Arabian Nights

Arabian Nights, or One Thousand and One Nights, whichever title one calls it by, has a long and complicated history which I shall not go into here (I would need a whole series of posts to do the subject justice) except to mention the one thing all versions and retellings have in common: the framing device. In the plot that frames the whole collection of stories, the sultan discovers that his wife has been unfaithful. He has her executed and embarks on a reign of terror, where he marries a virgin each evening and has her executed in the morning, supposedly so she won’t have time to cheat on him. Sound reasoning, no? (No.)

This goes on for quite some time (you’d think the young women and their families would catch on) until either there are no young virgins left (yeesh!) or until the daughter of the vizier whose responsibility it is to find young virgins volunteers. Needless to say, her father is dismayed, but his daughter, whose name is Scheherazade, carries her point and marries the sultan. Now, in some versions, Scheherazade asks her husband if she can have her sister visit in the evening (her last request, sob sob), and it is ostensibly to this younger sister to whom Scheherazade begins telling a marvellous tale. Other versions omit the sister (which in my opinion, removes a beautifully specific motivation for Scheherazade to figure out how to end the sultan’s serial monogamous habits, although of course self-preservation might be a factor in any case. Although Scheherazade is described as beautiful and intelligent, her status as the vizier’s eldest daughter might have provided her some protection; it is definitely she who asks to marry the sultan, rather than the sultan demanding her head. Er, hand.) and have Scheherazade offer to pass the time by telling the sultan stories, which remarkably gracious offer he accepts.

And of course, Scheherazade, as an accomplished young woman, is an extraordinarily deft storyteller. So one would think that she would have the sense of timing to finish her story in one evening. She doesn’t. In fact, she chooses in a moment of high tension and, claiming weariness (isn’t this what parents say to their children – “I’ve read quite enough for one night, it’s time for you to go to sleep”?), ends the story for that night. (She knew how to choose her cliffhangers, oral tradition or not.) The sultan, naturally, is so enraptured by her story that he postpones her execution so that she can finish the story the following night. Which she obligingly does. And promptly begins a new tale. And so she continued doing for one thousand and one nights.

How the framing device ends varies: in some versions, the sultan reforms and voluntarily pardons his wife; in others, she pleads for her life (successfully); in yet others it is the sight of their children (somehow concealed from the king up to this point) that softens his heart. (Side note: it is curious in light of how sexually explicit some of the tales are, that Scheherazade and the sultan are only ever described as involved in tale-telling. Which begs the question of how she managed to continue keeping him enthralled by her tales when he had other activities in mind. And I do wonder how he could fail to notice that she was pregnant. But then again, he was clearly not a very imaginative or observant man, or he wouldn’t have decided that all women were alike and therefore ought to be killed before they betrayed him, anyway. It seems that the sultan marrying virgin after virgin with the sole intention of sleeping with and executing them does not count as betrayal, of either wife or of royal duty to protect his citizens.)

Diana Wynne Jones, one of my favouritest of favourite children’s book authors, was inspired by Scheherazade. As a child, Jones read as much as she could, which wasn’t nearly as much as she would have liked, because her parents were neglectful, abusive, and rather horrid. Since books for children and fiction in general was in short supply, Jones devoured whatever she could get her hands on – Greek myths, the Morte d’Arthur, Pilgrim’s Progress, folk tales – and came to the following conclusion:

“I was saddened to find that as an eldest child and a girl I was barred from heroism entirely—or was I? I puzzled long over the story of Hero and Leander. Hero did nothing but let her lover do all that swimming. Obviously the girl was a wimp. But she had that name. When I was nine, much pleading wrung a frivolous book from my parents—The Arabian Nights, bowdlerized. Sheherazade, I was delighted to find, was an elder sister. So even though she did nothing but tell stories (literally for dear life), maybe there was some hope. I found it later in that book, in a tale in which the Sultana’s jealous sisters tell the Sultan that his wife had given birth to a puppy, a kitten, and a log of wood. The log of wood was a girl, and she most heroically set things to rights. Good. It was possible for a girl to be a hero, then.”

(Jones, Diana Wynne. “The Heroic Ideal – A Personal Odyssey.” The Lion and the Unicorn 13.1 (1989): 129.)

The copy Jones read was bowdlerized. I am not aware if Arabian Nights has been outright banned, or challenged. What it has suffered from, however, over the past few centuries, is soft censorship. Publishers, editors, and retellers soften offensive material, omit graphic tales and so on.

Which is not entirely a bad thing. I mean, one of the tales is basically an extended joke about male genitalia. Not surprisingly, this is one of the lesser-known tales; I hadn’t even heard of it until recently. Some of the tales are crude, a large number are violent, rambling, full of incest, and/or otherwise less palatable than the better-known tales such as “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” – which, actually, was not part of the original tales but was a folk story added in by European publishers.

But the problem is that, unappealing though certain stories in One Thousand and One Nights may be, soft censorship is still censorship. Soft censorship is more subtle and more pervasive than outright challenges to books; it is an attitude that seeks to prevent controversial issues from arising. The author thinks, oh, nobody will want to read about that, I’d never get it published. The editors and publishers think about audience and sales, and fret over potential challenges – surely it would be easier if this passage were cut right now, before printing? If this character wasn’t so-and-so, if that character didn’t say such-and-such. Booksellers face the question of whether or not they can afford to stock a book whose subject matter is riskier, and might not sell. And then there are the readers. I refer you, my reader, to Yash’s excellent words on the matter here:

All of which long ramble is to say, read a book that challenges you. Read One Thousand and One Nights. Read stories by Diana Wynne Jones. Read something – anything – to that stretches you out of your comfort zones and challenges what you accept as true, as normal, as acceptable. Read.

4 responses to “Arabian Nights

  1. Haha! You’re sweet to refer to my post like that. Also, I was definitely aww-ing at the point where DWJ says, “It was possible for a girl to be a hero, then.” And now, I really want my own copy of this beast of a book. (Preferably one with a pretty cover because I’m vain like that.)

  2. I read in one version that Scheherazade and the sultan had intercourse before going on with story-telling and during that time her younger sister would lie on the floor! Gross!!!

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