The stories of Arabian Nights (1001 Nights)
The 1001 Arabian Nights of Stories with Scheherazade
Can one night or even 1001 nights change the world? Collection of tales and stories known as The Arabian Nights can!
World is full of great books but only few made such an impact as Tales of Arabian Nights. This fascinating stories are probably the most influential art work of non-Western origin in the West.
Thanks to many literary, music, movie, theater and other adaptations the characters from Arabian Nights as Scheherazade, Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad and others are now part of global culture and their astonishing fairy tales still inspire millions of creative minds all over the world.
(Image credit: Virginia Frances Sterrett, all used images in this lens are Public Domain, for more info read the part with resources at the end of page.)
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1001 Nights - Arabian Nights Summary
This title serves as a frame to many stories, told with one simple goal: to survive one more day. Simple, yet effective plot, which was already used in Europe (think Boccaccio, Straparola, Basile, ...) is only one of many narrative tricks by which is 1001 Nights, in Anglo-American world more known as Arabian Nights distinguished from many other collections. For further explanation we have to introduce two main persons who's relation connects hundreds of interesting characters and their fates. Let's start with Shahryar!
Shahryar - (also Shahriar or Shahriyar)
Word 'shahryar' comes from Persia and means 'high king' or 'ruler'. So if we say king Shahryar we are actually doing needless repetition. Shahryar was powerful king who's brother (he was a king too) accidentally learned about unfaithfulness of his wife. When they together found out Shahryar's wife is no better, they decided to leave the town until they discover somebody who is even more miserable than they.
This happened surprisingly fast and Shahryar concludes all women are the same. He decides to make some shocking changes. He ordered his wife's execution and remarried. After wedding night he ordered to kill his new wife too so she could not have a chance to become unfaithful. He repeats this cruel practice, somehow similar to the one known from the tale about the Bluebeard until he marries Scheherazade.
Translations of 1001 Nights - Fairy tales for intellectuals?
1001 Nights by Antoine Galland is still the 'standard' version of Arabian Nights in many countries but we should know it is heavily revisited. Galland deleted or at least softened all the 'adult' scenes in the collection where women's infidelity and cruel punishments were main motifs. He also deleted all the poetry which was in his opinion considered as an unnecessary ornament by Western but was mandatory in Arabic narrative tradition.
Galland's edition is without doubt still the most influential for understanding the Orient in Western countries. Its exotic scenery and magic made huge impact on many authors (to name just few: H. C. Andersen, Charles Dickens, Robert Louis Stevenson and Edgar Allan Poe) but to be fair we must note at least one more 'classic' translation: by Sir Richard Burton.
Best translation of 1001 Nights in English for grown ups!
Jean-Charles Mardrus (1868-1949, his real name was Joseph Charles Mardrus) and Edward Powys Mathers (1892-1939) are authors of probably best available translation of Arabian Nights in English today. First Mardrus translated it to French and than Mathers to English.
This is probably the best version of Arabian Nights in English language.
It is available in four volumes in hardback, paperback and also for Kindle.
Last time I checked, there was also a collectible edition available. I suppose this would be a really thoughtful gift for really special person.
(also Sherezade, Sherazad, Shahrzad or Sharazad)
Scheherazade (in Persian this can be translated as: 'of noble lineage' and in some interpretations 'born by lion') was the older daughter of Shahryar's vizier.
After series of cruel murders she was the one who demands from her father to stop king's insanity. She wasn't only beautiful but also very smart. In Shahryar's bedroom she started to tell a story but didn't finish it.
Shahryar decides to postopone her execution to find out how the Scheherazade's tale finishes. But when she concludes the story she skillfully starts new one and in the next morning Shahryar still wants to know what happens next!
This game of telling a fable after fable, tale after tale lasts for one thousand nights and on the one thousand and first night Scheherazade introduced three sons she born in the mean time to her husband. Different versions of Arabian Nights offer different endings but in all we have a happy ending. Scheherazade stayes alive and Shahryar becomes wise ruler and good father and husband.
As we can conclude this frame story, full of passion, blood and fear is aiming at adult audience, although today the tales of the Arabian Nights are mostly considered as fairy tales.
This transformation happened to many tales and fairy tales, but Arabian Nights retained special status. They are still interesting to adults who can easily identify with many intriguing characters in this collection.
Best translation of Arabian Nights in English for children!
The edition of 1001 Nights edited by Professor Muhsin al-Musawi is much more appropriate for children.
It is shortened and without 'adult' content, but every story is carefully crafted so its narrative structure is still as much effective as possible.
Everybody who looks for best reading for his kids who enjoy the magical spells, enchanted horses and other charms from mysterious landscapes, should put this edition on the top of his list.
The frame format
The frame format by which Arabian Nights is distinguished from other collections (sometimes we have frames in frames in frames!) is very likely borrowed from famous Indian collection Panchatantra (available here), where we can find many similar tales, mainly with animal characters.
The history of Arabian Nights
We can't understand the huge potential of this collection without exploring some background. Arabian Nights was introduced to the Western audience in the form of book in the time when fairy tales were favorite pass time of nobility in French and other European courts.
The man behind the Arabian Nights as we know them today is Antoine Galland (1646-1715). He was archaeologist and orientalist.
He was also personal friend of Charles Perrault, who is often credited as the father of modern fairy tale. Galland spent many years in Middle East and encountered the manuscript The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor in today's Istanbul.
He decided to translate it to French and published it in 1701. After huge success of the book he decided to translate all the stories from old Syrian manuscript of unknown author (probably dozens of authors and even more 'editors') with hundreds of novels, fables and tales as the Thousand and One Nights in twelve volumes altogether.
He published them between 1704 and 1717 with last volume being published after his death.
Richard Burton and The Arabian Nights
Tales for adults
Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890) was British explorer, soldier, spy and translator among who's achievements is visiting Mecca in disguise (this holy city is still prohibited for non-Muslims). He also visited Great Lakes of Africa as first European (together with John Hanning Speke).
Sir Richard Burton is credited for many translations and Kama Sutra, the ancient manual of love, is probably most known of all. But Arabian Nights Entertainment (he changed the title to emphasize the origin and goal of the tales) comes close second.
Barton's translation is not the same as Galland's. If Galland erased the scenes he considered inappropriate, it looks Burton made his version mainly because of these scenes. He even added long footnotes for many of erotic scenes to explain all the details to his readers. And one more thing: by today's standard this version of Arabian Nights is considered racists.
Barton's Arabian Nights wasn't first translation in English (first appeared in black market soon after Galland's book and without Galland's knowledge) but it was most comprehensive and is still major work by which the standards for all next translations in English were set.
Arabian Nights and Andrew Lang - Fairy tales for children
Andrew Lang made huge work with collecting and editing fairy tales from all over the world. Arabian Nights Entertainment was only one of his many works but unfortunatelly it wasn't his best. He was of course aiming at children, so his version is censored but this was done without second thoughts and many of the stories have lost their charm and even internal logic because of his heavy cuts.
Let me give you only one example. We have already mentioned the motiff of infidelity. In Galland's edition this act would be described as betrayal of trust and revenge, in Burton's we would see all the juicy and bloody details, but in Lang we would learn only she was talking with a stranger and her husband killed them both for that!
If we can accuse Burton and Lang to exaggarate each on one field, Galland's version has another problem. Remember? It is written in French!
Orphans in The Arabian Nights
Some of the most Arabian Nights stories are called orphan stories because they don't have known manuscript in any of oriental languages.
Most famous 'orphans' are Aladdin and Ali Baba, probably written by motiffs in Arabian or Persian folklore, but both crafted in top fashion of Western fairy tale.
Many experts believe they were written by Antoine Galland himself!
Why is book of 1001 Arabian Nights so important?
Tales of Arabian Nights are not just another book. They are not only a work of art. They are not only an ornamental description of 1001 nights of stories. Arabian Nights stories are one of the magic doors to some kind of parallel universe where everything is possible yet human nature is still the same aas always: selfish or generous, smart and stupid, rich and poor, the unforgettable exotic characters in which we can always find ourselves.
I guess sometimes the best way to find oneself is - to loose oneself for some time. Why not in a great book like 1001 Nights (as we say in our country)? So I highly recommend the Arabian Nights collection!
My resources and further readings
- Public domain illustrations from 1001 Arabic Nights
This collection inspired many artists and you can enjoy in ther creations right here.
- About collection 1001 Nigts in Slovene
One of the most popular collections of fairy tales started as an entertainment for nobility in European courts. (In Slovene language.)
Short summary of the frame story about Scheherazade and her husband. (In Slovene language)
The morals in The 1001 Nights
Tales of the Arabian Nights don't always have a moral in tradition of western fairy tale like this is the case with Grimms' Fairy Tales.
If we can say Grimms' Fairy Tales were aiming at new bourgeois class, Arabian Nights can be considered as a manual to teach what is right and wrong very specific audience: merchants!
You probably noticed in this collection male heroes are preferred, not like in European, where most known tales have the names of girls!