Literary Mixtape: Scheherazade from 'Arabian Nights'


If you’ve ever wondered what your favorite literary characters might be listening to while they save the world/contemplate existence/get into trouble, or hallucinated a soundtrack to go along with your favorite novels, well, us too. But wonder no more! Here, we sneak a look at the hypothetical iPods of some of literature’s most interesting characters. What would be on the personal playlists of Holden Caulfield or Elizabeth Bennett, Huck Finn or Harry Potter, Tintin, or Humbert Humbert? Something revealing, we bet. Or at least something danceable. Read on for a cozy reading soundtrack, character study, or yet another way to emulate your favorite literary hero. This week: Scheherazade, the Persian queen of a thousand stories.

In the frame narrative of One Thousand and One Nights (or as it is more often titled in America, Arabian Nights), a king would marry a virgin every day, and behead her the next, having witnessed the betrayal of one woman and believing them all the same. After killing one thousand women in this way, the land ran out of virgins, except Scheherazade, the vizier’s daughter. In Sir Richard Burton’s translation of the story, Scheherazade is described thusly:

“[She] had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of bygone men and things; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred.”

Wise and witty indeed, Scheherazade spent her first night with her new husband beginning a wonderful story — but not finishing it. So eager was he to hear the end of the tale that he let her live until the next night, when she finished it and began another, and so on and so forth until Scheherazade had told him a thousand stories and he had fallen in love with her. Needless to say, with a thousand stories to tell, we think Scheherazade would listen almost exclusively to music with a great narrative, in order to get some ideas. Here’s what we think she would plan her plan, spin her tales, and win her kingdom to.

Stream the playlist here.

“The Circle Game” — Joni Mitchell

Many of the stories within the One Thousand and One Nights revolve around the inevitability of fate, so we think Scheherazade would appreciate Joni Mitchell cooing that we’re all “captive on the carousel of time.”

“The Mariner’s Revenge Song” — The Decemberists

This captivating sea ballad, the story of a son avenging the wrong done to his mother by a roustabout mixed with Moby Dick, would keep us on tenterhooks if it was stopped in the middle, too.

“Holland, 1945” — Neutral Milk Hotel

Not only would we argue that any girl who’s well-read and well-bred as well as wise and witty should be into Neutral Milk Hotel, this song is the jewel of the album Jeff Mangum wrote after reading Anne Frank’s Diary of a Young Girl and beginning every night to dream of rescuing her via time machine. Not only would that be a good story, but we think Scheherazade’s diary would be just as inspiring.

“Alice’s Restaurant” — Arlo Guthrie

This 18-minute talking song is one of the greats. It’s a lot of Arlo Guthrie talking and only a little bit of a song, but we don’t think Scheherazade would mind. After all, every minute counts.

“First Few Desperate Hours” — The Mountain Goats

The album from which this song is plucked, Tallahassee, would surely be on heavy rotation on Scheherazade’s iPod. While strains of the story of the Alpha couple ran through The Mountain Goats’ songs until this point, Tallahassee was completely devoted to them, telling the final story of their dissolution. We think, as a lover and master teller of stories herself, Scheherazade would love to pick through the lyrics and piece together the tale — and then, maybe, tell it.

“Lifter Puller vs. The End of the Evening” — Lifter Puller

Another song from a narrative concept album, this time about all the punks who hang out at the Nice, Nice. But we think Scheherazade would be most drawn to this track, just for the idea of it — after all, it’s always Scheherazade vs. the End of the Evening, when that means the end of her life.

“A Boy Named Sue” — Johnny Cash

One of the most well-known narrative songs of all time by an inarguable master, we think our girl would definitely have to give it a listen or two.

“Long-Forgotten Fairytale” — The Magnetic Fields

The Magnetic Fields are masters of the anecdote, but this song seems more like the song of Scheherazade falling in love with her captor king than a tale of others that she might tell. Or maybe it’s both at once, the colors blurring.

“Sometimes I Forget” — Loudon Wainwright III

Another one of the confessional songwriting greats, this sad song is a perfect subtle story of loss and heartbreak. After all, not all stories can be happy ones.