Before there were books, there were stories. At first the stories weren’t written down. Sometimes they were even sung. Children were born, and before they could speak, their parents sang them songs, a song about an egg that fell off a wall, perhaps, or about a boy and a girl who went up a hill and fell down it. As the children grew older, they asked for stories almost as often as they asked for food.
The children fell in love with these stories and wanted to hear them over and over again. Then they grew older and found those stories in books. And other stories that they had never heard before, about a girl who fell down a rabbit hole, or a silly old bear and an easily scared piglet and a gloomy donkey, or a phantom tollbooth, or a place where wild things were. The act of falling in love with stories awakened something in the children that would nourish them all their lives: their imagination.
A depiction of the Churning of the Milky Ocean, circa 1820.
Credit... The British Museum
The children made up play stories every day, they stormed castles and conquered nations and sailed the oceans blue, and at night their dreams were full of dragons. But they went on growing up and slowly the stories fell away from them, the stories were packed away in boxes in the attic, and it became harder for the former children to tell and receive stories, harder for them, sadly, to fall in love.
I believe that the books and stories we fall in love with make us who we are, or, not to claim too much, the beloved tale becomes a part of the way in which we understand things and make judgments and choices in our daily lives. A book may cease to speak to us as we grow older, and our feeling for it will fade. Or we may suddenly, as our lives shape and hopefully increase our understanding, be able to appreciate a book we dismissed earlier; we may suddenly be able to hear its music, to be enraptured by its song.
When, as a college student, I first read Günter Grass’s great novel “The Tin Drum,” I was unable to finish it. It languished on a shelf for fully 10 years before I gave it a second chance, whereupon it became one of my favorite novels of all time: one of the books I would say that I love. It is an interesting question to ask oneself: Which are the books that you truly love? Try it. The answer will tell you a lot about who you presently are.
A scene from “The Snow Queen” by Hans Christian Andersen.
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I grew up in Bombay, India, a city that is no longer, today, at all like the city it once was and has even changed its name to the much less euphonious Mumbai, in a time so unlike the present that it feels impossibly remote, even fantastic. In that far-off Bombay, the stories and books that reached me from the West seemed like true tales of wonder.
Hans Christian Andersen’s “The Snow Queen,” with its splinters of magic mirror that entered people’s bloodstreams and turned their hearts to ice, was even more terrifying to a boy from the tropics, where the only ice was in the refrigerator. “The Emperor’s New Clothes” felt especially enjoyable to a boy growing up in the immediate aftermath of the British Empire.
Perhaps tales of elsewhere always feel like fairy tales. But for me, the real wonder tales were closer to home, and I have always thought it my great good fortune as a writer to have grown up steeped in them.
Some of these stories were sacred in origin, but because I grew up in a nonreligious household, I was able to receive them simply as beautiful stories. When I first heard the tale in the great epic Mahabharata about how the great god Indra churned the Milky Way, using the fabled Mount Mandara as his churning stick, to force the giant ocean of milk in the sky to give up its nectar, “amrita,” the nectar of immortality, I began to see the stars in a new way.
In that impossibly ancient time, my childhood, a time before light pollution made most of the stars invisible to city dwellers, a boy in a garden in Bombay could still look up at the night sky and hear the music of the spheres and see with humble joy the thick stripe of the galaxy there. I imagined it dripping with magic nectar. Maybe if I opened my mouth, a drop might fall in and then I would be immortal, too.
Illustration from the Mahabharata, circa 1800.
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This is the beauty of the wonder tale and its descendant, fiction: that one can simultaneously know that the story is a work of imagination, which is to say untrue, and believe it to contain profound truth. The boundary between the magical and the real, at such moments, ceases to exist.
We were not Hindus, my family, but we believed the great stories of Hinduism to be available to us also. On the day of the annual Ganpati festival, when huge crowds carried effigies of the elephant-headed deity Ganesh to the water’s edge at Chowpatty Beach to immerse the god in the sea, Ganesh felt as if he belonged to me too; he felt like a symbol of the collective joy and, yes, unity of the city rather than a member of the pantheon of a “rival” faith.
When I learned that Ganesh’s love of literature was so great that he sat at the feet of India’s Homer, the sage Vyasa, and became the scribe who wrote down the Mahabharata, he belonged to me even more deeply; and when I grew up and wrote a novel about a boy called Saleem with an unusually big nose, it seemed natural, even though Saleem came from a Muslim family, to associate the narrator of “Midnight’s Children” with the most literary of gods, who just happened to have a big trunk of a nose as well. The blurring of boundaries between religious cultures in that old, truly secularist Bombay now feels like one more thing that divides the past from India’s bitter, stifled, censorious, sectarian present.
It has to be admitted that the influence of these tales is not always positive. The sectarian politics of the Hindu nationalist parties like India’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party uses the rhetoric of the past to fantasize about a return to “Ram Rajya,” the “reign of Lord Ram,” a supposed golden age of Hinduism without such inconveniences as members of other religions to complicate matters. The politicization of the epic Ramayana, and of Hinduism in general, has become, in the hands of unscrupulous sectarian leaders, a dangerous affair.
I want to return, however, to that childhood self, enchanted by tales whose express and sole purpose was enchantment. I want to move away from the grand religious epics to the great hoard of scurrilous, conniving, mysterious, exciting, comic, bizarre, surreal and very often extremely sexy narratives contained in the rest of the Eastern storehouse, because — not only because, but, yes, because — they show how much pleasure is to be gained from literature once God is removed from the picture.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of the stories now gathered in the pages of “The Thousand Nights and One Night,” to take just one example, is the almost complete absence of religion. Lots of sex, much mischief, a great deal of deviousness; monsters, jinnis, giant Rocs; at times, enormous quantities of blood and gore; but no God. This is why censorious Islamists dislike it so much.
In Egypt, in May 2010, just seven months before the revolt against President Hosni Mubarak, a group of Islamist lawyers got wind of a new edition of “Alf Laylah wa Laylah” (the book’s original Arabic title) and brought an action demanding that the edition be withdrawn and the book banned because it was “a call to vice and sin” that contained several references to sex. Fortunately, they did not succeed, and then larger matters began to preoccupy Egyptian minds. But the fact is, they had a point.
An illustration from “The Thousand Nights and One Night.”
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There are indeed in that book several references to sex, and the characters seem much more preoccupied with having sex than being devout, which could indeed be, as the lawyers argued, a call to vice, if that’s the deformed puritanical way you see the world. To my mind, this call is an excellent thing and well worth responding to, but you can see how people who dislike music, jokes and pleasure would be upset by it. It is rather wonderful that this ancient text, this wonderful group of wonder tales, retains the power to upset the world’s fanatics more than 1,200 years after the stories first came into the world.
The book that we now usually call “The Arabian Nights” didn’t originate in the Arab world. Its probable origin is Indian; Indian story compendiums too have a fondness for frame stories, for Russian doll-style stories within stories, and for animal fables. Somewhere around the eighth century, these stories found their way into Persian, and according to surviving scraps of information, the collection was known as “Hazar Afsaneh,” “a thousand stories.”
There’s a 10th-century document from Baghdad that describes the Hazar Afsaneh and mentions its frame story, about a wicked king who kills a concubine every night until one of these doomed wives manages to stave off her execution by telling him stories. This is where we first see the name “Scheherazade.” Sadly, of the Hazar Afsaneh itself not a single copy survives. This book is the great “missing link” of world literature, the fabled volume through which the wonder tales of India traveled west to encounter, eventually, the Arabic language and to turn into “The Thousand Nights and One Night,” a book with many versions and no agreed canonical form, and then to move farther west, first into French, in the 18th-century version by Antoine Galland, who added a number of stories not included in the Arabic, such as the tales of “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp” and “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves.”
And from French the stories made it into English, and from English they journeyed to Hollywood, which is a language of its own, and then it’s all flying carpets and Robin Williams as the genie. (It’s worth noting, by the way, that there are no flying carpets in “The Arabian Nights.” There is a legend that King Solomon possessed one that could change its size and become big enough to transport an army.)
“The Arabian Nights” poster for a burlesque show, 1888.
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This great migration of narrative has inspired much of the world’s literature, all the way down to the magic realism of the South American fabulists, so that when I, in my turn, used some of those devices, I had the feeling of closing a circle and bringing that story tradition all the way back home to the country in which it began. But I mourn the loss of the Hazar Afsaneh, which would, if rediscovered, complete the story of the stories, and what a find that would be.
Perhaps it would solve a mystery at the heart of the frame story, or rather at the very end of it, and answer a question I’ve been asking myself for some years: Did Scheherazade and her sister, Dunyazad, finally, after one thousand nights and one night and more, become murderers and kill their bloodthirsty husbands?
How many women did Shahryar, monarch of “the island or peninsula of India and China,” and his brother, Shah Zaman, sovereign ruler over barbarian Samarkand, actually kill? It began when Shah Zaman found his wife in the arms of a palace cook. Shah Zaman chopped them into several pieces and headed for his brother’s home, where he found his sister-in-law, Shahryar’s queen, in a garden in the company of 10 ladies-in-waiting and 10 slaves. The 10 and 10 were busy gratifying one another; the queen summoned her own lover down from a tree.
Ah, the malice and treachery of womankind! Shah Zaman told his brother what he had seen, whereupon the ladies-in-waiting, the slaves and the queen all met their fates. (The lover of Shahryar’s late queen seems to have escaped.)
King Shahryar and King Shah Zaman duly took their revenge on faithless womankind. For three years, they each married, deflowered and then ordered the execution of a fresh virgin every night. Scheherazade’s father, Shahryar’s vizier, or prime minister, was obliged to carry out Shahryar’s executions himself.
This vizier was a cultured gentleman, a man of delicate sensibilities — he must have been, must he not, to have raised such a paragon of a daughter as Scheherazade? And her sister, Dunyazad, too, another good, smart, decent girl.
What would it do to the soul of the father of such fine girls to be forced to execute young women by the hundreds, to slit girls’ throats and see their lifeblood flow? We are not told. We do know, however, that Shahryar’s subjects began to resent him mightily and to flee his capital city with their womenfolk, so that after three years there were no virgins to be found in town. No virgins except Scheherazade and Dunyazad.
By the time Scheherazade entered the story, marrying King Shahryar and ordering her sister, Dunyazad, to sit at the foot of the marital bed and to ask, after Scheherazade’s deflowering was complete, to be told a story, Shahryar and Shah Zaman were already responsible for two thousand two hundred and thirteen deaths. Only eleven of the dead were men.
Shahryar, upon marrying Scheherazade and being captivated by her tales, stopped killing women. Shah Zaman, untamed by literature, went right on with his vengeful work. One thousand and one nights later, the death toll stood at three thousand, two hundred and fourteen.
Scheherazade telling stories in “The Arabian Nights,” 1892.
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Consider Scheherazade, whose name meant “city-born” and who was without a doubt a big-city girl, crafty, wisecracking, by turns sentimental and cynical, as contemporary a metropolitan narrator as one could wish to meet.
Scheherazade, who snared the prince in her never-ending story. Scheherazade, telling stories to save her life, setting fiction against death, a Statue of Liberty built not of metal but of words. Scheherazade, who insisted, against her father’s will, on taking her place in the procession into the king’s deadly boudoir. Scheherazade, who set herself the heroic task of saving her sisters by taming the king. Who had faith, who must have had faith, in the man beneath the murderous monster and in her own ability to restore him to his true humanity, by telling him stories.
What a woman! It’s easy to understand how and why King Shahryar fell in love with her. For certainly he did fall, becoming the father of her children and understanding, as the nights progressed, that his threat of execution had become empty, that he could no longer ask his vizier, her father, to carry it out. His savagery was blunted by the genius of the woman who, for a thousand nights and one night, risked her life to save the lives of others, who trusted her imagination to stand against brutality and overcome it not by force but, amazingly, by civilizing it.
Lucky king! But (this is the greatest unanswered question of “The Arabian Nights”) why on earth did she fall in love with him? And why did Dunyazad, the younger sister who sat at the foot of the marital bed for one thousand nights and one night, watching her sister being fucked by the murderous king and listening to her stories — Dunyazad, the eternal listener, but also voyeur — why did she agree to marry Shah Zaman, a man even deeper in blood than his story-charmed brother?
How can we understand these women? There is a silence in the tale that cries out to be spoken of. This much we are told: After the stories were over, Shah Zaman and Dunyazad were married, but Scheherazade made one condition — that Shah Zaman leave his kingdom and come to live with his brother, so that the sisters might not be parted. This Shah Zaman gladly did, and Shahryar appointed to rule over Samarkand in his brother’s stead that same vizier who was now also his father-in-law. When the vizier arrived in Samarkand, he was greeted by the townspeople very joyfully, and all the local grandees prayed that he might reign over them for a long time. Which he did.
My question is this, as I interrogate the ancient story: Was there a conspiracy between the daughter and the father? Is it possible that Scheherazade and the vizier had hatched a secret plan? For, thanks to Scheherazade’s strategy, Shah Zaman was no longer king in Samarkand. Thanks to Scheherazade’s strategy, her father was no longer a courtier and unwilling executioner but a king in his own right, a well-beloved king, what was more, a wise man, a man of peace, succeeding a bloody ogre. And then, without explanation, Death came, simultaneously, for Shahryar and Shah Zaman. Death, the “Destroyer of Delights and the Severer of Societies, the Desolator of Dwelling Places and the Garnerer of Graveyards,” came for them, and their palaces lay in ruins, and they were replaced by a wise ruler, whose name we are not told.
But how and why did the Destroyer of Delights arrive? How was it that both brothers died simultaneously, as the text clearly implies, and why did their palaces afterward lie in ruins? And who was their successor, the Unnamed and Wise?
We are not told. But imagine, once again, the vizier filling up with fury for many years as he was forced to spill all that innocent blood. Imagine the years of the vizier’s fear, the one thousand and one nights of fear, while his daughters, flesh of his flesh, blood of his blood, were hidden in Shahryar’s bedroom, their fate hanging by a story’s thread.
How long will a man wait for his revenge? Will he wait longer than one thousand nights and one night? This is my theory: that the vizier, now ruler of Samarkand, was the wise king who came home to rule Shahryar’s kingdom. And the kings died simultaneously either at their wives’ hands or at the vizier’s. It’s just a theory. Maybe the answer lies in the great lost book. Maybe it doesn’t. We can only … wonder.
At any rate, the final count of the dead was three thousand, two hundred and sixteen. Thirteen of the dead were men.
A 1933 illustration from “The Tortoise and the Hare” in “Aesop’s Fables.”
Credit... Arthur Rackham, via Culture Club/Getty Images
The stories that made me fall in love with literature in the first place were tales full of beautiful impossibility, which were not true but by being not true told the truth, often more beautifully and memorably than stories that relied on being true. Those stories didn’t have to happen once upon a time either. They could happen right now. Yesterday, today or the day after tomorrow.
Animal fables — including talking-dead-fish fables — have been among the most enduring tales in the Eastern canon, and the best of them, unlike, say, the fables of Aesop, are amoral. They don’t seek to preach about humility or modesty or moderation or honesty or abstinence. They do not guarantee the triumph of virtue. As a result, they seem remarkably modern. The bad guys sometimes win.
The ancient collection known in India as the Panchatantra features a pair of talking jackals: Karataka, the good or better guy of the two, and Damanaka, the wicked schemer. At the book’s outset they are in the service of the lion king, but Damanaka doesn’t like the lion’s friendship with another courtier, a bull, and tricks the lion into believing the bull to be an enemy. The lion murders the innocent animal while the jackals watch. The end.
Many of Aesop’s little morality tales about the victory of dogged slowness (the tortoise) over arrogant speed (the hare), or the foolishness of crying “wolf ” when there is no wolf, or of killing the goose that laid the golden eggs, seem positively soppy when compared to this Quentin Tarantino-like savagery. So much for the cliché of the peaceful, mystical East.
As a migrant myself, I have always been fascinated by the migration of stories, and these jackal tales traveled almost as far as the “Arabian Nights” narratives, ending up in both Arabic and Persian versions, in which the jackals’ names have mutated into Kalila and Dimna. They also ended up in Hebrew and Latin and, eventually, as “The Fables of Bidpai,” in English and French. Unlike the “Arabian Nights” stories, however, they have faded from modern readers’ consciousness, perhaps because their insufficient attention to happy endings made them unattractive to the Walt Disney Company.
Yet their power endures; and it does so, I believe, because for all their cargo of monsters and magic, these stories are entirely truthful about human nature (even when in the form of anthropomorphic animals). All human life is here, brave and cowardly, honorable and dishonorable, straight-talking and conniving, and the stories ask the greatest and most enduring question of literature: How do ordinary people respond to the arrival in their lives of the extraordinary? And they answer: Sometimes we don’t do so well, but at other times we find resources within ourselves we did not know we possessed, and so we rise to the challenge, we overcome the monster, Beowulf kills Grendel and Grendel’s more fearsome mother as well, Red Riding Hood kills the wolf, or Beauty finds the love within the beast and then he is beastly no more. And that is ordinary magic, human magic, the true wonder of the wonder tale.
A postcard illustration of a scene from the Brothers Grimm’s “Hansel and Gretel.”
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The wonder tales taught me that approaches to storytelling were manifold, almost infinite in their possibilities, and that they were fun. The fantastic has been a way of adding dimensions to the real, adding fourth, fifth, sixth and seventh dimensions to the usual three; a way of enriching and intensifying our experience of the real, rather than escaping from it into superhero-vampire fantasyland.
Only by unleashing the fictionality of fiction, the imaginativeness of the imagination, the dream songs of our dreams, can we hope to approach the new, and to create fiction that may, once again, be more interesting than the facts.
The fantastic is neither innocent nor escapist. The wonderland is not a place of refuge, not even necessarily an attractive or likable place. It can be — in fact, it usually is — a place of slaughter, exploitation, cruelty and fear. Captain Hook wants to kill Peter Pan. The witch in the Black Forest wants to cook Hansel and Gretel. The wolf actually eats Red Riding Hood’s grandmother. Albus Dumbledore is murdered, and the Lord of the Rings plans the enslavement of the whole of Middle-earth.
We know, when we hear these tales, that even though they are “unreal,” because carpets do not fly and witches in gingerbread houses do not exist, they are also “real,” because they are about real things: love, hatred, fear, power, bravery, cowardice, death. They simply arrive at the real by a different route. They are so, even though we know that they are not so. The truth is not arrived at by purely mimetic means. An image can be captured by a camera or by a paintbrush. A painting of a starry night is no less truthful than a photograph of one; arguably, if the painter is Van Gogh, it’s far more truthful, even though far less “realistic.”
The literature of the fantastic — the wonder tale, the fable, the folk tale, the magic-realist novel — has always embodied profound truths about human beings, their finest attributes and their deepest prejudices too. The wonder tale tells us truths about ourselves that are often unpalatable; it exposes bigotry, explores the libido, brings our deepest fears to light. Such stories are by no means intended simply for the amusement of children, and many of them were not originally intended for children at all. Sinbad the Sailor and Aladdin were not Disney characters when they started out on their journeys.
It is, however, a rich age in literature for children and young-hearted adults. From Maurice Sendak’s place “Where the Wild Things Are” to Philip Pullman’s post-religious otherworlds, from Narnia, which we reach through a wardrobe, to the strange worlds arrived at through a phantom tollbooth, from Hogwarts to Middle-earth, wonderland is alive and well. And in many of these adventures, it is children who grow into heroes, often to rescue the adult world; the children we were, the children who are still within us, the children who understand wonderland, who know the truth about stories, save the adults, who have forgotten those truths.
Salman Rushdie is a novelist, essayist and the author of “The Languages of Truth: Essays 2003-2020,” from which this essay is adapted.