Haroun and the Sea of Stories is one of those stories about stories. A quick read through the pages offers a fun-loving tale about a young boy out to restore his father’s lost story-telling abilities, but there’s also a deeper story about the power of words and language.
There’s a lot to love about Haroun and the Sea of Stories. It’s a fanciful children’s story with a quick-moving plot and bubbly language. There are multi-mouthed Plentimaw Fish who speak in rhyming couplets (“Hurry! Hurry! Don’t be late! / Ocean’s ailing! Cure can’t wait!”), a slick politician who uses a new adjective every time he addresses a person (“Esteemed Mr. Rashid” on first meeting him; “Distinguished Mr. Rashid” when he’s flattering him; and “Gullible Mr. Rashid” when scoffing at his belief that they’re traveling through the Moody Land), not to mention a host of characters who never use fewer than three idioms at a time to express an idea (“Up the creek, pretty pickle, had our chips.”).
I’ve always found the idea of falling into or out of a story fascinating, so I enjoyed reading about Haroun, the young protagonist, encountering various people, creatures and places he’s heard about in his father’s stories. One such person is the nefarious Khattum-Shud, the “Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech.” Isn’t this the perfect nemesis for the son of a storyteller? Khattum-Shud is out to poison every story ever told (Haroun ends up briefly falling into one such poisoned Princess Rescue Story, and is almost hacked to death instead of riding off into the sunset as you might naturally expect) and stop up the source of stories, too. Why? Because stories contain worlds that can’t be ruled. Using the Princess Rescue Story as an example, if you’d been locked away in tower by an evil witch, she could control where you live, your access to friends, family and food, but your mind would remain your own. You could rehearse Princess Rescue Stories to yourself every day and live with expectancy and hope. Your imagination is yours alone; it cannot be stripped away.
One of my favourite scenes occurs near the end of the book. Haroun’s father, Rashid, has been hired by a snooty politician to butter up a crowd of people who don’t care for this man or his politics. Rashid subverts him by simply telling Haroun’s story. How can a simple story be so effective? Well, the people hear of a tyrant who forces all his subjects to be silent and they understand that evil is hungry for power – and they see some of that same evil in their own politician. They listen to the story of people who hated their hypocritical leader but were afraid to say so – and they recognize their own reservations. The crowd sees a despot defeated – and they collectively boo their own Khattum-Shud out of town. Stories are powerful.
We read of a leader speaking when all his underlings are kept silent and we get a taste of hypocrisy. We read of Haroun imperiling himself to rescue his friend and we understand that friendship is precious and sacrificial. And we hear about the saddest of cities re-discovering its lost name and we feel at once the pang of anonymity and the beauty of being known. Ultimately, stories also speak into our lives and help us make sense of the world. If I were a Plentimaw Fish, I’d put it this way: Stories are fun, Stories are good / By Stories the world is Understood.
(The beautiful Haroun-inspired image at the beginning of the post is a painting by Sarah Jackson. It is copyrighted. You can see more of her work here: www.clearasmudillustration.com.)