146—147 The peahen, the duck and the gazelle • 147—148 The pious shepherd • 148 The water fowl and the tortoise • 148—150 The wolf and the fox • 149 The story of the hawk and the partridge • 150 The story of the man and the snake • 150 The weasel and the mouse • 150 The crow and the cat • 150—152 The fox and the crow • 150—151 The story of the flea and the mouse • 151—152 The story of the falcon and the birds of prey • 152 The story of the sparrow and the eagle • 152 The hedgehog and the doves • 152 The story of the merchant and the two thieves • 152 The thief with the monkey • 152 The story of the foolish weaver • 152 The sparrow and the peacock
Last week I noted how some small differences in the style and structure of the storytelling hinted at a different author to that of the earlier stories. Those stylistic changes were subtle… but the writer who takes over Shahrazad’s story at Night 146 announces themselves with a literary klaxon.
If it feels as though we are reading a different book at this point, that is because we almost certainly are: The Arabian Nights is well established as a composite text, just like the Hebrew Bible. And just as the biblical Jahwist author hands the baton (pen? stylus? quill?) over to the Deuteronomist author, so here, I would say that a ‘Monarchical author’—who writes stories centred around caliphs, and where magic is all but absent—gives way to an ‘Allegorical author’, who presents us with a series of stories about animals. Apparently, these are some of the earliest in origin, and derive from Sanskrit texts.
At this point, the handling of the framing story changes too. King Shahriyar comments on how each of the stories makes him feel, often suggesting that his previous cruelty might have been excessive. On Night 148 we get, for the first time, a dramatic interlude between the king and Shahrazad in the middle of a Night, rather than to merely punctuate the end of an evening of storytelling.
The king said: ‘Shahrazad, you have made me renounce my preoccupation with my kingdom and you have made me regret the excesses to which I went in killing women and girls. Do you have any more stories about birds?’
In the world of Shahrazad, she has been storytelling for about five months solid. We know she still has more than two years to go, and while there is no sign that she is tiring, the king is already beginning to show profound weakness.
These animal stories are among the shortest we have encountered so far, at least at the ‘top level’ (i.e. those told directly by Shahrazad rather than one of her characters). There is even a well-formed hermit story on Night 148 that is only one paragraph long.
Despite being primarily concerned with the parochial interactions between animals, almost all the stories in this sequence are about politics and power. There are several examples that amount to a form of game theory, where the protagonists argue with one another over whether each can be trusted, and whether co-operation is the rational choice in a given situation. The sequence culminates in the amusing story of two swindlers (not actually an animal story, save for the fact it is narrated by a dove) where each decides to poison the other and take the treasure for himself. “They both ate the food and they both died,” a wholly sub-optimal outcome.
Another variation on the theme of rationality is the interesting discussion between the fox and the wolf. Trapped down a hole near a vineyard, they bicker about whether the wolf should help the fox out of the hole, in order to save them both. The fox makes an appeal to rationality, arguing that the possibility of rescue can only come if the wolf sets aside his enmity.
So abandon your suspicions and gut hatred. If you take the optimistic view, one of two things can happen: either I shall bring you something to hold on to and you will make your escape; or I shall repay you, escape myself and abandon you.
This is not unlike the logic deployed in the famous ‘Pascal’s Wager’ where one choice leads to certain death, and the other leads to possible salvation.
The start of the tale of the fox and wolf, before the incident with the hole, describes another kind of power dynamic: between an abuser and the abused. The story begins on Night 147 where the fox asks the wolf to stop mistreating him in their shared den. The wolf becomes angry at this, beats the fox… and then insists that the fox apologise to him! The fox does so, and from then on learns to engage in flattery in order to avoid further beatings. When the fox snaps and pushes the wolf down the hole, the abuser weeps, and seeks to convince the fox of his obligation to rescue the wolf. Yet when the fox does help, the abuse begins again and the wolf does not appear particularly contrite.
This is a classic domestic abuse relationship, and the fox is only able to free himself from the wolf when he admits to himself that the wolf does not care for him, and that they owe each other nothing.
The same story also yields a couple of useful aphorisms which contemporary political leaders would do well to heed. First:
Do not act unjustly when you have the power. Wrongdoers live on the edge of punishment.
Be quick to do good when you can. You may not always have the power.
This is wise political advice. It’s a version of the golden moral rule to ‘treat others how you would wish to be treated’ but also a pragmatic principle not to delay in doing good. Modern politicians are quick to forget this, preferring to defer good deeds to a later date.
Of all the political messages in these fables, I think the most striking is the one embedded in the first story, that of the peacock and the duck. The duck tells a tale of how the ‘Son of Adam’ has terrorised a succession of wild animals, and how one such person, a carpenter, tricks and murders a lion cub. This story abandons any chauvinism for humanity, and more. It presents our species as a menace, a clear salvo against human propensity for cruelty and destructiveness. As we come to terms with anthropomorphic climate change, the ivory trade, and the destruction wrought by tonnes of plastic in the oceans, the story of the peacock and the duck is sadly relevant.
- I thought it was interesting that each animal seems to have been assigned a particular set of prayers and names with which to glorify God.
- Night 149: “Half of cleverness is caution.”
Next: Nights 153 to 169