If you knew you were going to be put to death in the morning, how would you spend your last night? For the fictional princess, Scheherazade, she spun tales of magic, mystery, romance, and deception as if her life depended on it.
As children, we learn of Scheherazade and her one thousand and one nights of storytelling but we aren’t often told her stories must be so captivating and so perfectly planned that the king is left at dawn, waiting impatiently for the next part of the story to be told. If her story ends too soon or doesn’t command all the king’s attention, Scheherazade will die. Of course, the king was as enchanted by the voyages of Sinbad, Ali Baba, and Aladdin as kids are today but so much of what delighted the king were the stories of love and lust also interwoven into these tales of magic and adventure.
The tale of Scheherazade and the one thousand and one stories she told have been shared for so long no one knows when they were first spoken. The collection of stories themselves are based on stories, myths, and fables from ancient Persia, Arabia, Egypt, India, and Mesopotamia. They contain influences from ancient Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism. While they’ve fascinated young and old for more than one thousand and one years, scholars continue to debate their origins.
Scheherazade, The King, and The King's Brother
What we do know is that the Persian king, King Shahryar, was betrayed by his wife. He sought consolation with his brother, Shah Zaman, only to learn Shah Zaman was also married to an unfaithful woman. The king’s grief turned so bitter he swore to marry a different virgin every night, only to have her killed the next morning. He was convinced his bride’s early death was the only way to keep a woman faithful.
Once the king had taken three thousand wives, the lovely Scheherazade persuaded her father to let her become the king’s next bride. Scheherazade’s father, a trusted advisor to the king who had the unfortunate job of beheading each of the king’s new brides, knew his daughter's marriage to the king would mean certain death for her but she convinced him she had a plan that would stop the king’s killing of all the virgins of the land. She needed the help of Dunyazad, her sister, to do so and with tremendous reluctance, their father agreed to Scheherazade’s plan.
On Scheherazade’s wedding night, Dunyazad, according to plan, begged the king to allow Scheherazade to finish telling her the bedtime story she’d started before her marriage to the king. Dunyazad assured the king she understood it would be the last night of Scheherazade’s life and the last opportunity she’d have to hear the rest of the story. The king, who never slept anyway, agreed.
Through the night, Scheherazade spun such a spellbinding story that the king was mesmerized. In what seemed like only moments, dawn was breaking and Scheherazade’s story was reaching its most exciting part. The king was so riveted by the story he postponed Scheherazade’s death for one more night, so she could finish telling him the story before being put to death on the second morning of their marriage.
Each night, for one thousand and one nights, Scheherazade told the king the most bewitching, delightful stories he’d ever heard. Each morning, just as the sun was rising, the stories reached their peak of excitement but had to be interrupted, for one more day, until Scheherazade could finish the story during the following night. Each day, the king spared her life just one more day, so he could hear the end of the story.
Aladdin's Wonderful Lamp
With her stunning ability to weave magic into her words, Scheherazade was able to transport her king on flights of fancy that took the lovers far from their Persian empire. One of her most famous tales, that of Aladdin and his strange lamp, takes place in China, where an ordinary village boy is tricked by a sorcerer to follow him to an enchanted cave, where a mysterious oil lamp awaits them. Aladdin’s wonderful lamp, inhabited by magic spirits, brings him great wealth and happiness but he also discovers deception and betrayal in its possession.
Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves
Another enchanted cave, hidden in a mountainside and opened upon command, is an important part of Scheherazade’s story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. After misfortune falls upon Ali Baba, he stumbles upon a tribe of thieves as they come and go from this magic cave, filled with gold and exotic treasures from their plunders.
Ali Baba learns the secret message to open and close the cave and plunders it himself when the thieves aren’t around. His theft is discovered, however, and the thieves want revenge. It is only through the dedicated efforts of Ali Baba’s slave girl, Morgiana, that his life is spared.
The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor
The irresistible adventures of Sinbad kept the king’s attention for many nights. Scheherazade’s rags-to-riches story of the seven voyages of Sinbad the Sailor contain the quest for wealth, a giant whale and a supernatural seahorse, an enormous snake-eating bird and a valley carpeted in diamonds, a monstrous cyclops, cannibals and a mind-altering herb, an island inhabited by man-eating apes, a shipwreck and a city filled with unimaginable riches, and enslavement on a foreign island.
Stories of Love and Lust
Adventure and riches surely kept the king’s interest but the cunning Scheherazade knew she must also keep the king’s attention in more intimate ways. Within her stories of daring escapades were also stories of love and lust. Wealth was a motivating factor behind many of her bedtime tales but so were erotica, desire, and passion.
Other stories Scheherazade told the king may not be as popular today as those of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad but they are quite entertaining and have inspired many stories developed in more modern times. “The Seven Viziers,” “The Three Apples,” and “The Hunchback’s Tale” are just three such tales. “The City of Brass” takes place in a ghost town while “The Adventures of Bulukiya” lead to Paradise.
Elements of the Stories
Many of the storyteller’s most compelling elements are interwoven throughout the stories of Scheherazade. Each night, her story had to be unique and fresh enough to sustain the king’s interest or she would die in the morning. To keep the story lively - and herself alive - Scheherazade employed the same elements of the stories used by storytellers throughout the ages. There are tales of fate and destiny, love and lust, foreshadowing, prophecy, dream elements, stories within stories, repetitive themes, fables, satire, humor, parody, tragedy, crime and detection, murder, mystery, horror, and even science fiction. All these tales are vividly told through memorable characters, enchanting settings, plots that twist and turn unexpectedly, and themes familiar to all.
Modern-day storytellers influenced by the tales of Scheherazade include HP Lovecraft and Stephen King, whose inspiration for Misery came from the princess’ story of captivity, torture, and murder. Edgar Allen Poe wrote of the eighth voyage of Sinbad in his Thousand and Second Night. Alfred Tennyson and William Wordsworth wrote of the Arabian nights and Bill Willingham based Fables, a comic-book series, on Scheherazade’s tales.
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