Let’s start with the great Arabic text, One Thousand and One Nights, compiled throughout the Golden Age of Islamic culture. I have always found this to be one of the best places to start any discussion of narrative complexity. The entire collection is set in the compelling frame tale of Scheherazade, the daughter of the Grand Vizier who must save her life one night at a time by telling stories to the love-wounded Sultan who has vowed to take a new wife every day and execute her the next morning. But Scheherazade does not tell stories in the traditional fashion, for to do so would risk ending too soon. Rather, she embeds stories within stories, adding the layers complexity that have made the collection so famous. Just keeping the layers straight exercises cognitive muscles that we rarely get to use.
This proliferation of framing narratives became an important device in the development of the novel, from Cervantes’ Cid Hamete Benengeli in Don Quixote to Dostoyevsky’s Ivan Karamazov in The Brothers Karamazov. These narrative layers create a distance between the author and the reader and inject the possibility narrative unreliability at multiple points in the story. We can never be quite sure how much of the voice that we are hearing belongs to Dostoevsky, how much belongs to Ivan Karamazov, and how much belongs to the Grand Inquisitor. This ambiguity is itself part of how stories mean things.
All of this was going through my mind last week as I read one of the the most complex narrative passages in the Book of Mormon: the Record of Zeniff (Mosiah 9-22), which contains the record of the people who left Zarahemla to re-colonize the Land of Lehi-Nephi. The Story of Zeniff, which contains the crucial story of King Noah and Abinidai—and of Alma’s founding of the Nephite Church at the Waters of Mormon—comes to us through several narrative layers. We need to pay attention to this because it matters.
In the text of the Book of Mormon, Zeniff’s record (most of which occurs after Zeniff dies, so another narrator is implied) is framed by Ammon’s Journey from Zarahemla in search of the Nephites who left three generations earlier. When we read this story, we necessarily encounter its characters through four distinct narrative levels:
- The narrator of the record of Zeniff, which is part of . . . .
- The narrative of Ammon, which has been compiled and edited into. . . .
- The abridged record created by Mormon, which was translated by. . . .
- Joseph Smith as the Book of Mormon
We need to keep in mind that each of these narrators had a different audience and rhetorical objectives. The original author of the record is trying to preserve a history and explain the founding of the Church. Ammon is creating a narrative that frames his journey to the land of Lehi-Nephi as a success. He is the hero of the story, of course, but most people are heroes of the stories that they write. Readers at least need to take this into consideration as they draw conclusions from the narrative.
Mormon’s rhetorical objectives in this passage are perhaps the most interesting and the most important. Like most historians, he was compiling the various records available to him into a narrative that explained how his society got to be the way it was. This means that he emphasized some details and de-emphasized others according to the interests of people 600 years removed from the actual events—much as a modern historian would when describing the Wars of the Roses or the defeat of the Spanish Armada. We usually want to know how what happened then got us to what we see now.
At the time that he was redacting the Nephite records, Mormon was fighting two different battles: the religious battle for the Church in Nephite culture, and the political battle for the survival of the Nephites against their Lamanite emenies. This means that he had very strong incentives to emphasize 1) the divine revelation at work in creating the Church of which he is one of the few surviving members; and 2) the faithlessness of the Lamanites, who are in the process of exterminating his people. It should be no surprise, then, that these become two of the story’s most important elements, as they reflect the culture of the person who turned it into a story in the first place.
But Mormon was a good enough historian that he left traces of a very different perspective that, with a bit of imagination, we can reconstruct like this:
Seventy five years ago, some people claiming to be the descendants of Nephi came to our land and demanded to settle there because it had “belonged to their ancestors.” We let them start their own colony in the middle of our country and asked only that they pay a fair tribute of their crops and livestock each year—a common practice that reflects the fact that we were giving them our land. In exchange for their tribute, we left them alone and protected their people. But then, a group of them kidnapped and raped our daughters. Naturally, this outraged our people, and we increased their tribute. They complained about this, and relations between us soured, so they snuck out in the middle of the night and went back to Zarahemla. Good riddance!
We don’t have any actual narrative from this perspective, of course, because Mormon got to write the story. His point of view is the only one that we have access to. But narratives always come from a perspective, and human perspectives are always limited. One of the great challenges (and, I would argue, great pleasures) of reading complicated narratives is learning how to untangle the voices and isolate the biases and insights of each one. That we must do so with the text of the Book of Mormon means that we cannot always take every narrative judgment as the pure word of God. But we should not see this as a flaw. It is simply the way that rich and complex narratives are supposed to work.