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...
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