Prelude: Shahrazad’s selfless gamble

The one thing that I (and, one suspects, most new readers) know about The Arabian Nights is the basic premise: that Shahrazad finds herself in the king’s presence, telling stories to save her life. We open with a framing narrative that explains why this should be so: the king has been cuckolded by a slave and therefore killed his queen. Fearful of a repeat, he resolves to ‘deflower’ a different girl every night and kill her in the morning.

Shariyar and Shahrazad by Rene Bull
Shariyar and Shahrazad by Rene Bull

I don’t know how this premise would have been received by the historic audience. One assumes that they would have had a similar attitude to atrocious behaviour as we do, which is to tolerate it only because it is a færie story. 

That said, the king is not otherwise described as being particularly cruel or a perpetrator of pantomime villainy. The words themselves seem to present his actions as fairly rational, because obviously no women can be trusted. It is not just king Shahriyar who has an unfaithful wife, but his brother (and neighbouring king) Shah Zaman, and also a powerful jinni they meet up a tree. The jinni’s wife herself cites poetry that testifies to the inherent untrustworthiness of all women, and that it is their ‘private parts’ and their ‘allure’ are the source of the problem.

On the other hand, the ur-narrator also notes that the king’s subjects, and indeed his vizier, all think that the ‘bed-then-behead’ policy is completely bonkers: “This led to unrest among the citizens.” I bet it did.

Shahrazad’s introduction comes at this moment of crisis: she is the vizier’s daughter and she offers herself as a high-stakes gamble, a change-maker who might break the destructive cycle that threatens the entire society. She does not embark on a thousand and one nights of storytelling to save her own skin, but to save everyone from the king’s appalling mindset.

A wily heroine pitted against a cruel, powerful king. With our modern concerns about the misogyny that runs through and poisons our culture (in fact, all cultures), the premise of The Arabian Nights seems highly relevant to me.

Even before the first night of storytelling, we are presented with a story-within-the-story. Here, the storyteller is not Shahrazad but her father. The parable of the Bull and the Donkey seems fairly clear (be wary about taking on the burdens of others) but quite why the herdsman has to whip his wife into submission at the end of the story is less clear. I suspect this battle-of-the-sexes will become a recurring theme over the Nights. Can man subdue woman?

Stray observations

  • I note the presence of a jinni in the framing narrative. Magic exists even at the top level of the story.
  • “When the bull saw his master, he flourished his tail, farted, and galloped off…” A reminder that antique texts can be as crude as modern writing.
  • Shahrazad has a sister, Dunyazad. There is an ominous implication that if Shahrazad fails, the king’s deadly eye will fall next on her sister. So there is a personal imperative to success too. I wonder if Dunya will become a developed character in her own right?

Next: Nights 1 to 19

Bulaq edition - Shahrazad begins
Bulaq edition – Shahrazad begins

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