Lest the last post be too disparaging about fairy tale ladies in iffy marriage situations, let me bring a seriously rad lady to your attention:

SHAHRAZAD, heroine of The Arabian Nights

illustration from the Edumund Dulac edition

So here’s the deal with The Arabian Nights: it’s one large frame story with several smaller frame stories grouped inside of it. Tales within tales within tales.

magic card

This is accurate.

In the outmost story, the Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad seeks to save her own life and the lives of all the city’s women by telling the king stories and thus staying her execution. The entirety of the Nights is Shahrazad’s slow, clever campaign to save her society from its murderous leader.

So here’s what I always somehow misunderstood: Shahrazad willingly enters her situation with the King. For some reason, I thought she was just next up on the chopping block, a victim of circumstances.

But no, Shahrazad wants to marry the King. She actually blackmails her father into letting her marry a murderer. This is the total opposite western Animal Husband tales where, as Bruno Bettleheim puts it, the heroine goes to a beastly husband “because of love for or obedience to her father.”

*cougheveryDisneyPrincesscough*

So why does Shahrazad put herself in such a deadly situation? Because she’s one smart cookie. And she has a plan.

The first description of her doesn’t go on about her beauty (the number one trait of all Perrault and Grimm princesses), but her intelligence: “[She] had read the books of literature, philosophy, and medicine. She knew poetry by hreat, had studied historial  reports, and was acquainted with the saying of men and the maxims of sages and kings. She was intelligent, knowledgeable, wise, and refined.”

"Damn it, all *I* got were these really heavy earrings and a pet tiger that didn't actually rip anyone's throat out."

Shahrazad knows exactly what she wants to do, and lays it all out for her sister: “Then I will begin to tell a story, and it will cause the king to stop his practice [of killing women], save myself, and deliver the people.” Even by Joseph Campbell’s standards, this is a large-scale, heroic goal.

Shahrazad chooses an incredibly clever setup for her time with King Shahrayar. Firstly, she brings her sister Dinarzad into the picture. Her plea to get Dinarzad in the bedroom is heartfelt and simple, “I have a sister, and I wish to bid good-bye before daybreak.” Of course Shahrayar sends for the sister, and at the opportune moment Dinarzad speaks the words for the first time that will become a refrain throughout the book: “Sister, if you are not sleepy, tell us one of your lovely little tales to while away the night…” Shahrazad asks permission, of course. But when the king agrees, he is entrapped.

illustration by Kay Neilsen

Shahrazad never gets quite all the way through a story on any given night, at least not without hinting at the next one. She never finishes the tale during the daytime, presumably because dawn is the time of her supposed execution. The king never demands her to finish except at night, when Dinarzad has again asked for a story. The king himself never asks for a story directly; Dinarzad becomes the innocent voice of the eager listener, and the catalyst of the storytelling. Shahrazad never pleads for her life with the King, she merely tells her sister what further amazing tales she has in store “if the king spares me and lets me live!” The King is never threatened or directly coerced, giving him the illusion of control. In fact, Shahrazad controls the stories, and thus the action, the whole time.

Within the stories themselves, there are a number of frame stories that bear a striking resemblance to Shahrazad’s situation. In one tale, three Dervishes must tell their tales or be executed by the fearsome mistress of a house in which they stayed. In another tale, a vizier named Ja’far must stay his execution by telling a strange story to his Caliph. In yet another, four characters plead for their lives to the King of China. There are several life-or-death situations.

Shahrazad unquestionably holds the most power in The Arabian Nights. She willingly throws herself into a deadly situation to save her people. She stops and starts the stories at will, aided by the soft, inoffensive voice of her sister. She succeeds at every heroic goal she set forth for herself. In the end, she wins the ultimate boon, saving not only of her life, but the lives of all the other women, and even the life of King Shahrayar. As translator Husain Haddawy notes, “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.” So, yeah, she got the guy in the end, but it was a kind of bonus effect after she saved the women of her culture from violent death.

Oddly, this does not all end in tears. (illus. Kay Neilsen)

By the way, if you want to pick up a copy and check it out, I highly recommend Husain Haddawy’s translation. It’s really readable and feels faithful to the source material. Also, he has a big honkin’ introduction about how Sir Richard Burton’s translations sucked….because Burton and others loved to Anglicize (and pontificate about) Eastern stories. It’s a proud Western tradition.

1001 nights vess

Snow White and the Sultan from Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall by Bill Willingham. The book in general is lovely and completely beautiful. But its frame story makes the actual character Shahrazad look all like she's a victim of circumstances following in Snow White's footsteps.

There are two volumes from Haddawy, The Arabian Nights and Arabian Nights II: Sinbad and Other Popular Stories. The second one has the more well-known stories (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba, etc), but the first one has the beginning frame story with Shahrazad, which is the best bit in my opinion. Click on the pic for an Amazon link:

Translated by Husain Haddawy from the 14th century manuscript edited by Muhsin Mahdi, published by Norton.

I highly recommend checking the tales out! They are approachable and worth experiencing firsthand. Besides, badass fairy tale ladies are a sight for sore eyes after the Grimms and Hans Christian Andersen.