One Thousand and One Nights
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The Book of One Thousand and One Nights or the Arabian Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern stories compiled over thousands of years by various authors. Their roots are traced back to somewhere between AD 800-900. The first European version of the Book of the Thousand and One Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland from an Arabic text and other sources. Galland's "translation" included stories that were not in the original Arabic manuscript. "Aladdin's Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" appeared first in Galland's translation and cannot be found in any of the original manuscripts. Galland's version of the Nights were immensely popular throughout Europe, a well-known English translation is that by Sir Richard Francis Burton, entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885).
Well known stories from The Nights include "Aladdin," "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves," and "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor." Other influential tales include "The Tale of the Simpleton Husband."
Shahryar (or Schriyar) (meaning king in Persian), king of an unnamed island "between India and China" (in modern editions based on Arab transcripts he is king of India and China), is so shocked by his wife's infidelity that he kills her and, believing all women to be likewise unfaithful, gives his vizier (meaning minister in Persian) an order to get him a new wife every night (in some versions, every third night). After spending one night with his bride, the king has her executed at dawn. This practice continues for some time, until the vizier's clever daughter Scheherazade (meaning City-born in Persian) forms a plan and volunteers to become Shahryar's next wife. Every night after their marriage, she spends hours telling him stories, each time stopping at dawn with a cliffhanger, so the king will commute the execution out of a desire to hear the rest of the tale. In the end, she has given birth to three sons, and the king has been convinced of her faithfulness.
The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his new bride. He is shocked to discover that his brother's wife is unfaithful; discovering his own wife's infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her executed: but in his bitterness and grief decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins (and only begins) a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights.
The tales vary widely: they include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and various forms of erotica. Numerous stories depict Jinns, Ghouls, Apes, sorcerers, magicians, and legendary places, which are often intermingled with real people and geography, not always rationally; common protagonists include the historical Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, his Grand Vizier, Jafar al-Barmaki, and his alleged court poet Abu Nuwas, despite the fact that these figures lived some 200 years after the fall of the Sassanid Empire in which the frame tale of Scheherazade is set. Sometimes a character in Scheherazade's tale will begin telling other characters a story of his own, and that story may have another one told within it, resulting in a richly layered narrative texture.
The different versions have different individually detailed endings (in some Scheherazade asks for a pardon, in some the king sees their children and decides not to execute his wife, in some other things happen that make the king distracted) but they all end with the king giving his wife a pardon and sparing her life.
The narrator's standards for what constitutes a cliffhanger seem broader than in modern literature. While in many cases a story is cut off with the hero in danger of losing his life or another kind of deep trouble, in some parts of the full text Scheherazade stops her narration in the middle of an exposition of abstract philosophical principles or complex points of Islamic philosophy, and in one case during a detailed description of human anatomy according to Galen—and in all these cases turns out to be justified in her belief that the king's curiosity about the sequel would buy her another day of life.
History and editions
The tales in the collection can be traced to the ancient and medieval Arabic, Egyptian, Persian and Indian storytelling traditions. Many stories from Indian and Persian folklore parallel the tales as well as picturing the atmosphere of the capital cities during the Islamic Empire such as Baghdada, Cairo, and Damascus. These tales were probably in circulation before they were collected and codified into a single collection. This work was further shaped by scribes, storytellers, and scholars and evolved into a collection of three distinct layers of storytelling by the 15th century:
- Persian tales influenced by Indian folklore and adapted into Arabic by the 10th century.
- Stories recorded in Baghdad during the 10th century.
- Medieval Egyptian folklore.
Indian folklore is represented by certain animal stories, which reflect influence from ancient Sanskrit fables. The influence of the Panchatantra and Baital Pachisi are particularly notable. The Jataka Tales are a collection of 547 Buddhist stories, which are for the most part moral stories with an ethical purpose. The Tale of the Bull and the Ass and the linked Tale of the Merchant and his Wife are found in the frame stories of both the Jataka and the Nights.
The influence of the folklore of Baghdad is represented by the tales of the Abbasid caliphs; the Cairene influence is made evident by Maruf the cobbler. Tales such as Iram of the columns are based upon the pre-Islamic legends of the Arabian Peninsula; motifs are employed from the ancient Mesopotamian tale, the Epic of Gilgamesh. Possible Greek influences have also been noted.
The first European version of the Book of the Thousand and One Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland from an Arabic text and other sources. This 12-volume book, Les Mille et une nuits, contes arabes traduits en français ("Thousand and one nights, Arab stories translated into French"), included stories that were not in the original Arabic manuscript. "Aladdin's Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" appeared first in Galland's translation and cannot be found in any of the original manuscripts. He wrote that he heard them from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo, a Maronite scholar whom he called "Hanna."
Galland's version of the Nights were immensely popular throughout Europe, and later versions of the Nights were written by Galland's publisher using Galland's name without his consent.
A well-known English translation is that by Sir Richard Francis Burton, entitled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885). Unlike previous editions his ten-volume translation was not bowdlerized. Though printed in the Victorian era it contained all the erotic nuances of the source material replete with sexual imagery and pederastic allusions added as appendices to the main stories by Burton. Burton circumvented strict Victorian laws on obscene material by printing a private edition for subscribers only rather than publicly publishing the book. His original ten volumes were followed by a further six entitled The Supplemental Nights to the Thousand Nights and a Night, which were printed between 1886 and 1888.
"Another fact is undeniable. The most famous and eloquent encomiums of The Thousand and One Nights - by Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, Stendhal, Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe, Newman - are from readers of Galland's translation. Two hundred years and ten better translations have passed, but the man in Europe or the Americas who thinks of the Thousand and One Nights thinks, invariably of this first translation. The Spanish adjective milyunanochesco [thousand-and-one-nights-esque] ... has nothing to do with the erudite obscenities of Burton or Mardrus, and everything to do with Antoine Galland's bijoux and sorceries." --Jorge Luis Borges, "The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights"
Scholars have assembled a timeline concerning the publication history of The Nights:
- Oldest Arabic manuscript fragment (a few handwritten pages) from Syria dating to the early 800s discovered by scholar Nabia Abbott in 1948.
- 900s AD — Mention of The Nights in Ibn Al-Nadim's "Fihrist" (Catalogue of books) in Baghdad. He mentions the book's history and its Persian origins.
- 1000s AD — Mention of the original Arabic name of the One Thousand and One Nights by Qatran Tabrizi in the following couplet in Persian:
هزار ره صفت هفت خوان و رويين دژ </br> فرو شنيدم و خواندم من از هزار افسان </br>
A thousand times, accounts of Rouyin Dezh and Haft Khān </br> I heard and read from Hezār Afsān (literally Thousand Fables)
- 1300s — Existing Syrian manuscript in the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris (contains about 300 tales).
- 1704 — Antoine Galland's French translation is the first European version of The Nights. Later volumes were introduced using Galland's name though the stories were written by unknown persons at the behest of the publisher wanting to capitalize on the popularity of the collection.
- 1706 — An anonymously translated version in English appears in Europe dubbed the "Grub Street" version.
- 1714 — The Thousand and One Days: Persian Tales by Ambrose Philips. The earliest English translation with an attributed author.
- 1775 — Egyptian version of The Nights called "ZER" (Hermann Zotenberg's Egyptian Recension) with 200 tales (no surviving edition exists).
- 1814 — Calcutta I, the earliest existing Arabic printed version, is published by the British East India Company. A second volume was released in 1818. Both had 100 tales each.
- 1825-1838 — The Breslau/Habicht edition is published in Arabic in 8 volumes. Christian Maxmilian Habicht (born in Breslau, Germany, 1775) collaborated with the Tunisian Murad Al-Najjar and created this edition containing 1001 stories. Using versions of The Nights, tales from Al-Najjar, and other stories from unknown origins Habicht published his version in Arabic and German.
- 1842-1843 — Four additional volumes by Habicht.
- 1835 Bulaq version — These two volumes, printed by the Egyptian government, are the oldest printed (by a publishing house) version of The Nights in Arabic by a non-European. It is primarily a reprinting of the ZER text.
- 1839-1842 — Calcutta II (4 volumes) is published. It claims to be based on an older Egyptian manuscript (which was never found). This version contains many elements and stories from the Habicht edition.
- 1838 — Torrens version in English.
- 1838-1840 — Edward William Lane publishes an English translation. Notable for its exclusion of content Lane found "immoral" and for its anthropological notes on Arab customs by Lane.
- 1882-1884 — John Payne publishes an English version translated entirely from Calcutta II, adding some tales from Calcutta I and Breslau.
- 1885-1888 — Sir Richard Francis Burton publishes an English translation from several sources. His version accentuated the sexuality of the stories vis-à-vis Lane's bowdlerized translation.
- 1889-1904 — J. C. Mardrus publishes a French version using Bulaq and Calcutta II editions.
- 1984 — Muhsin Mahdi publishes an Arabic translation he says is faithful to the oldest Arabic versions surviving.
- 1990s — Husain Haddawy publishes an English translation of Mahdi.
King Shahryar discovers his wife's infidelity and has her executed, without conscience or recognizing any defect in his own psyche, declaring all women to be unfaithful. He marries a succession of virgins only to have Scheherazade's father, the vizier, execute each one the next morning until finally he comes to Scheherazade herself, after three years of ordering the death of his brides after each wedding night. Scheherazade survives because she tells the king a story on each of the 1001 nights, which end in a cliffhanger at dawn. Shahryar's brother had earlier discovered his own first wife in bed with a cook and he butchers them both and then continued a pattern of marriage and murder like Shahryar.
The stories in The Book of One Thousand and One Nights likely began in the oral tradition before the fifth century AD. Though Shahrya was not then a stock psychopathic character the Book and its many characters, has had wide influence on writers, not only in the sex and serial murder genre. Edgar Allan Poe, for example wrote "A Thousand and Second Night", where in the story of Sinbad, Poe's king kills Scheherazade in disgust at the story she tells him.
Examples of this influence include:
- Alexandre Dumas wrote "The Count of Monte Cristo" in which the protagonist is deeply influenced by the Orient and adopts Sinbad the Sailor as an alias.
- Edgar Allan Poe wrote a "Thousand and Second Night" as a separate tale, called "The Thousand and Second Tale of Scheherazade." It depicts the 8th and final voyage of Sinbad the Sailor, along with the various mysteries Sinbad and his crew encounter; the anomalies are then described as footnotes to the story. While the king is uncertain—except in the case of the elephants carrying the world on the back of the turtle—that these mysteries are real, they are actual modern events that occurred in various places during, or before, Poe's lifetime. The story ends with the king in such disgust at the tale Scheherazade has just woven, that he has her executed the very next day.
- The Nights has also inspired poetry in English. Two examples are Alfred Tennyson's poem, "Recollections of the Arabian Nights" (1830) and William Wordsworth's "The Prelude" (1805).
- The Book of One Thousand and One Nights has an estranged cousin: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki. A Polish noble of the late 18th century, he traveled the Orient looking for an original edition of The Nights, but never found it. Upon returning to Europe, he wrote his masterpiece, a multi-leveled frame tale.
- The book is often referenced in numerous works of Jorge Luis Borges.
- It also greatly influence famed horror and science fiction writer H. P. Lovecraft in his early years as a child in which he would imagine himself living the adventures of the heroes in the book. It also inspired him to come up with his famed Necronomicon.
Film and television
Notable versions of The Nights include the famous 1974 Italian movie Il fiore delle mille e una notte by Pier Paolo Pasolini and the 1990 French movie Les 1001 nuits, in which Catherine Zeta-Jones made her debut playing Scheherazade.
- List of stories from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (according to the Richard Francis Burton translation).
- List of characters from The Book of One Thousand and One Nights
- Arabic literature
- Persian literature