I don’t know what’s common knowledge to our culture anymore. Eighteen-year-olds come to college with less and less knowledge every year. But the story of Scheherazade keeping her head by telling cliffhanging stories for a thousand and one nights used to seem to me to be common knowledge. (Wow! That beginning ended up way more complex than I planned for it to be.) What I didn’t know until I actually started reading the book last week was why the shah wanted to marry a new wife each day and kill her the next morning. The framing story starts by telling of the shah’s brother, who finds his wife in the embraces of another man. He travels to visit the shah, who is amazed to see his brother’s once beautiful face so wan. But while at the palace, the brother secretly sees the queen committing adultery, and his beauty begins to return when he realizes that he isn’t the only cuckold in the world. He and the shah go on a journey to find a faithful woman, and, unsuccessful in their quest, the shah determines to punish as many women as possible with his bloody daily routine.
As the luck of The Plan would have it, I had already read a version of that story just a few weeks ago in canto 28 of Orlando Furioso. There’s a king and his brother, and the brother has a beautiful face until he catches his wife. The brother accidentally sees the queen with her lover, so he and the king search the world for a faithful woman. These similarities make it clear that some line of influence connects one story to the other. But the stories differ in several ways, too. Where the Asian monarch decides to kill women systematically, Ariosto’s brothers shrug their shoulders and return to their wives, reasoning that they can do no better.
Once the framing story is established, Scheherazade’s tales weave in and out, interrupting one another, and nesting in several layers, in a manner reminiscent of the larger structure of Orlando, The Faerie Queene, the Chinese classic Three Kingdoms, and Malory’s tale of Sir Tristram. What happened to this complex method of storytelling? Did western culture just lose its collective attention span sometime in the last four hundred years? Chesterton says – like the author of the epistles to the Hebrews, I’ll say that Chesterton says it “somewhere” – that while the Middle Ages viewed life as a dance, the modern age (conceived broadly as the period covering the last few centuries) sees life as a race. Circular motion has given way to straight motion. Maybe our culture just wants to get to the point. Eighteen-year-olds sure do.