The Knight in the Panther's Skin, written by poet Shota Rustaveli, is the national epic of Georgia. The epic poem was composed in the 12th century, under the reign of Queen Tamar, with whom sources suggest the poet was distantly and madly in love. I read the epic in its English prose translation.
The Knight in the Panther's Skin is a tale of love and adventure. It doesn't actually take place in Georgia - rather, it happens in a half-imaginary landscape between Arabia, India, and the Kingdom of the Seas. And while it aims to tell a double love story, it ends up being something more than that: A tale of friendship and loyalty.
Next to the star-crossed power couples, there are also some notable female supporting characters in the epic, such as Tariel's loyal sister Asmat who follows him into exile, and Phatman, a rich woman from the City of Flowers, who saves Nestan-Darejan in her exile and makes sure the lovers end up united.
After reading so many epics centered on fighting, I enjoyed this tale of love, intrigue and adventure. It is essentially a friendship for the ages, between Avtandil and Tariel, as well as between the two queens, and their supporting cast. Some things that I especially liked:
1. The fair treatment of women. They not only become sovereigns in their own right (spoilers, even Asmat gets a kingdom), but they are also described with the respect and admiration due to sovereigns, and their legitimacy is never questioned.
2. The importance of friendship. "He who does not seek a friend is his own enemy," says Avtandil at some point. One of the great messages of the epic is that no one can be a hero alone. One of the most powerful scenes is when Avtandil talks Tariel out of suicide, with compassion and ingenuity.
3. Phatman's character. Not only is she crucial to saving Nestan who had been thrown out of her kingdom, but she also acts as a mother figure and some kind of early feminist icon to her. She clearly takes pleasure in sleeping with younger men and she admits it - and she never gets punished for it. She is a rich, clever, independent lady married to a not-too-bright husband, and she puts her means to good use, helping young love find its way.
4. The cathartic final fight. Avtandil, Tariel and their third king-friend, Nuradin-Phridon, launch an attack against an impregnable citadel to rescue Nestan. It is a fairly well done fight scene (with some serious planning), but the crowning moment of it all is the end: Once the fortress is secured Avtandil and Phridon go in search of Tariel (they got separated in the fight). They find a trail of dead guards and scattered weapons, and finally find Tariel himself inside the citadel, helmet cast away, sword dropped, kissing Nestan for dear life. Boom. Hollywood ending. I totally ship them.
5. Love is suffering. I like how much guys suffer from love in this story. They definitely don't hide their emotions or try to look tough. They sigh, they cry, they faint. One of my favorite moments early on is when Tariel tries to write a love letter to Nestan and fails; finally his sister Asmat dictates to him what to write. Because that's what big sisters are for, after all.