Around the Quads

Mini-Mini-Core: Traveling Tales

Stories make sense of the world around us, organize our experience and teach us about worlds and perspectives far different from our own. Patricia Grieve, the Nancy and Jeffrey Marcus Professor of the Humanities, explored how three stories did this in their time — and how they still resonate today — in her three-part Mini-Core Course “Traveling Tales: 1001 Nights, Boccaccio’s Decameron, and Cervantes’ Exemplary Tales.” Among the points of connection between the works is the powerful role of women. Herewith, some examples:

One Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights; author: Anonymous

The Role of Women: The collection of stories includes many set in Baghdad during the reign of the caliph Harun al-Rashid (Aaron the Just; 786–809). It’s famous for the voice of its storyteller, Shahrazad, the daughter of the vizier to King Shahrayar and the king’s latest in a string of wives.

Voice in Action: The stories Shahrazad tells the king are an antidote to his rage. They serve to suspend rules and buy time; as long as she can keep him interested — she stops her tales most every night at a “cliffhanger moment” — he won’t execute her in the morning. Her storytelling is also therapeutic. It regulates the king’s desire until he is satisfied narratively (and also satisfied sexually, as he’s sleeping with her) and is ready both to rule the kingdom properly and be monogamous with her.

The Decameron; author: Giovanni Boccaccio (1313-75)

The Role of Women: Composed ca. 1348–53, The Decameron is famously dedicated to “the Ladies” and — like its predecessor, Arabian Nights — it showcases women in a full range of behaviors. They often stand up for their right to possess sexual desire and to have it fulfilled.

Voice in Action: One notable character is Ghismonda, a young widow whose father refuses to find her a new husband. She then takes a virtuous young man, whom her father has praised in court, as her lover. Even so, when her father discovers the trysts, he has the young man killed. Ghismonda’s beautifully crafted, legalistic speech on codified law versus natural law — the right of a young widow to find sexual fulfillment after having known conjugal love — precedes her suicide in protest over her father’s actions.

Exemplary Tales; author: Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547-1616)

The Role of Women: As in Don Quixote, Cervantes gives voice to the marginalized and the disenfranchised, and his Exemplary Tales (1613) show a variety of women as “redemptive heroines” whose words and actions serve to correct or redeem the behavior of men.

Voice in Action: Preciosa is the heroine of the novella “The Little Gypsy Girl.” Kidnapped as a baby from her aristocratic mother and raised by gypsies, she astonishes everyone with her innate wisdom, wit, charm, poise and beauty. Her lessons to a besotted aristocratic suitor teach him (and the reader) about how women should be courted and treated, and about the philosophical elegance and beauty of poetry.

Mini-Core Courses are class series that offer College alumni the opportunity to revisit the Core in a lecture/seminarlike setting with a distinguished faculty member and other alumni. Topics relate to the Core Curriculum but explore new texts or ideas. For offerings and other information, go to college.columbia.edu/alumni/career/minicore.

CCT Web Extra

Read recent articles about ISIS and its claims to the heritage of the legendary Caliph Harun al-Rashid (Aaron the Just).