Analysis

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 469

Although English-speaking audiences have been familiar with this collection since the early eighteenth century, much about it, such as the place and date of composition, remain unknown. Some scholars believe that the earliest tales were composed in the eighth century, with additions until the sixteenth. Others are certain that the...

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Although English-speaking audiences have been familiar with this collection since the early eighteenth century, much about it, such as the place and date of composition, remain unknown. Some scholars believe that the earliest tales were composed in the eighth century, with additions until the sixteenth. Others are certain that the work was more or less set by the thirteenth century. Almost all scholars are convinced that no single author created the more than one thousand stories in the collection. Like other works composed orally before they were printed, existing manuscripts vary widely, with different versions containing different stories and arrangements. It is likely that the original collection consisted of a new framework imposed on preexisting folktales from Arabia, Iran, India, and perhaps other countries. There is some evidence to support this theory in the amassing of stories about heroic characters in the collection. There are seven voyages of Sindbad, for example, which probably represents the addition of several later stories to a few original tales about the intrepid merchant.

The stories provide some insight into Middle Eastern culture during the tenth through the thirteenth centuries. Although care must be taken in extrapolating too far, these stories suggest a worldview in which each human action reveals a divine plan, in which taking a wrong turn might actually fulfill one’s destiny. For example, after a disastrous voyage, in which he falls off his ship and faces a variety of magical dangers, Sindbad finds himself at the exact port in which his ship has landed; his former shipmates eventually recognize him, and his goods are restored. Economically, he is none the worse for the experience; personally, he is much enriched.

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments contains recognizable motifs and themes for young adult readers, although they are dressed in the trappings of different cultures: triumphing over danger, turning hatred into love, and confronting the mysterious in the universe and inside oneself. Shahrazad implicitly demonstrates to young readers that cleverness and kindness will win out over evil. Other readers might learn about themselves in stories such as “Aladdin and the Wonderful Lamp,” which suggests that even a poor youth can succeed.

It is probably as a result of themes such as these that The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments has become a staple of young adult literature. The stories that Shahrazad tells are about young people confronting cunning, seemingly more powerful elders. Young people have always had to grow into an understanding of the mysterious, sometimes bewildering culture that surrounds them. Reading about others confronting the same fundamental conflicts allows young readers to examine their problems from a fresh perspective. While young people today are not likely to encounter Jinni in magical rings or lamps, to argue that fact is missing the point: The tales are object lessons about the often-painful lessons of growing up.

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Critical Context