By Kathryn Walton
One of the greatest heroines of the medieval literary world saved her own life, the lives of countless young women, and her entire kingdom not through fighting ability or physical prowess. Scheherazade, the heroine of The Tales of the 1001 Nights, saved her world through stories.
The Tales of the 1001 Nights is probably the most well-known work of medieval Arabic literature in Europe and North America today. Most who grew up hearing fairy tales, reading picture books, or watching Disney will have encountered one or more of the tales associated with the collection. What is often missing from these modern adaptations, however, is the wonderful heroine who grounds the original collection.
Scheherazade appears at the very beginning of the tales in the frame narrative that ties the whole thing together. Therein, she condemns herself to almost certain death when she marries a murderous sultan. She does so, however, to save the lives of countless young women and does so through her remarkable ability to tell stories.
The Tales of the 1001 Nights
The Alf Layla wa-Layla (literally One Thousand and One Nights) presents one of the richest collections of stories from the medieval literary world. The tales offer a rich tapestry of intrigue, suspense, and excitement within a world populated with djinn, demons, talking animals, and magical objects. If you want to read more about the kinds of supernatural creatures that you can find in the medieval Islamic world, check out Adam Ali’s feature on “Demons, Djinns, and Devils of the Medieval Islamic World.” Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves are two of the most well-known stories associated with the tales. Those two stories were not actually included in any medieval versions, but many others survive that convey similarly wonderful narratives.
Sometimes referred to as The Arabian Nights, the collection brings together hundreds of tales from across a diverse geographic region. The exact origins of the tales are almost impossible to pin down. An early version of the tales survives from 9th century Syria, and al Mas’udi, who lived in Baghdad in the 10th century, mentions the tales in his book Muruj adh-dhahab (Meadows of Gold). But the tales themselves are probably much older than that.
As folk tales, the individual tales that make up the collection probably circulated in oral form across a wide geographic region long before they were written down in a single collection. Individual tales have been traced back to ancient Indian, Persian, and Arabic oral cultures. The tales would have been told by performers to popular audiences often in urban centers. The settings reflect this storytelling locale and many of the tales are set in Baghdad, Cairo, and Damascus.
The written form of the tales is rooted in the medieval Arabic world. The earliest surviving manuscript to bring together a core corpus of about 270 tales comes from Syria in the 14th or 15th century. But it is not the authoritative version of the tales. There is no such thing. This manuscript presents one collection of tales, but each surviving version presents a slightly different one. The tales are something of a living thing having been built up over centuries as tellers added more tales.
There is, however, one consistency that tends to appear in most versions of the tales. And that is the frame story in which the heroine Scheherazade appears.
The Frame of the Tales
The Tales of the 1001 Nights begins with a story about two kings of the Sassanid royal house – a dynasty that ruled in pre-Islamic Persia from 224 until 651 CE. At the start of the tale, the brothers are virtuous and well-loved rulers with peaceful kingdoms. They decide to pay one another a visit since it has been a long while since they have seen one another. While they are away from their homes, however, both of their Queens engage in some rather nefarious activities. One of the queens is discovered with a lover, and the other appears to have an orgy with a large number of her entourage.
Disgusted with womankind, both kings execute their queens and take action to ensure that no woman will ever be unfaithful to them again. The younger brother decides to become celibate. The elder brother decides he will marry a new woman every night and execute her in the morning so that she cannot be unfaithful to him. This is obviously a rather unpopular decision. As the text says:
the report of this unexampled cruelty spread consternation through the city. And at length, the people who had once loaded their monarch with praise and blessings, raised one universal outcry against him.
This quotation comes from the version of the text edited by Muhsin al-Musawi and published by Barnes and Noble. al-Musawi’s text is based on the one produced as part of the Dalziel Brothers’ Illustrated Editions between 1863 and 1865. It was edited by Henry William Dulcken and combines a number of earlier translations. It should be noted that these early translations of the tales are heavily influenced by the orientalising tendencies of the scholars in the 18th and 19th centuries.
It is when the sultan has reached this cruelest and most despicable point that Scheherazade decides to step in.
The Brilliant Scheherazade
Scheherazade is one of the most brilliant women of the medieval literary world. The text describes her as having “courage, wit, and penetration in a remarkable degree.” She has studied a great deal over the course of her life and mastered philosophy, physics, history, and the liberal arts. She also has a remarkable command over narrative. She has “such a tenacious memory” that she remembers everything she reads, and she is able to make “verses that surpassed those of the best poets of her time.”
She’s not only brilliant, but beautiful too. The text describes her as having “perfect beauty.”
Hearing of the sultan’s monstrous cruelty, Scheherazade takes it upon herself to save the women of her kingdom and ultimately the kingdom itself.
She decides to marry the sultan, knowing full well that her death may come from her decision. But, on the night of the wedding, she comes up with a plan to save herself. Scheherazade asks that her sister Dinarzade be allowed into their room.
Scheherazade then instructs Dinarzade in secret to wake her an hour before dawn and ask her to tell a story. Dinarzade does, and, having gained permission from the sultan, Scheherazade begins to tell a captivating tale of magic and deceit. But, by design, she doesn’t finish the story before dawn arrives and the sultan has to arise and attend to his duties for the day. The sultan is so enthralled by the story that he permits her to live until the evening so that she can finish the tale.
The next night she does the same thing. She starts but doesn’t finish another captivating tale. She does the same thing the next night, and the next, and the next, and the next. She weaves together a mesmerizing sequence of stories that seems never to end. She does this by making the stories lead directly into one another, having characters within stories tell their own tales, and even having characters within those embedded tales also tell tales.
Scheherazade arranges it so that the sultan is always left on a cliff-hanger, wanting to know what will happen next. So, every morning, he lets her live to finish the tale. This goes on for 1001 nights, at which point, the sultan realizes that he is totally in love with her and that they have had several children together. He lets her live and becomes, once again, the good ruler that he was.
She saves her life, the women of her community, and her country through her stories.
The Power of Stories
Scheherazade’s courage, strength, and brilliance as a storyteller make her one of the most compelling figures of the medieval literary world. More than that, she is, in my opinion, one of the best literary heroines of all time.
The tales Scheherazade tells make up the body of The Tales of the 1001 Nights, so her existence does stem from the need for a framing device to bind a collection of disparate stories together. However, her character and narrative stand on their own in a way that the many other medieval examples of this kind of figure do not.
Her abilities as a storyteller and the resolution to her own narrative also reflect the vitality of stories and emphasize their potentially life-changing attributes. Collections of tales from the medieval world like the 1001 Nights affirm just how important storytelling was in the Middle Ages and how important storytelling has always been to human society. It carries different weight in different cultures, but stories have always fundamentally shaped human existence.
Scheherazade herself is a kind of manifestation of the importance that stories carry. She shows that stories can change lives, change communities, and change kingdoms. Something that is just as true today.
Kathryn Walton holds a PhD in Middle English Literature from York University. Her research focuses on magic, medieval poetics, and popular literature. She currently teaches at Lakehead University in Orillia. You can find her on Twitter @kmmwalton.
Top Image: 19th century painting by Scheherazade and the sultan by the Iranian painter Sani ol molk.