The Frame Story

When storytelling is done well, it’s so effortless for the listener that the tales slip in through the ears without the faintest bump.

Throughout history, storytellers have developed devices to conjure the magical realms that are their currency. They’ve learned to weave in twists and turns, and to link one tale to another… and another.

The most complex storytelling device of all, frame stories are an example of a highly developed technique, one that has existed for millennia. A frame story is when one story is recounted within the context of another, independent of the first.

Numerous works have used this literary device well, from Homer’s Odyssey, to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales to Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Conrad’s Heart of Darkness; and from the great epics of ancient India, to those of the Arab world, among them Khalila and Dimna and The Seventy Tales of a Parrot.

But it is The Thousand and One Nights that is the most celebrated treasury of frame stories of all. A kaleidoscope of layers, it reveals one tale laid over another, and another, and another… until the original timeline becomes buried deep in a labyrinth of fantasy.

The central premise of The Nights is, of course, a frame story itself – Scheherazade saving her neck by recounting one tale after another as the months and years go on.

Tales to look out for in The Nights that use this framing technique, include Maruf the Cobbler, Sindbad the Seaman, The Caliph’s Night Adventure, and The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.

But the finest example of multiple layers is surely found in the story Queen of the Serpents. It links to numerous framed tales, including The Adventures of Buluqiya, The Story of Janshah, The Fisherman and the Genie and so on.

As so often happens in my life, I have found that my fascination for something has been experienced and studied by other members of my family decades earlier.

My aunt, Amina Shah, has the finest imagination and delivery of any storyteller I have witnessed. And, so often, her tales lead one into another, as she gauges the particular needs of her audience.

And, my father – Idries Shah – devoted much of his professional life recrafting tales and launching them into the Occidental world. His book, World Tales is an extraordinary treasury in its own right, and one that strives to decipher the origins of key tales.

But for the frame story, it’s their father, my grandfather – Sirdar Ikbal Ali Shah – who was yet again my inspiration.

In the ’thirties he published a book The Golden Pilgrimage which is in a way a kind of hybrid between Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and The Thousand and One Nights. Newly returned from the Hajj himself (of which he wrote numerous articles for The Times), he used the context of the caravanserai, as a device to frame one tale around the next. And it is to his memory that I dedicate Scorpion Soup.