The Arabian Nights' Entertainments

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2519

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.

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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 fatten the sailors before killing them. Sindbad refuses food, grows too thin to interest the cannibals, and finally finds his way to the shore. There he meets men who take him to their kingdom. To please the king, Sindbad makes a fine saddle. In appreciation, the king marries Sindbad to a beautiful girl. In that country, a man or woman is buried alive if the spouse dies. When Sindbad’s wife dies, he is put in a tomb with a small amount of bread and water. As he eats the last of his food, he hears an animal snuffling, then running away. Following the sound, he finds himself on the shore and hails a ship that carries him home.

On his fifth voyage, Sindbad uses his own ship. After his sailors break open a roc’s egg, the parent rocs hurl tremendous stones at the ship and break it to pieces. Sindbad comes under the power of the Old Man of the Sea and escapes only after making the old man so intoxicated that he loses his death grip on Sindbad. Again, Sindbad finds a ship to take him home, and he does much profitable trading on the way.

On the sixth voyage, all of his companions succumb on a beautiful but lifeless coast. Expecting to die, Sindbad builds a raft that he puts in an underground river to drift where it will. When he reaches the kingdom of Serendib, he has to be revived. He finds the country exceedingly rich and the people kind. When he asks to leave, the king sends him home with rich presents for Sindbad’s ruler, the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid of Baghdad.

Sindbad makes his seventh and final voyage to take gifts from the caliph to the king of Serendib. He carries them safely, but his return trip is delayed when corsairs seize his ship and sell the sailors into slavery. Sindbad is sold to an ivory merchant and is ordered to shoot an elephant a day. Annoyed at Sindbad’s persistence, an elephant picks him up and takes him to an elephant burial ground, to which Sindbad and his owner return many times to gather ivory. As a reward, the merchant sends Sindbad home with rich goods.

Another diverting tale is “The History of Prince Ahmed”: Houssain, Ali, and Ahmed, sons of the sultan of India, are all in love with the Princess Nouronnihar, their father’s ward. To determine who should be the bridegroom, the sultan sends them out to find the most extraordinary things they can. Whoever brings back the rarest object will win the hand of the princess.

Houssain finds a magic carpet that will transport him wherever he wished. Ali finds an ivory tube containing a glass that will show any object he wishes to see. Ahmed finds an artificial apple, the odor of which will cure any illness.

The three princes meet before they journey home. As they display their gifts, Houssain, looking through the tube, sees the princess apparently at the point of death. They all jump on his magic carpet and are whisked to her bedroom, where Ahmed uses his magic apple to revive her. The sultan cannot determine which article is the most unusual, for all were of use to effect the princess’s recovery. He suggests an archery contest. Ali shoots farther than Houssain, but Ahmed’s arrow cannot be found. The sultan decides in favor of Ali. Houssain retires to become a dervish. Instead of attending the wedding, Ahmed goes in search of his arrow, which he finds at the foot of a mountain, much farther away than he could have shot. Looking around, he finds a door into the mountain. When he passes through the door, he finds a fairy called Periebanou, who pleases him so much that he marries her.

When Ahmed goes to visit his father, he refuses to discuss where or how he lives, but he appears to be so rich that the courtiers grow jealous and persuade the sultan that it is dangerous to have his son so powerful a neighbor. The sultan asks Ahmed to perform unreasonable tasks, made possible only by Periebanou’s help; but while Ahmed is fulfilling one request Periebanou’s brother becomes so annoyed with the sultan that he kills him. Ahmed becomes sultan and afterward deals kindly with his brothers.

Scheherazade also pleases her lord with “The History of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”: Ali Baba is a Persian woodcutter. One day, to hide from a band of strange horsemen, he climbs a tree under which they halt. When the leader cries, “Open, Sesame!” to a rock nearby, a door opens through which the men carry their heavy packs. After the men leave, Ali Baba uses the secret word to investigate the cave. He finds such riches there that the gold he takes can never be missed.

He and his wife are content with that amount, but his brother Cassim, to whom he tells his story, is greedy for more wealth. Without telling Ali Baba, Cassim goes to the cave. He was so excited by the gold that he forgets the password and cannot get out. When the robbers find him, they murder him.

The robbers try to find Ali Baba, intending to kill him and so keep the secret of their hoard. The leader brings his men, hidden in oil jars, to Ali Baba’s house, but a beautiful slave, Morgiana, goes in search of oil, discovers the ruse, and kills the bandits. Soon after, the robber captain, disguised as a merchant, enters the house, but again Morgiana comes to her master’s rescue, seeing through the robber’s disguise and killing him.

To reward Morgiana, Ali Baba not only makes her a free woman but also gives her to his son in marriage. After that, Ali Baba is the only one who knows the secret of the cave. He uses the hidden wealth in moderation and passes the secret on to his children.

No less pleasing is “The History of Aladdin: Or, The Wonderful Lamp”: Aladdin is a youthful vagabond who lives in China. An African magician, sensing that Aladdin will suit his plans and pretending to be the boy’s rich uncle, takes him to a secret place to get a magic lamp. Passing through halls stored with treasures, Aladdin fills his gown with so many things that he cannot give the magician the lamp at the moment he wants it, whereupon the magician seals him up in the earth. By chance, Aladdin rubs a ring the magician gave him. A genie appears and escorts him home.

When Aladdin shows his mother the lamp, she tries to clean it to sell. As she rubs, another genie appears from whom Aladdin asks food. The food appears on silver trays that Aladdin sells one by one to a peddler who swindles him. When an honest jeweler stops Aladdin one day and asks to buy the silver, Aladdin begins to realize the great riches he has at his disposal, enough to win him the sultan’s daughter as his wife.

Because the grand vizier wants his own son to marry the princess, he suggests that the sultan make many outrageous demands on Aladdin before he can be considered a suitor. The genies produce slaves, costumes, jewelry, gold, and chargers in such profusion, however, that the sultan gladly accepts Aladdin’s suit. Overnight, Aladdin has the genie build a magnificent palace next to the sultan’s.

Life goes smoothly until one day, when Aladdin is away, the African magician persuades the princess to trade the old lamp for a new one. Then the magician transports the great palace to Africa. When Aladdin comes home, the sultan threatens him with arrest but allows him forty days in which to find the palace and the princess. Rubbing his ring by chance and summoning its genie, Aladdin asks to be carried wherever his palace is. The princess is overjoyed to see him. After he kills the magician by a ruse, he orders the genie of the lamp to transport the palace back to China. There, after disposing of the magician’s brother, who followed them, Aladdin and the princess live happily ever after.

Form and Content

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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 physician, a sultan’s steward, and a broker—are on trial for the death of a hunchback. In the first part of the tale, a hunchback apparently suffocates while he is being entertained by a tailor and his wife. Afraid of being tried for murder, the tailor carries the corpse to a physician’s house and leaves him in the lobby. The doctor, accidentally kicking the corpse in the dark, concludes that it is he who has killed the man. Like the tailor, the doctor fears that he will be accused of murder and sneaks the corpse into the house of a local sultan. The sultan’s steward also mistakenly “kills” the man and is also afraid of punishment; the steward carries him to the marketplace, placing him against a post. In the marketplace, the drunken broker bumps into the corpse and, thinking that the hunchback is mocking him, strikes him several times. When the hunchback falls over, the broker is convinced that he has committed murder and finds himself arrested by the city guard. Soon, all four men stand accused before the sultan. After each man tells of his own background, a barber revives the hunchback, who had passed out after choking on a fishbone.

Set against such satiric tales, other stories applaud human achievement, especially the tales of Aladdin, Sindbad, and Ali Baba. Still other, less well known tales are more ambiguous about human abilities. In “The City of Brass,” for example, a caliph hears about Solomon’s authority over Jinni and how he sealed spirits who would not accept God in lead bottles. Intrigued, the caliph orders Musa, his general, to find a bottle, rumored to be in a fabulous metallic city far away on the plains of Africa. When he reaches the deserted city, Musa is struck by its magnificence but realizes that for all its glory, it is little more than a sepulchre for a dead race. Thus chastened, Musa returns to Baghdad with bottles in tow, regretting the years of his life lost serving the whim of a caliph.


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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.

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Critical Essays