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Life and death intertwine in unusual ways in The Arabian Nights. The first tale is interrupted by morning: “but morning overtook Shahrazad and she lapsed into silence” (Nights 23). Morning is usually a sign of new beginnings, life and hope, but here it means death. Sir Richard Burton translated this line, “But Scheherazade perceived the morning–” Haddawy argues that Burton’s translation is not only inaccurate, but loses the poignancy of being pursued and overtaken by morning. Thus, “she lapsed into silence” is potent because silence is the end of the story and death. Will it be a permanent silence?
No, suspense will revive the story, for Shahrazad’s tale leaves King Shahrayar “burning with curiosity,” (another phrase repeated in “The Third Dervish’s Tale”). Although The Arabian Nights was not printed as a serial, Shahrazad tells the story as one, breaking off the story at key moments of tension, as on the first night. A demon says to a merchant, “By God, I must kill you, as you killed my son, even if you weep blood.’ The merchant ask, ‘Must you?’ The demon replied, ‘I must,’ and raised his sword to strike” (Nights 23). The demon is going to murder him because the merchant accidentally killed his son with a date pit he tossed away when eating lunch, a silly motivation for a story of revenge, reflecting on the king’s own motivation for taking out revenge on all women for the infidelity of one.
The suspense created by the story allows Shahrazad a reprieve: “The king thought to himself, ‘I will spare her until I hear the rest of the story, then I will have her put to death the next day'” (Nights 23). During the day, the king, who never seems to sleep, treats Shahrazad’s father kindly and with added favors, possibly showing a growing tenderness. Such a detail is never repeated, however, leaving it up to the reader to imagine a change in the king, if any.
On the second night the king adds to Dinarzad’s request for a story, “Let it be the conclusion of the story of the demon and the merchant for I would like to hear it” (Nights 23). This is the only time the king says something as positive as “for I would like to hear it.” Although his request to hear the rest of the story expresses his desire to end the narrative and kill Shahrazad, his craving for the end is what keeps Shahrazad alive, as she endlessly defers the conclusion.
Most nights, the king is silent, as is appropriate for a symbol of death. Sometimes Dinarzad asks for “the rest of the story,” although she does not mean it, for she knows what will happen if the end comes. She is speaking for the silent king. The king repeats his spoken demand for the end of the story only at moments of the greatest suspense. This might be that it is the only time the writer of The Arabian Nights could risk the demand, or it may show that it is natural for humans to desire the end of the story at the moments of greatest tension, to crave the climax at the height of tension, as Freud suggested. At other times, when tension is lower, the king (and the reader) are often willing to just let the story continue, hoping for the suspense to build. If the excitement or interest never comes, then the king will kill Shahrazad, and we will kill the book by closing it.
The danger of an anthology is that nothing draws the reader back after one piece of fiction ends. Under the threat of death, not only does Shahrazad ration out her story in small pieces and promise ever more amazing and entertaining stories, but she also elaborates a structure of stories within stories within stories. One of three old men who have come across the scene with the demon and the merchant stays to find out what will happened to the merchant. Later he stops the demon from killing the merchant and says, “Fiend and King of the demon kings, if I tell you what happened to me and that deer [his enchanted mistress], and you find it strange and amazing, indeed stranger and more amazing than what happened to you and the merchant, will you grant me a third of your claim on him for his crime and guilt?” (Nights 27). The demon, intrigued by a story that promises to be stranger and more amazing than his own, accepts.
Throughout The Thousand and One Nights characters within one story begin to tell other tales and characters in those tales tell stories. Sometimes the stories go four or even five levels deep. Even though one piece may come to an end, the larger story is still pending. Eventually cycles of stories do reach a conclusion, otherwise the narrative would just produce a feeling of frustration as tension mounts. On the eighth night the stories of the three old men and the merchant and the demon are brought to an end, but Shahrazad begins another cycle before morning. She adds, “But this story is not as strange or as amazing as the story of the fisherman” (Nights 36).
Dinarzad speaks up again, “Please, sister, what is the story of the fisherman?” (Nights 36). This is the only time Dinarzad speaks up in the middle of the night, but this moment, at the resolution of the first cycle of stories, is another very dangerous moment. The king could stop up his ears and kill Shahrazad in the morning. Instead he lets the new story begin, maybe because there is often a sense of disappointment after a sexual climax or the end of a story, so perhaps the king was willing to be drawn in again by the promise of a continuation of pleasure.
Also, abuses of serial form might continue the suspense beyond a cycle of stories. In the first cycle, which I have been describing, we are given the tales of two old men, but something is left unresolved in each. We are told about the past events, but the story of the current journeys of the old men are left unfinished: one to find out what happened to his son after his enchantment as a bull and the other to break the enchantment of his brothers as black dogs, now that ten years have passed, a well-deserved punishment that has run its course.
Most significantly, the third man’s tale is thrown away: “I heard, O happy King, that the third old man told the demon a story that was even stranger and more amazing than the first two” (Nights 36). Oddly, we are not given his story. The third level story is resolved in a single line, the second level story of the merchant and the demon is wrapped up in a paragraph, and then Shahrazad switches tales. The open-endedness of the two unresolved stories and the untold third story hint that the tales might be picked up again later and continued, so suspense is maintained.
Rarely do cycles of stories finish at the end of a night. When a cycle does conclude at the break of dawn, there are often startling references to death, which contrast dramatically with the common European ending of fairy tales, “happily ever after,” implying no death at all, but immortality and endless bliss. One example is: “and they continued to enjoy each other’s company until they were overtaken by death, the destroyer of delights” (Nights 356). Death here is described, in almost Freudian terms, as the destroyer of delights.
Another large cluster of stories comes to an end on the two hundred and seventy-first night (the last night in my edition — the “original” Thousand and One Nights was never completed). Another dramatic pronouncement: “Then King Badr and his wife and mother and relatives continued to enjoy life until they were overtaken by the breaker of ties and the destroyer of delights. And this is the completion and the end of their story” (Nights 518). Here death is not only the destroyer of delights, but the breaker of ties as well and it is emphasized by the words “completion” and “end of their story.”
This is the most absolute ending in all of The Arabian Nights, and yet another story begins the next night, although it is not included in this edition because the tale is incomplete. The Syrian manuscript ended at that point. Instead, the translator offers a postscript: “Tradition has it that in the course of time Shahrazad bore Shahrayar three children and that, having learned to trust and love her, he spared her life and kept her as his queen” (Nights 518). The translator’s postscript begins as all of Shahrazad’s tales have begun and the book itself, with a reference to folklore. “Tradition has it–” works the same way as “It is related–”
Speaking of the power stories have to change lives, Haddawy writes, “In the Nights themselves, tales divert, cure, redeem and save lives. Shahrazad cures Shahrayar of his hatred of women, teaches him to love, and by doing so saves her own life and wins a good man . . . the Caliph Harun al-Rashid finds more fulfillment in satisfying his sense of wonder by listening to a story than in his sense of justice of his thirst for vengeance; and the king of China spares four lives when he finally hears a story that is stranger than a strange episode from his own life. Even angry demons are humanized and pacified by a good story. And everyone is always ready to oblige, for everyone has a strange story to tell” (Nights xii). If everyone has a strange story to tell, then can this be the end?