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.
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...
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