As S. flees the city of B— along with Corbeau, Stenfalk, Ostrero, and Pfeifer, the group pauses one evening to escape their troubles by sharing stories around a campfire (p145-151). This is an analysis of those stories.
Pfeifer Tells the Story of His Grandmother’s Ghost (p145)
Pfeifer shares that his grandmother’s ghost haunts the wealthy family she once served. Every time the family thinks they are rid of her, “plates and glasses start smashing against the walls.”
Stenfalk Tells the Story of the Hjaarn (p145-146)
The Hjaarn is a mythical creature akin to Bigfoot and the Loch Ness Monster. It devours livestock until there are no more, then turns its attention to farmer’s daughters. The farmers attempt to chase it down, and when weary seek shelter in an icy cave. In the cave the farmers “hear a rustle in the dark cave behind them , and then–” Stenfalk then screams to scare his listeners and enjoys their startled reactions.
S. Longs to Tell the Story of Sola (p146)
S. feels left out because he has no stories to tell other than Sola. But that story involves only two brief scenes – the bar in the Old Quarter and the wharf-sighting in B—. He decides not to say anything.
Ostrero Tells the Story of The Flute-Charmed Children (p147)
This is a “cautionary tale” for disobedient children. Itinerant traders would steal the children out of their beds, place them in baskets, and then sold at the Arab suqs, where flute-playing charmers would buy them and use them for entertaining dignitaries.
This is the first story around the campfire that reaches beyond its evening utterance. Later in Ship of Theseus, as S. walks through the night suq in El H—, he comes across a scene that could very well be this story coming true (p235-236).
Compare this story to S‘s story. He is stolen away from the Old Quarter, placed in a room aboard a ship, and occasionally summoned by flute-playing crewmen who summon him with a series of notes that indicate Land Ho (p60, 307, 413). S. then emerges, goes on land, and then returns to his room until he is summoned again.
Stenfalk Tells the Story of the Winter City (p147-148)
This is another “cautionary” tale for disobedient children. Those children who were truly bad would wake up one morning in the Winter City, where everything was covered in ice and snow and no one could talk to each other. They would be truly alone.
The entirety of Chapter 9 is devoted to the story of S. as he endures a purgatorial visit to the Winter City. It is exactly as Stenfalk described it.
Is S. a disobedient child suffering the fate of the “cautionary tales” told by both Ostrero and Stenfalk?
Corbeau Tells the Story of the K— (p148-149)
This is a true story, though that is not yet known by the group. The K— lived in the same region of the country that the group now travels. They chronicled stories inside a system of caves that illustrated events and beliefs.
A day later, Corbeau, Pfeifer, and S. discover that the story of the K— is true in its entirety. However, they have no time to relish the truth of the story because they are relentlessly pursued by Vevoda’s detectives.
The story of the K— is a story within a story within a story within a story. The story the K— tell in the caves is in the story that Corbeau shares in the story of Ship of Theseus which is just part of the story of “S.” How Inception-like.
Stenfalk Tells the Story of Listening to His Father Read The Archer’s Tales (p149-151)
Stenfalk recalls hearing of the K— (or at least a people like them) in a dusty old book that his father would read to the family. Corbeau shows surprise that the story of the K— ever made it into a book. Stenfalk recalls the name of the book: The Archer’s Tales and comments that “it was full of the most wonderful stories.” As he struggles to remember the name of the author, S. reveals it is the Portuguese sailor Sobreiro and that he saw Sola (who is also called Szalome) reading the book in the city where he was taken. Stenfalk is surprised that anyone has ever heard of the book. Everyone finds this very strange. S. asks Stenfalk if the book is still in his family, but “No. It was stolen. As most beautiful things eventually are.”
The final four stories seem to be increasingly true to S. He is the flute-charmed disobedient child. He does end up in the Winter City. He does discover first-hand that the story of the K— is true with his own eyes. And as for The Archer’s Tales, S. seems to discover that the Book of “S.” on Obsidian Island is somehow parallel to The Archer’s Tales (p290-292). Every schematic of S.‘s ship has the word SOBREIRO “cleverly concealed in the artist’s shading of the hull.”
What if “S.” stands for story? And what if each story in The Archer’s Tales is paralleled by every iteration of S‘s ship in the Book of “S.”?
If every board and sail and bowsprit and bulwark and mast and deck and hatch and porthole and scupper have been replaced on a ship, is it the same ship? If every word and character and setting and plot and detail have been replaced in a story, is it the same story? The answer is yes.
There is only one ship, no matter how many transformations it goes through. There is only one story, no matter how many different ways we tell it. Though every story we tell may have completely different details, in the end all stories follow a similar pattern – the monomyth (aka The Hero’s Journey).