Though the Prince of Persia has managed to survive for 20 years as a videogame hero without any character ever mentioning his name, this wasn’t a realistic option when it came to writing the movie. He needed a name.
I found it in this passage from Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (the Persian Book of Kings):
[The Simorgh] went to the youth and said, “O brave young man, until today I have brought you up as if I were your nurse, and I have taught you speech and the ways of virtue. Now it is time for you to return to your own birthplace. Your father has come searching for you. I have named you Dastan (The Trickster) and from now on you will be known by this name.”
Despite what the Simorgh says, the new name doesn’t stick; everyone goes back to calling him by his real name, Zal. But Dastan seemed like the perfect name for my prince (especially since Zal wasn’t using it). So I borrowed it.
The Trickster has been a popular heroic archetype for thousands of years (Joseph Campbell called him the “Hero with a Thousand Faces”). From his first incarnation as an Apple II sprite, the prince has run, jumped and scrambled firmly in the footsteps of other well-known Tricksters like Robin Hood, Zorro, Han Solo, Indiana Jones, and (of course) the Man with No Name.
As it turns out, the word dastan has shadings I wasn’t aware of — shadings that make it an even more appropriate name for the prince than I realized.
First, several people (including Jake Gyllenhaal the first day we met) have pointed out to me that Dastan is also a Persian word meaning ”story.” And so it is, although the vowel is pronounced differently. According to wikipedia, a Dastan is a type of Central Asian oral history “centered on one individual who protects his tribe or his people from an outside invader/enemy.” Hey, just like every video game.
Then, I came across this fascinating article by Dick Davis (the translator of the English edition of the Shahnameh I quoted above). He’s discussing the qualities of the Trickster Hero as they pertain to Rostam, Persia’s greatest epic hero (think Hercules, Siegfried, etc), who is way more famous than Zal or Dastan. It’s a great example of the kind of nuances that get lost in translation:
There is also the curious nature of his name to be taken into account. He is often referred to as “Rostam-e Dastan,” which can have two different meanings. One, “Rostam the son of Dastan,” is the meaning the poem foregrounds, and his father, Zal, is seen as having somewhere along the line acquired a second name, Dastan. But the phrase can also mean “Rostam who possesses the quality of dastan”, and the word “dastan” means “trickery.” This, I believe, was the original meaning of the phrase “Rostam-e Dastan” (probably long before the Shahnameh was written, while the stories of Rostam still had a solely oral existence), i.e. “Rostam the trickster”, the equivalent of Homer’s “Odysseus of many wiles”, and only later did the word dastan come to be identified as the name of his father (after all, his father already had a name, Zal).
The prince in Sands of Time (the video game) at one point wishes aloud that he had the strength of Rostam so that he could smash through a certain wall. I figured a seventh-century Persian prince would have grown up hearing those tales and would use them as a point of reference.
Now he’s got a name of his own.