Welcome to Epics from A to Z! We are off to a very adventurous start.
(How is this story not a blockbuster movie yet?)
The Romance of Antar is an Arab epic poem composed sometime in the 8th century. It consists of forty-five volumes (!!!) and several hundred pages in its original form; as to date, no full English translation has been published. The story takes place in the 6th century and centers around Arab tribes and kingdoms in the land of Hejaz (western Saudi Arabia) with occasional adventures into Persia and Yemen, and even mentions of Byzantium and Europe. Hamilton's four-volume English translation of the first of the three parts of the epic is dubbed "a Bedouin romance." While the epic makes frequent mentions to Mecca and Islam, the story actually takes place before the time of the Prophet.
Some people speculate that this story, traveling through cultural exchange in the time of the Crusades, could have been one of the cultural sources of medieval European romances of chivalry. It definitely has a lot in common with them.
The main hero of the tale is a historical person: Antarah ib Shaddad al-Absi was a 6th century poet and warrior (some of his poems are counted among the greatest feats of Arab poetry). That is a pretty cool combination. He was a "raven" - the son of an Arab prince and a black slave woman, thus born a slave himself. In the epic he is a chivalrous and brave person who first distinguishes himself by saving an old beggar woman from abuse, even though he knows he will be punished for it. He is equipped with a great war horse and a sword forged from thunder (literally). I like him, because whenever he is not cleaving his enemies in half he composes poems about the beauty of the world (and his love).
Antarah has two goals in life: Be accepted by his father as a free member of his tribe, and marry his beautiful princess cousin, the fair-skinned Abla. Both of them are eventually accomplished through a lot of fighting and a lot of perilous adventures. Abla gets kidnapped a couple of dozen times by various enemy tribes and jilted suitors, and has to be rescued. Antarah also participates in various battles and conflicts all over the map; he even fights a Christian knight in the Persian court. He is a protector of the weak, a defender of women, a fearless warrior, and a lovesick poet.
You will be happy to know that eventually Antarah saves his entire tribe and is accepted as a noble warrior; and after a few dozen crashed wedding attempts he finally manages to marry Abla and have children. He lives in greatness until the very end; his heroic death is mourned even by his enemies.
Even though I could only read an abridged version of the story, the highlights that jumped out at me were some of the supporting characters, namely:
Shiboob, Antarah's half-brother (one of the sons that were kidnapped and enslaved with their mother to Antarah's father). He is called "Son of the Wind" for his running speed, and is also a pretty good archer. He acts as Antarah's messenger, sidekick, best friend, and common sense. He is good at tracking down kidnapped people (a much needed skill in this epic). He comes up with clever ploys to trick enemies, and puts on masterful disguises to infiltrate the camps of other tribes. Once he even dresses up as a woman and puts on a dance-and-song performance.
Jaida, a female warrior, one of Antarah's enemies. She defeats several men in combat and duels, and falls in love with her cousin, who at first is very disturbed by the fact that his very talented warrior friend turns out to be a woman.
Jezar, the man that brings down Antarah in the end. He is a skilled archer, and when Antarah defeats him in battle he blinds him by drawing a red-hot blade across his eyes. Jezar lives and plots revenge for ten years - he learns to shoot with deadly accuracy following the sounds he hears (eat your heart out, R.A. Salvatore).
Some people have suggested that Antares, the brightest star of the Scorpio constellation, was named after Antarah.