Once upon a time, long ago and in a distant land, there lived a woman who is one of the most famous storytellers of all time. She has actually come to embody the whole idea of story telling. This is the beautiful and eternally enchanting Queen Scheherazade.
As everyone knows, Scheherazade married a crazed King Shahriyar. Shahriyar was a ruler whose distrust of women was as great as his lust for them. After he discovered his first wife’s infidelity, he killed her. And for three years thereafter, every day he would marry a young woman. And, after he had slept with her, the next morning he would have her killed.
Scheherazade was the daughter of this terrifying king’s vizier, his prime minister. Though young, she was a great reader of books and histories; she studied rhetoric and poetry. These were her delights. Because of her high birth, she was in no danger herself of attracting the King’s interest. But she heard of the King’s murderous passions, and was told of all the young women who were being killed. She resolved to bring the slaughter to an end.
She proposed to her father that he give her to the king to marry. Her father was, of course, utterly horrified. She explained her plan. The Vizier loved his daughter and opposed this perilous path. But he could not dissuade Scheherezade. She was determined.
Even so, Scheherazade had to rouse all her courage on the day she gave herself to King Shahriyar. Then after the wedding and the wedding night, Scheherazade, asked the king if she might tell him a story. The King, who was moody and restless, nodded his assent.
So began 1001 Nights of stories. On some nights, Scheherazade told several tales, on others she told stories that took days. But every morning, as the sun rose, whatever tale she was telling was not complete. And every day, King Shahriyar, curious to find out how the story would unfold, postponed her execution. Every day, because of the stories she told, life continued.
For Scheherazade knew a great truth: the telling and the hearing of stories, the exchange of tales and sagas is the deep breath of human life. Listening and telling are the inhalation and exhalation of human experience. We move, each day, on an ocean of stories, tales, jokes, reports elegies, confessions. We are sustained in our lives by unending narratives. It is the air we breathe. Telling stories, by its very nature, sustains us in the face of death.
All stories are born from other stories and give birth to stories. Each tale begins with something that happened earlier. For if you want to know why this is happening, well, you have to know what happened just before. Then we want to know what happens next , how things work out. On and on. As the world of stories rocks forward and back, expanding like the dunes of the desert and the waves of the sea.
Scheherazade’s innumerable stories in the 1001 Nights come from all across the Mediterranean world from Spain to Arabia, Persia and India They arise in the travels of thousands and thousands of merchants who ventured across vast deserts, through deep mountain ranges, and sailed on uncharted seas.
These voyagers entered unfamiliar cities, saw palaces of indescribable splendor, were threatened with dungeons and tortures and diseases. There they encountered unknown peoples who wore strange clothes, spoke unknown languages, had unfamiliar laws and customs. They faced bandits and corrupt officials, wise men, despots, generous patrons, and women, beauties, mothers, crones, shrews. They saw fortune tellers, magicians, wonder workers. Always moving on, they faced typhoons, sea monsters, tornadoes, djinns, genies, sea creatures, huge lizards, animals that could talk and statues that could kill. They risked their lives for adventure and to find their fortunes. And everywhere, they traded goods, and everywhere, in every city and bazaar, they traded stories.
When they came home, they, like Sinbad, could live in lavish luxury and regale their friends with amazing tales. But like Sinbad, they all grew bored and set out once again into the deserts and onto the seas to find places of unimagined possibilities, to discover new stories.
Scheherazade tells these stories and she weaves them together, joining images and themes in the brilliant patterns of a magic carpet that transports us beyond land and sea and shows us many secret worlds.
Woven together in one of Scheherazade’s long tales are three stories of three dervishes called the Kalendar Princes: each formerly a prince, each clean shaven, each missing an eye, and each now a wandering spiritual seeker. Their stories are very different but in each, an old man is betrayed; in each, the prince gains and loses great wealth, each Prince brings a good and beautiful woman to her death, and most strangely each Prince finds buried in the ground an iron door that opens on a marble staircase with alabaster walls descending down into a lavish jeweled palace, deep beneath the earth. Each Prince finds his fate in the claustrophobic splendor of these secret places.
Hearing these stories, we, like Shahrzad’s terrifying lord and husband, might be prompted to look for deeper mysteries beneath the surface our own world.
As a wise man many years later wrote: “One reads of places in the ancient world where a door leads down into the underworld. But our waking life is likewise a land, where markers we often do not notice can lead us down into hidden worlds below.
Our waking life is full of many inconspicuous places from which
great dreams arise.”
Scheherazade tells story after story to save her own life and to save the lives of other women. But if she is to succeed, she must make King Shahriyar fall in love with her. Her stories are part of a long and complex seduction. She must change the King, if he is to love her.
So Scheherazade tells many stories about love and lovers. Most are not happy. Love in the world of 1001 Nights, like love everywhere and in every time, is never simple It is always risky, and sometimes dangerous. Even so, and as always, the men and women fall in love with intense abandon and wild ardor. Or they flee from love as if it were a ravening beast.
As Scheherazade has one lover say: “Fire broke out in my heart; the flames spread, and one glance led to a thousand regrets.”
Passion catapults lovers into a new and strange world. Suddenly, it is urgent that they find the secret path that will bring them together. They must learn to interpret secret signs of encouragement and uncertainty, acceptance or rejection.
They must learn the subtle ways of fanning the sparks of love. They must learn how to know and please the one they love. They must learn how signs and symbols can untie or bind the heart’s hidden knots.
Is this not always so?
Many complex and beautiful strategies of seduction are woven deeply into Scheherazade’s storytelling. In one of her stories, a prince falls in love with a princess who adamantly rejects him. She despises men.
It turns out that, as a child, this Princess had a dream. And in this dream, a male dove got caught in a hunter’s net. As all the other birds flew off, only a single female returned to extricate the male. A day later, their roles were reversed. It was she who got caught. But the male dove did not come back to free her. Soon the hunter came and cut her throat. This dream so shocked the Princess that she could not let go of the conviction that all men are faithless, fickle and treacherous. She never allowed herself to love a man.
When he learned about this dream, the Prince thought of a plan to reverse it. He had three murals painted in pavilion in a garden that the Princess often visited.
The paintings to the left and right showed again the Princess’ dream with the female dove caught in a hunter’s snare as the hunter approaches with his knife drawn. But between these two, was the image of an enormous hawk holding in his beak the male dove, dead and dripping blood.
When the Princess entered this chamber, she was stunned by what she saw. She fainted. And she woke, amazed. She recognized what she had seen in her own dream long ago. But now, between the two remembered images, she saw that the male dove had not abandoned his mate. He had not been fickle. He had himself been killed. “Ah,” she said, “How wrong have I been to think men were faithless.” Her hatred dissolved. The lovers came together. The Prince and Princess were married. Their fathers made peace, and the world was, for a moment, perfect.
The luminous magic of love and passion, so imprisoned in the world of everyday concerns and fears, has, in this story, been liberated. From a neurotic dream of betrayal, anger, blame and isolation, love has been let loose
Story by story, Queen Scheherazade introduces King Shahriya – and us - into a wider world of love and a more complex world of fate. Thread by thread, she unweaves the hunter’s net, replacing one strand with another. And by such small alterations, Scheherazade undoes dreams and changes the world.
And, in so remaking the world, did Schheherazade risk that she herself might fall in love with her cruel lord?
For almost three years, Scherezade tells King Shahriyar thousands of stories. In that time she bears him three sons. And all the while, she lives, every day, under the threat of death.
In the strange intimacy of their time together, she has been telling stories and taking her husband / executioner on journeys through the wide world.
Again and again, in story after story, they have set out on the waves of an endless sea that is the source of mystery, delirium, catastrophe and the uncertain path to magic, to wealth, to power, and to love. Together on these quests, their ships have been ripped apart by the power of magnetic mountains, and they have been cast on white shores to be menaced by bronze warriors. They have gained and lost kingdoms; they have been enslaved and been set free.
Side by side, they have traversed oceans of stories and journeyed in the endless, fertile, roiling flow of life and death. Together they have dwelt in the inexhaustible source of narratives, enigmas and fate.
So, after one thousand and one nights of such shared journeys, Scheherazade requests that her husband grant her a single wish. King Shahriyar agrees. She calls for their 3 sons and asks that the King deliver her from the sentence of death so that their children not be deprived of a living mother.
King Shahriyar has been changed by his intimacy with his Queen and his immersion in the world of stories. Thus he says that for some time he had planned to release her from this threat. He grants her request.
King Shahriyar, as is said, “then extends his bounty to all who live within his realm. From then on, he, Scheherazade and all his subjects enjoy prosperity, happiness, pleasure and joy until they each are visited by the lord of death, the destroyer of delights and the one who parts companions.” So Queen Scheherazade, King Shahriyar, the Vizier, their children, all their subjects are now gone.
Death ends the lives, struggles, sorrows and joys of the people we meet in stories, and the storyteller and the listener too.
But death does not end the story being told. Stories are the movement of life. We live and we tell how unexpected things unfold or why they came to pass. Stories move us forward and back and are the essence of life. We are stirred everlastingly by the impulse to share love, dream, folly, revenge, adventure, terror, heroism and above all - wonder:
To share our sheer wonder - this is the pulse of the story, this is the heart of life.
Knowing that death awaits us, we tell our stories; we listen, we feel the world. In stories we see the whole of life reflected in galaxies of shards, like waves breaking against a cliff, sparkling, enticing, radiant and always shimmering before us.
This is the gift of Scheherazade:
a world that resists death,
and never dies.
The above was commissioned by Devin Hughes, Conductor and Artistic Director of the Boulder Symphony for performance with Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov's Scherezade in Denver and Boulder, Colorado. I read a section before each movement. Deborah Marshall was the vocal coach