Heroines, Stories, and Shahrazad

So, as we discussed last week, we’re starting a brand new project on our Patreon – reading through all the stories in The Annotated Arabian Nights: Tales from 1001 Nights edited by Paulo Lemos Horta and translated by Yasmine Seale (We’ll be posting the names of the stories, so you can try using a different edition or reading the tales online for free if you wish!) Today is February 1st, so if you were waiting for the first of the month to join us, please do so by clicking here – the Week #1 post is already up! On the table for discussion is “The Story of King Shahriyar and His Viser’s Daughter, Shahrazad,” which technically includes two stories within that story – whew!

But, as you may also have seen, we’re also doing a brand new course on Fairy-Tale Heroines, open for enrollment now, focusing on stories from all over the world that most people have never heard. We have tales from India, Romania, Iceland, China, Iraq, Ireland, and so many more places – it’s truly amazing! We’re so excited about this course, too. It’s our big return to fairy tales, folktales, and fairy-tale studies, and we’re so thrilled to be back in our ELEMENT.

“But Sara and Brittany, fairy-tale heroines? Aren’t they just… like… asleep most of the time? Or timid/passive/powerless/stupid little girls waiting for men to just rescue them?”

Brittany is offended by the use of this image… but she understands.

NOPE! But if that was your first thought, you’re absolutely forgiven for thinking so. The most commonly told and retold Western fairy tales would certainly have you believe they are.

Feminist scholars have pointed out repeatedly that traditional Western fairy-tale women “must be beautiful; their beauty includes Western stereotypical attributes like white skin and blonde hair; their bodies are passive, pliant, and patient; and their beauty correlates positively with other features such as kindness.” In Jeana Jorgensen’s 2019 Journal of American Folklore article discussing her computational analysis of femininity in classic Western fairy tales, from which that quotation was taken, she discovers that this assessment is largely rooted in fact. She literally counted the instances in which these attributes were part of the stories in six different collections of Western tales. It’s a LOT.

So why is this the case?

Well, a lot of it has to do with society and the process of canonization. For a long time, men were typically in charge of what got printed, filmed, discussed, etc. and their choices depended largely on patriarchal norms of the time in which they were working. In cultures where women were supposed to be subservient to men, it made sense to prioritize the tales in which they were. It also has a lot to do with the fact that most of the famous fairy tales are Western stories in which patriarchy was (is) kinda a big deal.

This isn’t the whole story, of course (and if you’d like to know more we’d refer you to Donald Haase’s excellent critical survey essay, “Feminist Fairy-Tale Scholarship,” in the collection of essays titled Fairy Tales and Feminism: New Approaches), but it’s a big part of why the fairy tales we all tend to know are the way they are.

Part of our project in putting together this new course is to bring more awareness to fairy tales that don’t follow the pattern. Tales from other parts of the world, where the pattern didn’t even exist the same way, yes, but also more obscure Western tales that don’t follow the “rules.”

We’ll be helped a ton by this awesome book!!

And no, we don’t just mean tales in which there are women warriors (though those are great, too, and we’re going to talk about them!) You CAN be a heroine even if you like sewing and storytelling and dresses and husbands too though.

Which brings us to Shahrazad (aka Scheherazade, translations vary wildly.)

Though we confessed last week that we haven’t read the entirety of The Arabian Nights, Shahrazad has always been a figure that has loomed large in fairy-tale studies. For example, take a look at how she’s front and center, representing all the people associated with the creation of The Arabian Nights, in Isabelle Melançon’s fabulous illustration of fairy-tale composers and collectors.

Sadly this image doesn’t seem to be available as a print anymore, but we’re hoping the artist will bring it back!

Shahrazad – or, maybe, the idea of Shahrazad – has had a huge impact on how we think about fairy tales. She’s the quintessential woman telling stories, the collector of lore (and using that lore to do something incredible that no one thought anyone could do), and an affirmation of the strength stories have in our world. As Paulo Lemos Horta puts it in The Annotated Arabian Nights:

“In the pages of the Arabian Nights, Shahrazad continues to tell her ever-more-astonishing tales to entertain the sultan, yet the pleasures of these stories are not idle or escapist but instead essential for survival – her own and that of the other women of her kingdom. Centuries after her invention, she still reminds us of the power of stories to affirm the lives of the oppressed, the displaced, and the vulnerable.”

She is exceedingly clever: the tale tells us that “Shahrazad had read a lot of books, science and philosophy, knew poetry by heart, had studied history and myth and the wisdom of kings, and she was practiced at clear thinking and full feeling and close reading.” She is brave: “I want you to marry me to Shahriyar, so that I may liberate my people or die trying.” She is strong: she refuses to back down, despite her father’s protests. She’s not a warrior, a witch, a fairy godmother, or a princess – but she IS a woman who embraces the particular kind of power she has. A woman who saves herself and others. The ultimate fairy-tale heroine.

To quote Horta again: “[F]eminist interpretations of the Nights highlight Shahrazad’s intervention in the frame tale as an inspiring tale of courage and resourcefulness in the face of male oppression. Her determination to save her kingdom by offering herself as a bride and weaving a nightly web of stories to distract and reeducate the broken king provides a model of resistance that continues to inspire readers.”

Not gonna lie – she’s also a personal heroine of ours, not to mention an incredible inspiration. If you love fairy tales, there’s always going to be some piece of you that wants to be like Shahrazad. This is especially true if you’re a teller of tales yourself –

“Her example has inspired generations of writers – some of whom have chosen to express themselves in similar conditions of oppression and violence. For Marina Warner, Shahrazad is the ultimate example of the value of the writer’s art: ‘The power of stories to forge destinies has never been so memorably and sharply put as it is in this cycle, in which the blade of the executioner’s sword lies on the storyteller’s neck'”

Consider, for example, the incredible erasure poetry of the translator of the Annotated Nights, Yasmine Seale, which uses the Nights itself as a starting point –

Poetry perfection.

The point is: Shahrazad is the embodiment of the power of story. Stories are more than escapism. More than whimsy. For her, they are about survival and art, daring and compassion. They’re wondrous mirrors of the world and the world we’re trying to make.

And what could possibly be more heroic than that?

If you want to read, learn, and discuss more about fairy-tale heroines, we’d love for you to join us for our new course by clicking here. We’ll be your personal Shahrazads, guiding you through tales, asking only that you listen.

P.S. One more thing! You may have noticed that the TikTok video we did flipping through the Annotated Nights book features a remix of the most famous bit of the symphonic suite called “Scheherazade” composed by Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888. This is one of Brittany’s all time favorite classical pieces, and she highly encourages you to check it out!

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