A frame tale is the more lyrical term for a collection of interlinked stories. It’s a genre I’m quite fond of since my own book, The Button Collector, falls into the same category. From time to time, I’d like to use this space to focus on a few of my favorite frame tales, and I’m really excited to start with 1001 Nights.
I’m guessing that most people have heard at least something about 1001 Nights, the ancient collection of Persian, Indian and Arabian stories compiled over several centuries. I find this work meaningful for several reasons, but most of all because it shows just how powerful a woman with a story can be.
If you’re a little fuzzy on the details, here’s a handy dandy refresher course:
- King’s wife is unfaithful.
- King executes said wife.
- King starts a lovely tradition– marry a beautiful virgin bride one day and execute her the next. (See, that way she can’t be unfaithful. Get it?)
- King runs out of virgins.
- Enter Scheherazade.
WHOA. WHOA. WHOA. Let’s STOP for a moment and talk about Scheherazade.
In case you somehow missed the ballet/opera/movie/comic, I’ll fill you in. . .
Who was Scheherazade? Only one of the most awesome-est, smartest, sexiest, bravest women in world literature, that’s who. The daughter of the king’s vizier–whose job was to select virgin brides for the king–Scherherazade volunteered to become the next bride of the king, a little bit like Katniss in The Hunger Games. But Scheherazade didn’t use archery as far as I know and I’m quite certain she was nothing like the preceding brides. According to one translation of 1001 Nights, she had “collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers” and had “purused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts, and accomplishments.” In other words, she was wicked smart and she took advantage of it. Not what you’d expect for a girl in that place and time.
And now, back to our story….
- During Scheherazade’s night with the King, she tells a story to her sister. (Don’t ask.) It’s a really good story and here’s the thing: she stops halfway through it! On a cliff hanger!! (I think we all know how frustrating that can be…..)
- King decides that just this once, he’ll let his bride live. So she can finish the story and all.
- On the second night, Scheherazade finishes the story. But then she begins another one and stops halfway through it, too.
- This goes on for…you guessed it! 1001 nights.
- After 1001 nights, Scheherazade tells the King she is completely out of stories. But after 1001 nights/tales, not to mention three children, the king realizes he has fallen in love and cannot execute her. Instead he makes her his queen.
- And they all lived happily ever after. (I know. I don’t buy it either…. Satirical endings may be the focus of a future post.)
I think there are a lot of cool things about this particular collection of interlinked stories. For starters, the overarching frame tale offers such a wonderful example of the power of storytelling—as many before me have noted, it is the act of storytelling itself that saves the teller’s life.
It is also fabulously intriguing that a woman in this ancient, male-dominated culture is depicted as being well read and well educated. Not only that, she then uses this knowledge to the advantage of herself and her kingdom. She is not afraid to thwart expectations about what a woman should be and do. In that regard, she is a wonderful role model for my book’s protagonist, Caroline, who also refuses to deny her basic nature just to conform to tradition.
As in The Canterbury Tales and other linked stories, the tales in 1001 Nights are incredibly diverse and sophisticated, featuring satire, fantasy, mystery, erotica, unreliable narrators, magic and more. They offer commentary on each other and create a mosaic of different colors and textures.
Some of the tales have become wildly popular in Western culture to the point of being Disney-fied, but, according to most accounts, the Arab World largely dismissed and continues to dismiss 1001 Nights and other works of fiction as marginal and suitable only for children and women. Which makes me wonder just how much of 1001 Nights may have been written by women, a sort of subversive inspiration. An even more interesting question is how this body of work was passed down through the centuries—were women story tellers involved in this? Was there a type of pattern that passed from generation to generation, like the Show Way Quilt that guided American slaves to freedom in the North? And while no authoritative version exists as far as I know, 1001 Nights somehow coalesced into a powerful piece of literature known throughout the world. Not bad for a marginal work.
In short, I find it inspiring on many levels.
Sitting at my sleek computer in the 21st century, it’s easy to forget all the women story tellers who have gone before me. Easy to take them for granted. Easy to complain about how difficult it is to write, how hard it is to find time between playing chauffeur and working and making dinner. But, really, is it that hard to carve out a bit of time here and there, a tiny little cubicle of one’s own? My partner in crime once pointed out that J.K. Rowling wrote Harry Potter on napkins in a café while her infant slept in a car carrier. I like to point out that he is lucky to be alive today, but, at the same time he has a teensy bit of a point. Even though my babies were obviously a different brand than Rowling’s infant and even though there were months when I really could not write, there were other months when I could have but did not. It’s cliché, but don’t we owe it to the Scheherazades in the world—women who risked everything and used everything to tell their stories—to make sure we tell our stories too?
I’ve recently come across a quote attributed to Theodore Roosevelt. I’d like to end with it in honor of Scheherazade and all the other women who insisted their stories be told:
Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.