The insurmountable structure of The Thousand and One Nights

2024-05-31 @Literature

The omniscient Scheherazade relates stories, one after the next, producing them as if from an intractably expansive, inexhaustible reservoir. Within stories of sufficient scope, she dons the voice to an in-story narrator who relates a new story (and whose survival often happens to necessitate the art of eloquence), within which emerges yet another story-telling voice, and on. The Nights employs the story within a story device to an incredible scope which can easily surmount five levels of depth.

As interesting, the anchoring element of the story development can also shift. This I’ve never before encountered in Western Story telling.

Imagine X as the protagonist of the story arch. X undergoes a series of trials, possibly introducing further storytelling threads, recursively, along the way. Eventually the narrative unwinds, reconciles back to X, who then disappears from the spotlight indefinitely or until a point so far ahead that I’ll have but forgotten of his existence.

But at some point X had encountered an ancillary character Y. Up to now in the supporting role, Y all the sudden takes the stage and continues the vertiginous narrative in the same lengthy and recursive wise. All together, X and Y (if not additional ancillary roots) can sustain this universe to no foreseeable end. Reading the Nights, I lose track of where I am in this world, just as the vagrant prince utterly lost in the Persian desert vicissitudes.

It’s this seamlessness of weaving multiple narratives into one continuous roll that distinguishes the Nights from the more customary, fragmentary approach to story telling.

Take the structure of some famous Western story-telling canons also catering to the story within a story property:

The main arch of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales introduces English pilgrims en route to Canterbury. Each, in turn, versifies a tale. The pilgrims, the narrator and effectively the audience are in motion all throughout. There is a facilitator to this escapade. Chaucer also happens to be one among the lot, though mostly in an opaque role.

Like the Nights, you might consider this continuous framing. However, the storytelling pilgrims evoke a compacter universe. Chaucer delivers each story in the pilgrim’s unique voice if not entirely varying the poetic meter. The core-narrative can feel almost superfluous. That is, there isn’t any cohesion nor coupling among the stories. The magnificence of Chaucer’s product lies elsewhere, a point I’ll not explore further.

Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron takes Italian youth on a rural retreat in effort to evade the devastating bubonic plague. Over the course of ten days they share one-hundred stories, ten per day, separated among the Books.

Much of the Decameron bears substantial influence on the western canon. Even Chaucer borrows from Boccaccio for some of his narrative poems. But as for the strictly two-dimensional structure, I likewise don’t find anything too remarkable.

Dante Alighieri’s Divina Commedia, though of a different makeup, happens to relate numerous mini-stories through the phantoms Dante crosses in his theological journey across the three realms. Though if anything, most of them make for an abstract sketch. It is not these inner stories individually that elevate the Comedy but the poetic, allegorical whole.

Beyond the theological contrast, the above catering to the Christian/Catholic tenets, and the Nights, to the Islamic/Mohammedan system, we note this stark difference:

The Nights‘ main arc involves the closest set and crew: the Sultan’s chamber, the Sultan, Scheherazade and her sister Dinhazade. Yet Scheherazade manages to spawn, arguably, a more expansive, labyrinthine universe of deeply layered storytelling, to any of the above.

On paper, little can surmount Dante’s journey across hell, purgatory and paradise. But if we engage the imagination, juxtaposing Dante’s depiction of the three realms to Scheherazade’s continuum of diverse oriental lands in addition to the metaphysical dimension her narratives often attain, we envision the vastest, the most fantastic, the most mutable world of all.

Questions, comments? Connect.