The first question the novel asks is, "what is the use of stories that aren't even true?" The novel then sets out to answer this question, as well as complicate the answers. As fiction, the novel tells a story that, by default, isn't necessarily true, and the obviously fantastical and magical elements emphasize this almost to absurdity. This process and style brings into question the purpose of the novel itself as it simultaneously explores the purpose of the stories within its own pages, as well as its place in the world.
Haroun's story relies very much on the stories of others in order to add meaning and create different meanings. The outside references are numerous and range from One Thousand And One Nights to Beatles' songs. By including so many references to outside works, the novel then gets to pull meaning, morals, and ideas from those outside works. In this way, the novel is able to essentially borrow meaning from these stories, rather than create meaning solely out of thin air. Further, by making these references to outside fictional works, the novel insists that made-up, fictional stories in general can be meaningful, as their inclusion creates layer upon layer of meaning. Additionally, an individual reader's interpretation and experience of the novel is extremely dependent on his or her familiarity with the referenced works. In this way, the experience of reading Haroun and the Sea of Stories can become a highly personal experience.
In addition to exploring the meaning of stories, the novel is also very concerned with exploring its own structure and texture in regards to story structure and character archetypes. Haroun and Khattam-Shud especially make constant observations about the arc of the story in which they find themselves. Haroun remarks that Khattam-Shud himself is an anti-climactic figure, while Khattam-Shud states that Haroun's arrival is indicative of a tiresome melodrama. In exploring its texture and more general character archetypes, the novel is especially concerned with the shape and form of evil characters. By presenting evil characters that appear mundane and boring, such as Khattam-Shud and Mr. Sengupta, the novel insists that evil characters need not take an obvious or expected shape, as Mr. Buttoo and his henchmen do, in order to carry out their evil plans. As well as questioning what makes a good villain, the novel also questions the very concept of a happy ending. While Haroun's final wish for a happy ending comes at the end of the novel, it's still very close to the beginning of his life. This further supports the idea that stories are living, breathing things, and while a story may end for the reader, the characters' lives continue after the last page.
By engaging with itself in this reflective manner, the novel asks the reader to question in a broader sense what makes a good story, what makes a good hero or villain, and what constitutes a truly happy ending. Essentially, the novel functions as a champion of the value of stories as teaching tools, entertainment, and a force for good in the world. It takes the position that whatever the specific purpose of a story might be, there is always a use for stories. Further, it encourages the reader to be an active participant in the preservation of old stories, for it is through the oldest stories that humans can connect to their roots and each other, and find common ground despite apparent irreconcilable differences.
Storytelling Quotes in Haroun and the Sea of Stories
"What's the use of stories that aren't even true?"
"'Need to stop?' he bellowed over his shoulder. "'Need to go so quickly?' Well, my sirs, I'll tell you this: Need's a slippery snake, that's what it is. The boy here says that you, sir, Need A View Before Sunset, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And some might say that the boy here Needs A Mother, and maybe it's so and maybe no. And it's been said of me that Butt Needs Speed, but but but it may be that my heart truly needs a Different Sort of Thrill. O, Need's a funny fish: it makes people untruthful. They all suffer from it, but they will not always admit. Hurrah!"
"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’.
"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."
"Happy endings must come at the end of something," the Walrus pointed out. "If they happen in the middle of a story, or an adventure, or the like, all they do is cheer things up for a while."
"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."