Matron saint of storytellers: Scheherazade

So let’s take our journey into and through the world(s) of story-telling.

In the great comments under this post, you guys convinced me that we have to go about it differently than we did in our search for the greatest thinker (where I staged a mock contest, in which Patanjali narrowly edged out Darwin, after the early ejection of Hegel.) When it comes to story-telling, there can’t be a winner. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t discover a whole lot of things about story-telling!

So let’s turn things upside down and start by declaring, not a winner, but a matron saint of story-tellers:


Scheherazade must have been rather gifted at story-telling because that is how she saved her life!

A Persian king was livid at women everywhere (and who isn’t?) because his wife had cheated on him. He had her executed and then went one step further, to collective punishment. Every night he had himself one virgin, whom he then executed the next morning. This was not sustainable because he ran out of virgins. The vizier, who was in charge of managing supply issues, got nervous because now it was the turn of his own daughter: Scheherazade.

Scheherazade did not seem very concerned. She joined the king for her, ahem, night and then …. told him a story. Only, she left him hanging in the morning. How did the story end? The king wanted to know. So he didn’t kill her.

The same thing happened the next night. And the next night. Indeed for a total of (wait for it) One Thousand and One Nights. By that point, the king (in some versions he and Scheherazade are now papa and mama) pardoned Scheherazade permanently. The story had won.

The inevitability of story

So Scheherazade is exactly the metaphor that suits me in this post. Which is: story is life. Story is human. Story is inevitable. We cannot help ourselves. All we do is to tell stories.

A while ago I quoted Isabel Allende saying: “what’s truer than truth? Answer: The Story.” In the same post, I also quoted Dan McAdams, a psychologist who believes observes that even our identities are stories.

So today, let me just anoint Scheherazade and plant that thought. For the rest of the series, let’s all figure out what stories are, and why some are good and others not.

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6 thoughts on “Matron saint of storytellers: Scheherazade

  1. Here’s an allegory on story-telling, supposedly Arabic. I read it re-told by French screenwriter Jean-Claude Carrière: ”A storyteller is standing on a rock, facing the ocean, and telling stories to the ocean, one after another. He only has time to drink a glass of water every now and then, while the ocean listens to his stories, fascinated. And what the allegory says, very simply, is that if one day the storyteller stops telling stories and falls silent, or if somebody forces him to shut up, no one can be sure what the ocean will do.”

  2. Tom Waits sez, “I’ll tell you all my secrets and lie about my past.” The best stories have some mythology and lack complete realism (and honesty). Examples range from Hansel and Gretel, to the Koran, etc. Stories that are too realistic are like pornography and may be captivating for a short time, but not satisfying in the long term. The best stories include food and smells. The charm of The Hobbit is taking occasional breaks; second breakfast, a pint, a pipe. A frame of reference for the familiar and the foreign: I immediately think of the ‘dispensable ensign’ in Star Trek. We don’t know how bad things are until someone with whom we can relate gets effortlessly chucked through a window. A story that requires a map is nice, too.

    This is just a start for the first assignment. To summarize: mythology, food, scale and geography.

  3. Great allegory, Jens. (German name?)

    The ocean seems ready to crush the story-teller any moment, just as the Persian king might kill Scheherazade any moment, should the suspense ever let up.

    It also brought to mind the tale of Demosthenes, who practiced oratory (sort of like story-telling) by shouting over the breaking surf of the Aegean.

    Mr Crotchety: “The best stories have some mythology…”. Sounds Jungian, and thus has my approval.

    “A story that requires a map is nice, too….”. Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you

  4. In his book Maps of the Imagination, Peter Turchi says that the writing of a story is exactly the same as the mapping of a world. He has a number of good points, check it out.
    I also totally agree that good stories need mythology, or at least imagination’s twists and turns to create something meaningful out of the confused and incoherent stuff that normally surrounds us. Art = imposing order? Once again, I refer to Jean-Claude Carrière; he only found one “true story” in his entire screenwriting career that could be used as it was without dramaturgical changes. That story became the film The Return of Martin Guerre. Reality (often) isn’t enough. It needs imagination to strengthen it and clarify it. I realize this comment sort of touches on some other posts. Sorry. And Jens is Swedish.

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