold 86-7). Of course, as these stories usually go, he is correct. But, Sohrab, who is described as a ravening lion’s cub by Peran-Wisa, is too blinded by his youth, untamed excitement at meeting his father, and a desire to look impressive to refrain from rushing into a fight against a seasoned warrior. The result of charging headlong into this situation is that Sohrab lies felled by the end of the poem, slain by his own father’s hand.
Those who were simply enjoying the poem’s superb aesthetics possibly missed the irony that led up to this horrendous moment. Arnold helps to guide readers on this journey by allowing them to also experience Rustum’s point of view. It is during one of these segments that the warrior reveals his innermost desire. “For would that I myself had such a son/And not that one slight helpless girl I have— A son so famed, so brave, to send to war (Arnold 229-231).” Meanwhile, he both insults and praises Rustum by both comparing him to a woman and admiring his skills as a young warrior. This attitude is brought on primarily from his experiences with bloodshed and his disappointment at having never sired a son (a lie that he believes that is true due to the deception of Sohrad’s mother.) Here readers are offered a look at the devastating nature of Sohrab’s own faults. Although here too, these faults are wrapped within a mysterious fog of facts that offer revelations about Rustum’s aging father, other monarchs of the land, and his ambitions.
While Sohrab is young and impetuous, Rustum is older and set in his ways. He is cynical about life and fails to recognize it when the opportunity arises for him to have a son of his own, albeit an adopted one. This opportunity occurs when Sohrad offers petitions for peace during the fight. However, Rustum turns down this offer, accusing Sohrab of only urging on their fight so that he could both prove his braver to the Tartars and get Rustum to agree to peace.
At one other point in the poem, specifically while he is fighting Sohrab, Rustum fantasizes about having a son who is like the young warrior. Of course it is pure irony when Sohrab finally reveals himself to be Rustum’s son, a feat that he could only perform by revealing Rustum’s signet that had been marked onto his skin at birth. Of course, this only happens after Rustum has speared him through. Although Sohrab had it in his mind to impress his father, not kill him, Rustum had no way of knowing that Sohrab was his son and meant him no harm.
Upon discovering this horrible news, Rustum falls down and laments the relationship that he had often dreamed of, but never had. This is Rustum’s ultimate downfall; he destroys the son that he always desired after refusing to turn from his violent ways and agree to peace. Sohrab, on the other hand, has survived may dangerous feats only for the one man who should offer him peace, to strike him down due to his own cocky, youthful nature.
In the end, Arnold is successful at introducing readers to the colorful aesthetic and action of this world. He uses these artful elements to distract readers from the poem’s impending tragedy. But in its final lines, the poem proves to be didactic, warning readers against being impetuous or overly rigid.