894 to 930: The Divine Right of Kings To Shirk Responsibility

896—899 The young man of Baghdad and his slave girl 899—930 King Jali ad and his son, Wird Khan • 900—901 The story of the cat and the mouse • 902 The story of the ascetic and his butter jar • 903 The story of the fish and the crab • 903 The story of the crow and the snake • 904 The story of the wild ass and the jackal • 905 The story of the unrighteous king and the pilgrim prince • 906 The story of the crows • 907 The story of the snake charmer • 907 The story of the spider and the wind • 909—910 The story of the two kings • 910 The story of the blind man and the cripple • 918 The story of the foolish fisherman • 919 The story of the boy and the thieves • 919 The story of the merchant and his wife • 920 The story of the merchant and the thieves • 921 The story of the jackals and the wolf • 921—922 The story of the shepherd and the thief • 924 The story of the partridge and the tortoises

Many weeks ago, when discussing The Arabian Nights foray into fables that begin on Night 145, I mentioned the widely accepted theory that the text has many authors. I suggested that there might be a ‘Monarchical author’ who wrote about kings (“where magic is all but absent”) and an ‘Allegorical author’ who produces the short morality tales about animals.

If that is the case, then the story of ‘King Jali ad and his son, Wird Khan’ is a collaborative effort, a tale produced by a supergroup of different writers. The narrative begins as a conventional tale about a king longing for a son, but it is one interspersed with shorter fables.

There is also an extended sequence by another kind of author (‘The Lecturer,’ perhaps?) where a prodigious prince relays deep political, philosophical and theological wisdom. It is similar to the info-dumps that we were subjected to during the story of King ‘Umar ibn al-Nu’man (Nights 60–66 and Nights 79–84) and the story of Tawaddud (beginning on Night 436).

So we have three stylistically different story elements – the familiar trope of the young prince coming of age; the shorter fables; and the extended philosophical Q&As. In another tale, these might seem like disparate sections pasted together (there are plenty of such haphazard moments in The Arabian Nights). But here, the paragraphs come together to make a coherent story.

First, the philosophical sections. Unlike in Nuzhat’s al-Zaman’s adventure, these are not just Sharazad’s digressions. They set the scene, or, if you like, the moral framework for the central character’s misrule of his kingdom.

The protagonist prince is Wird Khan. Around the time of his birth, his father’s vizier Shrinas hints that there are omens and prophecies in play, but he considers it inappropriate to explain to his boss what they are. Wird Khan is therefore given the best teachers and is trained up to become a wise king-in-waiting. He demonstrates this at the public display, where Shrinas and others grill him on his knowledge and critical faculties.

The subjects touched upon during the viva are exactly relevant to his situation later in the story. There is a political section on how a king should treat his subjects and viziers – a vanilla Il Principe, wheretrust’ is the paramount virtue. And there is also a theological sequence where the nature of God and morality is discussed. It culminates with this observation:

Any man can consider lawful what the Great and Glorious God has permitted and unlawful what He has prohibited.
Night 913

This is a version of the ‘Divine Command Theory’ debated in Plato’s Euthyphro (6e). If what is morally or legally right is what God permits, then it just begs the question: how do we know what God permits?

The implicit answer here is that we know through divine revelation, which is conveniently gifted to the learned men of society such as Wird Khan. This sequence, both the politics and religion, strays close to the concept of the ‘divine right of kings,’ where the monarch has to work very hard indeed to be declared wrong in any consequential sense. This ideology is crucial to the second half of the story.

The final topic of discussion in the dialogue between Wird Khan and Shrinas is to why God might permit ‘falsehood’ in the world. This section, in particular, foreshadows Wird Khan’s fall from wisdom. It also places the blame for any falsehoods on a very precise human failing: lust.

Thanks, in no small part, to his blazing performance during the intellectual interrogation, Wird Khan is quickly elevated to the kingship. He gathers a set of concubines around him and begins a life of decadence. He neglects his official duties, which vexes Shrinas and the other viziers. They lobby him to play a more active part in the running of the kingdom. Meanwhile, the women of the harem try to convince him to stay with them and leave the tedious administration to his appointees.

Here, the other structural style comes into the play, and the interpolation of the shorter fables go a long way to explaining how the tragedy comes about. Shrinas tells a story, in the hope of convincing the king to emerge from his chambers. And then his lover tells a counter-story to keep him where he is. Like the ‘wiles of women’ sequence (Nights 578–606), it becomes a game of storytelling tennis.

Unfortunately, Wird Khan is one of those people who, like Donald Trump, agrees with the last person they speak to. Eventually, he is persuaded to murder his viziers, an act which brings the story-telling to a brutal end, and his reign to the point of crisis. Foreign kings begin to menace and taunt him, and ominous crowds threaten revolution from within.

It is Shrinas’s son who saves the day. The king ventures outside the palace in disguise, and encounters the young man near the city walls. They discuss of the king’s woes, and the boy’s analysis is impressive enough that Wird Khan agrees to let him solve the threat from beyond the border. Shrinas’s son does this through a fairly simple trick, convincing the foreign king’s messenger that Wird Khan’s power is far greater than in reality. This is a classic military tactic, but the modern literary parallel that sprung to my mind was the quick-thinking Mouse in The Gruffalo:

“Good?” said the mouse. “Don’t call me good!
I’m the scariest creature in this wood.
Just walk behind me and soon you’ll see,
Everyone is afraid of me.”

A high stakes bluff that works.

Once the foreign threat has been neutralised, the king re-establishes his court. Shrinas’s son takes on his late father’s role as vizier, apparently indifferent to the fact that Wird Khan had his father unjustly executed. One would think there would be some kind of reckoning: accountability and contrition demanded, of not outright revenge.

There is a moment where it looks as if the king might indeed take responsibility for his grotesque lapse in judgement. But what he actually comes up with on Night 929 is this:

As I told you, vizier, I accept I was in the wrong, and my only excuse is that it was ordained by providence.

I believe that is what the experts call a ‘bullshit non-apology.’ Wird Khan relies on one of the premises set out during the early, philosophical part of the story, that whatever happens is ordained by God, and there is no shame in failure because it is what God has decreed. This principle is set out in the context of men striving to make a success of themselves, and it’s a cheap intellectual trick to apply such que sera sera reasoning to one’s own personal failings.

The most disgraceful episode of the story comes on Night 930, when Wird Khan blames the women for his poor judgment. As we recall, lust and falsehood come together:

All this was caused by these women who tricked and deceived me with their specious and lying words. I accepted what they said because the sweetness and softness with which they spoke led me to think that this was good advice, whereas, in fact, it was deadly poison. I know for certain that what they did was to bring ruin and destruction on me, and they deserve a just punishment at my hands that will make an example of them for those who can learn from their lesson. So what advice can you give me about putting them to death?

This story may be consistent in its structure and its genre-shuffling, but its conclusion is a Grade A disaster. It has all the features of tragedy but with no moment of reckoning for its protagonist. And yet again, this absolution of a high-status man is delivered by blaming some low-status women. When we have encountered such sexism elsewhere in the book, I have often assumed that the original audience would have accepted the outcome as the natural order of things. But here, the shirking of responsibility here seems so egregious, I find it hard to imagine that anyone would have considered the ending satisfactory. This is doubly true given the first part of the story, where the path to virtue is clearly set out by Wird Khan himself, immediately before he disregards it. And it is triply true because his new vizier counsels against blaming the women. After the calamities he has brought upon himself, Wird Khan still hasn’t learnt his lesson. For all his fancy-pants education, he is a bad king.

Illustration by Rene Bull
Illustration by Rene Bull

Stray observations

  • On Night 914, Shrinas and Wird Khan discuss ‘the Original Sin.’ Weirdly, Eve is entirely omitted from the story. I’m not sure whether that is good or bad: On the one hand, it’s an egregious erasure of a woman from a fundamental myth; On the other hand, Eve is usually present in the story only so we have someone to blame for leading Adam astray. Perhaps it is better that Adam should to take responsibility for his own actions?
  • “What are the three things whose ugliness cannot be set aside?’ asked the questioner, and the prince answered: ‘Stupidity, a mean nature and lying.’” (Night 916)
  • I have not strayed beyond the main storyline in this recap, but that is no reflection on the quality of the sub-stories. There are some fine tales buried within. Some are so short they are almost like jokes – a quick premise and then a singular teaching moment, a punchline, or a twist.
  • The story of the ascetic (Night 903) and the butter is particularly funny. He conjures up a grand life for himself in his daydreams, all founded upon the sale of some butter… which he promptly spills.
  • Nor have I spent any time analysing ‘The young man of Baghdad and his slave girl,’ the short story that precedes that of Wird Khan. Its a fairly standard Arabian Nights tale about a man falling in love with his slave, which I never find particularly captivating. However, it does have a brilliant moment when the woman recognises that her lover is nearby, because of the way her lute has been tuned. That is a rare kind of intimacy.

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