In 1990, Salman Rushdie published his children’s novel, Haroun and the Sea of stories. The novel is an allegory for many of the political and social issues his family was facing at the time, as Rushdie was in hiding due to the controversy of his 1988 novel, The Satanic Verses. Rushdie wrote the novel for his son to understand the events going on in their lives. The novel follows the young protagonist, Haroun Khalifa, who lives with his parents in a town that is described as “a sad city, the saddest of cities, a city so ruinously sad it had forgotten its name” (1).
There is no real happiness in the city and soon his mother stops singing, eventually leaving with the upstairs neighbor. The story follows Haroun on his epic journey to find his father, Rashid’s, lost imagination, as he is a famous storyteller. The novel presents many children’s literacy themes such as: a modern day fairy tale, political text, a cultural text, the hero’s journey and a coming of age tale. Through the children’s novel, Rushdie interwove the themes of the hero’s journey and political suppression of voice, through oral traditions, to tell a wondrous journey of passing on stories and their values for children to hear.
Rashid, otherwise known as the “Ocean of Notion, the famous Shah of Blah,” uses the mystical narrative waters of the Sea of Stories to tell others fantastical stories (16). When Haroun asks where the stories come from, he tells Haroun the stories come “[f]rom the great Story Sea, … I drink the warm Story Waters and then I feel full of stream” (17). Rashid “drinks” from the mystical, and imaginative, waters and is filled with endless stories of strange characters and magical creatures, to pass on the knowledge and values to those listening.
This use of the oral traditions is often used to pass on lessons to children in children’s novels. To Haroun this is a confusing concept as he has never seen a “Water Genie,” as Rashid calls them. His father tells him just because he has never seen the “Water Genie” does not mean the genie does not exist. To a child, this is a powerful idea. A child is constantly going back in forth between blind faith and needing to see to believe. They believe in Santa, the Tooth Fairy and the Easter Bunny blindly for a time, while on the other hand the need for the physical proof grows with as they age.
Haroun’s need to see the physical is a sign of his growing older. At the beginning of the story Rushdie presents one of the stories arcs through a question Haroun asks his father, Rashid. Haroun asks, “[w]hat’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? ” (22). This question is the start to Haroun’s journey and is a constant throughout the novel. Rashid, after hearing these words, started to cry. Soon after “Rashid Khalifa, the legendary Ocean of Notions, the fabled Shah of Blah, stood up in front of a huge audience, opened his mouth, and found he had run out of stories to tell” (22).
Without his son to believe in him, Rashid has lost his confidence in the story and cannot come up with any. Trying to provide for his son, Rashid begins to tell stories for politicians to try and sway the people to their political side. However, Rashid fails at this as well and is unable to say anything other than “Ark. ” The politicians are angry and send him to the Valley of K to tell stories or else. While in the Valley of K, Haroun is introduced to Iff, the water genie, who has come to uninstall Rashid’s connection to the Sea of Story waters.
Haroun catches Iff in the act and demands to talk to his supervisor, thus starting his quest to restore his father’s voice and bring back “the Shah of Blah. ” Through Rashid’s loss of voice, Rushdie introduces another theme of the novel, political censorship and suppression of voice. While traveling to talk to Iff’s supervisor, Iff tells Haroun, “[t]o give a thing a name, a label, a handle; to rescue it from anonymity, to pluck it out of the Place of Namelessness, in short to identify it — well, that’s a way of bringing the said thing into being” (63). By giving a thing a name it brings it to life.
It is able to bring meaning where, before, there was none. Rushdie illustrates the power of language in creating a story and meaning. By giving an object a name it gives it a meaning. Throughout the novel, Rushdie makes use of a fantasy language to illustrate the magical world Haroun is traveling through. He gives the magical creatures names such as “Iff” and “Butt” making it entertaining to children while also having a dual purpose of containing a meaning that is later explained. The theme of the hero’s journey or quest for a magical object is a common theme in children’s literature.
A child is mesmerized by being able to journey to far off lands and seeking out a magical object all from the safety of home. The beginning of Haroun and the Sea of Stories describes a city, so sad it has no name, that is so outside the norm for children today, they automatically know the land is far far away. They are immediately traveling to lands unknown in their imagination. From the sad city with no name, they travel to the Valley of K, the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup. The names Rushdie presents are so strange children and adults both appreciate the weirdness of it all.
The children recognize there is about to be journey and Haroun is on a quest for not only a magical object but for adventure. It is through the journey the children are able to be introduced to magical creatures who are manifestations of hard lessons, but on a level a child can understand. The use of the hero’s journey and magical creatures help children to understand the hard issues they might be facing in their lives. While traveling, Haroun sees the Land of Gup, which is a land of light, where the fantastical stories his father tells comes from.
The Land of Gup represents the land of freedom of speech and democracy. However, they soon pass into the Land of Chup, darkness, where the stories are being polluted and destroyed. The Land of Chup is not only the land of darkness but of censorship and silence. The stories being censored and polluted mirrors the censorship Rushdie was facing himself in real life. Rushdie was in hiding because he had received death threats because others did not like what he wrote and found it offensive. In essence, he was being silenced and by writing Haroun and the Sea of Stories he was speaking out against the censorship.
The use of light and darkness presents the idea of right and wrong for children. The Land of Gup is perceived as the land of rightness and freedom of speech. Whereas the Land of Chup is seen as the land of darkness and dictatorship. Butt the Hoopoe asks Haroun, “[b]ut but but what is the point of giving persons Freedom of speech, … ‘if you then say they must not utilize same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full? ” (119). Butt is asking what is the use of freedom of speech if the ability to utilize it is taken away.
This duality of right and wrong is teaching children about freedom of speech and that no one should have it taken away. In the end, Haroun, with his new friends, is able to stop the Land of Chup from their dastardly plan of polluting the stories and unite the Land of Gup and the Land of Chup. The land of light and dark learn they exist without the other, but complement each other. The land of Gup and Chup balance each other and they cannot be a whole without the other. Once he arrives back to the human world with his father, they find their city is no longer the city of sadness but a city full of happiness.
Haroun’s mother has returned and is singing, while Rashid is once again connected to the Sea of Stories and is able to pass on new fantastical stories full of a magical language of far off lands and wondrous places. While the ending is not the typical happily ever after, the characters in the story are happy once again. Rushdie’s tale, Haroun and the Sea of Stories, is a tale of a young man on a hero’s quest to right the wrongs of political censorship and suppression of voice. The novel presents difficult themes in a way children are able to understand and relate.
Through the novel they are able to differentiate between light and dark, right and wrong and a democratic society versus a dictatorship. Children are able to understand hard issues that might be happening around them. The answer to Haroun’s question at the beginning of the story, “[w]hat’s the use of stories that aren’t even true? ,” is a story, even while it may not be true, gives meaning (22). Haroun’s journey gives meaning to his father’s stories and makes them true. As Haroun helped Rashid recover his ability to tell a story, Haroun and the Sea of Stories helped Rushdie reclaim his voice and tell a story.