The Currency of Stories and Compassion: An Analysis of Two Tales in 1,001 Nights
The 1,001 Nights, also known as Arabian Nights, has frequently and loudly been lauded as the quintessential storytelling experience. Although the actual number of tales varies by edition, there seems to be little doubt that not only are the stories themselves veritable treasures, the consistent theme of storytelling as a means for salvation is appreciated by storytellers around the globe. The frame narrative sets this theme up early on: the sultan, Shahriar, having been scorned by his wife, resolves to marry a virgin each day and kill her the next. In an attempt to prevent this atrocity, a brave woman named Scheherazade resolves to postpone or even halt the senseless killings by telling the sultan stories. By ending on a cliff-hanger each day, the sultan will permit her to live long enough to complete the tale, which inevitably leads into a next. This repeated idea of storytelling as a means to pacify and earn mercy, as well as an attempt to impress upon the sultan the evil of murdering innocents, is utilized in two of the early stories by Scheherazade in her attempt to earn her freedom and her life from the sultan.
The first story Scheherazade sees fit to entertain the sultan immediately establishes the currency of storytelling. The tale details a wealthy merchant who accidentally kills a genie’s son. The genie intends to kill the merchant in recompense, but three men bargain with the genie and tell their unique stories to save the merchant’s life. Satisfied with the tales, the genie lets the merchant leave unscathed. In the second distinct tale, another genie threatens to kill a poor fisherman for the apparent boon of releasing him from his thousand-year prison. The fisherman, after cleverly trapping the genie once again, calms the genie’s rage with a tale of a Greek king who kills a loyal servant. The genie, apparently swayed by the tale of unjust betrayal, keeps his promise to the fisherman and ultimately rewards him with great wealth. It is clear that Scheherazade, who is actively attempting to stave off her own death with these tales, wishes to impress upon the sultan the value of her storytelling. These genies, like the Sultan, have absolute power over the merchant and the fisherman’s lives. The mortals accept their fate, as the powerless must. The merchant states “to die is the inevitable destiny of man,” and the fisherman echoes him: “I cannot escape death, I submit to the will of god” (15, 30). Unlike her characters, however, Scheherazade does not placidly accept her demise. “I know the risk I run; but that does not frighten me,” she says. “If I perish, at least my death will be glorious; and if I succeed, I shall do my country an important piece of service” (9). Along with the figures in her tales, she hopes to earn mercy from the powerful sultan with the only currency she has – stories. These tales, however, are not just pretty forms of entertainment, though it’s clear the sultan views them as only such. With these tales, which she clearly considers powerful, she attempts to manipulate the sultan into revoking his oath to kill each of his brides.
The frame narrative of 1,001 Nights emphasizes how evil the sultan’s decision to kill and marry a new wife every day is, calling it an “unexampled cruelty” and revealing that “the people who had once loaded their monarch with praise and blessings, raised one universal outcry against him” (9). Perhaps one of the most important attributes of Scheherazade’s stories is the idea that her characters are being unjustly punished. Although she also appeals to the sultan with tales of wicked wives ultimately meeting their demise, her stories of people, usually common folk, becoming victims of genies or other powerful figures are likely intended to provoke a sense of pity or even regret in the sultan for his senseless killing. The merchant, though guilty of killing the genie’s son, did so by accident. He even pleads, “my lord pardon me…for, if I have killed thy son, it was accidentally; therefore suffer me to live” (13). The genie, however, is unmoved by his pleas and the circumstances. He, reminiscent of the sultan and his brides, is determined to kill the merchant no matter what until the merchant is saved by three men and their extraordinary tales. The fisherman in Sheherazade’s next tale suffers an even worse fate; after releasing a genie who had been trapped in a vase for thousands of years, the fisherman is shocked to discover that the genie is resolved to kill his own rescuer. Again, he pleads with the genie: “consider, I entreat thee, thy injustice; and revoke thine unreasonable oath” (30). These words, it seems, are practically a direct plea to the sultan. It must be clear to Sheherazade that none of the sultan’s past brides, who must have also pleaded for their lives, were able to spark any compassion within the sultan. Perhaps by invoking that sense of pity in compassion in her tales, a much more digestible form of reproach and instruction, she can change the sultan’s mind.
The context of family and the bonds that inspire a person to despair at their own death is another important tool in inspiring compassion with the sultan. Although the dozens of murdered virgins before Scheherazade are barely mentioned, the heroine herself is quite detailed, with a paragraph dedicated to the gifts of her beauty and intelligence. Perhaps more importantly than that, however, the frame story tells the audience not only of Scheherazade and her virtues but also of her family, who loves her dearly. Her father is the Sultan’s vizier, who begs his daughter not to marry the Sultan and who is said to be “in a state of cruel suspense, unable to sleep.” Her sister agrees to help Scheherazade with her plot, begging her sister to tell her a story each morning in a desperate attempt to postpone her inevitable execution. Likewise, in her first two stories, Scheherazade informs the sultan of the profession of her characters, providing them with their only title, and also of their background and their family. The merchant is characterized as not only having “a great estate in lands, goods, and money,” but as having a wife and children who love him very much and mourn the idea of his passing (13). He bargains with the genie to be able to visit his family before he dies. Upon hearing the news of his imminent death, his wife is said to have “uttered the most lamentable groans,” and the children “made the house resound with their grief” (14). Similarly, the fisherman is described as being “so poor, that he could barely obtain food for himself, and for the wife and three children who made up his family” (27). Upon discovering the genie he released is determined to kill him, the fisherman is said to be in “great distress… not so much on his own account, as on that of his three children; for he anticipated with anguish the wretched state to which his death would reduce them” (30). Scheherazade humanizes the characters who are to suffer unjust deaths, perhaps hoping the sultan will pay more consideration to the families and lives his murdered brides are leaving behind.
For Scheherazade, her stories and how she presents them are literally a matter of life and death. She cannot afford to choose her words carelessly or think that any sentence might be without consequence. With so much on the line, she is sure to tell what seem like distinct, largely unrelated tales. After all, her first two stories are about a successful merchant and an impoverished fisherman, caught in different traps and saved in slightly different ways. By invoking the same sense of compassion for each character in the face of an antagonist far more powerful than them, however, Scheherazade likens the two men in a way that transcends wealth or circumstance. In the same way, she illustrates the power and value that a story has, demonstrating a good story as an acceptable payment for mercy. To the critical reader, these themes seem almost too obvious; doesn’t the sultan realize that Scheherazade is trying to manipulate him? Through the guise of seemingly simple stories, however, Scheherazade’s message is concealed. Ultimately, of course, her stories and her delightful presence change the king’s heart, and when she finally runs out of stories, the sultan spares her life and makes Scheherazade his queen. Beyond the storybook ending, 1,001 Nights contains a valuable lesson about the value of stories and the necessity of compassion even in the modern age.
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