Section 1

Nikolay Vechkanov (1929-1993):
Scheherazade With King Shahryar (1980)

Lecture 1:


  • "The Story of King Shahryar and Shahrazad" (1990): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 5-18.
  • Martin Armstrong, "Sombrero" (1929): from the Course Book of Readings: 9-22.
  • Josef Horovitz, "The Origins of The Arabian Nights" (1927): from The Arabian Nights. Norton Critical Edition (2010): 386-409.

Plot Summary:
Two brother Kings, Shahryar and Shah Zaman, each rule their own countries. One day the younger brother sets out to visit the elder, but just before he leaves he discovers that his wife has been cheating on him with a black cook. He kills them both, then travels to his brother’s kingdom. He does not tell him what has happened, but it’s obvious that he’s feeling very sad. When his brother goes hunting one day, he stays in the palace and finds the latter's wife committing adultery with a hideous slave. He forgets his own sorrow and confesses the whole story to his brother. They both leave the palace and go to the sea side, where they encounter an Ifrit. They hide in a tree and see that he is holding a lady captive. While the Ifrit sleeps the lady sees them in the tree. She says they must come out of the tree and have sex with her, otherwise she will awaken the Ifrit who will kill them. They are initially reluctant but eventually comply. She tells them she has been imprisoned by the Ifrit to keep her chaste but has had many men since, each of whose seal rings – now numbering in the hundreds – she keeps. She asks for theirs. They give them to her and leave. Shahryar returns to his palace, orders the execution of his wife, and vows that he will kill every new wife he shares the night with. In the end almost all the virgins in his kingdom are dead. At that point Sharahzad, daughter of the King’s Wazir, volunteers herself to be married to him. Her father declines and tells her a story to illustrate his point. She still wants to marry the King, though, and in the end the Wazir consents. When Sharahzad is with the King she starts weeping and asks for her sister Dunyazad, whom she has told to ask her for a story. The King admits the younger sister and removes the bridal maidenhead. Then, at midnight, Dunyazad asks for a story which Sharahzad starts to tell after the King has consented. So begins the first night of the Thousand and One Nights.
– Adapted from The Arabian Nights (2013-15)

Stephen Jay Gould: Time's Arrow, Time's Cycle (1987)

The Idea of the Frame-story

But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence. Then her sister Dinarzad said, "Sister, what a lovely story!" Shahrazad replied, "What is this compared with what I shall tell you tomorrow night! If the king spares me and lets me live, I shall tell you something more amazing." The king thought to himself, "By God, this is indeed an amazing story."
The Arabian Nights (2010): 42

A frame-story is a plot device which enables you to fit a group of otherwise unrelated stories into one overarching narrative. One of the most famous examples is Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (c.1386-1400), where a group of travellers riding to Canterbury on pilgrimage each decide to tell a story (actually they plan to tell two stories on the way there, and another two on the way back – it’s little wonder that Chaucer died leaving his work unfinished!). Another example is Boccaccio’s Decameron (c.1348-53), where a group of young Italian aristocrats decide to take refuge from the plague, which is ravaging their city, in a country house, and each tells one story a day to relieve the boredom.

Another way of thinking of such frame-stories is as a dramatized version of the paratext – the editorial material which serves to frame and introduce a text for us, its readers (title-page, notes, preface) – but also the circumstances of a text’s creation (who told or wrote it down, to whom, and by what means did it eventually reach us, its readers).

The most famous frame-story narrative of all is undoubtedly that of the Eastern (Persian and Arabic) classic The Thousand and One Nights (c. 9th -18th century CE) -– or The Arabian Nights' Entertainments, as it was called by the first European translators. It runs more or less as follows (there are many different versions):
Sultan Shahryar has become convinced of the inherent treachery and fickleness of all women after detecting his own wife in adultery. As a result, he marries a new wife every night and has her executed next morning, before she's had time to betray him.

After a few years of this, his kingdom is on the verge of ruin. The daughter of his chief advisor, Scheherazade, who has so far been shielded from the slaughter, insists that she be married to the Sultan, despite her father’s protests.

Scheherazade has arranged for her own younger sister, Dinarzade, to accompany her to the palace. After Scheherazade has had sex with the Sultan, Dinarzade asks her to finish telling the story she started the day before. The wakeful Sultan gives permission, on condition he is allowed to listen as well.

Scheherazade starts to tell them a story, but leaves off at an exciting point just as the sun begins to rise. The Sultan agrees to spare her life for a day, on condition she finishes the story the following night. And so it continues. Every night Scheherazade leaves off her story at some kind of cliffhanger. Every time she finishes a story, she promptly starts another which she claims will surpass the one before.

Finally, at the end of two years, eight months and twenty-eight nights (or thereabouts), Scheherazade presents the Sultan with the three children she has borne to him during these 1001 nights, and he is finally convinced to spare her from execution.
This rather misogynist fable has engaged – just as it outrages – readers for more than a thousand years. The idea of talking for your life: telling stories which have to entertain your audience sufficiently for them not to have you killed, is a very potent one – though some of the 200-odd included in the eventual collection would seem to many of us to have a pretty hard time meeting that criterion.

In the age of Freud, though, the idea of the psychoanalytic talking cure – going over and over the events of your past until you falter “at the line where / Long ago the accusations had begun,” as W. H Auden put it in his poem “In Memory of Sigmund Freud” – began to influence readings of the collection as a whole. The sheer scope and inclusiveness of Scheherazade's storytelling, the massive tally of men and women, faithful and unfaithful, wise and foolish, she introduces in her account of so many different situations and societies, could be seen as a kind of immersion therapy in the complexities of life itself, a portrait of the human comedy from top to bottom.

Not only that, but particular patterns within the stories: her fearless examination both of female (and male) adultery and its contrasting mirror, faithfulness, made the whole vast compilation – by so many editors, over so long a time period – seem intentional somehow.

Martin Armstrong (1882-1974)


“I have never thought of myself as a good writer.
But I’m one of the world’s great rewriters.”
James A. Michener

In this first session, we’ll discuss the course in general, and particularly the protocols for the writing workshops.

  • You should each come to the session next week ready to read out a draft of exercise 1 (minimum length: one page, maximum: 500 words).
  • All of you should all count on doing all 5 exercises: however, only a selection of 3 of your best pieces will constitute your first assignment.
  • You are, however, entitled - encouraged, in fact - to revise them radically before submitting them.

Our workshopping of the exercises will generally be prefaced with a discussion of the texts for each week, so please do come prepared with opinions based on your reading of each of them.

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