"What's your story?" asks Rebecca Solnit in her exquisite memoir, The Faraway Nearby, which I've recently re-read. "It's all in the telling. Stories are compasses and architecture; we navigate by them, we build our sanctuaries and our prisons out of them, and to be without a story is to be lost in the vastness of a world that spreads in all directions like arctic tundra or sea ice. To love someone is to put yourself in their story, or figure out how to tell yourself their story.
"Which means that a place is a story, and stories are geography, and empathy is first of all an act of imagination, a storyteller's art, and then a way of traveling from here to there. What is like to be the old man silenced by a stroke, the young man facing the executioner, the woman walking across the border, the child on the roller coaster, the person you've only read about, or the one lying next to you in bed?
"We tell ourselves stories in order to live, or to justify taking lives, even our own, by violence or by numbness and the failure to live; tell ourselves stories that save us and stories that are the quicksand in which we thrash and the well in which we drown, stories of justification, of accursedness, of luck and starcrossed love, or versions clad in the cynicism that is at times a very elegant garment. Sometimes the story collapses, and it demands that we recognize we've been lost, or terrible, or ridiculous, or just stuck; sometimes change arrives like an ambulance or supply drop. Not a few stories are sinking ships, and many of us go down with these ships even when the lifeboats are bobbing around us.
"In The Thousand and One Nights, known in English as The Arabian Nights, Scheherazade tells stories in order the keep the sultan in suspense from night to night so he will not kill her. The backstory is that the sultan caught his queen in the embrace of a slave and decided to sleep with a virgin every night and slay her every morning so that he could not be cuckolded again. Scheherazade volunteered to try to end the massacre and did so by telling him stories that carried over from one night to the next for nights that stretched into years.
"She spun stories around him that kept him in a cocoon of anticipation from which he eventually emerged a less murderous man. In the course of all this telling she bore him three sons and delivered a labyrinth of stories within stories, stories of desire and deception and magic, of transformation and testing, stories in which the action in one freezes as another storyteller opens his mouth, pregnant stories, stories to stop death.
"We think we tell stories, but stories often tell us, tell us to love or to hate, to see or to be blind. Often, too often, stories saddle us, ride us, whip us onward, tell us what to do, and we do it without questioning. The task of learning to be free requires learning to hear them, to pause and hear silence, to name them, and then to become the storyteller. Those ex-virgins who died were inside the sultan's story; Scheherazade, like a working-class hero, seized control of the means of production and talked her way out."
The paintings and drawing here are by the great Danish artist Kay Rasmus Nielsen (1886-1957), best known for East of the Sun, West of the Moon and other lavishly illustrated fairy tale editions. These pictures were created sometime around 1917 for an edition of The Arabian Nights translated by Arabic scholar Arthur Christensen...but the project never came to fruition and the paintings remained unknown and unpublished until after the artist's death.
The Paris Review has just published a short article on Nielsen on their website, with a number of his gorgeous fairy tale illustrations. (I feel a childlike delight in the serendipity of the posting, which appeared on my birthday.) You can learn more about his fascinating but tragic life in "From Fairy Tales to Fantasia," an article of mine in the Journal of Mythic Arts archives (2001).
For Arabian Nights illustrations by a range of other artists, see Maria Popova's "A Visual History of the Arabian Nights" (The Atlantic, 2012).
And to learn more about Scheherazade and her tales, I recommend Marina Warner's excellent book Stranger Magic: Charmed States & the Arabian Nights (Viking, 2013).