The Arabian Nights' Entertainments Analysis

The Stories

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Convinced by the treachery of his brother’s wife and his own that all women are unfaithful, Shahriar, the emperor of Persia and India, vows that he will marry a new wife every day and have her executed the next morning. Only Scheherazade, wise as well as beautiful, has the courage to try to save the young women of Persia. On the night of her marriage to Shahriar, she begins to tell him a tale that fascinates him so much that he stays her death for one night so that he can learn the end of the story. Eventually, Scheherazade tells him stories for one thousand and one nights. Then, convinced of her worth and goodness, he lets her live and makes her his consort.

One tale Scheherazade tells is “The History of the Fisherman and the Genie”: A poor fisherman draws from the sea in his nets a strange box with a seal on top. When he pries off the top, a huge genie appears and threatens him with death, offering the poor man no more than his choice in the manner of his death. The fisherman begs for his life because he did the genie a favor by releasing him, but the genie declares that he vowed death to the man who opened the box. Finally, the fisherman exclaims that he cannot believe anything as huge and as terrible as the genie could ever have been in a space so small. Dissolving into a cloud of smoke, the genie shrinks until he can slip back into the box, whereupon the fisherman clamps on the lid. Throwing the box back into the sea, he warns all other fishermen to beware if it should ever fall into their nets.

Another story is “The History of the Young King of the Black Isles”: A fisherman catches four beautiful fish, one white, one red, one blue, and one yellow. They are so choice that he takes them to the sultan’s palace. While the fish are being cooked, a beautiful girl suddenly appears and talks to the fish, after which they are too charred to take to the sultan. When the same thing happens two days in a row, the sultan is called. After asking where the fish came from, he decides to visit the lake. Nearby, he finds a beautiful, apparently deserted palace. As he walks through the beautiful halls, he finds one in which a king is sitting on a throne. The king apologizes for not rising, explaining that his lower half is marble.

He is the king of the Black Isles. When he learned that his queen was unfaithful to him, he nearly killed her black lover. In revenge, the queen cast a spell over her husband, making him half marble. She whipped him daily and then had him dressed in coarse goat’s hair over which his royal robes were placed. At the same time, while tending her lover, who remained barely alive, she changed her husband’s town and all its inhabitants into the lake full of fish.

The king tells the sultan where the queen’s lover is kept. There the sultan goes, kills the lover, and puts himself in the black man’s place. The queen, overjoyed to hear speaking the one she kept from death for so long, hastens to do all the voice commands. She restores the king to his human form and the lake to its previous state as a populous town. The four colors of fish indicate the four different religions of the inhabitants.

When the queen returns to the sultan, whom she mistakes for her lover, he kills her for her treachery. He takes the king of the Black Isles home with him and rewards the fisherman who led him to the magic lake.

Shahriar is vastly entertained by “The History of Sindbad the Sailor”: A poor porter in Baghdad, resting before the house of Sindbad, bewails the fact that his lot is harder than that of Sindbad. Sindbad overhears him and invite the porter to dine with him. During the meal, he tells of the hardships he suffered to make his fortune.

On his first voyage to India by way of the Persian Gulf, Sindbad’s ship is becalmed near a small green island. The sailors climb onto the island, only to find that it is really a sea monster, which heaves itself up and swims away. Sindbad is the only man who does not get back to the ship. After days of clinging to a piece of driftwood, he lands on an island where some men are gathered. They lead him to a maharajah, who treats Sindbad graciously. When he is there for some time, Sindbad’s ship comes into port, and he claims his bales of goods, to the astonishment of the captain, who thinks he saw Sindbad killed at sea. Then Sindbad sails home in the ship in which he set out.

The porter is so impressed with the first tale that he comes again to hear a second. On his second voyage, Sindbad is left asleep on an island where the sailors rested. There he finds a huge roc’s egg. He waits, knowing that the parent bird will return to the nest at dusk. When it comes, he uses his turban to tie himself to the bird’s leg. In the morning, the bird flies to a place surrounded by mountains. There Sindbad frees himself when the bird descends to pick up a serpent. The place seems deserted, except for large serpents. Diamonds of great size are scattered throughout the valley.

Sindbad remembers that merchants are said to throw joints of meat into the diamond valley, and big eagles carry the joints to their nests close to shore. At the nests, the merchants frighten away the birds and recover diamonds that stick to the meat. Sindbad collects some large diamonds. With his turban, he fastens a piece of meat to his back and lies down. An eagle picks him up and carried him to its nest. When he is dropped into a nest, the merchant who claims the nest is indignant and accuses Sindbad of stealing his property. When Sindbad offers him some choice diamonds, the merchant is glad to take the adventurer back to civilization in return.

On his third voyage, Sindbad is wrecked on an island inhabited by cannibal dwarfs and huge black creatures, each with only one eye in the middle of its forehead. Sindbad and his friends blind one black giant, but two others help the blind one to chase the sailors. The giants and a large serpent overtake them, and only Sindbad is lucky enough to escape.

On his fourth voyage, Sindbad sails from a port in Persia. He and his friends are shipwrecked on an island inhabited by cannibals, who...

(The entire section is 2519 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, sometimes referred to popularly as A Thousand and One Arabian Nights, consists of interwoven folktales told by a new bride to her misogynistic husband. After executing his adulterous wife, King Shahriyar of Persia persuades himself that women are naturally unfaithful and resolves to marry a new bride each night and execute her the next morning, before she has a chance to betray him. After three years, wise Shahrazad, the eldest daughter of the grand vizier, volunteers to marry the king. That night, she starts to tell a fascinating story about a merchant’s dealings with Jinni (genies), supernatural spirits who, according to Muslim belief, occasionally interact with human beings. As the night passes, Shahrazad leaves her story unfinished, connecting it to a further story. The king is enchanted by the ever-growing series, and she is granted reprieve after reprieve as the marvelous tales continue. Finally, after a thousand and one nights and many more interwoven stories, the king repents of his evil ways and accepts his clever bride.

Most of the stories in the collection feature the dovetailing of the marvelous and the mundane; merchants, sailors, and explorers struggle against magicians, monsters, and villainous Jinni. Not all stories concern supernatural events; some are simply clever tales about human error. For example, in “The Story of the Humpback,” four cowardly characters—a tailor, a...

(The entire section is 572 words.)


(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Vintage Books, 1977. Offers detailed interpretations of the frame story and of the Sindbad stories and “The History of the Fisherman and the Genie.” Compares them to Western fairy tales. Lacks a historical perspective but nevertheless a good demonstration of the psychoanalytic approach to The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments.

Carpenter, Humphrey, and Mari Prichard. The Oxford Companion to Children’s Literature. Oxford, England: Oxford University Press, 1984. Major entries on Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sindbad, as well as references to the collection as a whole. Provides the stories’ histories and their incorporation collectively and individually into Western children’s literature.

Hamori, Andras. On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1974. Explores links between the tales of two of the collection’s story cycles based on theme and literary motif, and demonstrates the tales’ moral purpose connected to classical Islamic teaching about man’s place in the universe.

Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. London: Allen Lane, 1994. An excellent source, which provides a variety of approaches and materials for study. Discusses translation, composition, and compilation of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, explains the medieval Islamic life as the context of the tales, and makes comparisons to literary analogues in Arabic and other cultures.

Pinault, David. Story-Telling Techniques in the “Arabian Nights.” Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1992. Detailed study of the tales’ narrative structure, arguing for the persistence of oral methods of composition in the literary work as it exists, and analyzing the thematic and linguistic connections among the tales.