Critical Evaluation

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1376

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments is the title usually used in English to designate a group of tales more properly called The Thousand and One Nights. These stories, adapted and formalized by bazaar storytellers, had their origins in many lands throughout the East and were handed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years. Some present interesting parallels. In the story of “The Three Sisters,” a baby is put in a basket to float down a river, a circumstance reminiscent of the biblical account of Moses in the bulrushes. In Sindbad’s various journeys by sea, there are similarities to the wanderings of Ulysses as related by Homer; in one instance, there is a close parallel to the Cyclops story. Some of the characters have been drawn from history, but whether their source is folklore, religious tradition, or history, the tales have a timeless quality that has appealed from legendary times to the present to authors of every kind. Most scholars believe that the collection took its present form in Cairo in the fifteenth century; it was introduced to the Western world in a translation by Antoine Galland, published in Paris in 1704. Traditionally, there were a thousand and one stories told by Scheherazade to her emperor-husband, but in extant manuscripts the tales are not always the same. Practically all modern editions contain only a small portion of the complete collection. Those most frequently reprinted have become minor classics of the world’s literature.

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The older title of the work refers to the implied dramatic situation in which Scheherazade tells part of a story to Shahriar every night for the famous number of nights so as to forestall her death on the following morning. The tales are embedded in a frame-story, in the tradition of Giovanni Boccaccio’s Decameron (1349-1351; The Decameron, 1620) and Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales (1387-1400). Like the Canterbury Tales, The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments includes some tales that are enriched by the situation of their framework. One of Scheherazade’s first tales to her new husband and king, for example, is much more striking given the backdrop of Shahriar’s repeated vow to kill his wife in the morning. “The History of the Fisherman and the Genie” also involves a powerful character, the genie, who vows to kill. In both cases, the vow is directed against one who has performed an act of charity or love. When the fisherman chastises the rebottled genie, predicting Allah’s certain vengeance on him for killing, the humble man is in fact a mask through which Scheherazade is speaking to Shahriar.

“The History of the Young King of the Black Isles” alludes to Shahriar’s motivation for his vow, which is rooted in his painful experience with an unfaithful wife; the fact that his brother’s case parallels his indicates that the societies in which this book took form were preoccupied with a sense of inadequacy in sexual competition with blacks.

This racial, psychosexual problem amounts to the thematic focus of that story. The young king has likewise discovered his wife’s infidelity and is greatly disturbed at her preference for a black lover. Throughout the story, black and white are pointedly juxtaposed. The king is described as extremely pale with only the smallest touch of black, a mole. His palace is black, perhaps an omen of his catastrophe. On the first two occasions of the spoiled fish (they are blackened), a fair lady comes out of the wall to upset the pan; on the third occasion, it is a black giant who performs the same act. The fact that the young king is turned to stone below the waist is part of the allegory, signifying his impotence upon having his male ego destroyed by his wife’s preference for the slave. The sympathy and vengeance provided by the sultan are obviously designed to soothe Shahriar.

With “The History of Sindbad the Sailor,” a smaller frame-story within the larger, readers come to the end of selections that contain pointed allusions to Shahriar’s life and problems. All that can be said of the remaining selections’ relationship to the framework is that they contain within their allegorical forms a wisdom about the ways of the world, which at one and the same time accords with Scheherazade’s great learning and would no doubt impress Shahriar so much as to purge him of his unfortunate vision of all women as faithless and blind in their lust.

Sindbad, a wealthy man, tells his seven tales to a poor porter of the same name. The purpose of telling the tales is to justify the wealth of the rich Sindbad to the envious poor Sindbad. In each story, the wealth is justified by a different example of perils endured by the storyteller. Each of the seven stories follows a narrative pattern in which Sindbad sets out to sea to make money, loses everything in a catastrophe, undergoes a frightening experience (usually underground), escapes by means of his wits, and, finally, emerges with far greater riches than would ever have been possible by ordinary trading. The most frightening part of each episode is invariably a close brush with death or a descent into the mythic world of the dead. Sindbad returns from each descent with treasures commensurate with the risks he has taken.

In “The History of Prince Ahmed,” there is the familiar motif of trials undergone for the hand of a princess. In this case, however, there are two princesses, one mortal and one fairy. Ahmed and his brothers vie for the mortal princess, unaware of the fairy princess’s love for Ahmed and of her having planned every detail of their adventures. The allegory involves Ahmed’s being led unwittingly (and unwillingly) past the mortal princess and inexorably to the fairy princess (who is more beautiful and wise). The story points to the superiority of spiritual riches over material wealth. The sultan is depicted as foolish (and so deserving of his ultimate overthrow) when he ignores the superiority of Ahmed’s magic apple, when he disqualifies Ahmed’s archery for his arrow’s being unrecoverable by ordinary mortal means, and when he demands material wealth of Ahmed.

“The History of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” depicts Ali Baba as a man who prospers through his lack of greed. He is contrasted with his brother Cassim in this; Cassim apparently marries for money, while Ali Baba marries a poor woman and is a woodcutter. When Ali Baba learns the magic formula for opening the door to wealth, he takes only as much as will not be missed. Cassim’s greed, by contrast, causes him to become so excited by the wealth that he forgets the magic word and is killed. It is significant that Cassim, when he is trapped in the cave, has the entire treasure and, having it, has death along with it. When the threat of death for Ali Baba resolves with the death of the thieves, the hero draws so temperately on his secret cache that it supports his family for many generations. (The fact that Ali Baba’s life and fortunes are preserved by a clever woman, Morgiana, would not be lost on Shahriar.)

The next story, too, is an example of riches obtained by a successful descent into the underworld. In “The History of Aladdin: Or, The Wonderful Lamp,” Aladdin is a naïve young man who is unaware of the great material value of the gold and silver trays and considers the food they carry to be of greater importance. This sort of naïveté is the stuff of which wisdom is made, making him truly worthy of the sultan’s daughter and of the powerful lamp.

It is helpful in understanding and enjoying The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments to keep in mind the parallel symbolism of wealth, power, and beautiful women. All are symbolic of spiritual fulfillment. The omnipresence of the three in this book is one clear indication of the work’s purpose: to teach a moral lesson as well as to entertain. It is a storehouse of wisdom couched in the terms all cultures know best, the terms of sight, smell, and touch and of the delightful forms those sensations take in the imagination.

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Critical Context