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The stories of Arabian Nights (1001 Nights)

Updated on May 5, 2015
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Tolovaj is a small publishing house specializing in literature for children. The theory of fairytales is one of our passions.

Virginia Frances Sterrett: 1001 Nights
Virginia Frances Sterrett: 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)

Walter Paget: The Story of the Fisherman
Walter Paget: The Story of the Fisherman

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?

Scene from Sinbad the Sailor, by Rene Bull
Scene from Sinbad the Sailor, by Rene Bull

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.

The Book of the Thousand and one Nights. Volume 1 (Thousand Nights & One Night)
The Book of the Thousand and one Nights. Volume 1 (Thousand Nights & One Night)

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.

 
Walter Paget: Sharyar and Scheherazade
Walter Paget: Sharyar and Scheherazade

Scheherazade

(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.

Djin by Louis Rhead
Djin by Louis Rhead

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.

The Arabian Nights (Barnes & Noble Classics)
The Arabian Nights (Barnes & Noble Classics)

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.

Another scene from Sinbad the Sailor by Walter Paget
Another scene from Sinbad the Sailor by Walter Paget

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.

Illustration by Rene Bull
Illustration by Rene Bull

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

Scene from Aladdin, by Rene Bull
Scene from Aladdin, by Rene Bull

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?

The Fisherman and Genie, by Louis Rhead
The Fisherman and Genie, by Louis Rhead

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!

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!

Your turn!

Scene from The Enchanted Horse, Walter Paget
Scene from The Enchanted Horse, Walter Paget

Your favorite fairy tale in Arabian Nights collection is:

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What do you think about Arabian Nights Stories? - Are they more appropriate for adults or for kids?

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    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 23 months ago from Ljubljana

      That was my intention. Thanks for stopping by:)

    • profile image

      DebMartin 2 years ago

      You've inspired me to re-read. Thanks!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @VioletteRose LM: You are right, stories are so different, there is almost no way to like them all the same, but some of them really became huge hits.

    • VioletteRose LM profile image

      VioletteRose LM 3 years ago

      I have read few stories in the children's version of Arabian nights and my mother used to tell me the story of Ali baba when I was a child. I love the story of Ali baba and 40 thieves and I also like the story of Aladdin and Sinbad. I am not a big fan of the Arabian nights stories collection, but some of the stories like those mentioned above are really good.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @aaxiaa lm: Thanks:)

    • aaxiaa lm profile image

      aaxiaa lm 3 years ago

      Depends, there's a great variety of stories. Great lens!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Nice to hear that!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      You have been pinned.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 3 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: You are always welcome!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 3 years ago

      I just had to come back again.

    • profile image

      tonyleather 3 years ago

      What a wonderful and informative lens about an iconic book!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @WriterJanis2: Thanks!

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      Pinning this.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Glad to hear that. Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Excellent Lens ! Thank You for Sharing - Best Wishes :)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @jayavi: Thank you.

    • jayavi profile image

      jayavi 4 years ago

      Thanks for sharing another important lens. Enjoyed well. Nicely arrange

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Felicitas: Yep, I think there is always some kind of censorship involved, even versions for kids are not always suitable for all children.

    • Felicitas profile image

      Felicitas 4 years ago

      It probably depends on which version you read. For children, I think they are a great way to inspire the imagination, as long as they're not too explicit.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @InfoCoop: It is always right time for reading, we are just short of time:)

    • InfoCoop profile image

      InfoCoop 4 years ago

      I'd forgotten how much I enjoyed these. It may be time for another read.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @emilysmaids: Yes, this can be pretty surprising. And the adult versions are actually 'originals'!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @kabbalah lm: Well, I have seen several versions which are definitely not G-rated...

    • kabbalah lm profile image

      kabbalah lm 4 years ago

      I think Arabian nights is appropriate for everyone

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @askformore lm: My pleasure!

    • askformore lm profile image

      askformore lm 4 years ago

      Than you for a great lens. In particular, thanks for the fantastic illustrations!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Andrea RM: Yes, they can be really beautiful... Lucky you!

    • Andrea RM profile image

      Andrea RM 4 years ago

      Great lens! I have a luxury illustrated edition of the Arabian Nights and it's absolutely gorgeous. :)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @takkhisa: This one is real classic!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Thanks!

    • takkhisa profile image

      Takkhis 4 years ago

      They are fantastic! I like some Arabian fairy tales, especially enjoy Ali Baba and 40 thieves!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      They are a treasure trove of knowledge IMO. This is a very nice highlights on the Arabian night-time tales!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @shahedashaikh: 1001 Nights certainly offer at least 1001 versions:)

    • shahedashaikh profile image

      shahedashaikh 4 years ago

      I love the book and do possess it all the tales are enchanting,thanks for the info on how the book and many of its versions came about.lol

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Thanks for your kind words.

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      This is very good information, I like it, thank you for sharing. :)

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @anonymous: Thanks!

    • profile image

      anonymous 4 years ago

      Amazing stories. Timeless actually. Excellent research on a fascinating collection of stories.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @KandH: I m with you on this one:)

    • KandH profile image

      KandH 4 years ago

      They are great stories for boys and girls of ANY age - definitely considered cool stories when I was a kid.

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
      Author

      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Michey LM: They are still beautiful:)

    • Michey LM profile image

      Michey LM 4 years ago

      They are beautiful for kids, they was for me... long time ago!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @siobhanryan: Thanks, I appreciate it!

    • TolovajWordsmith profile image
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      Tolovaj Publishing House 4 years ago from Ljubljana

      @Pat Goltz: Well, although the title said Arabian Nights, many of the stories have nothing to do with people from Arabia. Many came from India, Persia, China etc., so I think it should be viewed as a collection of stories from some distant times, not places (and I think women in Europe around 16 th century didn't have much better positions in society than Women in Asia or Africa). If I remember correctly in many cases they had even less rights!

    • siobhanryan profile image

      siobhanryan 4 years ago

      Another outstanding article from you-I actually got excited when I saw you had a new lens posted-as always Blessed

    • Pat Goltz profile image

      Pat Goltz 4 years ago

      I didn't read any erotic versions, so I can't really comment on that. The version I did read seems entirely suitable for children. Now, thinking back on it, I try to decide whether this group of stories will lend any insights into the Arabian people. I probably won't decide that anytime soon. The story of Scheherazade herself was a graphic lesson to me about the value of women in that culture, which is to say, nil.

    • BestRatedStuff profile image

      BestRatedStuff 4 years ago

      Enjoyed reading them.

    • profile image

      supersiva 4 years ago

      I enjoyed reading from childhood till date. It is always interesting to read at all ages.

    • WriterJanis2 profile image

      WriterJanis2 4 years ago

      I love them.