Haroun and the Sea of Stories was written in the years following the publishing of The Satanic Verses, which sparked immense controversy and began a years-long battle between Rushdie and some Muslim-majority countries, particularly Iran, over freedom of speech. Especially in light of these events, Haroun and the Sea of Stories can be considered a meditation on ideas of power and censorship, and how language and stories are tools that can be used to exert, maintain, or undermine power. The novel presents a very clear position that language is power, and whoever is in possession of language can exert power over those around them. Consequentially, censorship emerges as a major theme as characters battle for power over not just what language can and should say or do, but over language itself.
The relationship between power and stories is first introduced when we learn that Rashid is in high demand with politicos (politicians). The general populace believes Rashid because he is upfront about the fact that his stories aren't true, while nobody trusts the politicos that make no such claims. As such, Mr. Buttoo hires Rashid to tell happy stories so that he can win the election in Alfibay. Essentially, he understands the power that Rashid and his stories hold, and uses money and threats to attempt to censor what Rashid says. However, in spite of these threats, the novel ultimately champions the power of free speech, as Rashid's retelling of his and Haroun's adventures on the moon Kahani become an allegory for what is happening politically in Alfibay and ultimately leads to Mr. Buttoo's defeat.
Khattam-Shud's desire to have absolute power stems from a need to control everything he possibly can. He sees the worlds around him as existing only for the sake of being ruled, and his preferred method of ruling is through censorship. Rather than insist that people only speak a certain way or tell certain types of stories like Mr. Buttoo, Khattam-Shud sets out to stop the existence of speech and stories altogether. As a result of this extreme degree of censorship, the Chupwalas' trust in each other is eroded. More important even than that is the idea that the Chupwalas also lose trust in their Shadows, which possess their own personalities, and are therefore unable to exist as whole, functioning individuals. This exposes censorship as a dark force that can successfully control even an unwilling population, as Mudra the Shadow Warrior knows that many Chupwalas only obey Khattam-Shud out of fear.
Rashid is able to disobey Mr. Buttoo thanks to what he and Haroun learn from witnessing the ill effects of censorship in Chup and the positive effects of free speech in Gup. Despite the fact that Haroun and Rashid are undeniably on the side of the talkative Guppees, they initially struggle to reconcile how language functions in Guppee society with what they know of censorship in Alfibay. Haroun, for example, is shocked that some Guppees would openly state they'd sacrifice Princess Batcheat for the sake of the Ocean, describing such a suggestion as mutinous. However, Butt suggests that there's no point in granting people freedom of speech if they're unable to truly exercise that freedom. Haroun and Rashid's struggle to understand this relationship between freedom and censorship is resolved when Rashid sees that the arguments and discussions within the Guppee army lead not to mutiny, but to a greater sense of trust among the Guppee soldiers. Seeing that this style of open and honest discourse can create positive results, Rashid weaves a story that slyly reveals Mr. Buttoo as the villain he is by conflating him with Khattam-Shud.
In the novel's exploration of language and power, censorship is painted as a way to dehumanize and depersonalize a population. The novel essentially suggests that by limiting speech, knowledge of the world and knowledge of the self cannot be obtained, while simultaneously presenting the idea that open communication and the spread of ideas is the only way for individuals and societies to truly flourish.
Power and Censorship ThemeTracker
Power and Censorship Quotes in Haroun and the Sea of Stories
"It was a figure of speech," Mr. Butt replied. "But but but I will stand by it! A figure of speech is a shifty thing; it can be twisted or it can be straight. But Butt's a straight man, not a twister. What's your wish, my young mister?"
"Khattam-Shud," he said slowly, "is the Arch-Enemy of all Stories, even of Language itself. He is the Prince of Silence and the Foe of Speech. And because everything ends, because dreams end, stories end, life ends, at the finish of everything we use his name. "'It's finished,' we tell one another, 'it's over. Khattam-Shud: The End.'"
When Haroun heard his father say only a story, he understood that the Shah of Blah was very depressed indeed, because only deep despair could have made him say such a terrible thing.
—"I don't know," panted Iff as he struggled to keep up with the charging boy. "We've never caught a spy before. Maybe we should scold him. Or make him stand in the corner. Or write I must not spy one thousand and one times. Or is that too severe?"
Haroun noted that many other Pages of the Royal Guard were dressed in half-familiar stories. One Page wore the tale of ‘Bolo and the Wonderful Lamp’; another, ‘Bolo and the Forty Thieves’. Then there was ‘Bolo the Sailor’, ‘Bolo and Juliet’, ‘Bolo in Wonderland’.
Haroun was rather shocked. "That sounds like mutinous talk to me," he suggested, and Iff, Goopy, Bagha and Mali found that very interesting indeed. "What's a Mutinous?" asked Iff, curiously. "Is it a plant?" Mali inquired.
"You don't understand," Haroun tried to say. "It's an Adjective."
"Nonsense," said the Water Genie. "Adjectives can't talk."
"Money talks, they say," Haroun found himself arguing (all this argument around him was proving infectious), "so why not Adjectives? Come to that, why not anything?"
"But but but what is the point of giving persons Freedom of Speech," declaimed Butt the Hoopoe, "if you then say they must not utilize the same? And is not the Power of Speech the greatest Power of all? Then surely it must be exercised to the full?"
"All my life I've heard about the wonderful Sea of Stories, and Water Genies, and everything; but I started believing only when I saw Iff in my bathroom the other night. And now that I've actually come to Kahani and seen with my own eyes how beautiful the Ocean is, with its Story Streams in colours whose names I don't even know, and its Floating Gardeners and Plentimaw Fishes and all, well, it turns out I may be too late, because the whole Ocean's going to be dead any minute if we don't do something. And it turns out that I don't like the idea of that, sir, not one bit. I don't like the idea that all the good stories in the world will go wrong for ever and ever, or just die. As I say, I only just started believing in the Ocean, but maybe it isn't too late for me to do my bit."
"It's our own fault," he wept. "We are the Guardians of the Ocean, and we didn't guard it. Look at the Ocean, look at it! The oldest stories ever made, and look at them now. We let them rot, we abandoned them, long before this poisoning. We lost touch with our beginnings, with our roots, our Wellspring, our Source. Boring, we said, not in demand, surplus to requirements. And now, look, just look! No colour, no life, no nothing. Spoilt!"
"But this is all too fanciful for words," he told himself. "A boat made out of shadows? A shadow-ship? Don't be nuts." But the idea kept nagging at him, and wouldn't let go. Look at the edges of everything here, said a voice in his head. The edges of the poison tanks, the crane, the ship itself. Don't they look, well, fuzzy? That's what shadows are like; even when they're sharp, they're never as sharp-edged as real, substantial things.
We must make a great many poisons, because each and every story in the Ocean needs to be ruined in a different way. To ruin a happy story, you must make it sad. To ruin an action drama, you must make it move too slowly. To ruin a mystery you must make the criminal's identity obvious even to the most stupid audience..."
"But why do you hate stories so much?" Haroun blurted, feeling stunned. "Stories are fun..."
"The world, however, is not for Fun," Khattam-Shud replied. "The world is for Controlling."
"Which world?" Haroun made himself ask.
"Your world, my world, all worlds," came the reply. "They are all there to be Ruled. And inside every single story, inside every Stream in the Ocean, there lies a world, a story-world, that I cannot Rule at all. And that is the reason why."
"Don't, Dad," said Haroun, his good mood deflating all at once. "Don't you get it? It isn't real. It's just something the Eggheads got out of a bottle. It's all fake. People should be happy when there's something to be happy about, not just when they get bottled happiness poured over them from the sky."