April 5, 2016

Scheherazade Retold

        I’ve always loved Scheherazade, the brave, smart, wise hero who saves her sister (and her kingdom) by telling stories.  As someone who has always wanted to tell stories with the power to move people’s hearts, I find Scheherazade a fascinating, inspiring figure.  But there is a flaw in the traditional tale: at the end of it all she’s still stuck with a monster.  The Sultan Shahriar repents of his monstrous, murderous vow, it’s true, and I do like a good redemption, but somehow it’s still a little difficult to forgive him.  It’s a problem that any modern reteller of the tale needs to deal with in one way or another.  Scheherazade has been a major influence around the world for three centuries, and I’ve recently read two new reinterpretations of her story, plus one from a while ago.  I found all of them excellent.
        Warning, issues of the endings will be discussed, so beware of spoilers!

Shadow Spinner by Susan Fletcher, 1998 - This is a sideways retelling of the 1001 Nights: the main character is Marjan, a 12 year old girl who is recruited by Shahrazad to help her collect more stories to tell.  True to the original, it really is the stories alone that are keeping Shahrazad alive one night at a time, and after nearly a thousand nights she’s beginning to run out… and how can she find more stories to tell, stuck in the sultan’s harem?  So Marjan becomes her secret agent, with additional danger provided by the sultan’s villainous mother, who wants to sabotage Shahrazad.  I read this years ago, so my memory for the details is sketchy, but I think it sticks fairly closely to the original in both the sultan’s reasons for serial wife-murder and his state at the end: reformed, which is good, but never really held accountable for his crimes, which is problematic.  I do remember Marjan trying to fathom how Shahrazad could possibly have come to love the monster, and Shahrazad admitting that she’s unable to explain it - she just does.

The Wrath and the Dawn by Renée Ahdieh, 2015 - This is a distinctly YA take on the legend, carefully pressing all the requisite YA buttons, but I still thought it was very good.  In this version, 16 year old Shahrzad’s best friend has already been one of the sultan’s victims, and she volunteers to be the next wife with a plan for revenge.  After the first few nights, the storytelling isn’t a particularly big deal, and what keeps Shahrzad alive is more the fact that the sultan admires her chutzpah.  He’s falling in love with her, and to her dismay she’s falling in love with him, too, complicated further by the fact that she’s already got a serious boyfriend at home - who’s decided it’s his job to launch a war against the sultan.  We discover that the sultan is killing all those wives as the result of a curse, not out of his own choice.  He’s a good man and a good ruler, and although he hates the murder, it’s the only way to save his entire kingdom from destruction.  Thus, if we can just break the curse, we can have a husband who’s much more forgivable.  This book is the first of a series, so it ends rather unendishly.  In fact, the end would be unacceptable if it weren’t for an epilogue that brings a very small amount of closure and hints at further directions.  The sequel will go beyond the traditional plot into wholly new territory.

A Thousand Nights by E.K. Johnston, 2015 - The unnamed hero of this version is not the vizier’s daughter of the original, but the daughter of a caravan master who’s lived her whole life in the desert far from the city.  This background provides her with all sorts of strength and wisdom that serve her well.  When she reaches the sultan’s palace she hardly tells any stories at all, but manages to stay alive, again, by intriguing the sultan.  Actually, it isn’t really the sultan, but a demon who has possessed him, who kills all the one-night wives by sucking their life-force.  Our Scheherazade somehow seems to have the ability to take power back from the demon, thus surviving what has killed all the others.  However, the place of storytelling is taken by thread: spinning and embroidering with threads instead of words.  What I particularly enjoyed about Johnston’s story was the exploration of different ways of wielding power, different ways of praying, different ways of hallowing gods, and particularly the differences between men’s ways and women’s ways.  Unlike so many books for children/teens, there are good mothers here (previous post here) - good families altogether, in fact.  And in the end, with the demon cast out, we need have no qualms at all about embarking on a marriage with the real sultan.  I confess that the climactic battle seemed rather brief and abrupt, but since what I enjoyed about this book was the character-building and descriptions of the world, I didn’t mind too much that the action sequences were given short shrift.

        Three versions, three different ways to imagine the character of Scheherazade and the character of the sultan, and three different desert worlds.  I would recommend any of them, or all three.

[Picture: Illustration based on the idea of the Arabian Nights, digital by Laura Barrett (Image from LauraBarrett.co.uk).]

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