The Thousand and One Arabian Nights - Why You Should Read This Classical Tale
Why this is an all time literary favourite
The Thousand and One Arabian Nights, or Alf Layla wa-Layla, is perhaps one of the world’s best known collection of tales and stories, enchanting to both translators and readers alike. It is a truly vibrant and extensive collection of dramatic stories that were put together in the medieval Islamic world of 9th to 13th centuries. The stories included in the compilation are thought to be mainly of Arabic and Asian origin, they were composed over a period of several centuries and transmitted through the generations orally. The Thousand and One Nights is as entertaining as it is enormously diverse. A sweeping backdrop of settings is utilized in the compendium which span across the globe from the far-east to the frontiers of the Mediterranean. The fanciful tales, in its original pristine form, comprised of wrought heroic epics, cosmological and mystical fantasy, chronicles of stout devotion, and at times unabashed pornography. Though this has been toned down to cater to young and impressionable audiences, the tales still revel in the art of story-telling. Many of the ideas presented in the stories might seem antiquated to first time readers, but there is still much that one can learn nevertheless.
The Thousand and One Nights is essentially a cycle of tales with no identifiable source of origin or a known single author. Different compilers and translators over the centuries exercised discretion when selecting from among hundreds of original stories, but the traditional prelude to the tales remain the same. A let down and bitterly disappointed Sultan Shahryar vows never to trust women when he learns of his wife’s infidelity. Vindictive and enraged, he insists on marrying a new virgin every night and then having her executed the very next morning. The beautiful and witty Scheherazade decides to put an end to the sultan’s tyranny and convinces her father to marry her to the eccentric Sultan. Scheherazade comes up with a plan to keep the sultan engaged in a cycle of unfinished stories from night till dawn thereby forcing the sultan to delay her execution day after day. What follows is a series of interlocking and deeply nested stories and tales that cover a vast array of human experiences. These included anecdotes of romance and legends, hundreds of fairytales and fables to keep the sultan utterly engrossed. Scheherazade told the stories in the form of connective narrative threads, a character in a tale invokes a character who has his own story to narrate. Every narrative proliferates several layers deep in to a maze like a river with many tributaries. As far as Scheherazade was concerned, storytelling was a way to extend her life a day further and postpone the inevitable. In Scheherazade narratives, kings and genies constantly demanded to hear stories from their captives and subjects, adventurers like Sinbad returned from their fantastic voyages with still more stories to tell. The most dominant aspect of her stories was human cleverness. It makes sense to see the sultan lose himself among the colorful characters of Scheherazade stories: kings, demons, witches, trickster thieves and capricious rulers who were out to test human resourcefulness and ingenuity. The plan works out and the cycle of stories continued for a period of three years, a total of thousand and one nights, over the course of which the sultan falls in love with her and they live happily ever after.
The Original Legends
The original stories had gone through several centuries of modifications and were principally kept alive by professional story tellers, or Ravis, who would perform them to entertain throughout the middle-east. The title ‘Thousand and One Nights’ is also thought to have originated from the Turkish expression ‘Bin-bir’, meaning ‘thousand and one’. This like the Arabic title is indicative of a ‘very large number’; since there is no conclusive and definitive textual source of the work, the title could have other influences as well. The Thousand and One Nights fizzled into western consciousness for the first time following the French translation of Syrian manuscripts dating back to 15th century by Antoine Galland in 1704. Later in that era, Edward Lane produced an English translation (1838-1841) but with large portions of the French translation excised to cater to the cultural sensitivities of the nineteenth century Victorians. Other translations such as one by John Payne (1882-1884) are considered comprehensive, but just like Lane’s work Payne’s publication were also heavily expurgated so as not to aggravate Victorian sensibilities. On the other hand, Richard F. Burton’s works (1885) embellish exoticism and eroticism that were apparently abundant in the original series.
Since its first appearance in the western world, stories of classics such as Aladdin, Sinbad and Ali Baba have become firmly etched in the western imagination.The original collection contains fables and legends from various geographical locations and historical eras, and these anecdotes are thought to have stemmed from popular folk traditions. Since the 18th century, the classic collection of stories have become one of the most celebrated and popular works of world literature. The ‘Arabian Nights’ have spawned countless adaptations, both literary and dramatic, and garnered tributes from renowned writers and composers such as Johann Wolfang von Goethe and Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov. References to the Arabian Nights can also seen in many major Hollywood adaptations; Disney’s ‘Aladdin’ was an obvious example.
The Western World's Reaction
The western world’s earlier reception to ‘Thousand and One Nights’ wasn’t as lukewarm as one would expect and did not enjoy the status of high art as it does today. In the early 18th century, the tales were regarded as mere entertaining literary diversions with no scholarly merit. Early western scholars of the Victorian era objected to what they perceived as immoral beliefs and vagabond characters described in the stories. In contrast to the literary critics, western poets were much more receptive and accommodating of the ideas in ‘The Nights’, especially those of the romantic era. Writers such as Wordsworth and Edgar Alan Poe regarded the Arabian tales as works of unique imaginative power and footprints of its deep influences can be seen in much of their work and publications. The earlier western world, that remained unimpressed by the original classic tales, saw its imagination gripped by the pseudo-oriental works of writers who sought their inspiration from the classic ‘Thousand and one Nights’, although these writers portrayed the East as highly exotic, sensual and extravagant. The stories began to attract serious scholarly and critical attention in the 20th century when critics realized that the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ carry a prickly subtext. Scholars of literature theory, linguistics and art began to hail the classic stories as brilliant and profoundly entertaining work of narratives. Critics also noted the value of moral tales of ‘Arabian Nights’ to modern life because of their depiction of human struggle against incomprehensible forces and over-powering entities, personified by the Jinns and Genies in the classic tales. Certain tales of ‘Arabian Nights’ uncannily resemble modern reality, like the tale of the Ebony Horse where an adventurous prince learns to operate a flying machine. The theme of the Arabian Nights address questions of universal interest; life, death, happiness, good and evil, relationship between the sexes and themes of justice and forgiveness are also presented in the interlocking tales. One of the most prominent and recurring theme in the Arabian Nights is that of power, particularly absolute power that is seen to corrupt. This notion is developed by depicting characters of tyrannical rulers who dole out life and death at whim and the effects of such absolute control. The role of women is also highlighted in the tales who often take on the role of supporting characters, they are often introduced in the stories as slaves or concubines of men who own them but display the incredible strength of their character by overcoming crippling adversities. The stories offer useful advice on how to survive in a society where women’s position as subordinates is established as the norm. The Thousand and One Night’s depiction of a society where upward social mobility is arrested and social stratification is insurmountable, is still relevant to this day and somewhat illustrative of the socio-economic reality of modern Eastern existence.
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Cultural Impact of 1001 Arabian Nights
The ‘Thousand and One Nights’ has had a remarkable impact on all cultures it reached. Many twentieth century novelist composed modern versions of the classical tales such as Naguib Mahfouz’s ‘Arabian Night and Days’. Arabian Nights also captured the creative imagination of musicians and filmmakers, most children must have heard of Aladdin and his enchanted lamp, Ali Baba and the adventures of Sinbad in some form or the other. Scholars to this day continue to study and investigate the structure, narrative techniques, history and development of the classical stories entailed in the compendium. The advent of inter-disciplinary analysis and criticism from scholars of various disciplines help the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ also helped the classical work garner serious literary attention and has become an area of active linguistic research in its own right. Most scholars agree that this classical work well thought-out analysis as it is a rich and complex text. It is also interesting to note that ‘Arabian Nights’ present and promote a fascinating lesson in the exercise of public relations. The characters thriving on Arabian Nights’ plane of existence indulge in constant praises and invocations of the Almighty that appears to be the binding force unifying all the tales. Characters of various ethnicities and religions mingle in the realm of Arabian Nights and offer a glimpse of the universal appeal of the medieval middle-east, a mockery of sorts of the ethnocentricity prevailing in the world today.
Some of the stout fans and scholars of the literary world maintain that the ‘Thousand and One Arabian Nights’ is an achievement that remains unparalleled by any other work of literature. The tremendous volume, richness of characters and the moral dilemmas presented in the stories remain unrivaled. The text also sheds light on the lives and culture of its creators and will continue to spark the imagination and mould the character of new generations.
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