The Power of Stories to Change the World: Another Arabian Night

Arabian NightsAt the end of 1001 Ways to Save Your Life, Shahrayar was trying to save her life by telling a story to the murderous, mysogonistic Kaliph. She says her story “will cause the king to stop his practice, save myself and deliver the people” (21). The first story she told was of a merchant who inadvertently killed the son of a genie, by tossing away the pits of dates he was eating. The demon was about to slay the merchant, he raised his sword in the air–

When morning came and Shahrayar had to break off her tale. “What is this,” she says, “compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night if the king spares me and lets me live? It will be even better and more entertaining” (23). The king thinks to himself, “I will spare her until I hear the rest of the story; then I will have her put to death the next day.” Suspense keeps her alive for another night, but she has challenged herself to tell a better story as she challenges herself each night and so each night becomes a contest to tell a better story than the night before, a contest of life and death.

The next night the doomed merchant persuades the genie to spare his life for one year so he can say goodbye to his family and put his affairs in order if he swears to return. The genie accepts his passionate pledge and the merchant goes to his family and tells them the terrible news, spends a sad year with them, then returns to the place where he killed the genie’s son with the pit of a date. As he is waiting, along comes an old man with a deer who asks him why he is sitting in that haunted, dangerous orchard, so the merchant tells his story and the man is so amazed at the merchant’s fidelity, he resolves to wait and see what will happen. And as they talk– But morning overtook Shahrazad and she lapsed into silence.

On the third night another man approaches with two black hounds and then a third old man who both resolve to await to see what will happen to the honest merchant. The demon appears and says in a thundering voice, “Get ready to die” and the merchant and the three old men being to weep and wail. But dawn broke and morning overtook Shahrazad…

On the fourth night the first old man with the deer challenges the genie to renounce a third of his claim on the merchant’s life if he can tell a story more amazing than the story of the encounter between the genie and the merchant, in other words, the old man’s tale is in competition with its own frame story. The attempt to tell a more amazing story echoes of Shahrazad’s own ongoing resolution to tell a better and a better and a better story than the night before. Also, the old man holding off the merchant’s doom by telling stories parallels Shahrazad’s own impending death, a fact that could not have been missed the blood-thirsty Kaliph listening. Very metafictional!

The deer it turns out is his enchanted cousin and wife, a barren woman who resented the man’s mistress, whom she magically transformed into a cow, and resented his son by her, whom she turned into a bull. She then convinces the man to sacrifice the cow, whose tear-filled eyes almost stop him, and then almost convinces him to kill his own son, but he stays his hands at the bull’s piteous and almost human cries. The evil wife then has her magic turned against her and she is transformed into a deer. Later the son goes off to the country of the merchant in the frame story and does not return, which is why the man is looking for him. This story, however, the story of the first man’s son is not resolved, at least not yet. Perhaps it is woven back into the story later. If you want to find out what happened, you will have to hear more.

In the end the demon assents that the first man’s story was more amazing than his own encounter with the merchant and grants the old man one third of his claim over the merchant’s life. The second old man makes the same challenge and tells his story of the enchanted two black hounds over the sixth and the seventh nights. (Is it more amazing than the story of the merchant and the demon? You will have to find out for yourself, my king, but I will tell you something of the second man’s story.)

The third old man makes the same challenge, but strangely his tale is thrown away. On the eighth night Shahrayar simply says, “the third old man told the demon a story that was even stranger and more amazing than the first two” (36) and then Shahrazad turns to another cluster of stories. Is this a flaw in the text or is the reader (or listener) invited to imagine a story of their own more marvelous and captivating than the ones that came before? Or will this story be told later. To find out you will have to hear more.

Shahrazad and the three old men are simultaneously saving lives and taming the anger and violence of their listeners through the power of stories. Throughout the Arabian Nights stories “divert, cure, redeem and save lives.” From the introduction by Husain Haddawy: “Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man” (Introduction xii). She also saves the entire country, I might add.

This power of stories to entertain, alter, and save run throughout The Arabian Nights: “The Caliph Harun al-Rashid finds more fulfillment in satisfying his sense of wonder by listening to a story than in his sense of justice or his thirst for vengeance; and the king of China spares four lives when he finally hears a story that is stranger than a strange episode from his own life. Even angry demons are humanized and pacified by a good story. And everyone is always ready to oblige, for everyone has a story to tell” (Introduction xiii).

But then morning overtook Shahrazad and she lapsed into silence. “What is this compared to the paper Eros and the Arabesque? It will be even better and more entertaining!)

(For more on The Arabian Nights see my paper Eros and the Arabesque: The Serial Proliferation of Life in The Arabian Nights about the connection between life and death in the endless proliferation of stories! Read more about The Nights in the following posts: 10,001 Nights: The Frame Stories around the Frame Story and 1001 Ways to Save Your Life.)

The Arabian Nights, New Deluxe Edition, trans. Husain Haddaway. W. W. Norton & Co, Inc., 2008.

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