In Haroun and the Sea of Stories, Salman Rushdie uses an adventure narrative to ask complex and nuanced questions on the role of story and fiction in modern culture. The novel is partly autobiographical, partly philosophical, partly theoretical, but mostly a fun adventure story that itself relies on narratives dating back to the earliest oral traditions. In the novel Haroun must travel to Kahani, an invisible moon of the earth that holds the Sea of Stories. Haroun must find a way for his father to tell stories once again. To do so, he travels to the Old Zone in the Twilight Strip of Kahani, a place in between darkness and light, to battle Khattam-Shud, the Prince of Silence.
The Old Zone is Rushdie’s metaphor for the religious and spiritual traditions that provide the oldest stories in humanity. These stories were originally oral traditions that were later written down and edited into texts that some came to view as sacred. These stories became sacred because they attempted to put a narrative to the deepest seeded beliefs of humanity. In the novel, Rushdie places the Old Zone in the Twilight Strip, representing his belief that the oldest of narratives are not representations of either good or evil. Instead, these stories explain a deeper truth that cannot be understood outside of the narrative device.
In religious and cultural studies, these types of narratives are often referred to as Myths. A myth (used with a lower case m) differs from a Myth (used with an uppercase M) in that the latter is a narrative tradition that has become so enmeshed within the psychological and physical culture of a society that it becomes true in a very real sense for those that hear and live within such narratives. Sociologists of religion might make the distinction between the myths of Ancient Greece or Rome, and the Myths of modern religions such as Christianity, as an example. The Greek myths are understood as stories; narratives that help us understand a certain way of life for a particular people in a particular place. For most people, the ancient Greek myths have no bearing on the particulars of their lives. The Myths of modern religion, however, create a complex braided existence for billions of people around the world. These Myths are similar to the ancient Greek stories in that they both speak of divine beings creating the world and interacting with their creation. They differ, however, in the fact that modern societies still seek meaning and transcendence in such Myths. The modern Myths are very real for many people and, in fact, have very real impacts on how a person lives their life. As some scholars argue, this is more than a simple matter of belief; for many, the stories of religion are real in that it provides an ethical, moral, and practical basis for living in a particular environment. These are the kinds of stories that Rushdie alludes to in the Old Zone.
Some of the oldest stories still in existence are creation narratives. Two of the oldest narratives are the creation story from the book of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible and the Enuma Elish, an ancient Babylonian creation myth. Both tell a story of a divine being (in the Hebrew Bible, God is named Yahweh; in the Enuma Elish, the god is named Marduk) that creates earth out of a murky void or chaos. These stories help cultures understand the reasons for existence. In the case of the God of the Hebrew Bible, these creation stories still give important meaning to the reality of creation for millions of adherents all over the world. It is worth noting that in these creation stories, and many others, existence comes from water, just as in Haroun and the Sea of Stories, the creation of all story comes from a sea. Duality is often important in creation myths. In Hindu myths of creation there is a cosmogony that describes a state of void in which there is neither existence or non-existence. Often, creation is born out of these dualities of light and dark, being and non-being, and water and sky.
The heroic epic is another of the most ancient narratives that provides cultural meaning. Popular retellings of these epics date back to at least two thousand years before Christ and their origins can be found much earlier. The Greeks created the most lasting and memorable of these epics. The Illiad and the The Odyssey are the two most well known hero epics. These tell the stories of Achilles the Man of War and Odysseus the Man of Many Wiles. Achilles is a warrior who exemplifies the life of glory lived for war. Odysseus is the model of an adventurer who travels to his homeland of Ithaca to take vengeance on the suitors that try to steal his wife and his homestead. Both of these characters are not simply devices for telling a narrative, however. These heroic stories embody a culture. When a person in the ancient world heard a story such as The Odyssey, they were not just hearing of an adventurous man. They were also learning what it means to be a Greek person -- the values and ideologies that created an entire culture and an entire worldview.
It is the use of these stories to control and manipulate that causes their demise. This is the conclusion that Rushdie reached when his own novel, The Satanic Verses, a novel that deals with religion and ultimate causes, was denounced and a fatwa of death was pronounced on Rushdie by the Ayatollah Khomenei of Iran. Haroun and the Sea of Stories is Rushdie’s attempt to regain his authorial voice by returning to the most primal traditions of creation and heroism to denounce the silence imposed upon him by a dictator.