The Arabian Nights, also known as The Thousand and One Nights and known in Arabic as Alf Layla wa Layla, is a collection of fables, fairy tales, romances, and historical anecdotes of varying ethnic sources, including Indian, Persian, and Arabic oral traditions. While their specific origins are unknown, it is certain that the stories were circulating orally for centuries before they were written down in the fourteenth century in a Syrian manuscript, housed at the Bibliotèque Nationale in Paris as of 2004.
The first printed edition of the tales, which was based on the Syrian version, was published by Fort Williams College in Calcutta and edited by Shaikh Ahmad ibn-Mahmud Shirawani, an instructor of Arabic at the college. The first European translation was by the French statesman Antoine Galland, whose editions appeared in twelve small volumes between 1703 and 1713.
The public response to Galland’s work was positive and immediate: translations and versions of the tales spread throughout Europe. The first English translation was made by Edward Lane in 1841, followed by John Payne in 1881 and, most famously, by Sir Richard Burton in 1885. Burton, who relied heavily on Payne’s earlier work (and is even said to have plagiarized much of it), published his version in ten volumes as a private edition of one thousand under his imprint of Kama Shastra Society. He later added an additional six volumes of supplemental material, which he called Supplemental Nights. Burton’s edition quickly sold out, providing him with his first profit ever as a writer, and he was in the early 2000s credited as the popularizer of the tales among English-language readers.
Historically considered by Arabic scholars as a form of ‘‘low brow’’ literature and rarely regarded for its literary merits, The Arabian Nights, in its many incarnations, was in the twenty-first century considered nonetheless a classic of Western literature and continued to be one of its most influential works.
The Plot Summary, Characters, Themes, and Style sections below discuss the stories from Book 1 of the The Arabian Nights.