Gustave E. von Grunebaum (essay date 1953)

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SOURCE: von Grunebaum, Gustave E. “The Arabian Nights.” Midway: A Magazine of Discovery in the Arts and Sciences 14 (spring 1963): 41-63.

[In the following essay, originally published in Medieval Islam in 1953, von Grunebaum notes several influential elements from classical literature of the Hellenistic age in The Arabian Nights, contending that stories that center on sailors and related geographic details, as well as on tales of love, reflect narrative patterns of the Greek novel.]

The classical contribution to the formation of Islamic civilization in general has been freely recognized, but the survival of classical traditions in Arabic literature is only now beginning to be traced and appraised in its true importance. The all too strict separation between oriental and classical studies is as responsible for the relative backwardness of our knowledge in this field as is the character of the Greco-Roman contribution itself. While, for example, the Indian or the Jewish influence manifest themselves primarily in the transmission of narrative plots or motives, the influence of the ancients makes itself felt for the most part in less easily traceable elements such as patterns of style, patterns of presentation, and emotional conventions. Perhaps even more elusive is the fact that the Arab's outlook on, and his expectations of, literature have been, to a remarkable degree, molded by the attitudes of the ancients as these developed from the Hellenistic period. The preference accorded by the Arab public to originality of presentation over originality of invention is a striking example; and the theoretical discussion of literature, so popular with Arab scholars and writers, frequently resumes classical problems and is conducted with the aid of a terminology that could never have been devised without the precedent set by the rhetoricians of later and latest antiquity.

What goes for Arabic literature in general applies pointedly to the Arabian Nights in particular. Here, too, individual motives or plots, patterns of presentation, and conventional shades of emotion have been assimilated by the narrators and redactors to add to the dazzling colorfulness of the corpus. Here, too, the changed cultural background, and especially the different religious atmosphere, necessitated adaptation of the survivals that tended to obscure their provenance. The mythological bywork of ancient story-telling had to be discarded. Arab realism forced oriental names and oriental habits on the foreign characters. Classical patterns of emotion were superimposed on Persian and Indian plots. Typical personages of later Greek literature such as the foolish schoolmaster reappear in the same light but in a new narrative frame. And, finally, the more obvious borrowings, such as the plot of an action or a major part of it, are far outnumbered by the more subtle imprints left by Hellenistic ideas of life and love on the responsive minds of the Arab public.

Of the many vestiges of classical literature in the Arabian Nights, three kinds stand out so as to deserve special attention. These are a small but significant number of plots which the Arabs inherited; a somewhat greater amount of ethnological and geographical detail that goes back to ancient geographers' accounts or sailors' yarns; and, most important of all, the narrative pattern of the Greek novel and its concept of love are mirrored in many of the Nights' stories. The influence of the peculiar touch with which the Hellenistic age and its heirs treated love and the lover has been a major factor in the development of Arab ideas about love as shown in poetry and prose both within and outside of the Arabian Nights.

Pyrgopolynices, the braggart soldier of Plautus' Miles Gloriosus, has kidnaped Philocomasium, the lady-love...

(This entire section contains 6875 words.)

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of Pleusicles, a young Athenian gentleman. When Pleusicles discovers her whereabouts, he settles down in the house next to that of the soldier, and a tunnel dug secretly through the separating walls enables the lovers to meet at their pleasure. When a servant of the soldier sees the girl in the neighbor's house, he is told that her twin sister has arrived and that it is she and not Philocomasium whom he has watched in the arms of the young stranger. By hurrying back and forth through the tunnel, Philocomasium succeeds in making this story plausible. A further ruse rouses the soldier's desire to exchange Philocomasium for another woman, and he is persuaded to send her off and to bribe her with magnificent gifts that include her favorite slave (and helper in the intrigue) into leaving him quietly. Before his eyes and with his blessing the disguised Pleusicles takes her away.

The resemblance to the Arabian Nights story of “Qamar az-zamân and the Jeweler's Wife” is unmistakable. After Qamar az-zamân has won the affection of Halîma, he rents the house next door to the jeweler's, a passageway is broken between the two houses, and Halîma proceeds to transport her husband's riches into the home of her lover, who in the meantime has made friends with the luckless jeweler. On one occasion the jeweler notices a precious dagger of his in the hands of his new friend; on another he discovers his watch in Qamar az-zamân's apartment. In both cases his suspicions are allayed when, upon returning to his own house, he finds the objects in their customary place. A little later Halîma, disguised as a slave-girl, is introduced to her husband in Qamar az-zamân's house. She is called by her true name, and the jeweler is asked to suggest a fitting sales price for her. Again his doubts are put to rest when he finds his wife waiting for him on his return. Finally, the lovers prepare their escape. The pair who have tucked away the jeweler's valuables bid him farewell in a moving scene. At the last moment Halîma succeeds in obtaining for herself her favorite slave girl, and the elopers reach safely the Egyptian border.

The similarities are striking and go far beyond the identity of the outline of the plot: the farewell scene, the plundering of the victim, the assistance rendered the eloping lovers by their dupe, and the final gift of a slave—all these traits bespeak some relationship between the Roman play, or rather its Greek model or models, and the Cairene story. It is undeniable that the Arabic story excels the Plautine comedy in consistency. To mention only two details, “In the Miles the passage through the wall does not in any way serve to ensure the escape of Philocomasium; in the story it serves the manoeuvres of the lovers and helps in the mystification of the husband to the very end,” as Ph. E. Legrand has pointed out in The New Greek Comedy. In the Miles, again, it is not the soldier whose suspicion is roused and allayed but a menial who never tells his master of his curious experience, whereas in the Nights it is the husband himself who allows the evidence of his own eyes to be discredited.

These and other circumstances make it evident that “Qamar az-zamân” does not directly reproduce or imitate the Miles but that both go back to a common source, which in all likelihood was an Ionic love story which either Plautus or the author of the Greek prototype of the Miles combined with episodes of a different origin, whereas the redactor of the Arabic novel stuck more closely to his model.

Some recensions of the Nights contain another, though more remote, parallel to the Miles in the story of the “Butcher, His Wife, and the Soldier,” in which once more a secret passage between two houses serves to dupe the husband. One day the husband is made drunk, his hair and beard are shorn, and he is given Turkish clothes and carried off to a remote district. When he awakes, he convinces himself of his changed identity as a Turk and makes off to Isfahan, leaving his wife and her lover undisturbed.

Reminiscences of old travel tales and of fabulous ethnographical lore can be traced in many of the stories of the Arabian Nights. Nowhere are they as numerous as in the reports of Sindbad the Sailor on his seven perilous voyages. Although the Sindbad tales do not belong to the original core of the Arabian Nights, they must have been in existence as an independent work no later than ca. a.d. 900. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that every single enthological or frankly legendary trait used by the unknown author or redactor can be amply paralleled from both Eastern and Western literatures. Geographical lore seems to lend itself particularly well to being borrowed and reborrowed, and this fact reduces considerably the number of cases where we are able to assign a definite origin to a motive. The following instances, however, culled from the first four Voyages of the adventurous mariner, can with certainty be assigned a Western, that is, a Greek source, at the very least in the sense that the motives, whatever the region of their invention, made their literary debut in Greek and were taken up and developed by the oriental narrator from the form they had been given by the classical author.

In the third book of his Life of Alexander, the Pseudo-Callisthenes inserts a letter alleged to have been written by the great king to his teacher Aristotle in order to keep him informed about the remarkable happenings on his Indian campaign. And there we read, right at the beginning of this curious collection of mirabilia, this sad incident.

“… (Some barbarians at the coast of the Indian Ocean) showed us an island which we all could see in the middle of the sea. They said it was the tomb of an ancient king in which much gold had been dedicated. (When we wished to sail to the island) the barbarians had disappeared leaving us twelve of their little boats. Pheidon, my closest friend, Hephaistion, Krateros and the other friends of mine did not suffer me to cross over (to the tomb in person). Pheidon said: Let me go first so that if anything should go wrong I would face the danger rather than you. If everything is alright I shall send the boat back for you. For if I, Pheidon, should perish, you will find other friends, but should you, Alexander, perish, the whole world would be steeped in grief. Convinced by his plea I gave them leave to cross over. But when they had gone ashore on what they thought was an island, after no more than an hour the animal suddenly dived down into the deep. We cried out loud while the animal disappeared and the men including my dearest friend came to a horrible end. Embittered I made a search for the barbarians but could not find them.”

In this account the unexplained disappearance of some of Alexander's men near an ill-omened island as reported by Nearchos from his voyage in the Indian Ocean and the legend of the tomb of King Erythres, the heros eponymos of the Erythrean Sea, supposed to be another island of the same ocean, are combined with the fable of the aspidochelidone, the giant tortoise, whose carapace the sailors mistake for an isle. This intriguing animal reappears in St. Basil's Seventh Homily on the Hexaemeron and, with some additional detail about its melodious voice with which it lures small fish to their death, in St. Eustathius' (a contemporary of Basil) Commentary on the same biblical text.

In the ninth century this giant tortoise, probably an outgrowth of the imagination of the Persian Gulf population but introduced into literature by the Greeks, appears in an Arabic work on animals. Al-Jâhiz (d. 869), with creditable skepticism, sets out to destroy the belief in certain sea monsters and winds up his harangue by observing: “Of course, if we were to believe all that sailors tell. … For they claim that on occasion they have landed on certain islands having woods and valleys and fissures and have lit a great fire; and when the monster felt the fire on its back, it began to glide away with them and all the plants growing on it, so that only such as managed to flee were saved. This tale outdoes the most fabulous and preposterous of stories.”

The tone of al-Jâhiz' note makes it plain that the motive was a familiar one in his time. So it was from an established tradition that the author of Sindbad's confabulations borrowed when he made his hero tell this episode of his first voyage.

“We continued our voyage until we arrived at an island like one of the gardens of Paradise, and at that island the master of the ship brought her to anchor with us. He cast the anchor, and put forth the landing-plank, and all who were in the ship landed upon that island. They had prepared for themselves fire-pots, and they lighted fires in them; and their occupations were various: some cooked; others washed, and others amused themselves. I was among those who were amusing themselves upon the shores of the island, and the passengers were assembled to eat and drink and play and sport.

“But while we were thus engaged, lo, the master of the ship, standing upon its side, called out with his loudest voice, O ye passengers, whom may God preserve! come up quickly into the ship, hasten to embark, and leave your merchandise, and flee with your lives, and save yourselves from destruction; for this apparent island, upon which ye are, is not really an island, but it is a great fish that hath become stationary in the midst of the sea, and the sand hath accumulated upon it, so that it hath become like an island, and trees have grown upon it since times of old; and when ye lighted upon it the fire, it felt the heat, and put itself in motion, and now it will descend with you into the sea, and ye will all be drowned: then seek for yourselves escape before destruction, and leave the merchandise!—The passengers, therefore, hearing the words of the master of the ship, hastened to go up into the vessel, leaving the merchandise, and their other goods, and their copper cooking-pots, and their fire-pots; and some reached the ship, and others reached it not. The island had moved, and descended to the bottom of the sea, with all that were upon it, and the roaring sea, agitated with waves, closed over it.”

Nothing could illustrate more strikingly the decline of critical scholarship in the following centuries than the readiness with which the learned al-Qazwînî (ca. 1203-83) accepts this piece of sailors' yarn in his Cosmography. Quoting “a merchant” as his authority, he tells succinctly what Sindbad had reported at such comfortable length. Nothing is missing, neither the luscious vegetation on the animal's back nor the fire lighted by the visitors which causes it to move off into the depth. The only deviation consists in al-Qazwînî's replacing the fish of the Sindbad story by the tortoise of the older sources.

On his second voyage Sindbad is left behind on a deserted island. When he explores the place, he perceives a white object which upon his approach turns out to be “a huge white dome, of great height and circumference.” He walks around it—the circumference measures no less than fifty paces—finds its walls extremely smooth, but fails to discover an entrance. All of a sudden the sky becomes dark, and he imagines a cloud to have covered the sun, but he soon realizes that the darkness is due to a huge bird. He recalls stories told him by “travelers and voyagers” about a bird of enormous size, called the ruh, and even before the bird alights on it he reaches the conclusion that the large white object he had been scrutinizing was its egg. This motive had accrued to the narrator's arsenal from Lucian's True History, where the hero “ran aground on an enormous kingfisher's (alkyon) nest, really, it was sixty furlongs (stadia) in circumference.” He then “cut open one of the eggs with axes and took from the shell a featherless chick fatter than twenty vultures.”

As soon as the ruh had fallen asleep on the egg, Sindbad tied himself to its leg with his turban, and next morning the bird rose with him to the highest region of the sky and finally landed in some remote country, where Sindbad loosed his turban and continued his wanderings.

In this story the author has made good use of an adventure ascribed to Alexander the Great in some manuscripts of Pseudo-Callisthenes. Here the king has himself carried up into the highest dome of the sky by four hungry eagles that are tied to a chest in which Alexander has taken his seat and that are vainly attempting to reach a piece of horse liver fixed to the end of the pole to which they are harnessed.

This picturesque scene also affected Persian legend. The Book of the Kings ascribes the same procedure to King Kâ’ûs when this monarch, succumbing to the devil's tempting, tries to ascend to heaven. Originally, the Persians had the king bid the demons build him a city floating between heaven and earth; but the impact of the Alexander saga effected the change.

Here again, Sindbad's tall tale was accepted into respectable scientific literature. Al-Quazwînî opens the pages of his Cosmagraphy to an amplified version of the strange event.

The central episode of Sindbad's third voyage is a fairly exact replica of Odysseus' adventure with Polyphemus. The Arabic version, replete with lurid detail, omits the captured hero's ruse in claiming “No Man” to be his name, nor does he have any need to hide his companions and himself tied to the belly of thick-fleeced sheep to make good his escape from the monster's cave. On the other hand, the blinded giant's aim is luckier than Polyphemus': assisted by a female giant—an addition of the Arab narrator—he kills all but two of Sindbad's companions by throwing rocks at the small rafts in which they are struggling to reach the open sea. It is rather strange that the Sindbad story eliminated what would seem to us the most striking feature of the man-eating monster, viz., his one-eyedness. In all but one of the manuscripts the cannibal has two eyes, which, accordingly, Sindbad has to put out with two red-hot iron spits.

This same change occurs in a doublet of the story, the account of Sa‘îd's adventures in the tale of “Saif al-mulûk and Badî‘at az-zamân.” In one version of this account the murderous giant is called “Eli-Fanioun,” an obvious echo of “Polyphemus.” But the survival of the Cyclops' name did not entail the survival of the Greek idea of the one-eyed Cyclopes. Thus, the Arab rendering of this Greek motive is a telling symptom of that adaptation of the foreign subject matter to the thinking habits of the borrowing society which so frequently obscures the origin of a literary trait.

Although it is not necessary to cast about for a channel through which the Polyphemus story could have reached the Arabs, it may in this connection be recalled that educated Eastern circles kept up a certain interest in the Homeric poems to a relatively late date. Theophilus of Edessa (d. 785), a favorite of the caliph al-Mahdî (775-85) and a celebrated astrologer, translated “the two Books of Homer” into Syriac. This translation was, in all probability, not a complete version of the Iliad and Odyssey, but in addition there exist quotations from Homer in various other and later Syriac authors. The influence of the Syriac writers and translators on Arab thought down to the middle of the tenth century is too well known to need more than a passing mention.

Before the ghûl slaughters his prisoners in the “Saif al-mulûk” story he gives them a drink of milk which immediately blinds them. A similar device is practiced by the demon-ruled people into whose power Sindbad falls on his fourth voyage. They hand every new arrival to their town a drink of coconut oil and some unspecified food “in consequence of which his body becomes expanded, in order that he might eat largely, and his mind is stupefied, his faculty of reflection is destroyed, and he becomes like an idiot. Then they give him to eat and drink in abundance of that food and oil, until he becomes fat and stout, when they slaughter him and roast him, and serve him as meat to their king. But as to the companions of the king, they eat the flesh of men without roasting or otherwise cooking it.” Al-Qazwînî preserves another form of this motive in which the cannibals are represented as the dog-faced inhabitants of an island in the sea near Zanzibar.

These stories remind one of the beginning of the Acts of Andrew and Matthew, where we read: “At that time all the apostles were gathered together and divided the countries among themselves, casting lots. And it fell to Matthew to go to the land of the anthropophagi. Now the men of that city ate no bread nor drank wine, but ate the flesh and drank the blood of men; and every stranger who landed there they took and put out his eyes, and gave him a magic drink which took away his understanding.” Nobody can fail to recall the draught which Circe uses to transform Odysseus' companions into pigs. Circe's magic technique is duplicated by Queen Lâb and her adversary in the story of “King Badr Bâsim,” although it is not pigs but birds and a mule that result from their craftily employed foods and drinks.

The combination of travel adventures with a love action is held in common by certain of the Arabian Nights stories with the Greek novel. This Greek novel, traceable from ca. 100 b.c. to a.d. 300 with a curious revival in Byzantine Literature in the twelfth century, builds its intricate plot around the basic scheme of accompanying a pair of beautiful and chaste lovers who are separated and tossed about by the whims of fate on their perilous wanderings until they are finally reunited in blissful happiness. One of the late Byzantine imitators, Nicetas Eugenianus, prefaced his work with a short argumentum that sums up aptly the content not only of his but of all Greek romance.

Here read Drusilla's fate and Charicles'—
Flight, wandering, capture, rescues, roaring seas,
Robbers and prisons, pirates, hunger's grip,
Dungeons so deep that never sun could dip
His rays at noon-day to their dark recess,
Chained hands and feet; and greater heaviness,
Pitiful partings. Last the story tells
Marriage, though late, and ends with wedding bells.

The purpose of the trials to which the lovers are exposed is not the development of their characters. As a rule, the lovers remain what they started out to be. What is more, the heroes resemble each other pretty much. The women usually are somewhat more elaborately drawn; they are more alive and better capable of taking the initiative when beset by difficulties. But it is clear that the public was interested in action and that any incident however improbable was welcome. Many of the lovers' troubles are brought on by their irresistable beauty and are again overcome by their passionate chastity.

In contemplating the transfer of the pattern from the Hellenistic to the Muslim milieu, we have to take into account the inevitable recrudescence of the popular character of the romances when they passed from the hands of the professional writer-rhetorician into those of the professional story-teller. The artistic level is bound to drop. The background of religion, so important in the novels, becomes meaningless. The Arab was not accustomed to that historical narrative in which some of the romances excel, and he had, on the whole, no experience in inventing and carrying through a complicated action, with many secondary actions to boot, stretching over hundreds of pages. These differences in literary tradition make for a loss of refinement, greater simplicity, or, perhaps, obviousness of the Arabic tales, but they leave the borrowed pattern unaltered.

A detail that survives in the Arabian Nights, the attempted but frustrated suicide of the easily discouraged hero, is particularly significant of the strength of the ancient pattern. For Islam condemns self-destruction. This attitude reduces but does not eliminate the suicide motive from the Arab love stories. In every Greek novel with the exception of Longus' Daphnis and Chloe one or both of the heroes at least plan to take their lives if they do not actually attempt to; but nowhere do they succeed. When overtaken by shipwreck while voyaging in quest of his beloved, Saif al-mulûk is ready at once to drown himself, but his servants forcibly prevent him from throwing away his life. In another tale the young squanderer who is compelled to sell his beloved slave girl throws himself into the Tigris but is saved by the bystanders. The close connection in the lovers' minds of love and death is the supreme expression of that peculiar type of emotion with which both the Greek and the Arab authors animate their protagonists.

This emotion is extremely sentimental and self-indulging, emotion for emotion's sake. It even seems somewhat impersonal in its indiscriminate ecstasies. He who falls prey to this passion very nearly loses his individuality; he becomes a lover, thus entering the ranks of what could almost be called a profession. The public takes an interest in his doings and expects certain actions and reactions of him as it would mutatis mutandis of a king, a priest, or a soldier. In this capacity the lover enjoys great liberties; he is forgiven everything except disloyalty. His mood vacillates between delirious joy and deadening dejection. On the whole, suffering outweighs pleasure. He is given to weeping, he cannot find rest or sleep, he becomes emaciated, he will fall ill, and he may die when hopelessness overtakes him. Both in happiness and in despair he is likely to swoon; before he acts he has to pass through a stage of protracted moaning. And with all his impetuous passion and despite the predominantly sensual coloring of his feelings, his love is chaste—so much so at times in the Arab tales that the reader cannot help wondering whether the self-conscious lover is enamored of his alleged beloved or of his own luxuriant sensibility.

In Chariton's Chaereas and Callirhoe, Dionysius, one of the more interesting and engaging characters of the Greek novel, “disappointed in his love for Callirhoe, and no longer able to carry on, had determined to starve himself to death and was writing his last will with directions for his burial. In the document he begged Callirhoe to visit him even after he was dead.” In this moment he receives the news that the girl had changed her mind and agreed to marry him. “At this unexpected announcement Dionysius suffered a great shock. A dark cloud settled down over his eyes and in his weakened condition he collapsed and presented the appearance of a dead man.”

The Arab author is less discreet in picturing Hasan of Basra's state when he has lost his lady-love. “Hasan … despaired … and he desired to rise and descend from his place, but he could not rise. His tears ran down upon his cheek, and his desire became violent, and he recited these verses:

May Allah deny me the accomplishment of my vow, if after your absence I know pleasant sleep,
And may my eyes not be closed after your separation, nor rest delight me after your departure!
It would seem to me as though I saw you in sleep: and would that the visions of sleep might be real!
I love sleep, though without requiring it; for perhaps a sight of you might be granted in a dream. …”

Finally, Hasan dragged himself to his chamber, “and he lay upon his side, sick, neither eating nor drinking … he wept violently, till he fainted, and fell prostrate upon the ground. … The night had come and the whole world was strait unto him, and he ceased not to weep and lament for himself all the night until the morning came and the sun rose over the hills and the lowlands. He ate not nor drank nor slept, nor had he any rest: during the day he was perplexed, and during the night sleepless, confounded, intoxicated by his solicitude, expressing the violence of his desire in some verses of a distracted poet.”

Literary recognition—which, however, does not imply moral approval—to this turbulent and unrestrained type of emotion was first extended by Plato, who, in the Symposium, has Pausanias discourse on the peculiar attitude the world takes toward a lover. “Consider, too, how great is the encouragement which all the world gives to the lover; … and in the pursuit of his love the custom of mankind allows him to do many strange things, which philosophy would bitterly censure if they were done from any motive of interest, or wish for office or power. He may pray, and entreat, and supplicate, and swear, and be a servant of servants, and lie on a mat at the door (of his beloved). … The actions of a lover have a grace which ennobles them; and custom has decided that they are highly commendable.”

All of the pattern's significant topics can be traced backward from the Arabian Nights, whose poetical parts mostly stem from poets living between a.d. 850 and 1350, through earlier Arabic poetry to Hellenistic verse. And even before the Hellenistic age popular poetry seems to have moved in this direction. Aristophanes inserts in his Ecclesiazusae (first performance in 392 or 389 b.c.) a love song of unmistakably popular hue in which the swain implores the lass in these words:

Hither, O hither, my love,
This way, this way!
Run, run down from above,
Open the wicket, I pray:
Else I shall swoon, I shall die!

Theocritus elevated the phrase to full literary dignity in his Third Idyll. His (probably spurious) Twenty-third Idyll makes the spurned lover who prepares to hang himself at her door ask his beloved to write upon his grave: “This man love slew. …” The poet Yazîd b. aṭ-Taṭriyya (d. ca. 744) narrowly escaped the same fate when separated from his beloved Wahshiyya. But the lovers are reunited in time, and Yazîd recovers. It remains for a pedestrian critic like the Sayyid Murtaḍà (d. 1044) to explain that the phrase, “somebody was killed by his love for someone else,” was nothing but poetical hyperbole.

An occasional protest of this kind did not, however, affect the popularity of this stylized sentimentality among those who boasted a polite education. In laying down the requirements of such education, al-Washshâ’ (d. 936) defines in detail and with complete seriousness the symptoms of love à la mode.

“Know that the first signs of love in the man of polite behavior (dû adab) are the emaciation of his body, long sickness, the paling of his color, and sleeplessness. His eyes are cast down, he worries unceasingly, his tears are quick to flow. He carries himself with humility, moans a great deal, and shows openly his yearning. There is no end to his shedding of tears and his heaving of deep sighs. A lover will not remain hidden even if he conceal himself, nor will his passion remain secret even if he control himself. His claim to have joined the ranks of the addicts to love and passion cannot but become public knowledge, for the signs of passion are glowing and the symptoms of the claim are manifest.”

This love is conducted by the fashionable in obeisance to an established code exacting different behavior from men and women. Dress, perfume, gifts, food, and drinks of the elegant lover are, so to speak, standardized. Any infringement on this polite convention removes the impetuous from the circle of the cultured. It is obvious, and al-Washshâ’ states it expressly, that this type of love is a matter for the well-to-do. It took copious resources to defray the obligation of flooding the beloved with exquisite presents. To love in style you had to live in style, too.

The elaborate mannerisms of polite passion provoked gentle satire. “The Caliph Mutawakkil (847-861) said to Abû’l-‘Anbas: ‘Tell me about your ass and his death and the poetry which he recited to you in a dream.’ ‘Yes, O Prince of the Faithful: my ass had more sense than all the qâdîs together; 'twas not in him to run away or stumble. Suddenly he fell ill and died. Afterwards I saw him in a dream and said to him, “O my ass, did not I make thy water cool and thy barley clean, and show thee the utmost kindness? Why didst thou die so suddenly? What was the matter with thee?” “True,” he answered, “but the day you stopped to converse with so-and-so the perfumer about such-and-such an affair, a beautiful she-ass passed by: I saw her and lost my heart and loved so passionately that I died of grief, pining for her.” “O my ass,” said I, “didst thou make a poem on the subject?” “Yes,” he said; then he chanted:

I was frenzied by a she-ass at the door of a perfumer.
She enthralled me, smiling coyly, showing me her lovely side-teeth,
Charmed me with a pair of soft cheeks colored like the shaiqurânî.
For her sake I died; and had I lived, then great were my dishonor!

I said: “O my ass, what is the shaiqurânî?” “This,” he replied, “is one of the strange and uncommon words in the language of the asses.”’ Mutawakkil was delighted and ordered the minstrels to set the poem of the ass to music and sing it on that day. No one had ever seen him so gay and joyous before. He redoubled his marks of favor to Abû’l-‘Anbas and loaded him with gifts.”

The influence on Arabic civilization exerted by Greek literature and thought during the ninth and tenth centuries is well recognized. It is less widely realized, however, that even the earliest Arabic poetry shows definite traces of Hellenistic tradition. As early as ca. a.d. 500 the poet al-Muraqqish the Elder died of love. Before his demise he addressed his beloved cousin Asmâ’ in these words:

And whenever thou hearest, whereso it reaches thee, of a lover who's dead of love or is dying,
Know that that wretch is I without doubt, and weep for one whom Love chained and slew with none to avenge.

By the middle of the sixth century al-Muraqqish's story had become a common theme. Tarafa (d. ca. 565) illustrates his own passion for Salmà by a reference to the older poet's fate and expressly states that al-Muraqqish met his death through love. Not much later, al-A‘shà (ca. 565-629) calls his beloved “a slayer of men.”

This same poet introduced another Hellenistic motive to Arabic literature. In his Fifth Fragment Moschos (ca. 150 b.c.) thus draws the picture of an exasperating tangle of emotions: “Pan loved his neighbor Echo; Echo loved a frisking Satyr; and Satyr, he was head over ears for Lyde. As Echo was Pan's flame, so was Satyr Echo's, and Lyde master Satyr's. 'Twas love reciprocal; for by just course, even as each of those hearts did scorn its lover, so was it also scorned being such a lover itself.”

Horace's imitation of the passage is familiar. In al-A‘shà's verse the mythological names are, of course, discarded.

I fell in love accidentally, but she was attached to another man who in turn was in love with another girl.
This man again was loved by a young lady who was unapproachable for a kinsman, who was dying from longing, delirious about her, a madman.
But I myself was loved by a little woman who did not suit me—so with all of us love was odious in each case.
Each of us yearned deliriously for his companion in suffering, remote and close at the same time, entangled and entangling.

No sooner had the Arabs set foot on and conquered territories formerly held by the Eastern Empire and Greek civilization than a second wave of Hellenistic influence swept into love poetry.

While in pre-Islamic days sentimental love of the kind described above is met with on comparatively rare occasions, it becomes the accepted emotional pattern during the second part of the seventh century, and, with it, the love-death topic comes to be employed by every poet of rank. Famous are the lines of Jamîl al-‘Udrî (d. 701) in which he awakens his sleeping comrades in the dead of night to ask them, “Does love kill a man?” “Yes,” they replied, “it breaks his bones, leaves him perplexed, chased out of his wits.”

The real contribution of this age to the love-death concept is, however, the idea that the chaste lover who dies of his love is a martyr and thus as sure of Paradise as the martyr of the Holy War. The Prophet Mohammed himself is represented as pronouncing this verdict and thereby conferring “official” standing on this type of lover.

The suggestion may be ventured that the concept of the martyr of love constitutes an original contribution of Arabic poetry. In it are fused two earlier developments: the originally Greek notion of the victim of love and that other Greek idea of the lover as fighter or soldier. It is well known that Christian martyrology made extensive use of erotic phraseology, and there is no doubt that the Arabs had, by that time, become familiar with Christian martyrology. The transfer of the fighter-martyr concept to the battles of love appears as a rather bold and perhaps somewhat frivolous, at any rate, a highly original, innovation of the later seventh century. The trend of the times toward using religious topics in love poetry and love phraseology in religious verse strongly supports this assumption.

Either Jamîl or his contemporary, Ibn Qais ar-Ruqayyât, was the first to call love madness, junûn—another testimony to the increasing effectiveness of Greek ideas. Perhaps a hundred years later, when a theoretical interest in the nature of love began to show, the Platonic definition of love as a sort of divine madness is brought forward by one of the disputants of that famous conference on love held by the learned circle of the Barmakid vizier, Yahyà b. Hâlid (disgraced in 803). Plato's definition recurs many times.

There is no need to trace the models of every major topos of this “Medinese” love poetry (as easily could be done), nor is it necessary to follow any further the fascinating development of Arabic love poetry destined to reach a new peak in the lyrics of al- Abbâs b. al-Ahnaf in order to understand the spiritual kinship of the lyrical passages of the Arabian Nights with Hellenistic poetry. At least one section of the Arab public and the Arab littérateurs took over the erotic conventions of the Hellenistic epoch; for the most part, we will have to assume, without realizing the true source of outlook or phraseology.

How perfectly the Arabic poet entered into the spirit of his predecessors will be perceived through an analysis of these verses culled again from the larmoyant story of Hasan of Baṣra.

You made a covenant with me that you would remain faithful; but when you had gained possession of my heart you deceived me.
I conjure you by Allah, if I die, that you write upon my tombstone, This was a slave of love:
That perchance some mourner who hath felt the same flame may pass by the lover's grave and pity him.

Nearly every conceit employed in these lines could be matched from Meleager of Gadara (first century b.c.):

We swore, he to love me, and I never to leave him; but now he says that such vows are in running water.
When I am dead, I pray thee lay me under earth and write above, Love's gift to Death.
I will leave letters uttering this voice, Look, stranger, on Love's murdered man.
Even myself I carry the wounds of Love and shed tears over thy tears.

Thus fully has the Arab lover and poet responded to the tune of the love-lorn Greek.

Indian and Persian, Jewish and Greek, Babylonian and Egyptian, together with genuinely Arabian elements, have been welded into one by the unknown masters responsible for the overwhelming richness of the corpus of the Arabian Nights. Outwardly, the Arabic language, inwardly, the spirit of Islam unite those manifold threads into one dazzling tapestry. In this synthesis of the disparate the Arabian Nights present a likeness on a small scale of Islamic civilization as a whole.

With a certain shift in emphasis, away from the Indian, Babylonian, and Egyptian, and toward the Persian, the Greek, and the Judeo-Christian, and, of course, with much greater stress on the genuinely Arabic, the structure of Islamic civilization repeats the structure of the Nights. Islamic civilization is thoroughly syncretistic, and it proves its vitality by coating each and every borrowing with its own inimitable patina.


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The Arabian Nights

(Also known as Alf Layla wa-Layla,The Thousand and One Nights, and The Thousand Nights and One Night) Arabic short story collection.

The following entry presents criticism on The Arabian Nights from 1953 through 2002. For additional information on The Arabian Nights, see CMLC, Vol. 2.

The Arabian Nights is one of the world's best-known collections of stories. Although the tales, which were orally transmitted and composed over the course of several centuries, are mainly of Asian and Arabic origin, they have become an inextricable part of the Western cultural heritage as well. The stories of Princess Scheherazade, Aladdin, Sinbad the sailor, and Ali Baba, for example, are firmly established in the Western imagination. The original collection, comprised of legends, fairytales, romances, and anecdotes, stems from a number of folk traditions and contains motifs and fables from various geographical areas and historical periods. Since the eighteenth century, when it reached Western audiences, The Arabian Nights has been one of the most popular works of world literature, spawning numerous adaptations, imitations, and tributes from writers such as Johann Wolfang von Goethe, William Wordsworth, and Rainer Maria Rilke; drawings by Gustave Doré; musical works by Nikolai Rimski-Korsakov and Carl Maria von Weber; and even major Hollywood film adaptations. Since the twentieth century The Arabian Nights have also received serious critical attention and scholars have been almost unanimous in their praise of the way in which these tales transcend cultural and linguistic boundaries.

Textual History

Although they are traditionally associated with medieval Arabic culture, the tales of The Arabian Nights are rooted in several oral traditions, containing motifs from a variety of geographic areas and historical periods, including ancient Mesopotamia, India, early medieval Persia and Iraq, and Egypt of the Middle Ages. Scholars agree that the frame story is most likely of Indian origin. The first identifiable written version of The Arabian Nights is a book of Persian tales called Hazar Afsanah (A Thousand Legends, written between 225 and 250), translated into Arabic around 850. Although the tenth-century Arab writer Al-Mas'oodi refers to this Arabic text, noting that it was known as Alf Layla (A Thousand Nights), it is now lost. The stories underwent considerable modification between the tenth and the sixteenth centuries, kept alive by professional storytellers, who would perform them in coffeehouses all over the Middle East. The title “Thousand and One Nights” was known in the twelfth century and likely originated from the Turkish expression bin-bir (“thousand and one”), which, like the Arabic alf, simply indicates a very large number. There is no definitive Arabic textual source of the work, but there are a number of surviving manuscripts containing many of the stories.

The first major European translation of The Arabian Nights was completed by the Frenchman Antoine Galland. The first part of his twelve-volume Les mille et une nuits (The Thousand and One Nights) appeared in 1704. The manuscript that he used to work from was acquired from Syria and dated from the fourteenth or fifteenth century. Galland's edition was quickly translated into English, with early editions of the so-called “Grub Street” version first appearing in 1708. Scholars then began searching for a complete original copy of The Arabian Nights, but were unsuccessful. However, in the early nineteenth century four important printed versions of the text—known as Calcutta I, Calcutta II, the Būlāq text, and the Breslau text—appeared. The Būlāq text, based on an Egyptian manuscript whose editor added many stories to make the total amount of material large enough to accommodate the full one thousand and one nights, is still considered one of the most important sources of the collection. Many European translations appeared based on the four nineteenth-century sources, including those by Dr. Jonathan Scott (1800), Edward Wortley Montague (1811), Henry Torrens (1838), Edward W. Lane (1838-41), John Payne (1882-84), Richard F. Burton (1885), Andrew Lang (1898), and J. C. Mardrus (1899-1904). Payne's is considered the first complete translation, and while it is meticulous and includes copious notes that remain valuable to this day, it was heavily expurgated, suppressing any fragment that the translator deemed offensive to Victorian sensibilities. Burton's translation, in contrast, emphasizes the exoticism and eroticism of the stories. There is still no definitive text of The Arabian Nights, but Muhsin Mahdi's The 1001 Nights (Alf Layla wa-Layla) from the Earliest Known Sources (1984) and Husain Haddawy's selection of tales (1990) are two English translations that have been widely used by students and scholars since the late twentieth century.

Plot and Major Characters

The frame story of The Arabian Nights describes the vindictive fury of King Shahryar who, upon executing his adulterous wife, vows to marry a different virgin every night, only to have her killed the following morning. Scheherazade, the daughter of the King's vizier, or principal officer of state, takes it upon herself to save the women of the kingdom from Shahryar's wrath, and offers herself as a bride to the King. The vizier, her father, tells Scheherazade two stories to try to convince her to change her mind—these are substories within the frame story—but she remains unconvinced and marries the King. With the help of her younger sister, Dunyazade, she obtains the King's permission to tell him a story just as their wedding night is about to end. This first tale is the story of the merchant and the demon—a traveling merchant stops to rest and eat, and tosses date pits onto the ground. An old demon appears and tells the merchant that he must kill him because the date pits the merchant tossed away struck the demon's son and killed him. The merchant pleads with the demon for his life. The parallels between this story and the fate of Scheherazade are obvious, as both the merchant and the young bride are to be killed despite being innocent of any crime. The story remains unfinished at daybreak, when the King must rise and attend to the affairs of state; his curiosity piqued, Shahryar resolves to postpone Scheherazade execution so he can hear the end of the story. But the following night only brings another tantalizing fragment, and the King postpones his wife's execution yet again.

What follows is a series of interlocking stories that cover a vast array of subjects. The tales have a deeply nested structure, with stories within stories within stories. They vary in length greatly, the shortest being around 700 words and the longest, the tale of Aladdin and his magical lamp, being nearly 40,000 words. The hundreds of fairytales, legends, romances, fables, anecdotes, and other fictions include, among other tales, the discovery of the unearthly City of Brass, Abu Hassan's waking dreams, the bizarre peregrinations of Sinbad the sailor, Ali Baba's dangerous and tempting encounter with the forty thieves, Aladdin's entry into the world of magic, the insomniac caliph Harun al-Rashid's wanderings throughout Baghdad, and many others. The stories and their connective narrative threads constitute an entire universe of human experience. The king eventually falls under the spell of Scheherazade storytelling magic and, fascinated by her seemingly inexhaustible fund of tales abounding in fantastic events and breathtaking denouements, willingly spares her life and accepts her as his queen.

Major Themes

Critics point out that the stories in The Arabian Nights deal with many fundamental questions about human life and experience. They address universal concerns such as love, death, happiness, fate, and immortality in a manner that transcends linguistic and cultural boundaries. They also cover spiritual matters, exploring questions about how to live in a world that contains both good and evil, with these opposites represented by various characters, such as tyrannical and kind rulers, magicians and witches, good and bad demons, and so on. In addition, the stories also address matters such as the relationship between the sexes, the inevitability of human desire, and the quest for spiritual perfection. The frame story of Scheherazade immediately introduces important themes of power, gender, justice, forgiveness, and the ability of art to transform beliefs and vanquish death. Many of these themes are also developed in subsequent tales.

Although The Arabian Nights covers a vast array of themes and subjects, the concept of power is particularly prominent throughout the tales. The depiction of the awesome might of rulers who hold absolute power, and the effects of such control are often highlighted. Another focus of the tales is the strength of women—many are represented in the tales as slaves and concubines who must obey the men who own them, and yet display incredible strength in overcoming adversity. Scheherazade is the most striking example of this type of figure. Notions of justice and forgiveness are also explored in many stories, with good eventually overcoming evil. Again, this theme is first developed in the frame story, as the king finally understands the true meaning of justice. The theme of the transforming power of art is also most obvious in the frame story as King Shahryar, entranced by his wife's tales, in the end understands forgiveness, justice, and humanity.

Critical Reception

The tales of The Arabian Nights have been an important part of Middle Eastern folk culture since medieval times. Their long history of transmission and development over the course of centuries are a testament to their enduring appeal. However, while the work has been an integral part of the cultural landscape of that region, it has not always enjoyed the status of high art. When the tales were first introduced to the Western world in the eighteenth century, they were regarded as little more than entertaining diversions with little literary merit. Arabic scholars also viewed the tales as mere popular fiction, unworthy of inclusion in the canon of classical Arabic literature. Early Western scholars also objected to what they perceived as the immoral beliefs and behavior of the Islamic characters in the tales. In contrast to the attitude of literary critics, the tales were well received by many Western poets, especially during the Romantic period. Writers such as Goethe, Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Edgar Allan Poe saw the collection as a work of unique imaginative power, and the tales were deeply influential on their thinking and work. They also gripped the popular European imagination, spawning a number of pseudo-Oriental works that depicted a highly extravagant, sensual, exotic East.

In the twentieth century the stories also began to receive serious and systematic critical attention. With the advent of interdisciplinary criticism, the tales of The Arabian Nights began to be studied by scholars from a variety of fields, including anthropology, linguistics, psychology, and literary theory. As a result, The Arabian Nights has been hailed not only as a brilliantly entertaining narrative, but also as a profound work of art. Modern scholars have extolled the ability of the tales to address, in accessible form, universal concerns ranging from love, death, and happiness to fate and immortality. It has been noted that the stories are of particular value for modern life because of the insights they provide into the individual's struggle with overpowering and frequently incomprehensible forces. A psychological analysis of the tales has pointed out that the stories speak to the unconscious and enable the individual to transform destructive impulses into harmless fantasies. Late-twentieth-century analyses of The Arabian Nights have focused more heavily on the manuscript history of the tales, their structure and narrative technique, the influence of classical European traditions on the stories, and their impact on Western literature and culture. Scholars continue to investigate the history and development of the work, regarding it as a complex text that is deserving of detailed textual and critical analysis. This commentary has taken a number of forms, including feminist, deconstructionist, and poststructuralist analysis. In terms of popular appeal, the stories of The Arabian Nights remain some of the most recognizable in all of literature. A number of stories from the collection have been adapted for the screen and collections of the stories continue to appeal to young and old audiences, having become part of the collective imagination not only of the cultures from which the stories originally emerged, but of people all over the world.

Mia I. Gerhardt (essay date 1963)

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SOURCE: Gerhardt, Mia I. “Structure.” In The Art of Story-Telling: A Literary Study of the Thousand and One Nights, pp. 377-416. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1963.

[In the following essay, Gerhardt studies the motifs, character descriptions, use of dialogue, and structure of The Arabian Nights, noting that it is difficult for a non-Arabist to easily understand the structural nuances of this work.]

If we define structure, in the largest sense, as the manner in which the material is arranged and presented, it follows at once that not all structural aspects of the 1001 Nights lend themselves to being adequately studied by anyone who is not an Arabist. The basic material of story-telling is words; the choice and arrangement of words, which is what we call, strictly, style, can be duly appreciated only in the original language of a literary work and by one thoroughly familiar with that language. Consequently, even such relatively unsubtle stylistic devices as the use of stock descriptions and of standing formulas in the 1001 Nights will not come into consideration here. It would, no doubt, be rewarding to examine exactly how a given description is applied, adapted and, if necessary, varied in each case; a still more intriguing subject for study of detail would be the manner in which the opening and closing formulas are chosen and worded. But these and all other stylistic matters must necessarily be left to the Arabic scholar.

The non-Arabist literary student can grasp, and legitimately assess, such structural aspects as regard the arranging and presenting of the narrative material: incidents and motifs, characters and plots; in other words, the compositional features of the stories. An exhaustive examination of all such features would, of course, far exceed the scope of this work. On frequent and infrequent motifs, on the number of characters generally involved in an incident, on the means used—and not used—to describe characters and their reactions, on the story-tellers' comments, on the function and nature of the dialogue, on the various denouement devices and on the very patterns of the stories, nearly everything is still to be investigated1, and much could be elucidated and explained by critical study. In order to fix the limits of the present chapter, however, a restrictive choice had to be made, and one particular subject singled out to the exclusion of many others that would be equally interesting to go into.

For our purposes, the most appropriate subject to choose for closer study seemed to be the telling of stories within the 1001 Nights, in its various modes and functions. For the book is not only a story-book, but also, in many respects, a book about story-telling. One way to sum it up is to say that it contains the stories told by a young woman who, by telling them, tries to save her life. And in its individual pieces, long and brief, sundry forms of narrating and relating and reporting loom surprisingly large. This is what I propose to examine more closely here.

The subject necessitates a preliminary reference to the conceptions prevailing in medieval Arabic literature. The flourishing period of Arabic letters (roughly speaking, the 8th-11th centuries) created and settled, with regard to the relating of events, a peculiar convention, of which a notable characteristic is the well-known “witnessing system”. This was evolved, originally, to preserve and to authenticate the sayings of Mohammed on all sorts of points not exhaustively treated in the Koran2. Such a saying could become a well-established “tradition” only if and when it was accompanied by an unbroken chain of witnesses, historical persons who transmitted it the one to the other, beginning with the contemporary who heard it from the Prophet himself, and ending with the trustworthy man who finally committed the saying and its whole witness-chain to writing for definitive preservation. We need not go here into the problems which the gradually increasing number of Traditions of the Prophet and the attendant witnessing system could not fail to create. Essential to our subject is that the same principles were extended also to profane matters such as biography, historiography and anecdote; even, to a certain degree, legend. In all branches of letters, a high regard for authenticity, of which the only adequate guarantee was the witness-chain, went hand in hand with an increasing depreciation of free invention, and consequently, of all unauthenticated fiction3. Thus, Arabic narrative literature, in the widest sense, came to range between two extremes: on the one hand, the anonymous non-erudite fictitious story that begins with some equivalent of our “Once upon a time, there was …”; on the other hand, the account fit to be taken seriously among the learned, which is characterized as historical by beginning with a string of duly-attested names: “A told, on the authority of B who had it from C …, that …”

To the modern observer, perhaps the most striking thing about the witnessing system with its rules and its usage, is the strong awareness of and regard for the individual which it implies. Surely such a system could only develop within a small community, of which each member knew, personally or by report, the other members or anyway their families, and where each man knew his own genealogy and that of the members of his tribe in all particulars. Such was, indeed, the state of affairs among the Arabs immediately before, and for a short while after the rise of Islam. Soon, though, when spectacular conquests had immensely increased the Moslem territories, and the great cities of the Islamic world began to develop, the small-community situation was bound to change. And yet, just as the witnessing system had become an indispensable element of Arabic learning, the trend towards recognizing and particularizing the individual continues to stand out in Arabic writing4. The man of note, be it a poet, a traveller, a scholar, a mystic or simply a man of high culture, is remembered by name, and his sayings and doings are remembered in connexion with him, not just for their general validity.

Something of the same trend is recognizable even in popular story-telling. In fact, a distinctive quality of the Arabic story is precisely its sure way of singling out the man from the crowd, of setting the hero apart, unique, neatly outlined, not to be confused with any other. In the Baghdad of the 1001 Nights, a merchant is not merely a member of his estimable class, but always a well-known merchant named so-and-so, son of an equally well-known father. It seems characteristic that the story-tellers hardly ever leave a principal character unnamed. Only when several characters function ex aequo can they be designated by no more than a general appellation: three sheiks, three ladies, three mendicants, seven demon princesses, and in “The Hunchback,” the amusing series of professions. Even in the Egyptian stories, where attention to the individual becomes a shade less marked and in which the anonymous bustling crowd not unfrequently plays a part, the heroes always have their name, and their fame “in the neighbourhood”, in the city-quarter that is the city to them and which, according to the stories, sometimes takes them for an eponym5. The intentional namelessness of the tales, with their pensive and pious whisperings about “a man”, stands out by contrast as an almost sacrificial discretion in honour of the ascetic's and the saint's self-effacement.

Seen against the background briefly sketched here, the 1001 Nights is found to represent both the contrasting conceptions indicated above: it offers not only anonymous stories of free invention, but also, thanks to the activity of the compilers, duly witnessed reports.

Several anecdotes and anecdotic short stories, and some tales as well (all in all, about a quarter of the brief pieces), are presented on the authority of a witness named at the beginning; which, historically speaking, is a sure sign that they have been taken from erudite works. Comparison with such works may show that the witness mentioned in the 1001 Nights is merely the first one of the whole chain that originally went with the story6. But even the one remaining name is sufficient to set the little piece apart and to confer upon it something of the prestige inherent to the witnessing system. This is especially true if the name is that of a famous ascetic or scholar: Mâlik ibn Dinâr related: … (III, 715); Abu el-Abbâs el-Mubarrad related: … (III, 560). However legendary or romantic the related event may be, the well-known name lends to it a semblance of authenticity, and an additional impressiveness. The reverse, for that matter, also applies: if a fine little piece is introduced by Abu Suwaid related: … (III, 590), it makes us feel that this Abu Suwaid, on whom no information can be found7, must have been a remarkable man and that recollections of his were rightly held to be worth while preserving. And when the story tells of an eminently personal experience, the naming of the central character himself as the witness is particularly apt: the anxieties and final rescue of the debt-ridden judge Abu Hassân ez-Ziyâdi8 gain in poignancy because the anecdote is headed: Abu Hassân ez-Ziyâdi used to tell: … (III, 331) and ends: I told them the story from beginning to end; and it spread among the people. (III, 335).

An anonymous witness—they are, naturally, comparatively rare—is qualified by social standing or personal merit: One of the Descendants of the Prophet related: … (III, 712); I pious man related: … (III, 749); One of the men of polite education related: … (III, 579); and in each case, the story is well adapted to the outlook of the witness thus described. The effect becomes more curious, in the perspective of the ‘1001 Nights’, when one of the favourite characters of the Harûn cycle is given the witness's part: Abu Ishâk Ibrahîm el-Mausili related: … (IV, 645; IV, 678); Ishâk ibn Ibrahîm el-Mausili related: … (III, 115; III, 550; IV, 674). But, although to the reader they appear in the first place as story characters, Ibrahîm and Ishâk were historical figures, and great celebrities9; there is nothing improbable in the supposition that their reminiscences, as told in several short stories of the 1001 Nights, were first taken down from their own mouths. In any case, the personal presentation makes the stories all the more vivid. That the anecdotes about that other celebrity, Abu Nuwâs, are not thus presented, has a good artistic reason: they turn on the witty quips and astounding improvisations of the poet10, the appeal of which would be somewhat spoiled if he reported them himself. In one instance, it is Harûn's black sword-bearer who gets a witness's part: Masrûr the eunuch related: … (IV, 650); here the interlocking of history, which attests that Masrûr existed11, and fiction, to which he owes his fame, gives an unintentional surprise effect that is very pleasant.

Quite apart from the historicity and renown of the persons named, the scholarly witnessing device furnishes, in the 1001 Nights, a most attractive manner of presenting such little pieces as anecdotes, tales, and anecdotic short stories; it pins them down, gives them weight, and sometimes adds just the personal touch they would otherwise lack.

The full-length stories on the contrary, that were not taken from erudite works by the compilers, but made up by story-telling artists, and which belong properly to the essentially popular collection of the 1001 Nights, are presented in an entirely different fashion. Without any regard for authenticity, historicity or foundation in fact, they ask us all at once to accept on faith the hero and his status: “In Baghdad (or: In Cairo) there lived a merchant …”. Sometimes it is added that he lived long ago, “in times of yore, in bygone days that are no more”, for a story is apt to be more appealing in so far as it is more remote and detached from present-day worries; and occasionally, the Egyptian story-tellers reinforce the distance in time by distance in space, pretending that it all happened “in China” (without, for that matter, making China appear at all different from Egypt). After this plain and unpretentious opening, it is up to the story-teller to interest us in the personalities of the merchant and his offspring, and he will not fail to do so. Not fortuitously, such stories are almost exclusively given to the use of the third person: the freely inventing, all-knowing, allmighty story-teller is the “I” who remains hidden off-stage, and the hero is the “he” whose adventures he imagines and narrates12. Sometimes only, under the stress of a particularly captivating occurrence, the roles may temporarily be changed, and the central character is made to take up the thread of the narration, saying “So I went …” “I did …” and himself recounting what befell him. But the shifting remains incidental, and it always is the story-teller who concludes the account of the hero's career and assures us, at the end, that he lived on in happiness and prosperity until the inevitable hour of death. This is the, we may well say classical, straight narrative, the most common presentation in story-telling all over the world, and the standard procedure for the popular stories of the 1001 Nights.

However, it must not be supposed for a moment that the 1001 Nights modes of presentation are exhausted with the extremes of erudite witness-story and popular straight narrative. On the contrary: long or brief, the pieces of the collection abound in remarkable and sometimes highly ingenious devices to introduce, to justify, to authenticate the telling of a story, to set it off, to make it serve a purpose. Stories are fitted one into the other like Chinese boxes; characters become witnesses or story-tellers in their turn; kings and caliphs are given, as their most important function, the listener's part, and even fierce demons can be tamed by telling them what happened to people.

Broadly speaking, three structural proceedings can be distinguished throughout the book. A character in a story may assume the function of a witness, relating adventures or repeating accounts of others and thus lending them an apparent guarantee of authenticity; this oblique presentation, as it might be called, is especially frequent in the short pieces of the collection. In the full-length stories, the characters may interrupt the action to tell an incident from their lives or a story, to illustrate a point or just to pass the time: then a small inserted story lies imbedded in the, longer, main story like a nut in a cake. Or also, and frequently, a character is introduced with no other purpose than to make him tell a story: this gives the whole which we call a frame-story, consisting of a, most often relatively slight, framework surrounding one or more framed stories. The three techniques, of increasing literary consequence, will be examined in that order in the following pages.


In the 1001 Nights, it is the brief pieces that display the greatest variety in presentation. The simple act of telling a little story is performed in all sorts of ways, ranging from straight narrative via reporting and framing devices to the witness story proper. As one example among many, the minute series of schoolmaster stories uses, in its three pieces, three different techniques. The first one (96) is a witness story: An eminent man related: Once I passed by a school where a schoolmaster was teaching the children. (III, 533). He proceeds to tell how he made the schoolmaster's acquaintance and was favourable impressed by his learning; but after some time, when paying him a visit, he found him obsessed by a silly fancy13. And so I was convinced that he really was a stupid fellow, and I left him and went my way. (III, 535). The second (97) incorporates the witness into the story as a secondary character, but robs him of the reporting part: Once there was a schoolmaster; to him came an eminent man, who sat down with him and tested his learning. (III, 536). The occurrences are then related in the third person, but from the viewpoint of the eminent man: he finds the schoolmaster well-read and accepts an invitation to be his guess only to see him commit an extremely foolish act. The guest left him and said to himself:He was right who said that a schoolmaster who teaches children never has much common sense, however learned he may be.” (III, 537). The last of the three (98) has neither witness nor secondary character and takes to straight narrating: Among those who frequented the academy there was a fellow who could neither read nor write […]. One day he got it into his head to open a school and teach the children; […] To one child he saidWrite!” and to another:Read!” and in that way they taught each other. (III, 537). The straight presentation of this last piece and the witness's account of the first are both perfectly logical. But there is something slightly unfocussed about the second one, where the character of the eminent man is, strictly speaking, superfluous, since he does not act as a witness. To give him a function, the story ought to have been reported by him; as perhaps it was in a former redaction.

Even the witness stories proper display various possibilities of presentation, similar to those found in the other brief pieces, and determined by the position of the witness in relation to the facts of his story. He may remain entirely outside the event; after the mention of his name at the beginning, his report follows in the third person, just like any other story, save that it now goes on the authority of a definite individual. The sherif Husain ibn Raiyân related: One day the Commander of the Faithful Omar ibn el-Khattâb sat in his chair of justice … (III, 512). On the other hand, he may give a purely autobiographical report, naturally in the first person, like Abu Hâssan ez-Ziyâdi, already mentioned14, or Abu el-Hasan ed-Darrâj in the tale that bears his name (135). And frequently, the witness reports events in which he played a part, but only a small one, while other people are the protagonists. Abdallâh ibn Ma'mar el-Kaisi related: One year I made the pilgrimage to the holy House of Allah … (IV, 616); there he met a young man whom he helped to win his bride, and whom he later saw treacherously slain15.

Now there are a considerable number of brief pieces—mostly short stories—where a secondary character has exactly this same function: he assists at the occurrence, plays a small part in it, and afterwards reports it. Only the express mention of his name at the beginning, rudiment of a scholarly witness-chain, is lacking. Strictly speaking, therefore, such pieces are not witness stories, although it would seem that sometimes the omission is simply a matter of redaction. Their technique, however, is essentially a witnessing technique. The facts of the narration are not presented straight, but obliquely, through one of the characters, who tells them in the first person, while playing but a subordinate part in the story. No doubt, the deep-rooted preference for having memorable sayings reported by someone who heard them at first hand, and events by someone who saw them with his own eyes, explains this characteristic oblique presentation, which enhances the charm of several short stories in the 1001 Nights.

Let us take as an example “The Lovers from the Tribe of Udhra,” an early Arabic lovers' tale incorporated in the Harûn cycle by means of the framework. Harûn has the poet Jamîl ibn Ma'mar brought in16 and asks him to tell a curious happening, preferably one at which he was present himself. Jamîl then relates with much personal detail how in the desert he met a cousin of his, who camped there to be near the girl he loved; she was married by her parents to another. She visits him secretly every night, and Jamîl sees them sitting together, lamenting their lot17. He is still there when, a few nights later, the girl is killed by a lion and his cousin consequently dies of grief. He buries them in a common grave.—Now in this story, the very plot makes the presence and the report of a witness a plain necessity. If the lovers had died in the desert all alone, their secret love and their sad end would, logically speaking, have remained unknown; a story about them in straight narrative would therefore be clearly marked as an invention. Only by means of a surviving secondary character could it be presented as something that really and indubitably happened. To the modern reader, if decidedly not to the Arabs, the distinction is inessential in itself; but the oblique presentation makes a literary difference that vitally affects the story. The adventure becomes more interesting by being seen through the eyes of Jamîl and coloured by his reactions: curiosity, emotion, pity and sorrow. The fate of the lovers becomes something else as well: a personal experience of the poet.

Although rather often, it is not always the logical need for a survivor that determines this presentation. In “Jubair Ibn Umair and Budûr,” for instance, a bystander to report the lovers' emotional crisis is not strictly indispensable: they live to tell about it themselves. Yet the presence of the nice old gentleman who becomes their confident, tries to mend their quarrel, and finally sees them happily married is an asset to the story, and it is fitting that he is the one who tells it. It is better seen from the outside than through the eyes of the interested parties themselves, who are too deeply engaged in it; let us note in passing that Jubair's own explanation of his sudden reversal of feeling hardly makes sense, except, of course, to himself18. The outsider, at once sympathetic and detached, is the proper person to describe the strange behaviour of the temperamental and headstrong lovers.

Occasionally, the various devices which the 1001 Nights employs in order to have stories told entail a certain implausibility, in supposing a strength of memory and a gift for talking far beyond the ordinary person's capacities. In “The Man from Yemen” the caliph asks one of his table-companions, Mohammed el-Basri, to tell something interesting; the latter obliges by reproducing a whole debate held by the Yemenite's six accomplished slave-girls19, thus repeating from memory a tremendous lot of quotations, proverbs, verse, rhyming prose and other such verbal fireworks. Still, however improbable, the presentation is not absurd: we need only suppose that Mohammed el-Basri was endowed with an excellent memory and was willing to give a stunt performance20. Such high-quality entertainment as provided by the six girls assuredly deserved to be recorded, and may well have been unforgettable to a listener who knew how to appreciate it. So, charmingly, he repays a debt of gratitude to the girls and their master by his faithful report.

The full-length stories of the 1001 Nights are generally presented in straight narrative, occasionally set off by a framework of some kind; the subtler technique of oblique presentation is hardly ever employed here. Still, it does occur: rather unaccountably in “Alî Ibn Bakkâr and Shams En-Nahâr,” and with all the marks of a deliberate artistic choice in “The Hunchback.” Both cases are interesting enough to warrant a brief discussion.

The badly transmitted story of “Alî Ibn Bakkâr”21 presents, successively, two secondary characters in the familiar role of helper to the lovers: first the distinguished merchant Abu el-Hasan ibn Taher, and later his friend, the jeweller. In the first episodes of the story, Abu el-Hasan assists at the events, but except for a few brief passages he does not report them; the narrative proceeds in the third person as customary. Later, though, when he has taken flight and has been succeeded by the jeweller, the latter is given, at first incidentally and towards the end consistently, a reporting function: he tells, in the first person, what happened, and concludes the story in his own name.—The whole set-up raises several intriguing questions, which the present version does not permit to answer. Why should Abu el-Hasan, who is very emphatically introduced at the beginning (in terms that would seem to make him fit a witnessing part) be replaced half-way by the less eminent jeweller? Why does the jeweller, an important secondary character, remain nameless? And above all, why does the latter half of the story take to presenting the events through him? Probably all these puzzling features came about in the course of transmission; but it would be mere guesswork to try and reconstitute a previous, more coherent version, let alone the original. Still, it does not seem improbable that from the very beginning there was a secondary character with a reporting function: for “Alî Ibn Bakkâr” is a story about amorous martyrs, who must love in secret and are united only in death. Such a plot, which in its whole conception is strongly reminiscent of the early Arabic love-stories, traditionally called for a surviving friend to tell about the fate of the lovers. However that may be—to refrain from further speculation—we are confronted here with an unusual presentation of an in more than one respect exceptional full-length story.

A consistent, even pointed use of oblique presentation is one of the many remarkable traits of “The Hunchback.” One of the collection's finest specimens of the frame-story, it will presently be examined as such; at this point, attention must be drawn to the fact that all its stories but one report adventures of third persons, which gives a most peculiar cascade effect. Each of the four men who successively are compelled to tell a story reports how he met some other man who related an incident from his life: the broker tells about a merchant; the steward, about another merchant; the doctor, about a young man from Mosul; finally, the tailor, about a young man from Baghdad, who had an unlucky encounter with a barber. The said barber—as the tailor proceeds to report—first told a “story of himself” and then six stories about his six brothers, whom we thus get to know through the double intermediary of the barber and the tailor. In this way the framework is filled by two sets of, differently presented, biographical stories, separated by an autobiographical one; a very distinctive pattern, doubtless entirely intentional, and flawlessly executed. The result is that “The Hunchback” appears marvellously rich, crowded with people and their adventures, while yet it contains only four characters—the broker, the steward, the doctor and the tailor—who have a major speaking part. (As an additional stunt, the hunchback about whom all the fuss is and who rightly gives the story its title, does not utter a single word.) If ever, the literary possibilities of that very trivial phenomenon, people telling about people, have been fully realized here.


The structural difference between inserted stories and framed stories is one of relative proportions and weight. The inserted story is not only much shorter than the main story in which it is inserted, but also of lesser consequence; it never is the centre of gravity of the whole. The framed story on the contrary is longer and, particularly, more important than the framing story that surrounds it; in the whole called frame-story, the framework is always subordinate to the story or stories it serves to frame. Now it is a curious fact that, while frame-stories occur with great frequency all through the 1001 Nights, the insertion technique is employed only in the first part of the book. Inserted stories are found repeatedly until no. 21 inclusively, and thereafter not any more, except in one piece that is a curiosity in all respects, and in two that do not belong to ZER [Zotenberg's Egyptian Recension]. Already in the framing story of the collection, Shehrezâd's father tells her a moral tale (0a); “The Fisherman and the Demon” has a triple insertion (2a, 2aa, 2ab), and “The Three Ladies,” in one of its framed stories, has one (3ba). “Ghânim” contains the two eunuch stories (7a, 7b), “Omar Ibn En-Nu'mân” is enlivened with a double love-story (8a, 8aa), and two other, brief, pieces (8b, 8c). Next, the series of fables and moral tales presents no less than six insertions (13a, 16a, 16b, 16c, 17a, 18a). Lastly, a love-story (21a) is inserted in the third part of “Kamar Ez-Zamân.” As far as ZER is concerned, the technique then suddenly goes out of favour; it only crops up once more in “The Serpent Queen” (136aa). Moreover, two of the asterisk pieces of our title-list present inserted stories: there is one (79a) in “The Awakened Sleeper,” and one (173a) in the orphan story of “Khudadâd.”

This uneven distribution, in ZER, seems to a large extent accounted for by a historical factor. The Indian influences that, through Persian models, came to bear on material and structure of the 1001 Nights, have left the most perceptible traces on the old core of the book, which also in ZER stands mainly at the beginning. Although recent research tends somewhat to diminish the importance which older scholars accorded to Indian elements in the 1001 Nights, there is no doubt that Indian story-telling furnished one particular insertion device that haunts some of the older stories. This device, which we may well call the instructive insertion, consists in making one of the characters in the main story tell a tale or a little story to convey a moral lesson. As Littmann, among others, points out22, Indian literature abounds in examples of the typical manner in which such insertions are presented. A character says, for instance: “Don't do this or that, or else the same will happen to you as happened to …” The other asks: “What was that?” whereupon the warning story is told. In framed collections, the framed stories may be given the same instructive function, as we shall see later on.

The instructive insertion occurs in several stories for which Persian models containing Indian elements may be presumed. The most illustrative case is “The Fisherman and the Demon”23. When the fisherman has tricked the bloodthirsty demon back into the bottle, he refuses to liberate him again, despite his supplications and promises: “You lie, wretch”, exclaimed the fisherman;you and I are to each other as the vizir of king Yunân and the sage Dubân.” “How was that about the vizir of king Yunân and the sage Dubân? What is their story?” asked the demon; and the fisherman began … (I, 56). The story tells how the sage Dubân healed king Yunân from leprosy, so that he came to high favour; but the king's vizir, envious, slanders him. The king said:O vizir, you are filled with envy for this sage, and you want him to be put to death; but I should repent of it afterwards, just as king Sindibâd repented of having killed his falcon.And the vizir said:By your leave, o greatest king of our time, how was that?” So the king began … (I, 62). In the secondary tale, king Sindibâd gets angry when his falcon keeps him from drinking, and kills it; too late, he perceives that the drink was poison, and that the falcon saved his life. The vizir of king Yunân, however, is not convinced, and maintains that he has spoken the truth about the sage: “You might perish, like the vizir perished who was disloyal towards his king.So king Yunân asked:How was that?” and the vizir began … (I, 65). Follows another secondary tale, somewhat inadequately told and not quite to the point: a vizir lets the son of his king go hunting alone, so that he barely escapes being eaten by a ghoul; the vizir is executed. This is a punishment for neglect of duty, and does not apply to the situation of king Yunân. Galland (or the ms. G) saves the parallel by making the vizir say: “S'il [mon avis] est faux, je mérite qu'on me punisse de la même manière qu'on punit autrefois un vizir.” (1, p. 50)24. However, king Yunân lets himself be persuaded by the arguments of his vizir, and prepares ungratefully to kill the sage who healed him, just as the demon, once out of the bottle, prepared to kill the fisherman who set him free; the dominant parallel of the fisherman's story is effective throughout.

At this point, the device crops up in a singular variant, which leaves only the introductory dialogue and suppresses the insertion. The sage Dubân, standing with blindfolded eyes waiting to be beheaded, says to the king: “This reward you intend to pay me is the reward of the crocodile.The king asked:What is the story about the crocodile?” But the sage answered:I cannot possibly tell it in this plight; I entreat you by Allah, spare me …” (I, 69-70). The king, though, refuses, and the crocodile story is not told25. We may well ask if the omission is intentional and part of the story-pattern, or simply an accident of transmission. Surely the sage's excuse is understandable enough, and it can even be supposed that he tries to make a play for the king's curiosity and thereby at least to gain time. But the attempt has so little success that he might as well have told the story.—Later on, when the inserted story told by the fisherman has been brought to a conclusion, relating the sage's posthumous revenge on king Yunân, the variant occurs once more in the main story. The demon, still in his bottle, pleads: “Spare me and forgive me! if I did evil, so do you good, for in the proverbs of the people it is said: O renderer of good for evil, unto the criminal sufficeth his crime. And don't do to me as Umâma did to Atika.The fisherman asked:What did Umâma do to Atika?” But the demon answered:This is not the time to tell it, while I am here imprisoned. Let me out, and I will tell you.” (I,73). Here the promise of a story is evidently used as bait, which the fisherman, however, refrains from taking. It is only later, and on other conditions, that he liberates the demon, who rewards him by doing him a good turn; but the story of Umâma and Atika which has been missed is never told.

The instructive insertion is, in “The Fisherman and the Demon,” employed with a fair amount of skill; this permits to assess its intrinsic literary qualities. It certainly is an excellent way to give the inserted story a function within the whole, and the grouping of parallel situations all around the knot of the main story permits a varied and at the same time coherent display of story-material. On the other hand, the predominance of the stories' moral purpose soon makes for a certain dreariness. The device is essentially ungratuitous, and thereby something of an exception in the 1001 Nights, where most of the story-telling indulged in by the characters is done for its own sake, simply for the listener's and the speaker's pleasure.

That the series of fables and moral tales, where an abundant if not very interesting use is made of instructive insertions, occurs also at the beginning of the book, is probably an effect of chance; it seems as good as certain that the series was added by the Egyptian compilers, and that they placed it at random26. On the contrary, the “Ass and Bull” story in the Shehrezâd framework, and the “Envier and Envied” story of the Second Mendicant in “The Three Ladies,” both instructive insertions too, belong to the old core. They all contribute to the curiously intricate Chinese-boxes pattern that characterizes the whole first part of the 1001 Nights.

If the majority of the inserted stories in the book are thus presented by way of moral advice proffered by the characters in the main story, a small number are given for other reasons or even, apparently, for hardly any reason at all. The somewhat dogmatic pertinence of the Indian device contrasts sharply with the varied and mostly rather offhand proceedings we meet in stories which are less old. But just because of this greater liberty, the degree of craftsmanship and skill in using the insertion technique can be all the more clearly distinguished.

Thus for instance, a completely purposeless, non-functional and, moreover, clumsily presented insertion is found in the feeble third part of “Kamar Ez-Zamân”27, with the story of “Ni'ma and Nu'm.” The cruel Magian Bahrâm, the villain of the plot, is on the point of being beheaded, but escapes execution by accepting Islam. To the two princes, who lament their sad experiences, he then says: “Noble lords, do not weep! In the end you will be reunited with your family, just as Ni'ma and Nu'm were reunited.And as they asked:what happened to Ni'ma and Nu'm?” Bahrâm related … (II, 530). The old opening move works, but that is about all. The inserted love-story does in no conceivable manner apply to the situation of the princes, who, for that matter, can hardly be imagined as yearning for reunion with their family, since their father ordered their death and their mothers misconducted themselves and slandered them. The Magian for his part, although now a Moslem, has not been made sufficiently likable for the position of entertainer to the whole company. And lastly, the Ommayad court intrigue of “Ni'ma and Nu'm,” thus placed within the remote “Kamar Ez-Zamân” story, which moves vaguely through far-away countries and olden times, constitutes an anachronism that is glaring even for the 1001 Nights. All this does not mean to say that the presence of the love-story is unfortunate. On the contrary, since it is as charming as the main story is tedious at this point, it provides a most welcome diversion. But this, unintentional, relieving effect does not in itself justify the thoughtless inserting, which only accentuates the incompetence of the creator or narrator who made up the third part of “Kamar Ez-Zamân.”

On the other hand, a convincing use of insertions meets us in Omar Ibn En-Nu'mân. This novel, much worked over by, apparently, Egyptian narrators, carries several inserted stories, which vary with the different manuscripts28. One might suspect that later story-tellers found the main plot, on the whole, a little stern, and thought fit to brighten it up with contrasting material. Moreover, the unwieldy length of the novel may well have acted as an inducement to make it still longer. However that may be, the Calcutta II version displays some clever as well as pleasant insertions, showing that the old and in later times somewhat disused technique still had, on occasion, its artisans.

In the last part of Omar Ibn En-Nu'mân, two little stories are neatly made to serve a purpose. The jest of the “Hashish-Eater” is told by a murderess to her prospective victim, in order to put him at ease and make him forget caution. We see him fall into the trap: When Kânmâ-kân had heard this story from the slave-girl, he laughed till he fell over backwards. And he said to Bakûn:Nurse, that's an excellent story; I never heard the like of it. Do you know another?” “Yes, to be sure”, she said. And now the slave-girl Bakûn continued to tell Kân-mâ-kân marvellous happenings and memorable merry events, till sleep came over him. (II, 195-196). When tension has thus been carefully built up, Kân-mâ-kân's life is saved just in the nick of time.—Further on, the story of the “Bedouin Hammâd” makes for a surprise effect. The Bedouin, a robber, has been captured and is about to pay his misdeeds with his life; but he begs to be spared, promising to tell extraordinary adventures. Kân-mâ-kân intercedes for him, and the kings ordered:Well then, tell us a story!” “O greatest kings of our time”, he asked,if I tell you a wonderfully fine story, will you let me off?” This was granted by the kings, and the Bedouin began to tell the most interesting of his experiences. (II, 210-211). This gambit—a good story for a life—is not unusual, as we shall see later on; but here the point is that the Bedouin candidly proceeds to tell about one of his own villainous crimes. He murdered a noble Arab warrior, who gave him hospitality in the desert, because he coveted the young man's sister; she killed herself out of grief. To the Bedouin, who lacks all moral sense, this is merely a curious occurrence29; but the listeners are naturally moved to indignation and execute him on the spot. Instead of ransoming his life with his story, he has brought upon himself the punishment he fully deserved.

In the middle of the Omar novel, and considerably increasing its bulk, occurs the insertion of the full-length “Tâj El-Mulûk,” in which “Azîz and Azîza” is inserted in its turn as an autobiographical secondary story30. It is placed, aptly, at a moment when the warlike action has come to a temporary standstill. The heroic king Sharkân has been murdered in his sleep by an enemy agent; his young half-brother Dau el-Makân and the faithful vizir have set up siege before Constantinople, intending to conquer it and to revenge Sharkân's death, but it can already be foreseen that they will not achieve their aim. They deliberate day and night about matters of strategy, but Dau el-Makân continued to be depressed by mournful sorrow, and finally he said:I long to hear stories about people, adventures of kings and stories of the slaves of love; perhaps Allah then will take from my heart this sorrow deep, so that I may cease to lament and weep.And the vizir said:If your sorrow can be cast out only by hearing notable stories and adventures of kings and tales about the slaves of love from olden times and suchlike things, the matter is easy; for when your late father lived I had nothing to do but to tell stories and to recite verse to him. This very night I will tell you the story of a lover and his beloved, so that your breast will not be constricted any more.” (I, 765).

Dau el-Makân looks forward greatly to the entertainment; a few emirs are invited too, and they settle down comfortably by lamplight, with everything they needed in the way of food, drink and perfumes. (I, 765). Still, it is hardly to be supposed that the vizir finished his double love-story that same night, as it runs to a hundred and thirty pages. The point is not cleared up, perhaps intentionally, for the long insertion represents, as it were, the time spent on the unsuccessful siege: All this happened while they were besieging Constantinople. But after four years had passed, they began to long for their country; the troops murmured […]. And the vizir said to the king:Know, o greatest king of our time, our staying here has been to no avail. Therefore I think we should depart now and return to our native land, and remain there for a few years on end. Then we will again march out valiantly, and wage war against idolatry.” “That is excellent advice”, said the king. (II, 134-135). Thus sped along by the insertion, which distracts attention from the failure and creates, indeed, the illusion that something “happened”, the main story nimbly moves away from where it had got bogged down.—The Egyptian compilers, when they put in the Omar novel, did not choose the most appropriate place for it; but, by design or by chance, it furnishes a fine contribution to the display of inserted stories in the first part of the book.

As we have seen, the story-tellers of the Baghdadian and of the Egyptian period forsook the instructive insertion along with the foreign models that imported it; this particular device, which does not quite agree with the spirit of Arabic story-telling, was never assimilated. As far as they still employ inserted stories, they present them without any moralizing or didactic intention, in a free and easy manner, variously adapted to the situations arising in the main story. In a few cases, the insertion serves a purely artistic purpose: thus in “The Awakened Sleeper,” where the little “The Tramp and the Cook” amusingly mirrors the theme of the main story31, and in “Ghânim,” where the two eunuch stories provide suspense and contrast32. The autobiographical insertion acquaints us with the past life and adventures of the characters in the main story: thus “The Princess of Daryabâr” in “Khudadâd,” and the proportionally too long story of “Janshâh,” which satisfies the curiosity of Bulûkiya in “The Serpent Queen.”

Practised in this way, insertion is an unpretentious but quite satisfactory technique. It brings about a sudden shifting of the interest that is refreshing, and it may achieve all sorts of pleasant effects, by providing a foil to the main story, a surprise, a transition, or just an ornament. All in all, it seems so well suited to the ways of the 1001 Nights that one wonders why it is so sparingly employed. My impression is that, from early times on, the prevailing tendency was to make the surrounding story subservient to the one that is placed inside it; in other words, that frame-story technique was preferred to the inserting of stories. Their essential difference is that, while the latter creates merely a narrative diversion, the former is determined by and centred upon the act of narrating. To put it strongly: the subject of the frame-story is story-telling. So it seems very appropriate that this pattern should be the prevailing one in the 1001 Nights.


A frame-story33 may be defined as a narrative whole composed of two distinct but connected parts: a story, or stories, told by a character or several characters in another story of lesser dimensions and subordinate interest, which thus encloses the former as a frame encloses a picture. The 1001 Nights presents three basic types of the pattern, determined by the function of the framed story in relation to the plot of the framework: we may call them the entertaining frame, the time-gaining frame and the ransom frame. They will be discussed here in this order, which corresponds to an increasing importance of the issue involved in the telling of the framed story.


The simplest type is the entertaining frame; it merely presents a character (or several in turn) telling a story for the pleasure of one or more listeners. It mostly dispenses with elaborate stage-setting, except in those Harûn stories that begin by making the disguised caliph assist at some intriguing scene. The interest concentrates on the framed story, which is told for its own sake and serves merely to provide entertainment, or occasionally, to satisfy curiosity. Harûn er-Rashîd needs stories to allay his restlessness and prepare him for sleep; and other caliphs too, thought not endowed with the distinctive feature of insomnia, often ask one of their familiars to relate a memorable experience, by way of pastime. Even the mamluk sultan Baibars, the story says, had a liking for all that is told among the folk, and all that men choose to believe; and he always wanted to assist in person and to listen when there was talk about such things (IV, 776); so he had the captains of his watch assembled to hear about the strange events they met with in the course of their careers. (If this is authentic, it might be a case of “life imitating art”: Baibars modelling himself upon the caliphs as presented in fiction.) Normally, the entertainer is of a humbler condition than the listener who is being entertained; there are no examples, in the 1001 Nights, of a caliph telling a story himself. Only in “Sindbad the Sailor,” the customary roles are reversed, and the distinguished, wealthy man's entertaining—in every sense of the word—the poor man gives added point to the frame.

In this type, structural interference between the frame and the related story is comparatively rare. Most often, the listening caliph simply dismisses the teller with a few words of comment, and a reward. Occasionally, he orders that the persons about whom he has just heard be brought before him, to make their acquaintance and bestow benefits upon them: thus, el-Mamûn wants to see the six well-spoken slave-girls (46), and the generous merchant (103). However, already here there is sometimes a striving to connect frame and story more closely, making each of them dependent on the other for its point. The stories of the Ladies of Baghdad account for their strange behaviour, as described in the framework; in “Nocturnal Adventures,” too, the autobiographical stories of the three protagonists explain the puzzling things that were first related about them. A less spectacular, but extremely skilful connexion is made in “Abu El-Hasan from Khorasân,” where a veritable little mystery is set up in the frame, to be solved in the story. The caliph's amazement and displeasure at noticing valuable property marked with the name of his grandfather el-Mutawakkil in the house of an unknown businessman, are dispelled when he is told how this came about through his grandfather's magnanimity. Still, the only case where the entertaining frame is an integral part of the whole, not only completely motivated, but functional in bringing out the story's intention, is, again, “Sindbad the Sailor”34.

To this first, simple type belongs also the very elaborate and historically interesting frame of “Saif El-Mulûk,” which even has a title of its own, “Story of King Mohammed Ibn Sabaïk and the Merchant Hasan.” It shows how high a value was set, at the time, upon a good story, and it certainly has some foundation in fact, for all the romantic embellishment of the circumstances. The figure of the dignified sheik, who gives permission to copy the “Saif El-Mulûk” story, but strictly specifies the kinds of public worthy or unworthy of hearing it, may in a certain measure correspond to the reality of a good story-telling period35. It also seems authentic that the story is copied from a book, and carefully checked, whereas the king, every time he wants to hear it again, has it read out aloud to him.—Artistically, however, this unique frame is a misfit, because, as Lane already remarked36, the story it serves to frame does not live up to it. After having been made to expect something incomparable, the reader is disappointed by an unoriginal and mediocre piece, remarkable chiefly for its length.

The entertaining frame, which prepares the telling of the story and surrounds it with a definite atmosphere, certainly adds to the appeal of the whole; from a technical point of view, though, it most often remains relatively ingenuous. The frame-story offers other, less obvious possibilities.


The time-gaining frame, a more complicated type than the one just discussed, serves notably to string together large collections of stories, whose function within the frame is to help put off an execution or another calamitous event. This pattern, apparently of Indian origin37, is not indigenous in the 1001 Nights; it is found only in a few stories that were adapted from the Persian. Nevertheless it occupies a place of unique importance, as it furnished the framework for the collection itself: Shehrezâd temporizes by making one story follow another, until at last she has gained her victory.

The Shehrezâd story, though made up from bits and pieces38 and having an indefinable air of foreignness and oddity about it, is all that a framing story should be. The story-teller who patched it together is a little long in coming to the point, but he struggles valiantly along with a firm purpose in mind39. First, the misconduct of the two queens shows that women can be very depraved, then the demon episode illustrates their appalling boldness and resourcefulness in depravity, and finally, in striking contrast to this black picture of womanhood, Shehrezâd appears on the scene, self-sacrificing, chaste, learned; she, too, is bold and resourceful, but she uses her gifts nobly, not viciously. She is going to play for time, to save herself and many other girls fated to die, just by telling stories. It is no wonder that this plot had a world-wide success: it works up a quite unexpectedly charming and simple suspense situation, to which the story-book itself will finally furnish the denouement.

Notwithstanding this excellent start, though, as a framed collection the 1001 Nights has no firm structure: the working-out falls short of the idea. As soon as the telling of the stories begins, the framework seems gradually to fade away. King Shehriyâr rarely comments on what he has heard40; only in the little series of fables in the first part of the book, a compiler put in some grateful remarks and requests: “O Shehrezâd, you have given me still more wise warnings and lessons by what you have told. Do you also know any stories about the animals of the field?” (II, 248)41. The last of such remarks occurs, as an afterthought, at the end of 22; from then on, there is no more comment between the stories42, which follow each other without transition or with a simple “Furthermore it is told …”. The failure to keep the framework functioning throughout the collection is illustrated by the fact that its conclusion varies in the different texts, and sometimes is lacking altogether.—All this must partly be put down to the plot itself, which, involving only one reciter and one listener (two if we count Dinazâd in), is not solid enough, as it were, to carry the weight of so many stories. A very large framed collection is more convincingly presented when the roles are distributed among a little company, every member of it telling a story in his turn while the others listen. A larger cast also favours the exchange of comment, which lends variety and depth to the whole; and above all, it offers an opportunity for creating a relation between the personality and circumstances of each character, and the stories he tells43.

Such a relation between the framed stories and the frame is lacking in the 1001 Nights. To be sure, it would have been difficult to keep up in so vast a collection, and necessarily would have limited its scope. Yet, especially in the beginning it is somewhat surprising when Shehrezâd's stories seem so ill-adapted to the dangerous situation she had put herself in. The first one, “The Merchant and the Demon,” already presents two wicked wives, and in the second one, “The Fisherman and the Demon,” the last part seems a particularly tactless choice under the circumstances: the queen's morbid infatuation with the negro slave can scarcely have been a pleasant topic to king Shehriyâr. In the fourth one, “The Three Apples,” the plot turns again upon a negro slave supposed to have won his mistress's favours, although the suspicion turns out to be unfounded. All in all, in the first few stories, if we try to connect them with the frame, Shehrezâd appears to be rubbing in the king's conjugal misfortune, rather than helping him to get over it; unless we interpret her choice as destined to show the king that he is not the only one to suffer, but nothing bears out this interpretation44.

The obvious explanation is that the compilers did not consider the point; they did not strive to interrelate stories and frame, nor to keep alive the interest in the framing story itself. Consequently, just as they did, we gradually forget Shehrezâd and her plight, and concentrate all our attention upon the stories she tells. There remains only the rhythmical division into Nights, with its standing transition formulas, to remind us in passing of the clever woman who is still playing for time.

Apart from the Shehrezâd story, the time-gaining frame is something of a rarity in the 1001 Nights. A doubtful case is “The Serpent Queen,” where it does not become quite clear whether the long framed story with its oversized insertion45 is told for its own sake, or to put off the young hero's return to the upper world, which will cause the Serpent Queen's death. At first she refuses to let him go, and keeps him occupied with the story of Bulûkiya; later, when he has obtained permission to return, he voluntarily stays on for a while to hear the story of Janshâh. I confess that I should need more data on the framework of “The Serpent Queen”46—which looks like a batch of old material in a mediocre Egyptian version—to grasp its implications.

The framed collection of “The Seven Vizirs”47 on the contrary, an adaptation from the Persian that was incorporated in the 1001 Nights by later compilers, is carefully arranged in an elegant time-gaining frame. The telling of the stories is doubly functional here, as it serves a double purpose: to persuade, as well as to gain time. A king's favourite has treacherously accused the prince, his son, of trying to seduce her, and the king proposes to put his son to death. His vizirs are trying to save the prince, not only by the delaying action of the stories, but also by making them furnish arguments against the deed: they try to exemplify the dangers of rashness and the malice of women, while the spiteful favourite retaliates by telling about unreliable vizirs and the wickedness of men. The advantages of the pattern are evident: a captivating interrelation of framework and stories, and, in the series of stories itself, a debate effect that makes for variety and surprise. The result might have been a structural masterpiece, if only the stories were to the purpose; but, oddly enough, most of them are not48. The first vizir, already, opens the series with a tale in which a woman, tactfully defending her virtue, has the beau rôle. The first tale of the second vizir is, at best, a warning against stinginess, and in that of the fourth vizir, the husband is really more immoral than the wife (139a, e, k). The favourite, in her turn, misses the mark with her fourth story (139m), about a man who invents an unusual stratagem to conquer his beloved, but without meaning or doing any harm at all49. And so on: even the gem of the series as it stands in the 1001 Nights, the memorable “Woman with Five Suitors,” is too ambiguous to make the point required by the framing story. Told by the sixth vizir, it certainly sets forth an uncommonly fine example of the malice of women, but it is the men who are dissolute and abuse their power; the woman merely takes advantage of their illicit pursuits to further her own, relatively legitimate aim—freeing her lover from prison—and shames them quite deservedly. All these inconsistencies detract from the effect of the pattern; they may, however, be due not to carelessness on the part of the original creator, but to the transformations which the story underwent in the course of transmission.

Thus, the 1001 Nights offers no examples of a particularly skilful use of the time-gaining frame. And yet, the two are inseparable in every reader's memory. Beyond all technical cavilling, the compelling plot of the Shehrezâd story remains one of the most remarkable artistic achievements of the book.


Lastly, there is the ransom frame, which must be examined here with particular care, as it is represented in the 1001 Nights by some very interesting pieces, more or less connected with and dependent upon each other, as I hope to show. In this type, the telling of stories has a paramount function: it serves to redeem a human life. The frame is set up to show how somebody came to be threatened with imminent execution; the story or stories told, either by the condemned man himself or by people intervening in his favour, may, if found good enough, redeem him. A very important issue depends, therefore, on their quality, and on the taste of the listener who holds the decision in his hands.

The very first story of the 1001 Nights in all known recensions, “The Merchant and the Demon”50, shows the pattern in its simplest form. A merchant travelling in the desert is menaced by a demon; three sheiks save his life by telling a story each. Now it has often been remarked upon, and every reader can see for himself, that Shehrezâd is given a surprisingly insignificant piece for a beginning. Indeed, its shortcomings are only too apparent. The arrival of the three sheiks with their animals at the right time and place is in no way motivated; the demon, after each story, willingly renounces a third of the merchant's blood, so that there is no uncertainty as to the final success; and worst of all, the three narrations rather monotonously develop the same motif, the transformation of human beings into animals. Almost any story in the collection might have made a better opening than this one.

Macdonald51 has attempted to offer, for this anomaly, a historical explanation, which seems very plausible; it is connected with an anecdote apropos of the Arabic word khurâfa, meaning “a (pleasant) fictitious story”. A 13th-century author states, giving the chain of witnesses, that Mohammed once told Aïsha a story about a man named Khurâfa, who was captured by three demons, and redeemed by three passers-by who each told an amazing incident (one of these involving a transformation). Our “The Merchant and the Demon” is so like the Khurâfa story as to appear just another, somewhat more elaborate version of it. Macdonald therefore surmises that it is a left-over, taken along with the Shehrezâd frame, of an older form of the 1001 Nights, composed throughout of simple, relatively short, and purely Arabic stories such as this one.

If the Khurâfa story really goes back to Mohammed's time, the ransom frame would be quite an old pattern indeed. If, on the other hand, it was made up later, as an attempt to provide the word khurâfa with an etymology52, it may have been modelled upon “The Merchant and the Demon,” though on internal criteria this latter seems the younger one. Yet even in that case, the place of honour assigned to “The Merchant and the Demon” is still well explained by its being assuredly one of the oldest stories in the book, “of a pronounced desert and Arabic type”53, as Macdonald says.

From a literary point of view, the question is how we are to understand the peculiar ransom frame here displayed, and what assured the lasting success of this pattern. Its two essential features seem to be: the value of good stories, rated so high that they balance the scales against a human life; and the fact that the bargain is made—in this oldest form, represented also by the Khurâfa story—not with another human being, but with a demon, of the species called Jinni (plural Jinn).

The lively appreciation of a good story may perhaps be explained, to a certain extent, by the conditions of life in pre-Islamic and early Islamic times. In a society where entertainments were few and reading not within everybody's reach, the resources of human intercourse were of great importance: they not only provided diversion, but ranked among man's principal means of asserting himself as a civilized being. Stories, as much as poetry, could be perpetuated by oral tradition, and there is ample proof that they were. Later, when a more refined urban culture prevailed over desert life, the particular form of pastime offered by story-telling found its professionals; this development affirms its lasting popularity, of which the 1001 Nights in all its aspects offers such interesting proof.

Stranger, at first sight, seems the role of the demons. In the Khurâfa story, they take the man prisoner for no reason at all, and then deliberate among themselves what they shall do: kill him, enslave him, or let him off. “The Merchant and the Demon” gives a motivation: the merchant has accidently killed the Jinni's son, and the father has a right to revenge. But in both cases, the stories told by the human intercessors apparently afford such gratification to the Jinn that they willingly consent to let their captive go free. As the 1001 Nights-story has it: when the third sheik had told his story, even more wonderful than the first two, the demon was all amazement; he wriggled with pleasure, and exclaimed:Lo, I acquit you of the rest of the merchant's debt, and I grant his freedom unto you all.” (I, 48).

There is an odd naïveté, at the same time endearing and puzzling, in this gratitude of an other-world being for stories from this world. But no doubt it seems stranger to us than it did to the Arabs, who lived on a footing of relative familiarity with Jinn and regarded them as different, certainly, from humans, but not basically or incommensurably so54. (They are not immortal, and may be killed by men; most of them accepted Islam.) The implication of the stories under discussion seems to be, if we put it in modern terms, that Jinn are subject to boredom and want entertainment, just as humans do55. Their wanton capturing of Khurâfa and then not quite knowing what to do with him is well in keeping with this interpretation. And we might even remember, in this context, the Koran's telling how the Jinn try to ascend to the lowest spheres of heaven because they want to overhear the angels, who chase them away by hurling meteors at them56. Fundamentally, the ransom frame as presented here affirms human superiority: Jinn may be stronger than men and often redoubtable, but men's words charm them, men's lives are more interesting than theirs.

Let us now turn to a general survey of the beginning of the 1001 Nights. In the chief mss. of the Oriental family as well as in ZER, the first five pieces are the following:

  • (1) “The Merchant and the Demon.”
  • (2) “The Fisherman and the Demon,” + “The Petrified Prince.”
  • (3) “The Three Ladies.”
  • (4) “The Three Apples” + “Nûr Ed-Dîn and Shems Ed-Dîn.”
  • (5) “The Hunchback.”

Of these five stories, four display the ransom frame in one form or another; and, curiously enough, thereafter it is not found any more in the whole of the 1001 Nights57. Oestrup did remark that the first stories of the collection are characterized by an “Einschachtelungsmethode”58, which, however, he did not analyse in detail, nor try to explain. To find out the possible reasons for this recurrence of the same pattern in just one place of the book, we must closely examine the first five stories, and compare them from a structural point of view.

After (1) “The Merchant and the Demon,” already discussed, follows (2) “The Fisherman and the Demon,” which treats the same theme: when the fisherman has unintentionally liberated the menacing demon (a Mârid this time) who is resolved to kill him, he says to himself: “This is a demon, and I am a human being, Allah has given me intelligence; so by my astuteness and intelligence I will undo him, even as he meant to undo me in his treacherous wickedness.” (I, 54). And he defeats the demon by his superior human wit. This piece is the only one of the five that is not a frame-story; its first part employs the kindred insertion technique59, its sequel, “The Petrified Prince,” is half-appended, half-inserted in a somewhat puzzling manner60, probably due either to an unskilful narrator or to damage in transmission. In the next story, the Baghdadian (3) “The Three Ladies,” the ransom device crops up in an unsatisfactory form, as we shall presently see. To (4) “The Three Apples,” a short and well-constructed Harûn story of the Baghdad period, was joined later the much longer, Egyptian, “Nûr Ed-Dîn and Shems Ed-Dîn,” in such a way that the latter functions as a ransom for the culprit of the former. And lastly, there is “The Hunchback,” a ransom-frame story throughout, and a highly complicated one, displaying no less than eleven stories within its frame.—In the last three pieces, the old frame-pattern is, as it were, secularized: instead of a Jinni, it is a caliph or a king, or a wealthy lady, who threatens people's lives and listens to the ransom stories61. It will be necessary now to discuss these last three pieces one by one, with special reference to the way in which the ransom frame is employed in each of them, in order to establish their relation to the opening story and to each other.

First of all, an analysis of the problematical “The Three Ladies”62, which will require an exact outline of the plot.

Three ladies admit into their house a porter who has carried the provisions bought by the lady housekeeper. They are passing a merry evening with him, when three one-eyed mendicants knock at the door, and are admitted. A little later Harûn er-Rashîd arrives with Ja'far and Masrûr, disguised as foreign merchants, saying they have lost their way in the city. To all these seven men, the ladies give warning that they must not ask questions about what does not concern them. After some more drinking and amusement follows the intriguing episode where the eldest lady whips two bitches, and the lady doorkeeper faints three times upon hearing a sad song, thereby revealing scars of a beating. Harûn forces Ja'far to ask questions; the eldest lady, indignant, summons seven negro slaves, who make ready to behead the guests. The caliph, frightened, wants to give up his incognito, but the lady is already questioning the mendicants, who state that they are all sons of kings. Thereupon the eldest lady invites them, and by implication the other guests also, to tell their stories, after which she will let them go free; but it is not expressly stipulated that the stories are to serve as a ransom. First the porter, by way of a joke, describes the shopping tour he made with the lady housekeeper, saying: “This is my story”; the eldest lady laughs, and lets him off. But he prefers to stay and hear the others: it has already become clear that the lady's anger has spent itself, and that the guests are no longer in great danger. Then the three mendicants successively tell the stories of their lives and adventures, which for each of them involve notably the explanation of how they came to be blinded in the left eye. There is a marked climax in the series: each story is longer and more complicated than the preceding one. In the “First Mendicant”’s there is no relation between his cousin's crime and subsequent death, and his own misfortunes; the whole thing is rather indifferently put together. The “Second Mendicant” reports his adventure with a dangerous demon (an Ifrît) who nearly killed him, and to whom he tells the tale of “The Envier and the Envied” by way of a moral lesson63. The Ifrît relents in so far that he merely changes the prince into a monkey; it takes a frightful transformation combat to restore him to human shape. The “Third Mendicant”'s story is extremely long: it stresses the ineluctability of fate, makes an abundant use of the number 40, and in its last part exploits the well-known marvellous motif of the forbidden door64.—The caliph and his company, finally, are not required to tell anything; they simply repeat that they are foreign merchants. The eldest lady forgives all the guests, saying: “I grant you each other's lives” (I, 185), which we apparently must take to mean that the mendicants, by telling their stories, have redeemed the rest.

The next day, the caliph has them all brought before him, and now it is the ladies' turn to tell their stories. The “Eldest Lady”'s is an elaborate version of the story of the Second Sheik in “The Merchant and the Demon”: the two bitches are her wicked sisters, transformed by a demoness whose life she saved65. The “Lady Doorkeeper”'s is a purely Baghdadian short story of married life, involving as a husband Harûn's own son el-Amîn. The Lady Housekeeper does not tell a story. Harûn puts things right: the demoness is summoned and takes the spell off the two sisters, while el-Amîn is reconciled with his repudiated wife. The eldest lady and the two sisters who just returned to human shape are given in marriage to the mendicants, who are granted posts and incomes, and the lady housekeeper takes a place among Harûn's wives. All the stories are put down in the annals of the realm.

As this outline shows, the structure of the whole seems more than a little out of joint in several places. The mendicants' stories are too long, particularly the last one. What is unusual, though, in the 1001 Nights, is not their length, but their being misplaced: they hold the story up with a minor issue when a major one has just been raised. Coming immediately after the ladies' strange behaviour, which arouses a much stronger curiosity than do the persons of the mendicants, they cause an unwelcome delay in the explanation of the mysteries of the household. Then, when we finally come back to the ladies and their stories, it is strange and somewhat disappointing that the lady housekeeper, who was introduced first and seems the most attractive person of the three, has nothing to tell. Even symmetry would demand that she, too, should have had a misfortune which caused her to live with her sisters, instead of being a married woman.

But above all, the telling of the mendicants' stories is not sufficiently motivated. There can be distinguished an attempt to employ the ransom device: the eldest lady's anger at the indiscretion of Ja'far, and the menacing display of seven negro slaves—one for each guest—with drawn swords, are clearly meant to prepare for it. The attempt, however, does not come off: the conditions are not clearly stated and the anger is soon forgotten. Now the reason why the device fails to work lies in the plot itself: the characters are miscast. The role belonging to a demon (or a king) falls to a mere Baghdadian lady, which causes an improbability not easily glossed over; and what is worse, the caliph, who would have fitted the part much better, is among the threatened guests. This fact alone would thwart the setting-up of a ransom frame: it is impossible to believe that Harûn could ever be in serious danger of being beheaded in a private house. One hint at his identity would be enough to change the whole course of events. As a matter of fact, the story wavers at the point where Harûn wants to protect himself by telling who he is, but does not get a chance, because the lady has already turned to the mendicants.

This particular passage most clearly demonstrates the clash between the two different patterns that can be distinguished throughout in the story. On the one hand, there is the well-known plot that turns on the presence of Harûn incognito; on the other hand, the ransom device that is intended to motivate the telling of the mendicants' stories. The two are incompatible, and the result is that neither of them really takes shape. Evidently, a simpler but much more satisfactory plot would emerge if the story were not encumbered by the mendicants. Its obvious, and traditional, outline would be the following:

  • (1) The porter introduced into the house of the three ladies; drinking and singing.
  • (2) Arrival of Harûn and his company, attracted by the noise; whipping of the bitches, fainting of the lady doorkeeper.
  • Either the guests leave without asking questions, or Harûn asks questions, but justifies himself by revealing his identity.

  • (3) The next day, the three sisters are brought before him, and tell:
    • a. the story of the Eldest Lady and the two bitches;
    • b the story of the Lady Doorkeeper and el-Amîn;
    • [c. the story of the Lady Housekeeper].
  • (4) Harûn arranges things for all three of them.

The stories of the ladies would be quite sufficient to justify the framework—evidently of the entertaining frame-type—presenting Harûn as an unknown visitor. With the mendicants' stories the abortive ransom frame disappears, together with the improbability it entails. In this hypothetical form, “The Three Ladies” would be strikingly similar to another Harûn story, “Nocturnal Adventures.” Here, too, we have a common entertaining frame for three stories of personal experience (one of them, again, an elaborate version of one of the sheiks' stories from “The Merchant and the Demon”). But seeing that “Nocturnal Adventures,” one of the orphan stories, probably owes its present structure to Galland66, it does not afford conclusive proof of the existence of this very pattern in the 1001 Nights.

The foregoing literary analysis raises a historical question: whether the mendicants' stories are a later addition. The fact that they are of no great artistic merit and dislocate the whole is not in itself a sufficient reason to consider them as such. It would be different if they were manifestly younger than the rest of the story; but that is not the case. They present many elements that point to old, presumably Persian, sources67, and may well belong to the Persian layer of the collection. Thus there are no chronological grounds to consider the mendicants episode as alien to the original of the story.

We are left, therefore, with two equally valid suppositions as to the origin of “The Three Ladies.” Either, the story was first created in the simple form tentatively outlined above; thereafter a narrator, wishing to extend and to enrich it, worked it over to fit in the mendicants' stories, failing, however, to bring off their ransom frame, because it clashed with the already existing pattern. Or, alternatively, it was the original creator of the story who made an ambitious effort to set up a sort of double frame, but, having attempted too much, did not quite succeed.—As to the Lady Housekeeper's story, perhaps it was never there; perhaps it was lost in transmission; or just possibly it may have been struck out, if and when the mendicants' stories were worked in by a second hand, for reasons we can only guess at: did it by any chance contain the incest motif now figuring, somewhat disconnectedly, in the “First Mendicant”'s story? Unless an Arabic text is found that can throw new light on these historical problems and alternatives, we must needs leave them as they are.

As we saw, “The Merchant and the Demon” undoubtedly influenced “The Three Ladies”: it furnished the tentative ransom frame of the mendicants' episode as well as the plot of the “Eldest Lady”'s story. Returning to our examination of the first five pieces of the collection we may now conclude that the first three, in any case, are connected in more than one respect. It seems a reasonable surmise that the early compilers realized this connexion, and that it determined the placing together of these stories in the order still extant. The old relic, “The Merchant and the Demon,” traditionally came first; then follows “The Fisherman and the Demon” as another demonstration of man's superiority, and then “The Three Ladies” as an elaborate offspring of the opening story.

This surmise gains in plausibility because it can be demonstrated that in the Egyptian period, the impact of the pattern set by the opening story was still felt, and continued to shape the beginning of the book. It determined the Egyptian narrator who prolonged “The Three Apples” by “Nûr Ed-Dîn and Shems Ed-Dîn,” to link up the two by means of the ransom device: Ja'far tells the story to Harûn in order that his guilty negro slave shall be spared, and Harûn consents, on condition that the story be more amazing than the case of the three apples. It must be said, however, that the device is out of place here just as it is in “The Three Ladies,” although to a lesser degree: it does not harm the whole, but it lacks motivation. The plot of “The Three Apples” does not ask for the slave's life to be spared: on the contrary, it would be more satisfactory to see him punished for the wanton harm he has done68. And why should Ja'far take such pains to save just one slave, among the many he had? The Egyptian narrator, wanting to place the delightful “Nûr Ed-Dîn” story, must have given it a ransom frame, deliberately, although not very judiciously, in order to follow the prevailing pattern of the preceding stories.

Lastly, there can be no doubt that this same awareness of the pattern provoked the crowning of the first batch with “The Hunchback,” which is a kind of virtuoso's performance among ransom frame-stories. The device is given here exactly the same turn as in the framing of “Nûr Ed-Dîn and Shems Ed-Dîn”: the king promises grace on condition that the stories told to him be more amazing than what he has just heard. The similarity is probably due to influence of the one on the other, but it is impossible to establish priority on chronological grounds69. Now in “The Hunchback,” at last, everything functions to perfection; if the story had been expressly contrived for the purpose of rounding off the “ransom frame series”, it could not have been more satisfactory. To complete the present survey, therefore, particular attention must be paid to this last and best example of the pattern in question.

“The Hunchback”70 derives its amazing pleasantness mainly from the expert framing, as the eleven stories fitted into it, though mostly good, are none of them outstanding. It almost seems as if the creator—or possibly, the narrator who achieved the present version—realized that he was working with somewhat commonplace and heterogeneous material, and, in order to make something new and surprising out of it, concentrated upon the framework. He certainly was familiar with the ransom device from the older stories to which his is a follow-up, and he well understood its possibilities and its requirements. He realized, as the man who added the sequel to “The Three Apples” did not, that the life or lives to be redeemed with stories must be those of innocent people; and also, as the creator or narrator of “The Three Ladies” did not, that the Jinni of the original form can be adequately replaced only by someone who wields absolute power: a king, and the more wilful and arbitrary a king, the better. And his is, too, the only story of the four where it remains captivatingly doubtful till the very end as to whether the ransom will be accepted or not.

The first episode, which sets up the frame for all that is to follow, exploits the well-known comic effects of repetition. A tailor and his wife invite an amusing little hunchback to supper; but unfortunately he chokes on a bite of fish, and dies. They quickly invent a pretext to carry him into the house of a Jewish doctor, who falls over the corpse on the stairs and thinks he killed it. So he puts the corpse in the yard of his neighbour, a steward, who in the dark mistakes it for a thief and deals it a heavy blow. Believing himself to be the killer, he hastily drags the corpse away and leaves it in a dark street, where a Christian broker, who is blind drunk, falls to fighting with it; caught beating the dead man, he is taken for a murderer, brought before the prefect of police, and sentenced to the gallows. The various misfortunes of the four men become more amusing every time they are repeated, unaccountably, as if the dead hunchback was accident-prone. The same applies to their reactions, each of them in his turn deciding to get rid of the corpse no matter how. When the last one in the chain, the Christian broker, is about to be hanged, the repetition is reversed: one after the other, the self-supposed hunchback-killers come forward, conscience-stricken, and confess, so that the hangman gets fed up with taking them off the rope in turn. This ludicrously repetitive pattern gives (as do similar devices on the stage) an odd impression of something mechanical and quite unlike real life, which fits in very well with the preposterousness of the whole affair.

At the end of the first episode, the frame is ready for the stories to begin. Brought before the king, who very much resents the death of the hunchback, his favourite jester, the four men are going to tell, each in his turn, the most memorable story they ever heard. It soon becomes clear, although it is not expressly stated at once, that by doing so they are going to fight for their lives; for the required ransom is not just any story, but a story still more amazing than the hunchback's posthumous adventures. And the king, unlike the Jinni of old, is not easily satisfied. After each of the first three stories—the Christian broker's, the Moslem steward's, and the Jewish doctor's—he declares: “This story is not more amazing than the story of the hunchback. And so you shall have to hang, all of you.” (I, 318, 330, 343). The judgment is fair enough: the three stories are indeed less surprising than what has just been told about the hunchback. But the inference is, again, preposterous; and here the effect of the repetition is sinister as well as comic, a kind of “humour noir”.

The first series of four stories is knit together by several analogies, among with the repetition of the mutilation motif is prominent. Each of the four men reports, not a personal experience, but an extraordinary adventure told by someone else71, some man he met in the course of his day's work or at a social function; and every time the account of this adventure serves to explain a bodily defect. Two of the stories' heroes had their right hands cut off, having been taken for thieves; one is deprived of his thumbs and great toes, to remind him of having offended a woman; and the last one is lame from an unfortunate accident. The motif might be due to a reminiscence of the three one-eyed mendicants from “The Three Ladies”; but in this homely form it appears less far-fetched and artificial than it does there. Another improvement is the fact that the mutilation is attributed to a third person, which puts the man who reports about it in the same position as the reader: intrigued at first, and subsequently pleased when his curiosity is satisfied by the mutilated man's account.

But, as we saw, after three of these stories the victims are still under the menace of death. So everything comes to depend on the fourth one, the Moslem tailor's; which is only right and proper, for the tailor was the initial cause of the whole chain of accidents. The king, with grim joviality, puts the responsibility plainly before him: “Why, there still is the tailor, who made this sad mess.And he added:Tailor, my little fellow, if you can tell something that is more amazing than the story of the hunchback, I'll forgive every man of you.” (I, 343). So the tailor comes forward and embarks upon what to all appearances is going to be the fourth mutilation story. But he knows well enough that merely another specimen like the foregoing will not save their necks: a special effort is called for. Therefore he presently makes it clear that the real hero of his story is not the lame young man from Baghdad, but a character that at first seemed only episodical: the barber. And as soon as the barber is in the limelight, the whole situation changes. For wherever stories are traded, the barber would spoil the market: he gives more than anyone ever bargained for.

The tailor has not set himself an easy task. First he gives the story told by the lame young man, who repeated for the benefit of his fellow-guests (among whom he found, to his dismay, the barber) the unbearable chatter by which the barber made him late for a rendezvous. Then he proceeds to tell how the barber tried to justify himself before the guests by relating an occasion where, brought before the caliph el-Mustansir-billâh72, he discreetly held his tongue—though just then it would have been simpler to speak up. But that is not all: in order to illustrate his superior wisdom and discretion, the barber forced upon the caliph the life-stories of his six brothers, which he now tells once more to the guests. (These brothers are all of them deformed or mutilated too: the motif of physical disgrace continues to run through the framed stories, incessantly reminding us of the hunchback whose death they are to atone for.) The tailor draws upon the astonishing verbal memory that reporting characters in the 1001 Nights occasionally display, and repeats all this before the king.

The effect of this wildly complicated, but at the same time perfectly clear pattern is, as it were, stratified: the reader enjoys the impact of the barber's torrent of talk on several planes of the story at once. First we have the caliph el-Mustansir-billâh, who for all his authority does not succeed in dismissing the barber, and must submit helplessly to hearing the stories of the man's six disgusting brothers till the very end. (Then he merely exiles him, a leniency that may be attributed as well to sheer fatigue as to a sense of humour.) Secondly, there are the guests at the banquet, who get all of it too, with the caliph's reactions added; and among them is the luckless young man from Baghdad, submitted once more to the word-flow of his former torturer, whom he wished never to see any more in his life. Thirdly there is the tailor, feverishly concentrating upon reproducing it all without skipping a word; for he hopes, thanks to the barber, to win the day by exhaustion tactics. Finally, the whole build-up ends with the “king of China”, who has, in a way, asked for it, and who now is nearly as helpless as el-Mustansir-billâh was. The difference is that he gets it all at second hand, from the tailor; but just because of that, the barber becomes almost a mythical figure, a sort of god of loquacity who speaks through the tailor's mouth and cannot be silenced. It gradually becomes hard to believe that he exists at all. But the cumulative epic that involves him and his six brothers and the caliph and the young man from Baghdad and the tailor, has the success it was calculated to have. When the tailor has rounded off his performance by reporting briefly how the guests put the barber under lock and key (indeed the only efficacious way of dealing with him) and how he himself, coming home from the banquet, ran into his misadventure with the hunchback, the king confesses defeat. When the king of China had heard the tailor's story, he shook his head in a pleased manner, manifested amazement, and said:This story about the young man and the garrulous barber is indeed better and funnier than the story of the hunchbacked fool.” (I, 403). And then, striving to get back his hold upon reality after such a debauch of words, he orders the barber to be brought before him, which is a wise and sober decision.

Thereupon begins the brief final episode of the story, which is as fine as what went before. At last, then, the barber is there in the flesh, and the Egyptian feeling for detail asserts itself in a description: he was a very old man of over ninety, with a dark complexion, white beard and eyebrows, small ears, a long nose, and a silly and conceited expression on his face. (I, 404). And now, as it is hardly possible to cumulate still more, the whole construction is swiftly and expertly broken up. When the king jokingly invites him to tell a story, the barber asks instead for the stories of those he sees present; for, he huffily says, he is a discreet man and not for nothing is he dubbed “the Silent”. So, it is briefly stated, they give him the story of the hunchback and all that has just been told by the broker, the steward, the doctor and the tailor, thus paying him back in his own coin73. Thereupon the barber, unruffled, and still extremely taciturn, examines the hunchback's corpse, pulls a fishbone out of his throat, and restores him to life.

It is extremely satisfying and right, not only that the tabor-playing little hunchback should still be alive, but that so much ado, such preposterous happenings and such heroic exploits with words should turn out to be, after all, about nothing. Because the hunchback was killed, there has been all this telling of stories, and stories within stories; but now that all the bags of words have been deflated and no one is talking any more, not even the barber, there is time at last to find out that nobody killed the hunchback at all. The pattern has been undone even to the basic knot; the story is finished indeed.

In the foregoing pages only one structural aspect of the 1001 Nights has been investigated: the presenting of the stories, either independent or placed within other stories. As we have seen, the book displays many samples of remarkable craftsmanship in this matter. There is a careful appropriateness in the oblique presentation of witness pieces and short stories, a deft touch in many of the insertions, while frame-story technique is carried to perfection: Sindbad's Voyages and the narrations of “The Hunchback” are like precious (or, in the latter case, semi-precious) stones of which the value is enhanced by a superb setting. Evidently the story-tellers—I use the word here in the widest sense—were not content with just telling something; they show a particular regard for the narrative performance in its own right, and so does the listening public evoked in many of the stories.

The contents of the 1001 Nights represent, by and large, a highly developed art of story-telling; the manner in which these contents are presented testifies to an intelligent feeling and liking for story-telling as a pastime. Yet, prose-fiction in Arabic never attained an acknowledged literary standing; while on the other hand its nobler competitors, epic poetry and drama, are conspicuously lacking. This state of affairs, within a literature so obviously endowed with narrative and descriptive gifts, puzzles the historian of literature and culture74. The “popular”75 art of story-telling, though, doubtless profited greatly by its modest condition; it remained untrammelled by formalizing conventions, such as for centuries continued to govern the Kasîda. Its direct and easy way of being, combining effective artistry with freedom from period-bound literary rules, largely accounts for its lasting appeal to readers of any time and civilisation.


  1. Some of these aspects are treated incidentally in other chapters [of this book], apropos of the stories examined: story patterns, Chap. IV, Part I, pp. 154-8, Part III, pp. 253-7, Chap. VI, pp. 437-8: a curious denouement device, Chap. VI, pp. 447-9; tripartition, Chap. IV, Part II, pp. 184-90, Part IV, pp. 285-95; types of Harûn stories, Chap. VI. [Chapter and page references throughout this essay are to The Art of Story-Telling.]

  2. For the matters touched upon in this paragraph, an extremely clear summary is that of Mac Guckin de Slane in the Introduction to his translation of Ibn Khallikân's invaluable Biographical Dictionary, I, pp. XVII-XXXV.

  3. For a recent aperçu, see Weisweiler, Arabesken, introduction, pp. 1-2.

  4. In exploring, as far as I could, the literature of the Arabic Middle Ages, this has struck me as one of its most remarkable characteristics. It has not escaped me that G. von Grunebaum 1956, pp. 275-287, records and illustrates an almost opposite impression. The reason of the divergence seems to lie in the different points of comparison: Von Grunebaum's, Greek literature, and mine, medieval European.

  5. Thus for Jaudar (140), Wardân (60), also Abu Kîr (169).

  6. See for instance Paret, Liebesgeschichten.

  7. Not in Ibn Khallikân; not in E.I..

  8. See Chap. VI, p. 463.

  9. See Chap. VI, pp. 454-6.

  10. See Chap. VI, pp. 456-60.

  11. Mas'udi [Abul Hasan Ali Ibn Husain Ibn Ali Al-Masu'di, 10th century chronicler and author of Muruj adh-Dhahab (Meadows of Gold)], Golden Meadows, transl. cit., VI, p. 333; Ibn Khallikân, transl. cit., I, p. 310.

  12. The only notable exception is the seven Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor, which he naturally relates himself, within the surrounding framework that presents him and his listener in the third person.

  13. See Chap. IV, Part I, p. 125.

  14. Above [in this book], p. 381.

  15. For the subtle use of oblique presentation in the tale of “The Nile-Ferryman and the Saint,” see Chap. IV, Part V, pp. 371-2.

  16. Which is a story-teller's anachronism, since this famous Udhrite poet (see Ibn Khallikân, transl. cit., I, pp. 331-337) died in 701.

  17. See Chap. IV, Part I, p. 126.

  18. See Chap. IV, Part I, pp. 132-3.

  19. See Chap. IV, Part V, pp. 345-6.

  20. It is well known that medieval Moslem scholars possessed prodigious memories; they thought nothing of learning whole books by heart. But the extraordinary thing here is the memorizing and reproducing of something only once heard: cf. the story about the stingy king, in Lane 1, p. 107.

  21. See Chap. IV, Part I, pp. 147, 158-65.

  22. Littmann VI, pp. 680, 684. Cf., notably, the Pantshatantra and the Parrot Book.

  23. I follow the Calcutta II version in Littmann's translation. Galland, as also Calcutta I and Breslau, has a, better, parrot tale (duplicated in 139b) instead of the king's falcon tale, and in Bulak the sage is called Ruyân, not Dubân; for the rest, they are similar to each other and to Calcutta II.

  24. The same turn in Lane's Bulak translation. It would seem that Calcutta II slipped up here.

  25. Lane gives it from another source, 1, pp. 114-115 note; it is, as might be expected, a fable of the type Ungrateful serpent (S. Thompson, Types, no. 155).

  26. See Chap. I, p. 30; also Chap. IV, Part V, pp. 352-3.

  27. See Chap. IV, Part IV, pp. 293-4.

  28. Paret 1927.

  29. On Bedouin robbers in “Omar Ibn En-Nu'mân,” see also Chap. IV, Part II, p. 176.

  30. The link-up of “Azîz and Azîza” with “Tâj El-Mulûk” has been discussed Chap. IV, Part I, pp. 134-5.

  31. See Chap. VI, pp. 444-5.

  32. See Chap. II, p. 49, and Chap. IV, Part I, pp. 154-5.

  33. The following pages were published, in French translation and somewhat less developed, in Arabica 8 = 1961, pp. 137-157.

  34. See Chap. IV, Part III, pp. 253-63.

  35. Horovitz 1903.

  36. Lane 3, p. 343; he therefore put the framing story in a note.

  37. There seems little doubt that the time-gaining frame, like other framing and inserting devices, is an Indian invention. It is displayed to advantage in the Parrot Book, which we possess i.a. in a 14th-century Persian adaptation; the original Sanskrit text, “Seventy tales of a Parrot”, of which a mention occurs in the 12th century, but which may have been considerably older, is lost. See, however, also for the Shehrezâd story, Perry 1960 on the “Seven Vizirs.”

  38. On this point, see notably Cosquin 1922. There is much to be said for the view, held by several scholars, that the version found in the 101 Nights is rather firmer and more coherent.

  39. As Dyroff 1908, p. 280, so well puts it: “… kein bedeutender Künstler; er benützt unbedenklich fremde Lappen und stückt ohne besonderen eigenen Aufwand ein neues Gebilde daraus zusammen; aber wir müssen doch anerkennen, dass er mit Energie auf sein Ziel lossteuert.”

  40. Except in the “translation” of Mardrus, who made up little comic dialogues between the king and Shehrezâd.

  41. After no. 12; also before 9 and after 11, 14, 16, 17 and 19.

  42. In one single instance, Shehrezâd is made to point out the moral of a tale she has just told, “The Just King Anusharwân”; see Chap. IV, Part V, pp. 360-1.

  43. Boccaccio and Chaucer, and in some measure also Marguerite de Navarre, made expert use of the possibilities of this pattern. The Persian poet Nizami (12th century), in The Seven Princesses, connects the seven narrations with each other and with the framework by a subtle use of symbols and moral implications; the result is enchanting, but from a story-telling point of view almost over-refined.

  44. An attempt to trace the developing of a long moral lesson throughout the whole of the ‘1001 Nights’ has been made by A. Gelber 1917, but his constructions are the opposite of convincing. The same applies to M. Lahy-Hollebecque 1927, who bases his demonstration on Mardrus.

  45. The “Janshâh” story, forcibly inserted in “Bulûkiya,” is doubtless a random addition; the narrator did not even trouble to put it in the first person.

  46. There is some information on the framed stories, especially “Bulûkiya”: see Chap. IV, Part IV, p. 282 and note 2; on the framework, I have found none at all.

  47. Studies about the Book of Sindbad in its numerous versions—Persian, Arabic, Syriac, Hebrew, Greek, Latin, Romance languages—are countless; I include only a few specimens in my Bibliography. The version that came to be incorporated, apparently at a late date, in the ‘1001 Nights’, derives from an Arabic prose version which was adapted from the Persian, probably in the 8th century, and gave rise to many imitations, among which seems to count Jali'âd and Wird Khân. It has long been unanimously supposed that the Persian version, in its turn, was adapted from an Indian original, of which, however, no trace has ever been found. Perry 1960, clearly dissatisfied with the old “India theory” as a whole, defends fresh views: Persian origin, possibly a 2nd-century Greek prototype, Jali'âd and Wird Khân the model (also Persian) rather than an imitation.

  48. [Th.] Nöldeke 1879, pp. 522-523, aptly established that originally, the vizirs' stories formed two parallel series, the first one devoted to the theme of rashness and the second one to that of women's malice. This arrangement, which can never have been very efficacious, to judge by what is still left of it, has got broken up and obfuscated in the ‘1001 Nights’-version, especially towards the end.

  49. See Chap. IV, Part I, pp. 122-3.

  50. On the framed stories of “The Merchant and the Demon,” see Chap. IV, Part IV, pp. 307-10. I follow the Calcutta II version in Littmann's translation, for reasons explained there.

  51. Macdonald 1924, pp. 372-379.

  52. This is quite possible, and all the more probable as there is still another, similar anecdote extant to explain the word: Dyroff 1908, pp. 253-254.

  53. Macdonald 1924, p. 376.

  54. On Jinn, see especially the fine article of Macdonald 1919.

  55. On this point, see also Chap. IV, Part IV, p. 288.

  56. Koran, Sura 72; transl. Arberry, II, pp. 305-307.

  57. The ransom device is merely hinted at in introducing one of the little inserted stories in “Omar Ibn En-Nu'mân”: see above, p. 393.

  58. Oestrup 1925, p. 48. The same remark already in Dyroff 1908, pp. 263-264, with some, mostly excellent, comment.

  59. See above, pp. 389-91.

  60. Notably, the intriguing motif of the fishes who recite verse in the frying-pan when an apparition comes out of the wall, remains, in what follows, completely blind.

  61. In the Indian Vetālā stories (written down by Somadeva in the 11th century) the pattern appears reversed: the demon tells casus-stories, and the king has to furnish answers to save his life, although by speaking he frustrates his enterprise.

  62. I keep to Calcutta II in Littmann's translation. Galland has the same version, minus the bath scene (see Chap. III, p. 72) and plus proper names for the three ladies—Zobéide, Safie and Amine—which are perhaps of his own invention; the mendicants are blind in the right eye, not in the left.—Lane emended the Bulak text by some judicious corrections and additions; notably he completed the “Third Mendicant”'s story, of which Bulak gives only the beginning, with the aid of Calcutta I. As a result, his translation runs parallel to Littmann's.

  63. See above, p. 391.

  64. See W. H. Roscher 1909, and W. F. Kirby 1887.

  65. See Chap. IV, Part IV, pp. 310-12.

  66. See Chap. VI, pp. 431-2.

  67. Littmann VI, p. 703, points out ancient Egyptian, Persian, and Indian traits; the latter part of the “Third Mendicant's” story is a duplicate of “The Man Who Never Laughed Any More,” from the “Seven Vizirs,” and used also by Nizami.

  68. See Chap. IV, Part II, p. 170. Burton 1, p. 19, remarks: “it is supposed that slaves cannot help telling these fatal lies. Moreover it is held unworthy of a freeborn man to take over-notice of these servile villanies; hence the scoundrel in the story escapes unpunished.”

  69. Since both stories originated approximately in the same period. On the date of “Nûr Ed-Dîn and Shems Ed-Dîn,” see Chap. IV, Part IV, p. 295, note 1; on that of “The Hunchback,” below, note 70.

  70. Calcutta II, Bulak and Galland have the same version; I keep to Littmann's translation.—On the story's date, see particularly Macdonald 1924, pp. 383-390: he puts the composition of the present version in the 14th century.—On the hunchback episode, Suchier 1922; cf. also S. Thompson, Types, no. 1537.—On the framed stories, I have collected the following data. De Goeje 1886 shows that the story of the “Steward” occurs in a chronicle of Ibn el-Jauzi (d. 1200), and that the ‘1001 Nights’-version is rather garbled and overelaborate, in comparison with the anecdote as given there; cf. also Amedroz 1904. Burton 1, p. 317, notes, after Lane 2, p. 452, that the “Barber's Story of Himself” goes back to a historical anecdote related by Ibn Abd Rabbihi of Córdoba (d. 940); and also, for that matter, by Mas'udi, Golden Meadows, transl. cit., VII, pp. 12-16. The trick played in the “Barber's Second Brother” also occurs in Ibn Abd Rabbihi: see Weisweiler, Arabesken, no. 74. “The Barber's Fifth Brother” uses, in its first part, the old “Air-castles” motif (S. Thompson, Motif-Index, nos. J 2060 and 2061), occurring also in 168b, while the second part recalls a “Baibars” story (157h).

  71. On this point, see above, pp. 387-8.

  72. Who reigned 1226-1242; Bulak gives el-Muntasir-billâh, who reigned 861. Both names create chronological difficulties, which have been commented upon by Lane and others. It need hardly be pointed out that the matter is not really relevant: the story cheerfully mixes a history, and a geography, of its own.

  73. Thus in Calcutta II and Bulak; in Galland, they tell him merely what befell the hunchback.

  74. See for instance G. von Grunebaum 1956, pp. 287 ff.

  75. In the sense as defined earlier, Chap. II, pp. 42-3.

Works Cited

Section I: On the 1001 Nights

A. Translations

[A.] Galland, Les Mille et Une Nuit, contes arabes; trad. en françois; nouv. éd. corrigée. Paris, 1726, 12 livres en 6 vols.

[A.] Galland, Les Mille et Une Nuits, contes arabes; nouv. éd. revue et préfacée par G. Picard. Paris, 1955, 3 vols. (Classiques Garnier.) Quotations are from this edition.

E. W. Lane, The Thousand and One Nights, commonly called, in England, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments; a new transl. from the Arabic, with copious notes; new ed. […] by E. Stanley Poole. London, 1877, 3 vols. Quotations are from this edition, which reproduces the standard ed. of 1859.

R. F. Burton, A plain and literal translation of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, now entituled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night; with intr., explanatory notes […] and a Terminal Essay […]. Benares [= Stoke Newington], 1885, 10 vols. Quotations are from this edition.

E. Littmann, Die Erzählungen aus den Tausendundein Nächten; zum ersten Mal nach dem arabischen Urtext der Calcuttaer Ausgabe aus dem Jahre 1839 übertragen; [2. Neudruck]. Wiesbaden, Insel-Verlag, 1954, 6 vols. Quotations are from this edition.

B. Studies

a. On the collection as a whole

M. J. de Goeje, De Arabische Nachtvertellingen. In: De Gids, 50 = 1886, pp. 385-413.

W. F. Kirby, The forbidden doors of the 1001 Nights. In: Folklore Journal, 5 = 1887, pp. 112-124.

K. Dyroff, Zur Entstehung und Geschichte des arabischen Buches 1001 Nacht. In: F. P. Greve, Die Erzählungen aus den 1001 Nächten; vollst. Deutsche Ausg. auf Grund der Burton'schen Engl. Ausg.; Bd. 12, pp. 229-307. Leipzig, 1908.

D. B. Macdonald, From the Arabian Nights to Spirit. In: The Moslem World, 9 = 1919, pp. 336-348.

D. B. Macdonald, The earlier history of the Arabian Nights. In: J.R.A.S. [Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society], 1924, pp. 353-397.

J. Oestrup, Studien über 1001 Nacht; aus dem Dänischen (nebst einigen Zusätzen) übers. von O. Rescher. Stuttgart, 1925.

W. H. Roscher, Die Zahl 40 im Glauben, Brauch und Schrifttum der Semiten; ein Beitrag zur vergleichenden Religionswissenschaft, Volkskunde und Zahlenmystik. B.G. Teubner. Leipzig,, 1909

b. On individual stories


W. Suchier, Der Schwank von der viermal getöteten Leiche in der Literatur des Abend- und Morgenlandes. Halle (Saale), 1922.

Saif el-Mulûk

J. Horovitz, Saif al-Mulûk. In: Mittheilungen des Seminars für Or. Sprachen zu Berlin, 6 = 1903, 2. Abt., pp. 52-56.

Seven Vizirs

Th. Nöldeke, Sindban oder die sieben weisen Meister. […]. In: Z.D.M.G. [Zeitschrift der deutschen morgenländischen Gesellschaft], 33 = 1879, pp. 515-536.

B. E. Perry, The origin of the Book of Sindbad. In: Fabula, 3 = 1960, pp. 1-94.

Shehrezâd story

E. Cosquin, Le prologue-cadre des 1001 Nuits. In his Etudes folkloriques; pp. 265-347. Paris, 1922.

G. E. von Grunebaum, Medieval Islam; a study in cultural orientation; 3d impr.. Chicago, 1956.

Section II: General documentation

B. Literary study; on story-telling.

S. Thompson, The types of the folk-tale; a classification and bibliography. Helsinki, 1928. (Folklore Fellows Comm., 74.) Quoted as: S. Thompson, Types.

S. Thompson, Motif-index of folk-literature; rev. and enl. ed.. Copenhagen, 1955-'58, 6 vols. Quoted as: S. Thompson, Motif-index.

C. “Märchendeutung”

A. Gelber, 1001 Nacht; der Sinn der Erzählungen der Scheherezade. Wien/Leipzig, 1917.

M. Lahy-Hollebecque, Le féminisme de Schéhérazade; la révélation des 1001 Nuits. Paris, 1927.

Section III: Background reading

A. Collections of stories, story-books, etc.

a. Oriental

M. Weisweiler, Arabesken der Liebe; früharabische Geschichten von Liebe und Frauen, ges. und übers. Leiden, 1954.

R. Paret, Früharabische Liebesgeschichten. Bern, 1927.

B. History, geography and miscellanea

a. Arabic

The Koran; interpreted [= transl.] by A. J. Arberry. London, 1955, 2 vols.

Ibn Khallikân, Biographical Dictionary; transl. from the Arabic by BnMac Guckin de Slane. Paris, 1842-'71, 4 vols.

Principal Works

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Alf Layla wa-Layla [A Thousand and One Nights] (short stories) c. 9th century-10th century

The Thousand and One Nights, Commonly Called, in England, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments (translated by Edward William Lane) 1831-41

The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (translated by John Payne) 1882-84

The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments (translated by Richard F. Burton) 1885

The Arabian Nights Entertainments (selected and edited by Andrew Lang) 1898

The 1001 Nights (Alf Layla wa-Layla) from the Earliest Known Sources (edited by Muhsin Mahdi) 1984

The Arabian Nights (edited by Hussain Haddawy) 1990

C. Knipp (essay date 1974)

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SOURCE: Knipp, C. “The The Arabian Nights in England: Galland's Translation and Its Successors.” Journal of Arabic Literature 5 (1974): 44-54.

[In the following essay, Knipp offers a reevaluation of Antoine Galland's early-eighteenth-century translation of The Arabian Nights, arguing that despite its limitations, the work should be regarded as the preeminent translation, a creative work, and a version that is as faithful to the original source as could have been rendered.]

The story of the translations of the Arabian Nights is a colorful and even lurid one. In this story's English segment, very close to center stage, gesticulating wildly, is Sir Richard Burton—explorer, adventurer, polemicist, orientalist, scribbler, and enemy of Victorian morality. We might as well begin with him, since the curtain will not go down anyway until he has done his turn. Here is how Burton, already waving both sock and buskin, begins the Foreword of his edition of the Arabian Nights: “This work,” he says,

laborious as it may appear, has been to me a labour of love, an unfailing source of solace and satisfaction. During my long years of official banishment to the luxuriant and deadly deserts of Western Africa, and to the dull and dreary half-clearings of South America, it proved itself a charm, a talisman against ennui and despondency. Impossible even to open the pages without a vision starting into view; without drawing a picture from the pinacothek of the brain; without reviving a host of memories and reminiscences which are not the common property of travellers, however widely they may have travelled. From my dull and commonplace and “respectable” surroundings, the Jinn bore me at once to the land of my predilection, Arabia, a region so familiar to my mind that even at first sight, it seemed a reminiscence of some by-gone metempsychic life in the distant Past. Again I stood under the diaphanous skies, in air glorious as aether, whose every breath raises men's spirits like sparkling wine. Once more I saw the evening star hanging like a solitaire from the pure front of the western firmament; and the after-glow transfiguring and transforming, as by magic, the homely and rugged features of the scene into a fairy-land lit with a light that never shines on other soils or seas …1

And so on, and so on: Burton continues in this vein for some time, becoming purpler and purpler, rising to the bathetic pinnacle of the English pseudo-oriental style.

And English and pseudo-oriental it certainly is, for Burton was laying the groundwork of a deception. The “long years of official banishment”, as he self-pityingly calls them, spent in such “dull and commonplace and ‘respectable’ surroundings” as South America and the deserts of West Africa, were never spent laboring on a translation of the Arabian Nights. Burton did not work on this text for twenty-five years, as his mendacious dedication to Steinhauser implies, and he did not graciously hold back its publication for four years merely to give John Payne “precedence and possession of the field”, as his Foreword rather disingenuously asserts. He waited in order to crib. He based his translation, which is therefore hardly a translation at all, on John Payne's version (1882-84);2 he did it in only two years, toward the end copying Payne verbatim for whole pages at a stretch; he did it to make money, and he sold it as he had planned in advance to the 1,500 subscribers left over from Payne's limited edition of 500.

This story was told by Thomas Wright in 1906 and 1919 and repeated by the two eminent authorities on the Alf Layla, Duncan B. Macdonald (1929; 1938) and Enno Littmann (1956).3 But Burton's most recent biographers, as Mia Gerhardt points out,4 have not been aware of the extent of Burton's debt to Payne.5 Burton did his publicizing well, and its boom drowns out the quiet voice of scholarship. As Jorge Luis Borges (himself characteristically unaware of Payne) has written, the romantic legend of Burton the explorer gives him a prestige that no other English Arabist can compete with. He was a far more colorful figure than Payne. The Burton legend gives his version the attraction of the forbidden, an attraction on which the fame of Burton's Arabian Nights still rests.6 The result is another confusion: just as westerners mistakenly consider the Arabian Nights a “classic” of Arabic literature, whereas it is obscure to, and largely despised by, the Arabs themselves, so English readers for the most part erroneously think that Sir Richard Burton is the pre-eminent translator of the Arabian Nights, whereas the chief distinction his version can claim is to be the most recent lengthy one in English, and, despite its undeniable interest as an element in the Burton legend, the most nearly unreadable one in our language. Burton's edition is certainly fascinating as a personal document; but a translation that is to this extent a personal document is at cross-purposes with itself. The famous sexological Terminal Essay (the title itself borrowed from Payne) is an interesting piece of Victorian pornography; I myself doubted the authenticity of the strange and supposedly first-hand observations of eastern sexual practices when I first read them some ten years ago, and subsequent studies strengthen the suspicion that many of them are Burton's own fantasies and extrapolations. This feeling is shared by Mia Gerhardt,7 whose excellent chapter on the major European versions, wider in scope than this paper, should be read by anyone who wants an informed, thorough, and critical discussion of the subject.

The East as seen by westerners has always contained a strong element of legend. Burton deserves credit for recognizing this fact and capitalizing upon it to increase English sympathies toward the Islamic world, and thus help to change ignorance and suspicion to curiosity and sympathetic interest. In this cause, Sir Richard performed an invaluable service. But it must be admitted that his methods were not highly scrupulous. Just as many minor and half-forgotten works have a secondary, parasitical kind of existence, so Burton's famous translation depends for its existence on the much-neglected John Payne. It was Payne, not Burton, who gave the English-speaking world its first lengthy and unbowdlerized version of the Arabian Nights translated directly from the original; and yet this parasite has survived to engulf its host.8

So, too, have the subsequent versions engulfed Antoine Galland's original one. The scene has greatly expanded since 1703-1713, when Galland's twelve handy duodecimo volumes first appeared and were brought across the Channel, where they were immediately both read in French and translated into English by a “Grub-street” unknown.9 In England and America, there are two basic kinds of Arabian Nights to contend with in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: the children's, which exists in many forms, always short and always derivative, though sometimes very different from the base translation; and the adults', usually long and heavily annotated, putatively scholarly, and “unexpurgated”—though the latter claim is mainly post-Victorian advertising and perhaps designed to counteract the tedium produced by the repetitious length. There is not so much to “expurgate” unless one possesses the Victorians' inexhaustible ability to create prurience where there is none; there is merely more repetitious length than any children and most adults have time for—so that it is now the children's versions that chiefly matter to our culture. Galland, from the beginning, was both: suitable for young listeners, worthy of adult readers. The division and diffusion of interest and scope came later.

My purpose now is to re-evaluate Galland's translation of the Arabic Alf Layla wa-Layla and present it in just relation to other versions available in English since. So many pretentious new translations, so many popular editions, so many children's condensations have come along since Galland, that even students of Arabic literature find the scene confusing. Translators, though not all by any means as unscrupulous as Sir Richard Burton, must be good publicists: to sell their version, they are obliged to provide a strong hint for the critic by including a preface debunking or undercutting the work of their predecessors. The inevitable result is that though still nodded to respectfully by all—he is, by now, at a safe distance—Galland has lost his place of pre-eminence. He deserves to have it back.

To begin with, we need to be told (or reminded) that any acquaintance with the Arabian Nights, whether limited or extensive, is due to Galland. The book was discovered by him in a larger sense than is generally known. Arabists perhaps need not be told, but western readers at large are almost wholly unaware, that Galland discovered the Arabian Nights for the literate Arab of today, and for us, as well as for the eighteenth-century European readers who first encountered his Mille et une Nuit. Only recently, with Suhayr al-Qalamāwī's book-length study in Arabic (1966), has there been solid evidence that the medieval collection of tales is beginning to be taken seriously in the Arab World as well as in the West.10 As Suhayr al-Qalamāwī makes clear, it is the Alf Layla's familiarity in the West that has led to this belated interest on the part of Arab scholars and men of letters such as Taha Husayn.11 Thus the obscurity and humble status of the work are such, that if Galland had not come upon the story manuscripts he acquired and translated, the Arabian Nights not only might never have become well known to westerners, but also would remain despised, little known, and unread in the Arab countries. Galland's moment was special. The European public was eager for just the sort of stories he supplied in just the form in which he was able to supply them. There is no certainty that translated oriental tales would have caught on, and hence ultimately become the “classic” they are now said to be, had they made their first appearance at some time and place other than France in the early eighteenth century. Burton would certainly never have discovered them; and no fame would have echoed back from the West to the point of origin. For all of us, then, for orientalists and common readers, for easterners and westerners alike, Galland is the discoverer and source of the Arabian Nights.

All this might be true, of course, and yet Galland's translation might remain dated and inadequate. In fact this is not the case: Burton's is far more dated, and the question of what is “adequate” is a complicated one with many special but no universal answers. Naturally Galland was “handicapped” by the lack of all the paraphernalia of modern scholarship, and by the lack of all that specialized knowledge of the Alf Layla wa-Layla which he could not have, because his pioneering work alone was to lead to its acquisition. But Galland's knowledge was the most advanced possible in his time, and it enabled him to produce that rare thing among scholars, an entertaining, readable, gracefully written book which at the same time only a man of very special learning could have done.

No; speaking as one who has compared various Arabic texts of the Arabian Nights with as many English and European versions as were available to me, and speaking also as one who, though biased a little in favor of the literature of the eighteenth century, at least has no new translation to sell, I am compelled to say that I prefer Galland's French, and the Grub-street Englishing of Galland, to any other version and even to the original, which, in its more authentic written forms—after all, it is essentially an oral work—is poor and uninteresting Arabic. In its chief printed manuscript versions,12 as distinguished from the bowdlerized and grammatically “corrected” modern Arabic editions, the Arabic Alf Layla wa-Layla is a bastardized mixture of literary language and colloquial dialect which in the context of Arabic literature as a whole must seem ungraceful.

Mia Gerhardt rather begs the question in her interesting book on the Arabian Nights when she argues that her ignorance of Arabic need not hamper her from judging the translations reliably, because in the case of stories the precise wording is not important.13 Words do matter. “Style” is not easily separated from “content.” Each translation ought to be judged finally on its own merits as a collection of stories, but can be judged as a translation only by comparison with the principal manuscripts. Ideally a translation will pass both tests, and it competes successfully with all other translations of the work only if it does. The question of the special requirements of particular readers apart, Galland is most successful in achieving the delicate compromises translation requires. His free-flowing version captures the simplicity of the original, but the genius of the French language allowed him to do this without being (as the Arabic tales are) inelegant.

I have said that Burton's translation is “far more dated” than Galland's, and that Burton's only real distinctions are that his version of John Payne's version of the Nights is the lengthiest and the most unreadable. Perhaps the most telling remark on this subject is that of the distinguished Italian Arabist and the editor of the Italian Arabian Nights translation, Francesco Gabrieli, to the effect that to understand Burton's translation he often has to refer to the Arabic text:14 this is very nearly true even for a native English speaker. The other “adult” versions of the Nights in English suffer from similar stylistic defects, which have been best described by the late A. J. Arberry in the Introduction to his Scheherezade (a pleasant, but fragmentary and, like some of its predecessors, subtly prudish entry into the field of Alf Layla translation). “Earlier translators of the Arabian Nights”, Arberry remarks, referring to his own countrymen,

have almost without exception been so mesmerized by the stylistic peculiarities of Arabic that they have not hesitated to imitate them slavishly in their versions, a thing they would probably have scorned to do, and been soundly schooled to avoid, were their task Homer or Herodotus or Horace or Livy. Not content with inventing a strange Eurasian sort of English, that was the more readily accepted because it seemed profanely to echo the Old Testament in the Authorized Version—and for a good reason, the Semitic original of those Scriptures—they went farther than they needed to have done and, being caught up in the eddies of the Gothic Revival, imported into their diction all the bogus flummery of Ye Olde Englysshe.15

As Arberry says later on in his discussion, the Arabic of the Alf Layla wa-Layla is “colloquial or half-colloquial”, is consequently close to the conversational in its flavor, and in fact “differs surprisingly little from the Arabic of conversation today”.16 In substance surely Arberry is speaking with wisdom here. Certain Arabic works, the Maqāmāt for example, could perhaps best be translated into some kind of Kunstprose; but the simplicity and naturalness of the Alf Layla unmistakably call for more direct language. Yet the “adult” English versions of the Arabian Nights are not at all conversational or contemporary. Lane's is overly literal: instead of finding equivalents of idioms, we get things like “he almost flew with delight” … ; but Lane's biblical style is not the mere result of this literalness: a phrase like “rejoiced with exceeding joy” is not merely “literal”, but reflects its author's conscious efforts to echo biblical style. Lane's translation is further marred by excessive prudery and is incomplete. For the seeker of an “adult” Arabian Nights, it is of no use; contrarily, Lane has been frequently used as the basis of modern “children's” versions. Payne's translation suffers from a greater degree of overwroughtness (a pity, since his is the only complete and genuine translation from Arabic into English): he adds archaic verb and pronoun forms, a more recherché vocabulary than Lane's, and a more involuted sentence structure. To Payne's style, which Burton had found not “plain”—that is, vulgar—enough, the latter adds stronger words (“rascal” becoming “pimp”, “impudent woman” “strumpet”, “vile woman” “whore”, and so on); odd hyphenated words, often of his own coinage and occasionally barbarous; still more archaisms, usually with an added pseudo-Elizabethan flavor; and still greater misplaced faithfulness to “literal” meaning. “Literal” seems to be one of those words—like “reality”—which should rarely be used without quotation marks; it is obvious that one man's “literalness” is another's grotesque and artificial clumsiness. The pseudo-medieval approach to the Arabian Nights, culminating in Burton's cribbed and crabbed Elizabethan-Gothic style, is seriously inappropriate, since the language of the original is as simple as it could be, and Arabic has changed relatively much less than English since the Middle Ages; it is probably best, at any rate, for a translator to stay close to the idiom he is most familiar with and therefore most able to handle with ease—the idiom of his own time and country. Arberry's clear, lively, accurate translations of Arabic prose (his sparkling version of the Tawq al-Hamama of Ibn Hazm is an outstanding example) show that, in most respects at least, he was a man for the job; it is a pity that the lengthier project he evidently had in mind17 was never continued beyond the “Aladdin” and “Judar” stories published in 1960.

Although he meant his bowdlerized selection of the Nights for a general audience, Lane made the accompanying notes so lengthy and elaborate that his nephew (and champion against the inroads of Payne and Burton) was later able to publish them as a separate volume complete unto itself.18 As Mia Gerhardt concludes,19 this imbalance suggests a certain confusion in the overall planning of the project; and the failure to meet more than some of the demands of such a project is characteristic of English translations of the Arabian Nights. The producers of the many English and American children's editions have chiefly, perforce, used Scott (1811) or Lane as their basis. Since Scott's edition is a translation of Galland (with a few dubious additions at the end),20 and since the children's editions far outnumber the adults', and Lane's version did not come along until the 1880's, it is still true that the Grub-street Galland, or some abridged, amended version of it, is the form in which most English-speaking readers have been encountering the Arabian Nights over the past two hundred and fifty years. Macdonald (1932) was not able to identify the author of the original English translation, whose exact date of first publication (no complete set being extant)21 is unknown (1706? 1708?), but certainly close to that of the French. Retranslators of Galland (e.g., Frederick Gilbert: London, 1868), predictably enough, have remarked on the Grub-street version's “errors” and “inelegancies”. In fact, as befits a piece of hack work far less pretentious than Burton's, the Grub-street Galland departs little from its source; one finds few actual cuts or alterations. The following example is illustrative:

Galland's French Grub-street version
Il s'entretint avec cet ambassadeur [He] discoursed with that ambassador
jusqu'à minuit. Alors, voulant encore till midnight. But willing once more
une fois embrasser la reine, to embrace the queen,
qu'il aimoit beaucoup, whom he loved entirely,
il retourna seul à son palais. he returned alone to his palace, and
Il alla droit à l'appartement went straight to her majesty's
de cette Princesse, apartment;
qui ne s'attendant pas à le revoir, who not expecting his return,
avoit reçu dans son lit un des had taken one of the meanest officers
derniers Officiers de sa Maison. of the household to her bed,
Il y avoit déjà long temps qu'ils where they both lay fast asleep,
étoient couchez, & ils dormoient having been there a considerable time.22
tous deux d'un profond sommeil.

One notes the carelessly awkward “who”, and the alteration of the pace and flow of Galland's last sentence (“Il y avoit déjà long temps”), with the suspenseful story-teller's pause it creates, to the flat dependent clause (“where they both lay”) with a prosaic ending (“a considerable time”) in disappointing contrast to the fairy-tale magic effect of “ils dormoient tous deux d'un profond sommeil”. But if one agrees to admire Galland's translation, a few small betrayals are preferable to total abandonment.

Using slightly different Arabic texts, here is how Mardrus (1899-1904) and Khawan (1965-67) in French, and Lane, Payne, and Burton in English, have rendered the passage; and following these I give … my translation of that text:


Mais, vers le milieu de la nuit, il se rappela une chose oubliée au palais, et revint et entra dans le palais. Et il trouva son épouse étendue sur sa couche et accolée par un esclave noir d'entre les e sclaves. À cette vue, le monde noirçit sur son visage.

(I, 4-1918)


Lorsqu'il pénétra dans la chambre de celle-ci, il la trouva endormie à côté de l'un des adolescents préposés au service des cuisines. Ils dormaient enlacés l'un à l'autre.

(I, 32)


At midnight, however, he remembered that he had left in his palace an article which he should have brought with him; and having returned to the palace to fetch it, he there beheld his wife sleeping in his bed, and attended by a male negro slave, who had fallen asleep by her side. On beholding this scene, the world became black before his eyes …


In the middle of the night, it chanced that he bethought him of somewhat he had forgotten in his palace; so he returned thither privily and entered his apartments, where he found his wife asleep in his own bed, in the arms of one of his black slaves. When he saw this, the world grew black in his sight …


But when the night was half spent he bethought him that he had forgotten in his palace somewhat which he should have brought with him, so he returned privily and entered his apartments, where he found the Queen, his wife, asleep on his own carpet-bed, embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime. When he saw this the world waxed black before his sight …

Calcutta II:

… When it was the middle of the night he remembered something he had forgotten in his castle, so he went back, entered his castle, and found his wife lying in his bed embracing one of the black slaves. When he saw this he became enraged.

Of course the unadorned (and unpunctuated) Arabic narrative requires a little padding to give it a more natural flow in English or French. … More subordination is natural in French or English: hence Lane's “having returned … he then beheld”. But one remains unconvinced of the need for Lane's bowdlerization (the slave attending instead of embracing) or for Burton's (typical) exaggeration of the loathsomeness of the black slave—who certainly moves around freely on the social (and professional) scale as one goes from one translation to another.

In the larger context such comparisons as these provide, we can see Galland's virtues and limitations fairly clearly. One of course notices the seventeenth-century Frenchman's decorum, the restraint and poise of his tone, and comparing that with the grotesqueries of Payne-Burton or even the relatively simple style but still heavy movement of Lane, at first one is inclined to feel that Galland may have watered down his source. After consulting the Arabic texts, however, one realizes that simplicity, even spareness of diction to the point of crudeness, is quite appropriate here. Mardrus and Khawan aim at capturing this crudeness in repetitions that are probably deliberately somewhat awkward (“palais … palais”; “endormis … dormaient”). Galland's chief unfaithfulness consists in adding polish. But he adds nothing else irrelevant. As Muhammed Abdel-Halim shows in his authoritative Antoine Galland: sa vie, son æuvre (1970), Galland was so imbued with the spirit and schooled in the method of Arabic story-telling that, faithful though he was, he was capable of creating an Arabic story himself out of a slender outline, had in effect himself become an Arabic story-teller—a feat not, in practical terms, ever duplicated by translators of the Alf Layla wa-Layla since the French scholar's historic discovery.

Galland's story-telling skill is not only unusual in a scholar but perhaps also represents a deeper affinity with the Arabic tales than other redactors have shown, the kind of affinity without which any translation is likely to be cold and mechanical, no matter how well-meaning the translator may be. The reader who goes back to Antoine Galland's Les Mille et une Nuit is truly returning to the source. It is difficult to find a more happy, creative, and successful translation in the West. One could only wish that this good fortune had befallen some greater work of the literature of the Islamic and Arabic worlds, which contains so many treasures still unknown among us.


  1. Richard F. Burton, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights' Entertainments, Burton Club “Baghdad Edition” (printed in England), 10 vols. (London, 1885-86), I, vii.

  2. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, 9 vols., “For Subscribers Only” (London, 1884). Since Payne was over-subscribed for the ultimately small printing (500 copies), Burton determined to gather up the remaining 1,500 ready customers, the other subscribers to Payne's translation.

  3. Wright, The Life of Sir Richard Burton (London, 1906) and The Life of John Payne (London, 1919); Macdonald, “Thousand and One Nights”, in Encyclopaedia Britannica, 14th ed. ff., 1929, and “Alf Laila wa-Laila”, in Enzyklopeidie des Islam (Ergänzungsband, 1938); Littmann, “Alf Layla wa-Layla”, in Encyclopaedia of Islam, new ed. (Leiden, 1956).

  4. Mia Irene Gerhardt, The Art of Story-Telling: A Literary Study of the Thousand and One Nights (Leiden, 1963), p. 78.

  5. The most recent biography of Burton, Seton Dearden, The Arabian Knight (1936; rev. London, 1953), Ch. XII, presents Burton's highly fictionalized version of his translation work without reservations.

  6. Jorge Luis Borges, “Los traductores de las 1001 Noches” (1935), in Historia de la eternidad (Buenos Aires, 1953), pp. 101-111.

  7. Gerhardt, pp. 91-93.

  8. It has proliferated in America through the omnipresent Modern Library abridgement (New York, 1932; many reprintings), among whose few selections is included an apocryphal story invented by Burton, “How Abu Hasan Brake Wind”.

  9. For the most complete description of early editions and translations of Galland, see Duncan B. Macdonald, “A Bibliographical and Literary Study of the First Appearance of the Arabian Nights in Europe”, Library Quarterly, II (1932), 387-420.

  10. Suhayr al-Qalamāwī, Alf Layla wa-Layla (Cairo, 1966).

  11. The late Tawfiq Sayegh, a writer and teacher with an exceptional range of knowledge of both Arabic and English literatures, once told me how he read the tales first in English, and then only later, at Harvard, was eventually moved by contact with western orientalists to shut himself in his rooms and devour the Arabic original.

  12. See the entry “Alf Layla wa-Layla” (by Littmann) in The Encyclopedia of Islam (Leiden, 1960) for summary of data on the principal recensions and reprints of MSS.

  13. Gerhardt, Introduction, pp. 1 ff.

  14. “Nel Burton, l'orientalista non inglese per capire certi passi trova piu spiccio ricorrere al testo arabo!” “Le Mille e una notte nella cultura europea”, in Storia e civiltà musulmana (Naples, 1947), p. 103.

  15. Arberry, Scheherezade (London, 1960), pp. 9-10.

  16. Ibid., p. 15.

  17. Ibid., pp. 9, 17.

  18. Stanley Lane-Poole, ed., Arabian Society in the Middle Ages (London, 1883; rpt. 1971).

  19. Gerhardt, p. 77.

  20. Gerhardt, p. 68.

  21. See Macdonald (1932; op. cit.), pp. 405-406, and “Notes on Sales: Oriental Tales”, The Times Literary Supplement, April 10, 1930, p. 324.

  22. Opening sequence.

Further Reading

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Beaumont, Daniel. “‘Peut-on …’: Intertextual Relations in The Arabian Nights and Gensis.” Comparative Literature 50, no. 2 (spring 1998): 120-35.

Uses postmodern methods to understand how “The Story of the First Sheikh” takes up and revises the story of Abraham in Genesis 1 and how “The Merchant and the Jinn” is connected to the story of Tamar, Er, Onan, and Judah in Genesis 38.

Cannon, Garland, “‘The Lady of Shalot’ and ‘The Arabian Nights' Tales.’” Victorian Poetry 8, no. 4 (winter 1970): 344-46.

Argues that one of the tales in the The Arabian Nights provided Alfred Lord Tennyson with devices he used in his poem “The Lady of Shalott.”

Caracciolo, Peter L., ed. The Arabian Nights in English Literature: Studies in the Reception of The Thousand and One Nights into British Culture, London:: Macmillan Press, 1988, 320 p.

Collection of essays focusing on the use of The Arabian Nights in English literature, including popular works, nursery rhymes, and writings by authors such as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, and others.

Carroll, Alicia. “‘Arabian Nights’: Make Believe, Exoticism, and Desire in Daniel Deronda.” Journal of English and Germanic Philology 98, no. 2 (April 1999): 120-35.

Remarks on the use of The Arabian Nights in George Eliot's Daniel Deronda to underscore the presence of exoticism, sexual pleasure and danger, fantasy and nightmare.

Furtato, Antonio L. “The Arabian Nights: Yet Another Source of the Grail Stories?” Quondam et Futurus: A Journal of Arturian Interpretations 1, no. 3 (fall 1991): 25-40.

Claims that the “The Fisherman and the Jinni” from The Arabian Nights is a possible source for an important episode in Chrétien de Troyes'sPerceval.

Haddawy, Husain. Introduction to The Arabian Nights, translated by Husain Haddawy, pp. ix-xxix. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1990.

Offers a general introduction to The Arabian Nights and discusses the stories' origin, their adaptations to manuscript form, the various translations of the tales, and his own method of translation.

Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion, 344 p. New York: Penguin Press, 1994.

Detailed history and “anti-revisionist” analysis of The Arabian Nights.

Moussa-Mahmoud, Fatma. “A Manuscript Translation of The Arabian Nights in the Beckford Papers.” Journal of Arabic Literature 7 (1976): 73-87.

Urges that a manuscript edition of The Arabian Nights in the Bodleian Library not be dismissed as unimportant by critics and scholars.

Plotz, Judith. “In the Footsteps of Aladdin: De Quincey's Arabian Nights.” Wordsworth Circle 29, no. 2 (spring 1998): 120-26.

Discusses Thomas de Quincey's version of the Aladdin tale.

Trapnell, William H. “Destiny in Voltaire's Zadig and The Arabian Nights.” Studies in Voltaire and the Eighteenth Century 278 (1990): 147-71.

Compares the use of the theme of destiny between The Arabian Nights and Voltaire's Zadig.

Additional coverage of The Arabian Nights is contained in the following source published by the Gale Group: Classical and Medieval Literature Criticism, Vol. 2.

Peter D. Molan (essay date July-September 1978)

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SOURCE: Molan, Peter D. “Sinbad the Sailor: A Commentary on the Ethics of Violence.” Journal of the American Oriental Society 98, no. 3 (July-September 1978): 237-47.

[In the following essay, Molan comments on the ironic disparity between Sinbad's actions versus his professed moral stance, characterizing the tale as a parable that is meant to instruct King Shahriyar about ideas of self-deception and justice.]

Sinbad the Sailor has become, for his modern audience, a Romantic hero. Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, the Palestinian poet and critic, says of him:

So human in wishes, in reactions, in dreams, and yet, because of his endurance and invention no death or destruction can get at him. His vision is all men's dream: his ship is wrecked, his fellow-travelers drown, death and horror overtake the world, but Sindbad battles on and survives. The original land-dream was so powerful that the sea has to be conquered, and so have the lands beyond the sea, the islands, the valleys of serpents and jewels.1

This view, however, is one based on a popular, children's abstraction of the medieval folkloric figure of Sinbad. Even Jabra confesses that his view of Sinbad was formed by the children's stories which he first heard in his own youth and which he, in turn, read to his own children, carefully expurgating the more potent tales of “death and horror.”2 Our view of Sinbad is not based on the reading of the medieval tales of Dolopathos, Syntipas, or The Thousand and One Nights.3 Instead, our view is formed by the Sinbad the Sailor as portrayed by Douglas Fairbanks Jr., who battled Walter Slezak and Anthony Quinn for the island of gold and the favors of Maureen O'Hara in the RKO-Radio film. As Bosley Crowther has pointed out, the screenplay writers, no Shahrazads at telling an engaging tale, spurred [Fairbanks] to elegant bravado, set him to vaulting oriental walls, and generally playing the bold hero in this gaudy fable.4 But, it is a spurious fable which Fairbanks' Sinbad undertakes, not one of the so significant seven voyages of the traditional tale.5

So firmly fixed has this romantic view of Sinbad become that even his most recent and most sophisticated critic, who does examine the 1001 Nights tales, concludes that:

Sindbad is, before all else, a man of action and it is in his actions that his characteristic qualities are revealed. In all the terrible situations from which he must extract himself, he, time after time, makes use of [both] boldness and discretion.6

And that:

Regarded from this angle, the Voyages of Sindbad the Sailor become a veritable glorification of navigation and maritime commerce; and Sindbad, as a model set up for the admiration of a sympathetic public, is the proper symbol of the sailor's profession such as it could appear in that privileged moment in its long history.7

In the following pages, we shall present a different analysis of the Sinbad tales, as they occur in the 1001 Nights.8 It will reveal a very different appreciation of the character of Sinbad and of the significance of the voyages which, we hope to demonstrate convincingly, is more in keeping with the structure of the medieval tales not only in their Arabic, but also in their Greek and Latin versions.9

There are two versions of the Sinbad tales. The best known is that of the editions of Bulaq (1835), of Calcutta (1839-42 [MacNaghten ed.]), and of the later Arab versions in general. The second version is that of the first Calcutta edition (1818) and that of the manuscripts, now lost, upon which Galland based his translation of the entire 1001 Nights and upon which L. Langles based his Les voyages de Sind-Bād le Marin et La Ruse des Femmes (Paris, 1814). The two versions differ in two ways. The second is generally shorter and sparer in its narrative treatment of the various themes. Of considerably more importance, however, is the fact that the end of voyage VI and voyage VII is entirely different in the two versions. It has been the view of most of the translators of the 1001 Nights that, while the more fully articulated first version is “better” for the bulk of the stories, the conclusion of the second version is more satisfactory to a properly formed tale. Thus Lane follows the first version until the ending of voyage VI. He then shifts to the second version for the translation of the end of voyages VI and VII. Burton simply combines the two as does Mardrus in his French edition of the Nights (Paris, 1900-1904). E. Littmann, in his German version (Wiesbaden, 1953), follows the first version to its conclusion and then adds the ending of the second version as an “important variant.”10

Littmann's is the appropriate procedure, for the significance of the two versions is precisely that they form two equally valid versions of the tale. They offer a marvelous example of the way in which an oral tale may be altered in its presentation and yet remain unaltered as to its significance, its “message,” and its “structure.” For, though markedly different in narrative detail, the two versions are structurally identical and thus fulfill the same function in the development of the tale. The analysis that follows, then, will be based on MacNaghten's 1839 Calcutta edition of the Nights but will include reference to the second version of voyage VII for the sake of interest only. Either of the other versions could have been equally well used.

As is so common in the tales of the 1001 Nights, the fundamental structural element in the Sinbad stories is a “framing” technique. The stories of the seven voyages made by Sinbad, “the merchant of Baghdad,” are first framed within the story of the relationship between that Sinbad, al-Sindibād al-Baḥarī, and the poor porter, al-Sindibād al-Hammāl. This story, in turn, is framed within the continuing story of Shahrazad and the cruel King Shahriyar. This point is essential, for we must always keep in mind that Sinbad the Sailor is only the “putatative” narrator of the stories of the voyages. In fact, the “real” narrator, as we are constantly reminded, is Shahrazad. Despite the fact that the bulk of the story is made up of Sinbad's first person narrative, the figure of Shahrazad narrates the opening and closing of the tales and intrudes some thirty times, never more than three pages apart, reestablishing her role as the narrator by the familiar, formulaic device and once more putting the words in Sinbad's mouth:

And morning came upon Shahrazad and she fell silent from [this] lawful discourse. Then when it was fully the sixtieth night after the five hundredth, she said, “It has come to my attention, oh happy king, that Sinbad the Sailor, when he had prepared his shipment, stowed it in the ship at the city of Basra, and embarked, said: ‘We went on traveling from place to place and from city to city, selling and buying and taking a look at the countries of [various] people.’”11

Thus there is inherently an ironic disparity between the point of view of the protagonist, Sinbad, and that of the “narrator,” Shahrazad (along with her audience). The knowledge and values of the protagonist are almost inevitably different from those of the narrator; for she, and we, know the characters as they could not possibly know themselves.12

Shahrazad then, hoping once more to beguile the King with yet another story (and so stay by yet another day her execution),13 assures him that the story she has just completed is “not nearly so wonderful as the story of ‘Sinbad’.” The King replies, “How's that?” and the familiar tale begins.14 Shahrazad tells that on a burning hot Baghdad afternoon, a poor and lowly porter comes upon the magnificent palace of a rich merchant. Though nominally recognizing God's justice, his true distress at his situation relative to that of the merchant is clear as he recites a short song:

How many wretched persons are destitute of ease! and how many are in luxury, reposing in the shade!

I find myself afflicted by trouble beyond measure; and strange is my condition, and heavy is my load!

Others are in prosperity, and from wretchedness are free, and never for a single day have borne a load like mine;

Incessantly and amply blest, throughout the course of life, with happiness and grandeur, as well as drink and meat.

All men whom God hath made are in origin alike; and I resemble this man and he resembleth me;

But otherwise, between us is a difference as great as the difference that we find between wine and vinegar.

Yet in saying this, I utter no falsehood against Thee, [Oh my Lord;] for Thou art wise, and with justice Thou hast judged.15

His feelings are clear to the owner of the palace too, for he calls the porter in, tells him the story of each of seven adventurous voyages and concludes that the porter has been wrong:

These pleasures are a compensation for the toil and humiliation that I have experienced.16

The porter is convinced and agrees; but are we, the audience to whom Shahrazad tells the tale, convinced? Let us have a closer look at the tales themselves.

Though at first view simply adventure stories, the tales of the seven voyages of Sinbad are in fact subtly structured in a very sophisticated way to bring home a moral through irony. I do not mean to imply by this that the Sinbad tales are a didactic morality play in disguise. The 1001 Nights are not the conveyance for a moral message. In that sense, they are “amoral,” as the term that has so frequently been applied to them would have it. That does not imply, however, the lack of an ethical framework or point of view; and, even more to the point, it in no way precludes an acute and often cynical perception of the relationship to ethical principles of such human foibles and weaknesses as self-righteousness, self-delusion, greed and hypocrisy. Indeed, these are the fundamental perceptions of the Nights.

It may do here, too, to mention that the Sinbad tales find their origin in a universal, oral folk tradition which has analogues everywhere from China to the British Isles.17 The attempts to trace the “origins” of the 1001 Nights, as opposed to its “analogues,” (through a chain of translations) to Persian and Indian texts is thus dubious at best. The 1001 Nights Sinbad, however, has been completely Islamicized and Arabized. A Muslim teller of traditional tales reciting before a Muslim audience will inevitably, even if unconsciously, infuse his tale with a Muslim ethical structure—however the characters, events, and story line may have entered his tradition. Thus, Sinbad's constant evocation of Allah and his performance of Islamic ritual is not mere window dressing, but reflects the thorough-going infusion of Islamic ideals in the story. The impact of the story is the fact that, in spite of his apparent and self-avowed Muslim piety and righteousness, Sinbad finally contravenes Islamic ideals in the most astounding way during his adventures.

It is the relative number and nature of the adventures and catastrophes which befall Sinbad on his voyages which make up the major structural elements of the tales. These may be schematized here as follows:18

Ab A Ap Ap Ap A A C
A Ap Ab Ab Ab A
C = Catastrophe
A = Adventure (b = benign; p = perilous)
M = Marvels
R = Return

As may be seen at a glance, in each of his voyages, Sinbad suffers a catastrophe, usually a shipwreck or desertion upon the high seas. He then experiences a series of adventures which ebb and flow as the tales proceed. Not only does the number of adventures rise and then symmetrically fall off again, however; so, too, do the violence and horror which characterize the adventures.

In the first story, Sinbad is lost at sea when, having landed on an island, the island sinks! The “island” is, in fact, a huge fish which has been dozing on the surface so long that trees and bushes have sprouted on its back. Upon feeling the cooking fires of the landing party, it dives into the ocean. Sinbad's ship has pulled off to save itself, and Sinbad must save himself by paddling to land in a large wooden bowl. He is taken in by the King of the Sea Horses, becomes the latter's minister, and finally returns home rich.

In the second story, Sinbad is abandoned on a desert island. He manages to escape by tying himself to the leg of the Rukh, which flies him off of the island but deposits him in the valley of snakes and diamonds. He again escapes, this time loaded with diamonds, and finally returns home rich.

In the third story, catastrophe overtakes Sinbad when apes attack his ship. He and his companions are cast ashore, where they encounter a huge but man-like monster who eats many of the castaways. They collaborate to put out the monster's eyes; and, though he kills several more of the company by hurling stones at them as they escape in a boat they have made, some finally make good their escape.19 They fall foul of a man-eating snake, however, and only Sinbad escapes by building a cage in which to hide from the snake. He is soon rescued by a passing ship, fortuitously the very ship from which he had been lost in the preceding voyage, retrieves his goods, and again returns home wealthy.

The fourth story is the keystone of the entire piece. Driven ashore by a storm, the crew and passengers of Sinbad's ship fall into the hands of ghouls who fatten them up and eat them. Sinbad escapes, and happily settles among a nearby people. He becomes rich, initially by introducing the people (especially their King) to saddlery. He marries, but then falls foul of a bizarre custom of the people in which the spouse of a deceased person is buried alive with the corpse in a huge communal tomb. So buried, Sinbad stays alive by killing the newly interred and taking the meager supplies that are initially sent down with each new victim. Sinbad finds a way out of the tomb but returns, amasses the golden jewelry of the corpses, and continues to live by killing those who are sent down until he has enough.20 He then hails a passing ship and returns home, rich.

In the fifth tale, Rukhs attack Sinbad's ship. He is captured by the Old Man o' the Sea, whom he manages to trick into getting drunk, but then kills him. With the aid of residents of a nearby city, he overcomes imprisonment by apes and makes a fortune out of coconuts which he induces the apes to throw at him by throwing stones at them. Again he returns home rich.

The sixth voyage finds Sinbad battling only the elements and circumstances. Cast ashore on a desert island, his companions die of disease and starvation. Sinbad must raft through an underground river to reach safety, but he does so; and the King of the people whom he finds commissions him as ambassador to the Khalifah Haroun. He makes his way home to wealth and honor.

In the seventh voyage of the fuller version, Sinbad's ship is blown off course and into a distant sea where it is attacked by huge fish and destroyed. Sinbad once again manages to save himself by rafting away from the desert shore upon which he is thrown, through an underground river and to salvation. Salvation comes in the form of an encounter with a wealthy merchant who takes Sinbad in and eventually makes Sinbad his son-in-law and heir. Sinbad relates his encounters with marvels more in the manner of his description of adventures than has been the case in the previous voyages. Usually the marvels are simply enumerated. Here, the descriptions of flying men and heavenly beings are more fully articulated. Nonetheless, the scenes appear in the proper relative position and bear no more upon the development of the structure of the tales than do the listed marvels of the previous voyages. Sinbad returns again to Baghdad, wealthy.

The format of the shorter version of the seventh voyage differs materially in its narrative detail, but only marginally in its structure as may be seen from the tabulation of topoi. It carries out the theme of Sinbad's entrance into politics. The impetus for this version of the seventh voyage is the Caliph Haroun al-Rashid's desire to have Sinbad head a return embassy to the king with whom Sinbad had stayed in the previous voyage. Nonetheless, Sinbad suffers the usual catastrophe, this time at the hands of “devil-like” pirates. He then has the one expected fearsome adventure with elephants which leads him to the elephants' graveyard, and makes his fortune yet once more.

Having briefly summarized the catastrophes and adventures which befall Sinbad, let us again tabulate these structural elements of the narrative—but this time, from another point of view: according to the nature of the beings involved in the encounters.

Voyage Catastrophe Adventure Adventure Adventure
I Fish Sea-horse King X X
II (Desertion) Rukh Snakes X
III Apes Cyclopsian monster Snakes X
IV (Storm) Ghouls Men bury him Men are murdered & robbed by him
V Rukhs Old Man o' the Sea Apes X
VI (Lost at Sea) Disease Underground river X
VII1 Fish Underground river X X
VII2 Devil-like pirates Elephants X X

It can thus be seen that there is, in addition to the rise, climax, and fall of the number of adventures, a concurrent rise, climax and fall in the “sensibility,” or say even “humanity,” of the beings whom Sinbad encounters in his adventures. Though not quite as rigidly symmetrical in these terms as in terms of the abstractions, “catastrophe” and “adventure,” the same curve of rise and fall operates here. As the tales progress, the nature of those whom Sinbad encounters rises and falls along an almost evolutionary scale: I. sea-animals; II. non-mammalian land animals; III. animals (snakes, apes, cyclops); IV. man; V. animals (Rukhs, sea-man, apes); VI. anomalous; VII. sea-animals.

Let us tabulate Sinbad's adventures from yet one more point of view: the violence involved in his encounters.

Voyage Catastrophe Adventure Adventure Adventure
I None (Fish) None (Sea-horse King) X X
II None (Desertion) Minor (Rukh flight) Minor (Snake threat & dangerous rescue) X
III Major (Ape attack) Horrible** (Cyclopsian murders; blinding of Cyclops) Horrible (Snake attack; defensive cage) X
IV Minor (Threat of storm) Horrible (Threat of Ghouls) Horrible (Buried alive) Horrible** (Killing of innocents)
V Major (Rukh attack) Horrible** (Old Man o' the Sea killed) Major (Apes imprison him) X
VI None (Ship lost) Minor (Disease kills) Minor (Threat of underground river) X
VII1 Minor (Fish attack ship) Minor (Threat of underground river) X X
VII2 Minor/Major (Capture by pirates) Minor (Carried off by elephants) X X
** Sinbad himself commits violent acts in these strategically located instances.

An interesting echo of the basic rise and fall structure of the stories is to be found, too, in Sinbad the Porter's reactions to each of the stories:

Voyage Sinbad the Porter's Reaction
I “Thinks” about what befalls people.
II Is “astounded” at what befell the sailor; prays for him.
III Is “astounded.”
IV Is “astounded” and spends the night in the utmost contentment and pleasure.
V Is “astounded.”
VI (No reaction recorded.)
VII (No reaction recorded.)

But why, while the audience reacts with shock and horror, should the porter respond to the most chilling of the tales with “contentment and pleasure?” Perhaps because Sinbad only begins his stories after he has lavishly plied his guests, the nameless and faceless “companions” and the porter, with the finest of food and drink:

When morning dawned, lit [things] up with its light and appeared, Sinbad the porter arose, prayed the morning prayer and came to the house of Sinbad the sailor as [the latter] had ordered him. He entered and said good morning to him. [The sailor] welcomed him and sat with him until the rest of his companions, his group, had arrived and they had eaten, drunk, enjoyed themselves, been pleasured and relaxed. Then Sinbad the sailor began to speak and said: …21

Perhaps also because the sailor closes each tale with a lavish gift to the porter. He gives a fabulous dinner and then loads the porter with one hundred mithqāls of gold. In the final tale, Sinbad the porter takes up permanent residence with the sailor and they live out a happy and contented life:

They remained in friendship and love with increasing joy and relaxation until [that] destroyer of pleasures, that divider of companions, that destroyer of indolence, that filler of graves—the cup of death—came to them. So praise be to the Living One who does not die.22

Sinbad the Sailor, then, tells his tales as an apology. He has been challenged by the porter's song and feels the need to justify his life and actions. But whom is he trying to convince, and how does he proceed to do so? Perhaps he needs to justify his actions to everyone who passes his door. Sinbad the porter receives an impression of the sailor's “companions” at the outset:

He saw, in that abode, a number of noble gentlemen and great lords.23

But, this is all we know of them. Thereafter, they are merely Sinbad's companions who arrive each day to hear the tales of the sailor's adventures. Perhaps they are fellow merchants whose perceptions and rationalizations are akin to those of Sinbad the sailor himself. Or, perhaps they too are men who have doubted the justness of Sinbad's wealth and have been rewarded for their acquiescence to his self-justification just as the porter has been rewarded. In any case, the significance of the identity of names between Sinbad the sailor and Sinbad the porter is clear. It can hardly be fortuitous. Sinbad the porter is the sailor's alter-ego, the Sinbad who questions the distribution of wealth and the ways in which it has been gained. Finally, the questioning Sinbad is satisfied; but how? If Sinbad's self-justification stands on its own merits, why the need for the lavish presents of gold at the end of each story? Why the need to keep the porter's bought acceptance close at hand for the rest of their lives?

The answers are clear: Sinbad's actions are not finally justifiable. The crescendo and decrescendo of terror and violence that characterize the stories lead the audience from an attitude of readiness to believe, to questioning, doubt and downright rejection at the climax of the fourth tale. We then trail off into a knowing and cynical skepticism as the stories wind to a close.

Sinbad is plunged into horrible situations to be sure; but they are in large measure of his own making. The fundamental reason for his voyages is greed and his actions are often more violent than those of his antagonists. He himself notes at one point:

I said to myself: ‘I deserve all that has happened to me. All this is fated for me by God Most High so that I might turn from the greed by which I am [consumed]. All that I suffer is from my greed.’24

Sinbad's wealth and position are, then, a material reward for a vicious determination to “get on” in the world of commercial wheeling and dealing at the expense of anyone who happens to be in the way. They are clearly no heavenly reward for patience, forbearance and charity.

The cyclopsian monster's actions are horrible to be sure; but not apparently malicious. His act is not a moral one, but simply feeding behavior. Sinbad's plot to kill the monster and his blinding of it are, however, gratuitous; for the monster's castle is always open and Sinbad is free to build and provision a boat for his escape. Only after doing so does he return and blind the monster.25

So, we carried the wood out of the castle and we built a raft. We tied it at the sea shore and brought a bit of food down to it. Then we returned to the castle.

Such is the situation with the Old Man o' the Sea. The Old Man has used Sinbad harshly to be sure by forcing Sinbad to carry him around under threat of severe punishment.26

If I crossed him, he would beat me with his feet more harshly than with a whip.

Having gotten him drunk and having escaped, however, Sinbad's murder of the Old Man, regardless of how subhuman and sinister he might have been, is again a gratuitous act of violence.

It is not suggested that either the modern or the medieval audience could not justify Sinbad's actions in the third and fifth stories. Indeed, the shock value of the Old Man of the Sea story arises from the brusque shift from the comical scene of Sinbad making wine in a gourd, arousing the Old Man's curiosity, and getting him drunk, to crushing his skull with a rock. Rather, these two stories serve to raise and then slow the tempo of violence and horror. They shock the audience into an awareness of Sinbad's potential for murder which culminates horribly in the killing of innocent people in the tomb of the fourth story.

This latter situation is perhaps ambiguous in Muslim law for the action clearly takes place outside the Dār al-Islām. Thus, the case could never be brought before a shari‘ah court. Furthermore, the victims are not even dhimmi.27 Murder of the innocent, however, is abhorrent to Islamic morality under any circumstances: “Hast thou slain an innocent person not guilty of slaying another? Thou hast indeed done a horrible thing!”28 Whatever justification might have been felt to be attached to Sinbad's being trapped in the tomb is obviated by the fact that he continues to murder after having found his way out of the tomb and to rob the corpses to make his fortune.29

Whomever they buried, I would take his food and water and kill him whether man or woman. Then I would go out of the hole and sit on the sea shore.

Thus, while the first two stories find the audience in sympathy with Sinbad and ready to accept the view which he puts forward, our sensibilities begin to be seriously disturbed in the third and we are utterly repulsed by Sinbad's behavior in the fourth tale despite the fact that he has been presented to us as a grave and dignified figure of benign authority:

In the midst of that company was a great, respectable man. Gray had touched his temples and he was fine of stature and handsome of face. He had dignity, sobriety, power and pride.30

Three more topoi which occur and reoccur concurrently with the major structural elements of the tale suggest that even Sinbad himself is aware of the indefensibility of the actions for which he is apologizing.31 In the beginning and ending stories, Sinbad tells the tale of his adventures to all and sundry. But in the middle tales, he does so less and less until, in the fourth—the keystone tale—he not only does not tell his tale but consciously conceals the story of what has befallen him and what he had done. The captain and crew of the ship which picks him up do ask for his story, but he tells them only of a shipwreck and adds:

I did not inform them of what had happened to me in the city or in the tomb fearing that there might be someone from the city with them aboard the ship.32

In his own mind, Sinbad represses the memory of his actions. At the end of each story, he tells us that he would forget the hardships of his voyages. But in the middle stories, he increasingly treats the events as if they “had been a dream.” In psychological terms, his repression of guilt is clear.

Finally, Sinbad's conscience obviously bothers him, for in the middle stories he returns home not only to enjoy his wealth as he has in the first stories, but to give alms and to clothe the widows and orphans. A tabulation of these topoi will make their significance immediately apparent, inversely corresponding as they do to the rise and fall pattern of the story as a whole.

Thus, the structure of the relevant topoi of the story reveals a discrepancy between Sinbad's apology and the ethical principles of his, and the audience's, world. By it, we are led back to the outer frame story of Shahrazad and the king, for the stories are parallel. As Sinbad justifies his unjustifiable murders, so does the king justify the unjustifiable murder of his wives by their potential infidelity. But, as Shahrazad hopes to delay her own murder until the king may see the injustice of his own actions, she spins him a tale of self-justification which can only be had by buying off the conscience. The moral is not stated and the story is not didactic in any overt sense. It is merely one more example of the cunning cleverness of women which is such a common theme of the 1001 Nights. That cunning is not necessarily condemned, merely noted and here once again it works for Shahrazad who does finally have her way. As with the king, so for the audience. Not overcome by greed for more material wealth, the audience sees the ironic disparity of an external view of Sinbad's actions and his own unconvincing apology which provides the ethical impact of the story. To be sure, many in any given audience might accept Sinbad's apology. Those who are caught up in the same greed for surplus wealth might need to justify similar actions and so find justification in Sinbad himself. It is that greed that speeds Sinbad on his voyages for, as he points out in introducing each of his tales, he undertakes his voyages not out of need but for the desire for adventure which is subsumed under and intimately related to the desire to buy and sell: the desire for profitable commercial ventures-greed.

Voyage Telling the Tale Reaction Charity
I To horse herder Forgets
To herder's friends
To the king
To ship's captain
II To merchant Forgets Gives alms and presents
To merchant's friends
III (To sailors—mentioned) All seems a dream Gives alms, presents;
To ship's captain Forgets Clothes widows & orphans
IV (To pepper gatherers and their king—mentioned) Forgets Gives alms, presents;
All seems a dream
Clothes widows & orphans
As though his mind is lost
V To ship's company Forgets Gives alms, presents;
To man from city
(To man from city—mentioned) Clothes widows & orphans
VI To Indians and Ethiopians Forgets Gives alms, presents
To their king
(To the Caliph—mentioned)
To the Caliph
VII (To his family—mentioned)

Seen in this light, the Sinbad story becomes more coherent in its internal structure and fits nicely into its external frame, the Shahrazad/Shahriyar story. It also comes to tally more closely with its Greek and Latin analogues for in those stories the protagonist is of questionable moral character at the outset: he is a thief.33

The irony is most subtle; it is never stated. Only the audience's own reaction to Sinbad's stories affords an entrance to the teller's ironic intent. Indeed, the second version points out one more irony of the business world. Commercial acuity, however rapacious, piratical, even murderous, can also lead to political preference and power. In the sixth story, the King of Ceylon, impressed by Sinbad's stories of his adventures and by his commercial successes, commissions Sinbad as his Ambassador to Haroun al-Rashid. In the second version of the seventh voyage, Haroun takes Sinbad into the court and, in turn, entrusts him with the return mission to Ceylon. Thus, Sinbad has attained political power and success as well as commercial success and material wealth. But the story has become, not “a veritable glorification of navigation and maritime commerce,” but a critique of the disparity between ethics and action. For, the audience, including Shahrazad's king, is aware of the cost of Sinbad's successes: the suppression of the merchant's ethical sensibility in his pursuit of material gain.


(Numbers refer to pagination of MacNaghten edition)

Reason for Voyage* 8 18 27 39 53 64 73
Catastrophe 9-10 18-19 27-28 39 54-55 64 73
Reaction to 19;21 67;69 74-75
Adventure I 10 19-21 28-32 40 56-58 65 76-80
Adventure II 21-23 32-34 43 59-62 67
Adventure III 46-51
Telling the 11;13 24;24 34; (43) 59;(59) 70;70; 82
Tale 13;15 (36) 52 60 70;72;
(Refuses) 72
Marvels Seen* 14 24-25 37 62-63 65-68 80-81
Recognition* 15-16 37
Return 17 26 38 52 62 71 82
Reaction to 19 26 34; 43;45; 62 72
Return (38) 50;52
Charity (26) 35 52 62 (72)
Porter's Payment 17 26 38 53 62 72
Porter's Reaction 17 26 38 53 (83)
* Typical topoi not directly relevant to the narrative.


  1. J. I. Jabra, Art Dream and Action, Unpub. paper presented at UC Berkeley, 26 May, 1976, p. 7.

  2. Private communication, 26 May, 1976.

  3. Cf. Bibliography in note 32.

  4. NY Times, 23 January, 1947, 31:2.

  5. So also the more recent Seventh Voyage of Sinbad, which bears little or no resemblance to the 1001 Nights tale. Cf. A. H. Weiler's review, New York Times, 24 December, 1958.

  6. Gerhardt, Mia I., Les Voyages de Sindbad le Marin, Utrecht, 1957, p. 33.

  7. Ibid., p. 39.

  8. My thanks to all the students of Intermediate Literary Arabic at UC Berkeley, 1975-76, with whom I read the Sinbad stories and whose perceptive comments and questions have done much to make my own views more clear and concise.

  9. Gerhardt ignores one fundamental, and several minor, structural elements in the 1001 Nights tales which, with a predisposition to see Sinbad as a Romantic hero, leads to problems.

  10. For a fuller analysis of the variations in the Arabic textual tradition, cf. Gerhardt, pp. 17-27.

  11. Alf Layla wa-Layla, Calcutta, 1839, MacNaghten ed., Vol. III, p. 64. (Hereafter MacN.).

    It is interesting to note that not only does the Sinbad tale contain this first person narrative in biographical form, but that the frame story and episodes form a continuous and integrated whole, no part of which is expendable. Most Western literary historians consider the anonymous, Sixteenth Century Lazarillo de Tormes and Don Quixote as the “progenitors” of the novel precisely because of these features, which distinguish them from the “romance.” That they occur here, in an obviously older tale deriving (at least) from an oral tradition, is of rather great significance for our understanding of the narrative art.

  12. Cf. Scholes and Kellog, The Nature of Narrative, Oxford, 1975, pp. 52-53, for a discussion of this ironic disparity as a constant in fiction. We would suggest a caveat on the Scholes-Kellog point of view, however. They make a sharp distinction between “traditional,” i.e., oral, narrative and “written” narrative and confine the sort of irony described above to the written. We would argue that the irony exists in the 1001 Nights. The Nights, however, even in their written form, must represent a transitional stage between oral and written narrative in which elements of the two modes cross fertilize each other. The terms “narrator” and “protagonist” are, therefore, used to distinguish between the two levels of perception represented by Shahrazad and Sinbad. The potential third level, that of the “narrator” of Shahrazad's story, seems not to be structurally or literally relevant.

  13. We will return to this point at some length in our conclusions, but it should be noted here that Gerhardt ignores entirely the relationship of the Shahrazad element in her analysis and thus skews her entire perception of the tale.

  14. MacNaghten, Vol. III, p. 4.

  15. Ibid., p. 6. The translation is from Lane, v. VI, p. 327.

  16. From Lane, p. 429. MacN.'s text is less precise: “So, look Oh Sinbad, Oh landsman, at what has befallen me, at what has happened to me, and at what my circumstance has been. Then Sinbad the landsman said to Sinbad the sailor, ‘By God, you must forgive me for what I felt about your just rewards.” p. 82. Sinbad's view of his riches is prefigured when he first meets the porter, too: “For verily I have not attained this happiness and this position save after harsh fatigue, great toil and many terrors. How I suffered, at first, from fatigue and hardship’.” MacN., pp. 7-8. Here, though, the notion of heavenly reward is lacking.

  17. I use the term, “analogue” as in Wm. F. Bryan ed., Sources and Analogues of Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, Humanities Press, New York, 1958. Analogues are tales having close similarities in plot, characterization and structure which are not demonstrably derived the one from the other or do not demonstrably form parts of a chain of direct transmission. While a common ancestor may exist for “analogue” tales, said ancestor exists too far removed in time and space to be established by any other means than the comparative method established for the reconstruction of proto-typical linguistic forms. Should said reconstruction be made, it must be treated as are such linguistic reconstructions—with a certain circumspection. Furthermore, until a full family tree is made of all of the analogues, great care must be taken about applying the term, “source” to any given tale in its relationship to another. While not wanting to exclude the possibility of a direct Greek influence on the Sinbad tales, and particularly the third story which is an obvious analogue to the Ulysses and Polyphemus story, I find that G. E. von Grunebaum's conclusion as to the Greek origins of much of the Arabian Nights is overly positive in its statement [Cf. Medieval Islam, Chapter Nine, Creative Borrowing: Greece in the Arabian Nights, esp. III, pp. 298-305 on Sinbad]. As von Grunebaum himself points out, there are discrepancies between the Homeric and Arabian Nights versions. These, however, should not be put down merely to corruption by the Arab tellers, for there are discrepancies too between the Greek and the proto-typical story as it occurs in so many different versions of the story. To cite but one instance, neither Sinbad nor Ulysses makes reference to the magic ring that figures so prominently in the analogous stories, British and Turkish, to mention but two.

    The relationship between the Ulysses and Polyphemus stories and all of their analogues, such as Sinbad's third voyage, is dealt with at length in appendix xiii to Apollodorus: The Library, Loeb Classical Library, New York, 1921, translated by Jas. G. Frazer.

  18. This point is apparently missed by all the translators and commentators until Gerhardt. Burton, for instance, feels, “In one point, this world famous tale is badly ordered. The most exciting adventures are the earliest, and the falling off of interest has a somewhat depressing effect. The Rukh, the Ogre and the Old Man o' the Sea should come last.” v. VI, p. 77, n. Gerhardt, however, has developed a very good analysis of these major structural elements; and we can do no better than to use her categorization. The chart is based on Gerhardt's, p. 30.

  19. Cf. Note 17 above.

  20. It is interesting to note that the theme of premature burial, salvation from the tomb and pirating of funerary treasures is a common one in Greek romances. Cf. Moses Hadas, A History of Greek Literature, Columbia U. Press, 1950, pp. 293-4.

  21. This particular version of the scene introduces the third voyage. Cf. MacN. op. cit. p. 27. The topos does not precede the seventh tale.

  22. MacN. op. cit. p. 83. The suggestion that they actually lived together comes from Lane, p. 429.

  23. MacN. op. cit. p. 6.

  24. MacN. op. cit. p. 75.

  25. Ibid., pp. 28-32.

  26. Ibid., pp. 56-58.

  27. Ambiguous is perhaps the wrong term, for the situation is one in contention in Muslim law. Cf., for instance, Muhammad Ibn al-Hasan al-Shaybānī, Kitāb al-Siyar (The Islamic Law of Nations), translator Majid Khadduri, Baltimore, 1966. Esp. “The Application of Hudūd Penalties,” pp. 171-74. Shaybānī holds that any ḥadd crime committed by a Muslim in the Dār al-Harb would be null and void, as “they were committed [in a territory] where Muslim rulings are not applicable to them.” pp. 171-2. Awzā‘ī and Shāfi‘ī, however, hold the opposing view. Cf. n. 49, p. 172. In any case, Shaybānī would apparently agree that the Muslim would be subject to the local law on such matters. Cf. pp. 173-4.

  28. Al-Qur'an al-Karīm, “Sūrat al-Kahf”, verse 74.

  29. MacN. op. cit. pp. 49-50.

  30. Ibid., p. 6.

  31. It is interesting to note the topoi used in the development of Sinbad the sailor which are not structurally relevant to the whole of the tale. They occur and reoccur, not regularly as do the themes with which we have been dealing here, but sporadically even where not called for. They suggest another level or element of structure in the technique of oral composition. Oral composition has been well defined for poetry, but not so well defined for the prose tale. Nonetheless, many of the same techniques are found in oral prose tales as in poetry. The “formula” as defined by Parry and Lord is readily apparent in the prose tale, as are the “themes.” What we have labeled “topos” seem to be intermediate features. Larger than the formula, though akin to it in form, they are not yet definable as themes. They appear to serve as building blocks for the tale teller. Each may be formed by a bundle of formulas and be recognizable as a mini-theme. They are, in turn, bundled together to form the major themes of the tale. Whereas, given themes become structurally significant in the tale individual topoi, unlike Propp's functions, may be, without affecting the tale, left out, added or interspersed between themes simply to flesh out the story in a familiar way.

    We will attempt to pursue this observation in subsequent work.

  32. MacN. op. cit. p. 52.

  33. We will make no attempt to make a detailed analysis of the Medieval Greek and Latin analogues, but merely make one or two points which may have been obscured in our article and give some bibliography to the materials besides n. 17 above. It should be noted that Syntipas and Dolopathos are not analogues to Sinbad the Sailor in their entirety, but rather analogues to the Arabian Nights tale of the seven wise viziers. In this story, also known as the Seven Sages of Rome in other European versions, a young prince is falsely accused by one of his father's (the king's) wives of attempted rape. The details already provide an analogue to the Biblical and Quranic stories of Joseph. Being under a one week vow of silence, the prince cannot answer the charges; and the king determines to execute him. The boy's tutor calls in a series of wise men, each of whom spins a tale showing that hasty judgments are dangerous and that women are perfidious. Each time the king relents in his judgment, only to have the favorite again incite him against the prince. Much to the distress of the favorite, however, they do manage to get through the week, the prince is able to defend himself, she is discomfited and king and prince live happily ever after. One of the stories told by one of the wise men is of a famous thief who, when called to recite the stories of his most famous exploits, tells of being captured by a cyclops and of how he managed to escape. This particular tale provides the analogue to the third voyage, in particular, of Sinbad the sailor. For these tales, Cf. the following:

    Essai sur les fables indiennes, L. Deslongchamps, Paris, 1838. Which deals with the origin and transmission of many of the analogues and a prose version of the Seven Sages of Rome (in Old French) as well as an analysis of the Old French version (13th century) of Dolopathos.

    Dolopathos sive de rege et septem sapientibus, H. Oesterley, ed. London, 1873. Edition of the Latin version of Dolopathos.

    Li romans de Dolopathos, after Herbers, 13th century poet, ed. C. Brunet and A. Montaiglon, Paris, 1846.

    Researches Respecting The Book of Sindibād, D. Comparetti, London, 1882, Publications of the Folk Lore Society, X.

    “Syntipas” in Fabulae Romanenses Graecae Conscriptae ex recensione et cum adnotationibus Alfred Eberhardi, Lipsiae (Teubner), 1872.

Muhsin Mahdi (essay date 1983)

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SOURCE: Mahdi, Muhsin. “Exemplary Tales in the 1001 Nights.” Mundus Arabicus 3 (1983): 1-24.

[In the following essay, Mahdi discusses the stylistic origins of the tales in The Arabian Nights, arguing that they comprise a complete and unified text that reworks earlier stories, particularly the 'exemplary tales,' to create the effect of linguistic unity.]

Literary criticism of 1001 Nights must begin with the following question: Is the 1001 Nights a collection, or a number of independent collections, of stories that follow one another with no connection between them other than the fact that they happen to be placed in this or that order in the edition or translation we chanced to be reading? If the critic's answer to the question is in the affirmative, he should refrain from speaking about the 1001 Nights as a whole, as a literary work that has a beginning and an end and parts that show a recognizable relation among themselves, or even as a “book” in the generally understood sense of this word. He should look instead at each one of the stories contained in the 1001 Nights and analyze it critically, but not attempt to relate it to the following story or to speak of all of them as a totality, at least not more than he would have done had each story been found between the covers of a separate book and the series had a general title such as “The 101 Books.” If, on the other hand, his answer to the question is in the negative, he must ask yet another question: What is the connection between all these stories that exist today in the well-known editions of the book, such as the first Būlāq edition (2 vols., 1251 A.H./1835 A.D.; reprinted by al-Muthannā Library: Baghdad, n.d.)? Is it the result of the labor of the eighteenth-century Cairene scribe who, in order to please and profit from the European tourist who requested a “complete” version of the book that must include “all” the 1001 Nights, not more or less? For the fact of the matter is that whoever examines this edition with care and reads it from beginning to end finds no connection between all the stories in it other than the brittle thread woven by Shahrazad who narrates them, her sister Dinarzad who requests them, King Shahriyar who listens to them, and the Nights that follow one another numbered from 1 to 1001. As for the view that the connection between all of these stories is to be seen in Shahrazad's scheme to avoid being beheaded the next morning through arousing King Shahriyar's desire to hear the rest of each story or other stories and that this went on for 1001 Nights—that view is of little account, especially when one remembers the fact that the first Būlāq edition declares in the 148th Night (1:307), that is, long before the completion of the first quarter of the 1001 Nights, that King Shahriyar said to Shahrazad: “O Shahrazad, you have spoiled my pleasure in my kingdom and made me regret my misdeed of killing the women and my young wives.” How then can one explain the stories that follow this passage, now that Shahrazad is no longer in danger of being beheaded? And the view that Shahrazad narrates her stories for the love of telling them, that the book is a compendium of stories, or that the book means to bring together every type or kind of story—all that is another way of confessing that one has failed to find a connection between these stories beyond the obvious fact that they are stories; and the truth is that so far no literary critic has been able to find a connection between these stories that is any closer than this.

The literary critic who continues to think or feel, or who is driven by his initial reading of the book to imagine that there is a connection between the stories in it, should ask a third question: Is it possible that a connection exists, not between all of these stories, but between a portion or a particular collection of them, and which portion or collection is it? And since the various editions of the 1001 Nights do not all include the same stories or collections of stories, he should ask yet a fourth question: Is there a portion or collection of stories present in all the editions and arranged in all of them in the same way? To have a measure of success, careful literary criticism in this case must be based on a reliable text of some sort; and it is well known among scholars who have examined the editions of the 1001 Nights that the more pretentious of these are trumped up or pieced together from various known (and some unknown) manuscript sources, and that none of them—this holds true for the ones published in the West as well as ones published in the East—presents a critical text. Therefore the literary critic must ask a fifth question: Is there a portion or collection of these stories that is contained in all, or in the earlier and more reliable, manuscripts of the book? This is a question that can be answered in the affirmative. The oldest manuscript of the book belongs to a group that forms what we shall call the “Syrian branch” (the manuscripts preserved and copied in Syria). All manuscripts of this group contain the stories with which all the other manuscripts begin and they break off after giving a good portion of the story of Qamar al-Zamān. They agree with the manuscripts that form what we shall call the “Egyptian branch” (the manuscripts preserved and copied in Egypt) in the arrangement of the stories up to the story of the hunchback; this is then followed by the story of ‘Alī the son of Bakkār, the story of Anīs al-Jalīs, the story of Jullanār of the sea, and finally the story of Qamar al-Zamān, in this order. All these stories exist in the “Egyptian branch,” but their arrangement and position there, as will be explained later, is not the same. The stories contained in the manuscripts that belong to the “Syrian branch” are the oldest as well as the most artful and complex stories of the 1001 Nights as we know this book today. If there is collection of stories in the 1001 Nights that deserves the attention of the literary critic who wishes to ascertain whether there is any connection between them, it is this one; and if he fails to find any connection, even between the stories in this collection, then he must lose all hope; for we know of no other collection of stories that deserves to be called the 1001 Nights. We must therefore ask a sixth question: Is there a connection between the stories in this collection, and how is one to go about trying to find it?

It is perhaps useful to clarify at the outset what is meant here by “connection.” When we look at a book, we normally expect it to have an author with his own style of writing who has organized the book in a way that indicates its beginning and end and the parts in between; selected from his sources what he wanted to select and left out what he did not approve of, did not suit his purpose, or did not believe it to be true or correct; and indicated what he approved or disapproved of explicitly, implicitly, or by way of silence—that is, we usually think that the book's author has a point of view presented explicitly or implicitly in the book's content and organization. And we do not normally refuse to consider that the author has written a book simply on the ground that he did not invent everything in it but derived or gathered some or most or even all of its content from existing written or oral sources, or because the book did not come down to us from its author through written transmission but was transmitted orally over a short or long period of time, as long as the book has a particular form and expresses the purposes of its author or authors. The 1001 Nights is a book the name and identity of whose author (or authors) is not known to us. But to ignore the name and identity of a book's author or authors does not mean that it is “a book without an author,” as some scholars are in the habit of describing the 1001 Nights. For though we may ignore the name and identity of a book's author of authors, we can still ask: Is this an “authored” or “composed” book—that is, does it have a characteristic form, language, style, or point of view, and do these indicate a particular time or place of composition? These are matters that can be found out, pinpointed, and used as indications on the basis of the “composition” itself, even if we ignore the name of the author and the time and place of the composition. There is nothing then to prevent us from asking: Is the collection of stories preserved in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch of the book we are dealing with (and the content of these manuscripts is what we will from now on call the 1001 Nights in this paper unless reference is made to some other version) “authored” or “composed” in this sense?

I must confess that I do not find in the hundreds of books and articles dedicated to the investigation of the Indian and Iranian sources of the book and their translation into Arabic, or in the handful of reports in the Arabic sources about a book called “A Thousand and One Nights” or “A Thousand Nights” during the centuries that precede the oldest manuscript of the Syrian branch, anything that militates against raising this question; indeed, they make one more eager to raise and pursue it. I am not referring now to the fact that most of the secondary literature makes use of one unknown source to prove the existence of another unknown source; speaks of Indian sources and prototypes of which we find only meager and scattered fragments today, and suggests that they were transmitted through many centuries and countries without anyone having a clear idea as to how they were transmitted or retold by untold generations of reporters or storytellers none of whom can be identified; or how they were assembled or pieced together to form longer, more complex stories of the type we find in the 1001 Nights. For all this belongs to the history of mythology and is itself quasi-mythological in character. What I mean is rather this. There are a few stories in Arabic that can be shown to have been textually adapted and incorporated in some of the stories of the 1001 Nights; these should teach us something about how the process of “transmission” took place. After examining these prototypes and comparing them with their counterparts in the 1001 Nights, I could find no instance in which a story was incorporated in its original form. They were all changed, rewritten, dismembered, and recombined with other stories in such a way that their style, content, or point of view was fully transformed, leaving no doubt that we are not in the presence of a hand that merely copied, but a storyteller who deliberately selected elements and aspects of the story before him and rejected or changed others. Thus the sources of which we know play in the 1001 Nights a role similar to the role played by sources used in the production of the vast majority of fictional compositions, which draw their material from earlier models but transform it in various ways. Similarly, what is said about oral transmission does not militate against raising the last question or the way it was formulated. Orally composed and transmitted stories do not necessarily lack order, structure, connection, or unity of purpose. If the stories of the 1001 Nights were transmitted orally rather than recited from a written text—and I no longer believe that the manuscripts of the book, even after taking into account their variety and different branches and versions, require or justify the adoption of the view that they were transmitted orally—the storytellers must have memorized the stories, and their memories must not have been less accurate than the copyists' hands. A book may be composed by an anonymous author, composed from unknown sources, composed by more than one author, and transmitted orally: none of these things prevents it from being “authored” or “composed” in the sense indicated earlier.

There is no doubt that the 1001 Nights adapted most of its stories from written sources. Some of these have survived and are known, while the rest have not survived or have not been identified and therefore we know next to nothing about them apart from the version perserved in the 1001 Nights. But there is no doubt also that the 1001 Nights represents a reworking of the earlier stories by way of additions and omissions and stylistic changes that resulted in a new form recognizable in the book's general linguistic and stylistic unity. In addition, there are many indications that the storyteller who reworked the earlier stories was acquainted with at least the general characteristic elements—narrative style, form, and complexity—of the different kinds of stories. Each of these elements deserves a separate study. All I can do here is present the reader with an example by examining the style of a single type, the exemplary tale, by which I mean stories that interpret proverbs or wise sayings, make use of similes, and offer examples or parables of events that have taken or will take place and as proofs or lessons with which the narrator means to urge the addressee to do or abstain from doing something. The exemplary tale is normally a short story; it occurs very rarely in the 1001 Nights; and it is never a main story but always embedded in a main story or in a story in turn embedded in a main story. I will present these tales in some detail and comment on each in order to show that, although they occur in widely separate locations in the book, they all agree in their form, structure, purpose, and impact on the progress of the story in which they are embedded. (The text of these tales quoted here is throughout that of the oldest manuscript of the Syrian branch. Should it become necessary to refer to the first Būlāq edition, this fact will be indicated by inserting the volume and page numbers of this edition in parentheses after the quotation.)

The first exemplary tale in the 1001 Nights is the tale of the merchant, the donkey, and the ox, embedded in the general framestory, that of the two kings, Shahzaman and Shahriyar. King Shahriyar has been engaged in his customary practice for some time: every night taking a young woman as wife only to have her beheaded the next morning, until there are hardly any eligible young women left and the city is in mourning. The following dialogue takes place between Shahrazad and her father, the vizier whose function it is to find the young women for the king and take charge of beheading them the next morning. “O father, I will let you in on my secret.” “Oh! What is it?” “I desire that you give me in marriage to King Shahriyar; I will either succeed in delivering the people, or else die and perish like the rest.” Her father (who thinks she must be stupid, for he cannot understand why she is courting certain death) tries to dissuade her, but she is firm. “Listen father! You must present me to him. That is all there is to it. I have made up my mind.” He is understandably angry with her and tries to make her change her mind by citing three proverbs (“Whoever does not know how to handle things meets with misfortune”; “Fortune does not befriend those who do not think of the consequences of their actions”; “I was stretching out in comfort but my curiosity would not let me be”) followed by the introduction of the tale, which consists of a comparison, a question about the thing to which the comparison is made, and an expression that announces the tale's beginning. “I am afraid that you will end up in the same situation as the donkey and the ox and the husbandman.” “And what did the husbandman do to the donkey and the ox?” “Know that there was. …” The husbandman worked for a merchant who owned a farm. The merchant was acquainted with the languages spoken by animals. He happened to hear the donkey advise the ox to feign sickness as a clever device to avoid working as hard as he did. When the ox followed the donkey's advice, the merchant told his husbandman to get the donkey to do the ox's work. The donkey spent a miserable day at hard labor, began to blame himself for the advice he gave, and thought of a ruse to get the ox back to work.

At this point the vizier interrupts the tale in the hope that the parable was enough to dissuade his daughter from insisting on going forward with what she had decided to do, and the following dialogue takes place. “You too, my daughter, will perish because of your ill-conceived plan. So do sit down, be quiet, and not court danger. Heed my advice and tender solicitation.” “Father! I must go to this king. You simply must present me to him.” “Do not do this.” “It must be done.” “Unless you sit down I will deal with you the way the merchant dealt with his wife.” “And how did he deal with his wife, father?” The vizier continues the tale, “Know that. …” It appears from this that the vizier believed that the portion of the tale he had just narrated in which he compared Shahrazad to the donkey might be sufficient to restrain her from what she had decided to embark on. But he realizes that he has overestimated his proficiency as storyteller and his trust in the efficacy of his short parable, and that he must go on and offer a more telling tale. So he tells the rest of the tale. The donkey's stratagem was to frighten the ox by telling him that he had heard the merchant order the husbandman that, if the ox did not go back to work the next day, he is to take him to the butcher to slaughter him. When the ox heard the donkey's story, he got up screaming and decided to go back to work. The merchant, who was sitting nearby with his wife and children, heard all this and started to laugh. His wife thought he was ridiculing her and demanded an explanation. But he could not explain. His knowledge of animal languages was a secret not to be divulged to others, for divulging it meant his death. His wife was not convinced by this explanation and demanded that he divulge the secret anyway, even if it meant his death. The merchant was now getting ready to divulge his secret and making preparations for his death. He heard a dialogue between a dog and a cock who was powerful enough to please fifty hens. The cock was telling the dog that the merchant must be a fool who could not manage a single woman; were he to push her into a closet, close the door, and beat her hard with a stick, she would no doubt give up asking him to do what will lead to his death. The merchant followed the cock's advice. His wife entreated him to stop and was no longer interested in the secret. The tale completed, the following dialogue takes place between the vizier and his daughter. “Are you too not going to give up this affair until I deal with you as the merchant dealt with his wife?” “No, by God, I will not give up. These are not the kind of tales that can hold me back from what I am after. If you like I can tell you many such tales. And to make a long story short, if you do not present me to King Shahriyar of your own free will, I will go to him behind your back and say you did not permit a girl in my station to marry him because you thought I was too good for your master.” “Would you really do this?” “O yes I would.”

The formal characteristics of the exemplary tale can be observed in these introductory, central, and concluding passages. The vizier begins with reminding his daughter of three proverbial sayings and then claims that Shahrazad is like the donkey that got itself in trouble. When he finds that this parable makes no impression on Shahrazad, he claims she is like the merchant's wife who was about to cause her husband's death and he is like the merchant whose secret knowledge enabled him to find the solution to his difficulty and beat his wife until she gave up what she was after. It is also clear that the purpose for which this exemplary tale is told—that Shahrazad renounce her plan—fails twice and that Shahrazad derides this kind of tales, does not find them persuasive at all, and sees nothing in them to lead her to renounce her plan. Again, because Shahrazad does not believe that tales of this kind are useful or effective, she does not try to convince her father by narrating an exemplary tale (although, she says, she could tell him many such tales); she responds to the threat implicit in her father's tale, not with a threat implicit in an exemplary tale of her own, but with something she will do, which will enable her to marry the king, make him angry with her father, and may even lead to his death. Unlike the threat implicit in her father's tale, this threat achieves its purpose: the vizier goes to King Shahriyar and gives him Shahrazad in marriage.

If we now compare the exemplary tale with the general framestory in which it is embedded and ask why it is that the framestory moves on without being in any way influenced by the presence of the exemplary tale, we notice that what gives rise to all the actions in the general framestory is direct observation and experience. Thus initially we become aware that an important turn has taken place in the normal course of events, disturbing the lives of the two kings, Shahriyar and his younger brother Shahzaman, when we are presented first with what King Shahzaman observed as he went back to his bedchamber—his wife sleeping with the cook—just before he was to leave and visit his older brother. Seeing this with his own eyes is what caused his suffering and sickness. What gives rise to his recovery is again something he observed as he was looking out of the window of his brother's guest house while his brother was away hunting—his brother's wife with the black man Mas‘ūd in the palace garden. When his brother King Shahriyar asks him what brought about his sickness, King Shahzaman relates to him what he saw in his own bedchamber just before his departure. King Shahriyar is amazed and wonders about the cunning of women, and threatens that he would have done all sorts of things if what happened to his brother had happened to him, but he does not do anything beyond consoling his younger brother, telling him all is well now that he has recovered. When King Shahzaman relates to King Shahriyar what he had observed in the palace garden during the latter's absence, King Shahriyar is extremely angry; yet, because he had not seen the thing with his own eyes, he does not believe his brother. So King Shahzaman says to him, “If you want to see your misfortune with your own eyes in order to believe me … let us both enter secretly … to your palace and you will then see with your own eyes.” King Shahriyar does not decide to do anything about what he has heard from his younger brother except after he sees his misfortune with his own eyes. Finally, when the two kings leave the city and wander about, their purpose is not to hear tales, but to find someone whose misfortune is greater than theirs. They find the demon and his wife (the young girl he had stolen on her wedding night and placed inside a box at the bottom of the ocean in order to protect her virtue); she forces both of them to sleep with her while the demon is asleep; and it turns out that she has been engaged in this practice for a long time. Again, it is what the two kings see and experience that leads King Shahriyar to decide to kill his wife and the female and male servants and form the notion that he could protect the virtue of his wives if he married one for a night and had her beheaded the next morning. The general framestory does not cease emphasizing the central importance of seeing with one's own eyes and of direct experience. What the two kings see with their own eyes and what they experience is the cunning of women. It is their observation and experience that convince them of the truth of the statement of the demon's wife, “if a woman wants something, no one can restrain her.”

Shahrazad is a woman who wants something. Her father the vizier tries to restrain her with an exemplary tale about things he had not himself observed or experienced. She is also a woman who “is knowledgeable, intelligent, and educated; she had read a lot and learned a lot.” She has decided to deliver her people through stories meant to restrain the king from killing his wives. She is not like the donkey who cannot stand hard labor nor like the merchant's wife who is ignorant of the language of animals. The first exemplary tale in the 1001 Nights fails because the vizier who tells it knows nothing about the cunning of his daughter, does not know her real worth, and does not appreciate her learning, especially her knowledge of stories, their many types, and the impact of each type. The fact that the general framestory proceeds without this exemplary tale leaving the slightest trace in its means that there is no difference between the presence or absence of this exemplary tale in the general framestory in which it is embedded. This may explain why two manuscripts of the Egyptian branch (Oxford, Bodleian, No. 550 Or.; Paris, National Library, No. 3615 Ar.) neglect to require it and therefore omitted it, without noticing, however, that it was placed there in order to make the reader aware of the difference between the general framestory and the exemplary tale embedded in it, and the reason for the success of the former and the failure of the latter.

It is true that the general framestory and all the stories that will be narrated by Shahrazad are invented examples. But we are now dealing with what takes place inside these stories, its impact on the course of the story and on what the characters of the story say or do, and the reason why the characters of the story are persuaded or not persuaded by what they see or hear. The purpose of the general framestory and of most of the stories narrated by Shahrazad is to make the hearer or the reader imagine that the characters in these stories speak about and act upon existing, not invented, things. The characters of the general framestory do not act on the basis of what they are told in a tale; they are not persuaded by a tale that claims it is about things that have existed in the past. Beyond this, the exemplary tale narrated by the vizier for the benefit of his daughter Shahrazad offers a comparison that does not fit the character of his daughter. Unlike the merchant's donkey, Shahrazad was not stretching out doing nothing, but working hard at reading and learning about human nature and human wisdom; for though still young, she had “read many books and assorted compilations, books dealing with wisdom and medical matters, and memorized poems, looked into historical reports, and got to know the sayings of the common people and the words of the wise and of kings.” Nor is she an ignorant, weak woman lacking in self-assurance like the merchant's wife who at first insists on causing her husband's death because she does not know that there are languages other than her own and believes in her ignorance that her husband is mocking her, and then allows him to beat her with a stick and is unable to stand much beating before she surrenders. The vizier's exemplary tale differs then from the general framestory in which it is embedded, not only in its form, but in its content as well—that is, its examples are incompatible with the character it aims to exemplify and lack a meaningful point of comparison. This is why Shahrazad mocks and rejects it.

No exemplary tale is embedded in the story of the merchant and the demon (the first story narrated by Shahrazad to King Shahriyar), perhaps because Shahrazad's life is in danger and she must narrate a persuasive story the first Night if she is to survive. She has not had the opportunity to test the king's intelligence; he may have as low an opinion of exemplary tales as she; and if he fails to understand the point of telling an unpersuasive tale, he may very well have Shahrazad beheaded the next morning, in which case she would have failed in her design to deliver her people and ended as yet another victim of the king's passion. The three stories embedded in the story of the merchant and the demon are narrated by three old men, each of whom tells his own life story or an important event that was a turning point in his life. And each one produces for the demon a proof with which he demonstrates that his story is not something he had heard or imagined: as they narrate their stories to the demon, each of them points to his proof, the first to his wife the enchanted gazelle, the second to his two brothers the enchanted dogs, and the third to his wife the enchanted she-mule. The next story, that of the fisherman and the demon, begins in the eighth Night. Seven nights have by now passed and the king has not beheaded her. It appears that his desire to hear Shahrazad's stories has overcome his intention to behead his wives. In the story of the fisherman and the demon Shahrazad inserts an exemplary tale that is more complex than her father's, for there are two further exemplary tales embedded in hers. The exemplary tale occurs near the beginning of the story, after the fisherman had figured out a stratagem to return the demon (who was about to kill him) to his bottle, sealed it, and was threatening to throw him back into the ocean and arrange for him to stay there until doomsday.

At this point the exemplary tale is introduced in the form of a dialogue betwen the demon and the fisherman. “O fisherman, open the bottle so that I can do you a favor and make you rich.” “You are lying. You are lying. You and I are like King Yūnān and the sage Dūbān.” “And what is their story?” This is the story of the sage Dūbān who became the king's favorite courtier after treating and curing his leprosy and the king's envious vizier (“And no man is free of envy”) who reminded the king of the proverb “Fate does not befriend the man who does not consider the consequence” and claimed that the sage Dūbān was an enemy of the king who had come to seek the destruction of his dominion. Here begins the first embedded exemplary tale, introduced by a dialogue between the king and his vizier. “I believe you are doing this because you envy him, as in the tale told of the vizier of King Sindbād when the king was about to kill his son.” “Excuse me, O king of the time, what was it that the vizier of King Sindbād said when the king was about to kill his son?” “Know that King Sindbād was about to kill his son because an envious person had maligned him to his father, but his vizier told him, ‘Do not do something you will regret later on, for I have heard it told that …’.” King Yūnān narrates to the vizier the tale told by King Sindbād's vizier to King Sindbād. It is the tale of the husband who bought a parrot and kept it in his house to watch over his wife. When he returned from his voyage, the parrot told him about his wife's affair with her friend, so he went and beat his wife. The wife learned that it was the parrot that disclosed her affair to her husband and worked out a stratagem to deceive the parrot and make it tell the husband that something took place which he knew had not occurred. He now thought the parrot must have lied about his wife and killed it. Then, after learning from the neighbors that the parrot had told him the truth after all, he ended by regretting having killed it. This is followed by the conclusion of the first embedded exemplary tale. First, the king addresses the vizier as follows, “I am in a similar situation, O vizier. … And you, O vizier, have become envious of this sage and want me to kill him and then regret as the parrot's owner regretted after killing it.” Thus King Yūnān compares in his tale the sage Dūbān to the parrot that was truthful but could be deceived to tell something that led to its death, and compares himself to the husband whose wife was faithless and yet hoodwinked him and made him kill the parrot and regret his deed. This comparison, as we shall see, is not completely incongruous, although it does not predict what the vizier will do or the way the king will meet his end.

As for the cunning vizier, he begins with a critical evaluation of the king's exemplary tale which compared him to the scheming wife, claiming that he himself has not been harmed by the sage Dūbān (as the wife had harmed the husband) and that he is only solicitous for the king's welfare and afraid lest he lose his dominion and die—that is, he compares the king to the poor parrot and compares the sage Dūbān to the scheming wife, which means that he compares himself to the husband who unjustly killed the poor parrot, a comparison that predicts the king's end but that escapes the king. Then the vizier defends himself. “If you do not find out that this is the case, destroy me like the vizier who was destroyed after having schemed against a king's son.” “And how was that?” This is the introduction of the second embedded exemplary tale, which is told by the vizier. It is the tale of the vizier who accompanied a king's son on a hunt and drove him to follow a wild beast. The king's son followed the wild beast and lost its trace. He then came across the same wild beast transformed into a girl who claimed she was the daughter of an Indian king, but who later transformed herself into an ogre and wanted to feed him to her children. The king's son was frightened, prayed to God for aid, was saved, and returned to his father and told him about what the vizier had done. The king called in the vizier and had him killed. This is followed by the conclusion of the vizier's exemplary tale. “Similarly you, O king, if at any time you should trust this sage, favor him, and make him your close companion, he will work to destroy and kill you.” In addition, the vizier accuses the sage Dūbān of being a spy who had come to kill the king, using as evidence Dūbān's ability to cure the king's leprosy by an external process and without making him drink any medicine. The king believes this accusation, is convinced that his vizier is giving the right counsel, and starts to consult him on what he ought to do. The vizier counsels him to behead the sage Dūbān and the king consents.

It is clear from the fact that King Yūnān was persuaded by the tale told by his vizier and took his advice on what he ought to do next that the king lacked the capacity to examine the vizier's tale. He does not ask him, for example, when and how, once he had beheaded the sage, he will be able to ascertain the truth of the vizier's claim that he is a spy who had come seeking his destruction, or when and how he will get to know that his vizier was giving him sincere advice rather than planning to remove the sage Dūbān from the scene out of jealousy or other ulterior motives. Further, the comparison in the vizier's tale begins as if the vizier is planning to compare himself to the vizier in his own tale who had planned to destroy the king's son; for he begins his tale by asking King Yūnān to destroy him in case the king does not confirm his claim that the sage Dūbān had come to work for the king's destruction. But the tale he tells does not explain what motivated the vizier in the tale to destroy the king's son or why the vizier in the tale was sure that the king's son was in fact destroyed and could not save himself and return to his father and inform him about what the vizier had done; nor is the tale clear as to what the king's son and the ogre stand for or who it is they are meant to represent. Then at the end of the tale the vizier changes the comparison: it is now the sage Dūbān, not himself as he claimed at the beginning of the tale, who corresponds to the vizier in the tale. King Yūnān's vizier, who engaged in the criticism of the king's tale, is taking advantage of the king's ignorance and uncritical attitude and narrates to him a tale that is flimsy in structure, lacking in points of correspondence, and having no purpose other than to confuse the king. Beyond this, the vizier does not depend on the impression that his tale makes on the king, but arouses his doubts, instills in him the fear of death, and makes him afraid of the sage Dūbān for nothing that he had done but merely because he may be able to destroy the king, and the king begins to think that “he who cured me by means of something I held in my hand is also able to kill me by giving me something to smell,” though he knows of nothing to justify his doubts concerning the sage's fidelity and attachment to him. It is thus that the vizier succeeds in driving the king to do what he wants him to do, not by means of the tale he had narrated, but by what he tells him afterwards and the manner in which he arouses in him the passions of fear and uncertainty about his survival.

Having finished with the two embedded exemplary tales, the fisherman proceeds with the main tale and narrates to the demon how the sage Dūbān came to know that he had been the object of the courtiers' jealousy and that they had lied about him before the king, but also “that the king is ignorant, indecisive, and not fully in charge.” He regrets having healed the king and entreats him to spare his life. (At this point the fisherman interrupts the tale and addresses the demon, comparing himself to the sage Dūbān and the demon to King Yūnān: “Just as I repeatedly asked you to spare my life, O demon, and you insist on killing me.”) The sage Dūbān then reproaches the king for treating him so badly after having cured him and compares himself to the crocodile and the evil repayment it received for its good deed. When the ignorant king asks, “And what is the tale of the crocodile?” the sage Dūbān thinks it is pointless to tell the tale and answers him, “I cannot tell it now in the condition I am in.” And when he finds out that he cannot escape death, he asks the king to allow him to go back to his own residence to arrange for his will and take care of his affairs, including the donation of his books to those who “deserve them,” especially a book called the Arcane of the Arcane he intends to present to the king. This book has many virtues, “but the first secret contained in it is that when you, O king, behead me and open the sixth page and read three lines from the page on your left and speak to me, my head will speak and answer whatever question you ask of it.”

The sage succeeds in arousing the ignorant king's curiosity, and he is now eager to experience the strange affair and converse with the decapitated sage, who might enlighten him about such questions as the truth of the statement of his scheming vizier. By beheading the sage Dūbān, he could have thought, he would avoid the danger of being destroyed by him, learn the truth about his vizier's plans, and satisfy a passing whim, “to see how your head talks to me.” The book entitled the Arcane of the Arcane, however, contains no writing, only empty pages soaked in poison; when the king tries to open the pages, he is forced to moisten his finger by putting it in his mouth and dies along with the sage Dūbān. The fisherman concludes his tale by comparing himself to the sage Dūbān and the demon to King Yūnān: “Had King Yūnān spared the sage Dūbān, he would have survived and God would have saved him. But he insisted on killing him, so God on high caused his death. And you, O demon, had you spared my life to begin with, I would have now spared yours. But you insisted on killing me, so I will kill you by imprisoning you in this bottle and throwing you into the bottom of this ocean.” The demon begins to scream and asks the fisherman to free him, reminding him of the proverb “O you who was kind to him who had done you harm,” and compares himself to ‘Ātika and the fisherman to Imāma, but when the fisherman asks him, “And what did Imāma do to ‘Ātika,” he excuses himself from telling their tale, “This is not the time to tell tales, confined in this narrow prison as I am. Not until you set me free”—the demon compares himself to the sage Dūbān who refused to tell the tale of the crocodile.

The exemplary tale told by the fisherman fails at the end; the fisherman does not throw the demon into the ocean as his tale would require him to do. His exemplary tale is similar to that of King Yūnān's vizier in that it does not correspond to what it is meant to exemplify and in that it changes its point of view as it proceeds. The fisherman is not a sage who knows how to cure kings of their sickness and possesses no secret book; it is in fact the demon who possesses secret knowledge with which he can enrich the fisherman. The story begins with comparing the fisherman to the sage Dūbān and the demon to King Yūnān. But this comparison, faulty as it is, loses its sense after the king orders that the sage Dūbān be beheaded and he himself dies of poison. Therefore the fisherman retracts this comparison and begins to speak of the unknown—what would have happened had the king spared the sage's life and what would have happened had the demon not tried to kill him—matters quite extraneous to his exemplary tale. The demon is not persuaded by the fisherman's exemplary tale, does not argue with him about the correctness of his comparison, and does not find it useful to tell the exemplary tale of Imāma and ‘Ātika. Instead, he takes a pledge that he will not try to harm him and also that he will make him rich. What leads the fisherman to open the bottle is not the impact of his exemplary tale on the demon, but rather the fact that he himself is now persuaded that the demon will not harm him because of the pledge, which the demon took swearing by the Great Name, and also because he is persuaded that the demon is able to make him rich. The fisherman opens the bottle because of his newly-won feeling of security and his desire for riches. Neither the demon nor the fisherman are persuaded by an exemplary tale; and the demon finally persuades the fisherman, not by means of an exemplary tale, but by swearing by the Great Name and arousing his passion for wealth.

This then is the exemplary tale embedded in the story of the fisherman and the demon. Each one of the three exemplary tales—the tale of the sage Dūbān and King Yūnān and the two tales embedded in it—fails to achieve its purpose and leaves no trace in the course of the affairs it is meant to influence. Neither the fisherman throws the bottle into the ocean as he would have done had he been truly persuaded by his own tale and the comparison he makes, nor does King Yūnān refuse to kill the sage Dūbān as he would have had to do had he been truly persuaded by his own tale and the comparison he makes; and the vizier tells a tale knowing full well that the comparison made in it does not correspnd to his relation to the king, that the ignorant king does not comprehend the point of the tale, and that he was not about to drive the king to kill the sage by means of an exemplary tale, so he concludes by persuading him in a more direct manner by playing on his fear of violent death.

It is of interest to point here to an external clue that indicates that narrators of the 1001 Nights were not unaware of the formal structure, content, purpose, or impact of the exemplary tale. The two exemplary tales inserted in the tale the fisherman narrates to the demon are adapted from a well-known book translated into Arabic in the early ‘Abbāside period called the “Story of Sindbād” or the “Story of the King's Son and the Seven Viziers.” This was originally an independent book, not part of the books known at that time as “Hezār Afsāne” and “A Thousand Nights,” and was incorporated in the 101 Nights and 1001 Nights at a much later time (in the case of the 1001 Nights this may have taken place as late as the twelfth century A.H./eighteenth century A.D., that is, after having survived as an independent book for a millennium). The fact that these two exemplary tales were inserted in the story of the fisherman and the demon and that the name Sindbād was given to the king (in the “Story of Sindbād” it was the name of the sage in charge of the king's son's education, not the king's name) indicates also that the “Story of Sindbād” was not part of the 1001 Nights when the story of the fisherman and the demon in the form we have it was narrated as part of the latter book. The original story of Sindbād is an exemplary tale that is quite complicated in form and structure. It is the story of the king's son and his tutor, the sage Sindbād, who one day looks into his pupil's horoscope and finds that if the young man speaks a single word during the next seven days he will meet an evil end, and the story of the king's concubine who tries to seduce the young prince. The prince refuses her advances and tells her that, at the end of the seven-day period, he plans to inform the king of what she did and have him kill her. The concubine goes to the king and accuses his son of trying to seduce her and then kill her because she had refused to submit to him. The king is angry and is about to have his son killed. But the viziers are apprehensive lest the king kill his son, regret what he has done, and blame them for not restraining him. So each day one of the viziers narrates to the king one or more exemplary tales about the cunning of women meant to hold him back from killing his son, and, after each vizier ends his tale or tales, the concubine narrates one or more exemplary tales about the cunning of viziers or the sons of kings meant to drive the king to kill his son before the end of the seven-day period when the prince would be able to speak and disclose the truth of the affair. For seven days the concubine fails, while the viziers succeed in restraining the king from killing his son, after which the prince is free to speak and inform the king of the concubine's guilt.

The different versions of the “Story of Sindbād” that have come down to us do not agree on the number of the embedded exemplary tales or on their form, and thus do not permit a satisfactory account of that book's structure. But most of the embedded tales begin with citing a proverb or a saying that functions like a proverb, and every one of them is a tale related by a narrator who has “heard” it or to whom it was “transmitted,” but who has not himself observed or experienced the events told in it. The tale of the parrot, which is told in the 1001 Nights by King Yūnān, is told in the “Story of Sindbād” by the king's concubine during the third day. By adapting the two exemplary tales from a well-known collection of such tales, the author or narrator of the 1001 Nights reminds the reader of the existence and popularity of these tales; and by introducing them with expressions in the form of similes he draws the reader's attention to the fact that they are exemplary tales. But the interesting point is that he reverses the impact of the two tales he adapts from the “Story of Sindbād.” In the “Story of Sindbād” the tale of the parrot succeeds in prevailing upon the king not to kill his son at the end of the first day, and the tale of the king's son and the ogre succeeds in making him angry and commanding that his son be killed early in the third day, after which he is dissuaded by two tales told by his vizier that same day. In the 1001 Nights, in contrast, the tale of the parrot fails to save the sage's life and the tale of the king's son and the ogre fails to lead to his death, although at the end he is decapitated due to the king's fear of death. It is as if Shahrazad—or the author or narrator of the 1001 Nights—is pointing out to the reader that the exemplary tales that fill the “Story of Sindbād” and similar storybooks are paltry, insignificant, and insipid stories that fail to achieve their purpose and that, in any case, they do not play a positive role in the stories of the 1001 Nights in which they are embedded.

The lesson did not escape the author of the odd version of the exemplary tale narrated by the fisherman to the demon in the first Būlāq edition of the 1001 Nights. The exemplar of the manuscript from which the first Būlāq edition was printed must have mentioned that King Yūnān narrated a tale to his vizier (it probably mentioned also the title of that tale, “the owner of the parrot's regret for having killed it,” as we find it in MS, Paris, National Library, No. 3612 Ar., fol. 11r), but not the tale itself (just as we do not find the tale in the Paris manuscript just mentioned), so it replaced it with another tale, “King Sindbād's regret for killing the falcon” (1:14-15), not found in the earlier manuscripts of the 1001 Nights, which is the tale of the king who killed his falcon because it prevented him from drinking from a cup containing poison and not water, as he had imagined, and then found out that the falcon had saved his life and regretted killing it. This indifferent story, as Edward William Lane characterizes it in the notes to his translation, was thought by the scribe an adequate substitute for the tale of the parrot, since it predicted the end of King Yūnān who will die of poison. But what interests us in this substitution is that the scribe knew that the actions and characters of these exemplary tales are not organically related to the actions and characters of the story in which they are embedded and therefore did not trouble himself to search for the tale of the parrot in other manuscripts; instead, he simply substituted another exemplary tale for it, went on copying the rest of his exemplar, and produced the confused state of affairs in the manuscript from which the first Būlāq edition was printed.

The third exemplary tale in the 1001 Nights is the tale of the envier and the envied narrated by the second kalandar in the story of the porter and the three ladies, which follows the story of the fisherman and the demon. This is the last exemplary tale in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch. The second kalandar is a king's son fated to become a wood gatherer. One day he comes upon a trap door leading to an underground apartment where he finds a demon's wife, spends the night with her, and is discovered by the demon who kills her because, he says, he is certain that she has betrayed him and, according to the prescriptions of the legal system he follows, is no longer lawfully his wife. Since he is not certain that the prince is the guilty person, however, he decides to transform him into whichever animal form the prince wishes to assume. Here begins the introduction of the exemplary tale. “I said, having entertained the desire that he may pardon me, ‘O demon, it is more fitting that you pardon me, so pardon me as the envied pardoned the envier.’ The demon said, ‘And how did that happen?’ I said, ‘It is claimed, oh demon. …’” This is the tale of the envied who pardoned the person who envied him and did not scold him for spoiling his pleasure in life or for trying to end it by throwing him into a well. The prince concludes the tale by addressing the demon again. “So consider, O demon, how the envied pardoned the envier, how the latter had envied him, harmed him, and pursued him until he threw him in the well and meant to kill him, while the envied did not counter by harming him but rather forgave and pardoned him.” This too is an exemplary tale in which the example does not correspond to what is being exemplified. The prince did not envy the demon or try to destroy him, and the tale contains nothing that may be compared to the demon's wife who betrayed her husband. Further, the envier in the tale had no doubt about the identity of the envier or that it was the envier who threw him into the well and meant to destroy him. So the tale is rather pointless. There is no reason for its presence in this place, unless the author or narrator wanted to present the reader with yet a third example of a tale that fails to address the issue at hand and leaves no trace in the story in which it is embedded. The demon pays no attention to the tale, proceeds to do exactly what he had meant to do before hearing it, and transforms the prince into a monkey. Whether this was the reason for which the scribe who copied the exemplar from which all the manuscripts of the Egyptian branch are derived decided to omit this tale, we will never know. But we find no trace of it in any of these manuscripts or in the first Būlāq edition.

Before concluding the account of exemplary tales in the 1001 Nights we ought perhaps to mention a story that imitates but is not in fact an exemplary tale. This is the story of Ni‘ma and Nu‘m narrated by the magian Bahrām after his conversion to Islam at the hand of Qamar al-Zamān's sons al-Amjad and al-As‘ad in the story of Qamar al-Zamān. The early part of the story of Qamar al-Zamān is found in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch, but the story is incomplete. The complete story is found, however, in a manuscript of the Egyptian branch copied in 1177 A.H./1763-4 A.D. (Oxford, Bodleian, No. 551 Or.) and in the more recent manuscripts of that branch, which contain a version similar to that of the first Būlāq edition with its numerous additions of material of a sexual nature, on the one hand, and omissions that disfigure the logic of the story, on the other (1:343-416; the story of Ni‘ma and Nu‘m is in 1:403-414; the quotations below are from the Bodleian manuscript). Bahrām suggests that al-Amjad and al-As‘ad prepare to journey with him to the city of their father Qamar al-Zamān where he will reconcile them with their father who had ordered their execution because of unfounded accusations against them made by their mothers-in-law. At this point the story is introduced as follows. When they heard their father's name, they began to weep. Bahrām said to them, “Do not weep, my brothers, for in the end you will meet your father as Ni‘ma and Nu‘m met.” “And what happened to Ni‘ma and Nu‘m?” “The story of Ni‘ma and Nu‘m is an amazing and strange affair.” “For God's sake, do tell us what happened to Ni‘ma and Nu‘m. Who knows, it may lighten our burden and make us forget our troubles.” “Very well then. It has reached me, and God knows best, that there was. …” Bahrām narrates to them the story of the young lovers, Ni‘ma the son of al-Rabī‘of Kufa and his girl Nu‘m, how they were separated by al-Hajjāj the governor of Kufa who arranged for the girl to be abducted and sold to the caliph ‘Abd al-Malik the son of Marwān, and what happened to them until they met again in the caliph's palace in Damascus. After hearing the story, al-Amjad and al-As‘ad say to Bahrām, “By God, what happened to these two is more amazing and strange. You have indeed made us forget our troubles, O Bahrām.” The story, which begins as though it would take the form of an exemplary tale, does not exemplify what happened to al-Amjad and al-As‘ad except remotely in that it speaks of the ultimate reunion of the two lovers. Neither the separation of al-Amjad and al-As‘ad from their father corresponds in any way to the separation of Ni‘ma and Nu‘m, nor was their separation caused by someone who corresponds to al-Hajjāj, nor do their adventures after their separation from their father correspond to anything that happened to the two lovers. This is a story of thetype known as “amazing and strange stories” meant to amuse the hearer and make him forget his troubles because it happens to be more amazing and strange than what had happened to him (as pointed out by what the narrator says at the beginning and the way the hearers react at the end), and in this respect it is similar to what King Shahzaman saw in the garden of King Shahriyar's palace, which helped him overcome his sorrow. It is perhaps meant to indicate that Bahrām foretells the meeting between al-Amjad and al-As‘ad and their father, which takes place sooner than he had thought. For he does not travel with them to their father's city and does nothing to help them to meet him or to reconcile them as he plans to do at the beginning of the story; were this the point of his story, it would have been pointless, since immediately after Bahrām concludes the story of Ni‘ma and Nu‘m, the story in which it is embedded gathers momentum and reaches a speedy conclusion: all the sons and fathers whom fate had separated meet again but they meet in the city where Bahrām narrated the story of Ni‘ma and Nu‘m. This then is a story whose beginning reminds us of the exemplary tales we have been discussing earlier. But the fact of the matter is that it is not an exemplary tale.

Having reached this point in our exposition, we need to explain how we can distinguish between the exemplary tale and other forms of embedded stories. As their name indicates, all embedded stories occur within the longer stories in which they are embedded. (As far as I know the longer stories do not have a common name indicating their function as stories that contain embedded stories.) But before we do so, we need to distinguish between two forms of embedded stories, the “inserted” stories and the “framed” stories. (The longer stories in the latter case are known, with a view to this function, as “framestories,” but, since this name is sometimes applied to both the story that is the frame and the story that is framed by it, it is perhaps better to call the longer stories “framing stories.”) Now something like this classification has been known to students of narrative forms, but the distinction between the two types of embedded stories has not been clearly drawn in connection with the stories of the 1001 Nights. For it is said that “inserted” stories in the 1001 Nights are much shorter, less significant, and have less weight than the stories in which they are embedded, while “framed” stories are longer, more significant, and weightier than the “framing stories.” This is generally true in the 1001 Nights of “framed” stories and of that sub-group of the inserted stories which we have been discussing here, the exemplary tales, but not of inserted stories in general. Thus the story of the two viziers Nūr al-Dīn and Shams al-Dīn, which is narrated by Ja‘far the Barmakide to Harūn al-Rashīd and embedded in the story of the three apples, is an “inserted” story, yet much longer and by far more significant than the story in which it is embedded. It is not useful then to concentrate on the story's length and importance and use these as measures for distinguishing “inserted” from “framed” stories. What is needed is a measure that holds true for all “inserted” stories and distinguishes them from all “framed” stories in a way that leaves no room for hesitation or doubt.

Since framed stories are the most common in the 1001 Nights, let us begin with these. My own observation has led me to the view that in the 1001 Nights the framed story is characterized by the fact that its narrator had either himself observed the characters and experienced the actions in the story he narrates, or else heard the story from someone who in turn had observed the characters and experienced the actions in the story he narrates, and so on—that is, the framed story is always or in the end a story about personal experience. When it is transmitted on the authority of an earlier narrator, it is not characterized by the fact of the transmission as such, but by the fact that the chain of transmission terminates in a narrator who personally observed the characters and experienced the actions in the story he narrates. The inserted story, on the other hand, is characterized and distinguished from the framed story by the fact that the narrator had not observed the characters or experienced the actions he narrates, had not heard it from someone who observed the characters and experienced the actions he narrates, and so forth—that is, the inserted story is always or in the end an invented story or a story about invented things that have not been observed or experienced. These, it seems to me, are the marks that distinguish the framed story from the inserted story in the 1001 Nights.

As for the exemplary tale, that which marks it off from the inserted story in general is that it is the type of inserted story in which the narrator declares at the beginning (and sometimes also in the course of the tale and/or at the end) that his purpose is to present an example, using one or more expressions in the form of similes in which he mentions the characters or actions in the story in which the tale is being embedded and the characters or actions with which the former are to be compared, and connects them through expressions (“as,” “like,” etc.) that show explicitly that he intends to show a similarity. Comparison, correspondence, or similarity as such are not the distinguishing marks of the exemplary tale. It is not these as such that distinguish the exemplary tale from the inserted story in general or even from the framed story, for they are common to all inserted and framed stories. What distinguishes the exemplary tale is the narrator's declared intention of making a comparison and his use of a particular device, the simile. Thus the difference between the exemplary tale and the inserted story in general is the difference between the use of what rhetoricians call “simile,” on the one hand, and “metaphor,” on the other. In addition, we have pointed out that the exemplary tale in the 1001 Nights is usually brief. We can add further that they all make comparisons with animate beings other than man and contain at least one such character (the donkey and the ox, the dog and the cock, the parrot, the ogre), or such things as a decapitated man who speaks or demons that speak a human language; in this respect they are mythical and can be called fables (“fables” and “parables” are terms that King Shahriyar applies to the exemplary tales crammed into the 1001 Nights by the copyists of the more recent manuscripts; see the first Būlāq edition, 1:318 [line 10], 319 [line 10]), but with the understanding that inserted stories in general as well as framed stories may contain fabulous characters also.

After presenting, describing, and characterizing the exemplary tales in the 1001 Nights, we need to consider briefly their place in the vastly expanded late version of which the first Būlāq edition is a fair representative, for this is the version that has been studied by most of those who classified the book's stories. Mia I. Gerhardt, author of the Art of Story-telling: A Literary Study of the Thousand and One Nights (Leiden, 1963, 388), pointed out that what she called inserted stories do not occur in this version after the story of Qamar al-Zamān except in the story of Jānshāh, which is embedded in the story of the serpent queen (1:657-710; the story of Jānshāh is in 1:673-702). The story of Jānshāh, however, is not an inserted story but a framed story in which Jānshāh narrates the amazing and strange things he himself observed and experienced. After Jānshāh hears the story of Bulūqiyā he tells him, “Poor man! You have not seen much in your life, have you? You should know, O Bulūqiyā, that I saw the prophet Solomon during his lifetime and saw innumerable other things. I have an amazing story and a strange tale to tell, and I want you to stay with me so that I can tell you my story and inform you of the reason for which I have been staying here.” He starts to tell his story, then interrupts it to say, “And here I am, I Jānshāh, the one who saw all this, O brother Bulūqiyā.” Bulūqiyā is amazed by what Jānshāh has told him and asks him why he is sitting in that particular place, and Jānshāh proceeds with the rest of his story. “When Bulūqiyā heard this account by Jānshāh, he was amazed … and said, ‘By God, I thought I had journeyed all over and covered the entire world. By God, hearing your story made me forget all I had seen.’” There is nothing in the form or content of Jānshāh's story to distinguish it from other framed stories. Let us turn then to the inserted stories contained in this version before the story of Qamar al-Zamān.

The manuscripts of which the first Būlāq edition is a fair representative changed the order of the stories in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch after the story of the hunchback. Thus instead of the earlier order described at the beginning of this paper, in these manuscripts the story of the hunchback is followed by the story of Anīs al-Jalīs, then the story of ‘Umar the son of al-Nu‘mān, then a collection of animal fables and other exemplary tales, then the story of ‘Alī the son of Bakkār, and then the story of Qamar al-Zamān, while the story of Jullanār of the sea is postponed to the fourth quarter (Nights 738-756; 2:242-63). Thus when Mia I. Gerhardt speaks of the inserted stories in the 1001 Nights she means the three stories we have presented as found in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch and the stories crammed in the late Egyptian branch between the story of Anīs al-Jalīs and the story of Qamar al-Zamān. Let us then consider the so-called inserted stories in this portion of the first Būlāq edition. To begin with, she says that the story of the slaves Bakhīt and Kāfūr embedded in the story of Ghānim the son of Ayyūb (1:127-30) are inserted stories, when the fact of the matter is that the two slaves tell their life stories and how they came to be castrated (the third castrated slave, whose name is Sawāb, does not tell his life story because “my own story is too long and this is not the right time to tell it” [1:130]; compare the story of the third old man framed in the story of the merchant and the demon, which was not told in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch and in most of the manuscripts of the Egyptian branch) and are therefore framed rather than inserted stories. As for the story of ‘Umar the son of al-Nu‘mān (a long epic tale that must have been an independent book and belongs to the art of epic storytelling rather than the art of storytelling encountered in the 1001 Nights), it contains the long inserted story of Tāj al-Mulūk and Princess Dunyā (1:228-71) narrated by the vizier Dandān to King Daw' al-Makān (“all this while they were besieging Constantinople”); in this inserted story is embedded in turn the story of ‘Azīz and ‘Azīza [1:235-55] in which ‘Azīz tells the story of his affair with his cousin ‘Azīza (it is a framed story); the story of the hashish addict (1:290-91) narrated by the girl Bākūn to Kān Mākān, which is an inserted story; and finally the two stories narrated by the Bedouin Hammād the son of al-Fazārī (1:295-99) to the three kings about the most amazing things he has seen or that have happened to him, which are framed stories. So far then we find only two inserted stories neither of which is an exemplary tale.

As for the collection of stories that follow the story of ‘Umar the son of al-Nu‘mān (no student of the 1001 Nights entertains any doubt that they are foreign to the book in their language, style, and structuring, or that they have been placed in the book for no clear reason), they are a series of animal stories and short parables (1:301-20); the content of all of them indicates that they are exemplary tales adapted from the work of the Brethren of Purity, earlier collections of animal stories, and elsewhere. They include six inserted exemplary tales: the tale of the falcon and the partridge, the tale of the flea and the mouse, the tale of the hawk and the birds of prey, the tale of the sparrow and the eagle, the tale of the merchant and the two men who duped him, and the tale of the foolish weaver (1:311, 316-19), not to mention the numerous short proverbial sayings. All of these begin with similes or expressions that declare the narrator's intention to present an example, such as “I consider you to be like” so and so, “I have a tale that deals” with this or that, “so that I can repay you for your good deed as it happened” to so and so, “what you did for me is not unlike” so and so, “I am afraid that you will encounter what happened to” so and so, “you will be like the husbandman who,” “so that you do not meet the end of” so and so, or “he was in the same situation as” so and so. Some of these exemplary tales succeed in achieving their purpose, others fail, and still others have no purpose beyond narrating the tale. Their style indicates that the copyist who crammed them in the 1001 Nights was aware of the fact that they are not of the same type as the book's other stories and therefore tried hard to emphasize that they do form part of it. Thus he began by making King Shahriyar demand that Shahrazad narrate such tales in particular, making him say to her, “I desire that you narrate to me some bird tales,” and he follows this up by making King Shahriyar confess that these tales are making a deep impression on him by having him repeat to her: “O Shahrazad, you have spoiled my pleasure in my kingdom and made me regret my misdeed of killing the women and my young wives. Do you have some tales about birds?”; “O Shahrazad, you have provided me with many more exhortations and lessons. Do you have some tales about wild beasts?”; “O Shahrazad, by God this is a fine tale. Do you have an account dealing with good friendship and its preservation in hard times so as to save one's friend from death?”; “O Shahrazad, your tales are beautiful indeed. Do you know of similar fables?”; “O Shahrazad, you reminded me of something of which I have been heedless. Will you not narrate more examples of this sort?”; “O Shahrazad, narrate more tales of this sort” (1:301, 307, 308, 315, 318, 319, 320; and in so doing he places the king in a position that is even less commanding than the crow who, when told by the fox, “I have tales concerning good friendship; if you want me to tell them to you I will do so,” answers haughtily, “I permit you to narrate them” [1:316]). All of this is a confession on the part of the copyist that these tales are out of place here, that the original narrators of 1001 Nights disdained narrating tales of this sort, and that their insertion in the book needed to be justified by praising them, exaggerating King Shahriyar's desire to hear them, and bragging about the impression they made on him.

This is true also of the other exemplary tale dragged into the 1001 Nights after the story of Qamar al-Zamān. Thus the exemplary tales inserted in the story of Sindbād or the king's son and the seven viziers (2:52-86) are not framed stories (as Mia I. Gerhardt thought in her book [400-401]), though they and similar tales may have their own structures; they are all inserted exemplary tales, as explained earlier. The copyists who dragged in the collection of animal stories discussed above, the story of the king's son and the seven viziers, and the rest of the exemplary tales found in the manuscripts of the late Egyptian branch did not read the 1001 Nights that reached them in its earlier form with any measure of care and did not consider the reason for the rare occurrence of such tales in the book they had before them, why only a few exemplary tales were inserted in it, or the point of view of its author or narrator concerning exemplary tales in general.

The author or narrator of the 1001 Nights was neither a literary critic nor a man engaged in the classification of stories. He was a storyteller who expressed his point of view concerning exemplary tales in the way he narrated them and the way he inserted them in his other stories. Subsequent authors or narrators who understood his purpose followed in his footsteps. Copyists who missed what he was after and thought that the book was like a hole in the ground in which one could dump one story after another regardless of their styles, structures, or contradictory aims, disfigured the book and produced the confusing text we find in the first Būlāq edition. The author or narrator of the 1001 Nights preserved in the manuscripts of the Syrian branch makes it plain at the very beginning that Shahrazad was perfectly capable of narrating a large number of exemplary tales. Nevertheless, after the general framestory in which her father narrates for her benefit the first exemplary tale, she herself narrates no more than two exemplary tales. All three exemplary tales, whether told to Shahrazad by her father or told by Shahrazad herself, agree in their structure, style, and failure to have any effect on the course of the stories in which they are inserted. Each of them begins with declaring explicitly and at length its purpose in a way that leaves no doubt in the mind of the reader that the author or narrator intended to draw his attention to the fact that what will follow is an exemplary tale: it is as if the author or narrator meant to fatten the cow before slaughtering and opening it up to show the reader that there is nothing there but skin and bones—like the first old man's concubine in the story of the merchant and the demon, who had been transformed into a cow by the jealous wife, after she was sacrificed by her husband during the Great Feast. Then he narrates the tale, only to show that it is inept, inappropriate, proceeds at random, strays from what is being exemplified, and fails to make its point. Finally, he criticizes it through the character to whom it is narrated, who makes fun of it, pays no attention to it, and does not perform the action the exemplary tale is meant to make him perform or performs the action it is meant to prevent him from performing.

Heinz Grotzfeld (essay date 1985)

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SOURCE: Grotzfeld, Heinz. “Neglected Conclusions of the Arabian Nights.” Journal of Arabic Literature 16 (1985): 73-87.

[In the following essay, Grotzfeld asserts that a careful study of noncanonical materials associated with The Arabian Nights can shed important light on the history of the collection.]

Certainly no other work of Arabic literature has become so universally known in the West as the Stories of Thousand and One Nights, more commonly called The Arabian Nights' Entertainments or simply The Arabian Nights. Since their first appearance in Europe (Galland's French translation 1704 sqq.; English and German translations of Galland only a few years later), the Nights met with lively interest from a large public. In the latter part of the 18th century, this interest generated something like a run on manuscripts of the Nights, especially in the English world, as is documented by the relatively large number of Arabic MSS of the Nights that were purchased by British residents or travellers in the East and are now to be found in British libraries. Even the I Calcutta edition of the Nights of 1814 and 1818 as well as the II Calcutta edition of 1839-1842 are due to British activities, since they are both based on MSS brought from Syria or Egypt to India by Englishmen.1 On the continent, too, one library or another contains MSS of the Nights, most of them, however, purchased after 1800 and representing the same recension as the Bulaq edition; a considerable number of older MSS of the Nights are to be found only in the Bibliothèque Nationale de Paris.

The interest in MSS of the Nights, which is to be observed in the 18th century, diminished at the beginning of the 19th century. Arabists, anyway, did not make the most of the MSS treasured in European libraries. They were satisfied with picking out stories which had not been translated at that time and, in their own translations or expansions of Galland, simply added them to the repertoire of Nights stories already existing. There are two exceptions. One is Joseph von Hammer, whose French translation, made in Constantinople from 1804 to 1806 on the basis of a complete Egyptian MS and sent to Silvestre de Sacy for publication, came out only in 1823, not in its original form, but in a stylistically rather unsatisfactory German version for which his publisher Cotta was responsible. The important information given by Hammer in his introduction about the Nights, the complete list of the stories, their order and segmentation into nights, as well as his view of the history of the work, had been published earlier in the Fundgruben and the Journal Asiatique. The other exception is Maximilian Habicht, “who, through close intercourse with Orientals during his long residence in Paris, had come to embrace entirely the irresponsible Oriental attitude towards MSS and editing” (Macdonald 1909, p. 687) and made out of fragments of the Nights and other material a compilation of his own, which he published in the years 1825-1839 (vols. I-VIII of the Breslau edition; the remaining four vols. were published after Habicht's death by H. L. Fleischer, 1842-1843).

The Bulaq edition of 1835, which was widely circulated both in the Arab world and in Europe, and the II Calcutta edition, which is of the same recension, superseded almost completely all other texts and formed the general notion of the Arabian Nights. For more than half a century it was neither questioned nor contested that the text of the Bulaq and II Calcutta editions was the true and authentic text. This opinion did not change even when in 1887 H. Zotenberg in his Notice sur quelques manuscrits des Mille et Une Nuits et la traduction de Galland showed that the text of the Bulaq and II Calcutta editions represented only one recension of the work2 and that other recensions of the Nights were attested by manuscript evidence much older than any evidence for ZER.3 It is not that the results of Zotenberg's research were disregarded. But a process not uncommon in the history of texts made it possible to preserve the generally accepted notion of the Nights more or less unaffected by them: ZER was given, by tacit convention, the status of a canonical text, whereas other recensions were degraded to the rank of apocrypha. Still another group of texts was classified as pseudepigrapha, e.g. the Breslau edition, which was revealed by Macdonald to be a compilation made by its editor Habicht.4 Even texts which since Galland had been considered to be integral parts of the Nights, e.g. Aladdin or Ali Baba, became classified as spurious.5 Disregarding “apocryphal” or “pseudepigraphical” material may frequently be of little or no consequence. But focusing the view on ZER rather blocked philological research concerning the text. It is one of the purposes of this paper to show that a careful study of “apocryphal” materials can throw new light on the history of the Nights.

The original conclusion of the Nights seems to be lost. Galland never had a text for the conclusion he gave to his Mille et Une Nuits, and he was considered—wrongly, see below, n. 21—to have invented this end himself. Thus it was not before the early 19th century, when copies of ZER came into the hands of Europeans, that an Arabic text of the end of the Nights became known in Europe. Hammer boasted of being the first European to have discovered the unexpected conclusion of the Nights (for his unexpected conclusion, see below). The conclusion of the Nights as it stands in the Bulaq and II Calcutta editions is no doubt a very simple piece of literature.6 Nevertheless, it reflects the conclusion outlined in the latter half of the 10th century in the following famous passage of the Fihrist:

“… until she had passed a thousand nights, while he at the same time was having intercourse with her as his wife, until she was given a child by him, which she showed to him, informing him of the stratagem she had used with him. Then he admired her undertaking and inclined to her and preserved her alive. And the king had a qahramāna who was called Dīnārzād, and she assisted her in that.”7

The central idea of the conclusion in ZER, thus, is obviously the same as that of a Nights-recension which circulated in Bagdad 800 years earlier, though more obscured than at that time.

We do not know what the conclusion was in the Indian archetype nor in Hazār Afsānah, the Persian recension. Reflexes of the frame story in the popular literatures of India and its neighbouring countries compel us to assume that in the original form of the frame story, Shahrazād continues to tell her stories, in the well-known manner, thus postponing her execution from one day to the other, until she has given birth to a child8 and therefore feels safe enough to reveal her stratagem to the king, whereupon the king preserves her alive and definitely makes her his queen. The new title the work was given in the Arabic world, alf layla,9 in which the number was taken literally, suggests that Shahrazād has to survive a fixed number of nights by the telling of stories, not the period until she has reached the status of mother, which then safeguards her against execution. The connection between Shahrazād's reaching this status and her ending the story-telling became obscured. That seems to be the case already in the conclusion summarized in the Fihrist. The wording of the Fihrist, however, does not exclude, even if it does not suggest, that Shahrazād needed exactly 1000 nights to become a mother. Compared with that conclusion, ZER presents a slight but not unimportant change: during the 1001 nights, Shahrazād has borne the king three children. It is difficult to decide whether Shahrazād now has three children because naive tradition could not imagine the king and Shahrazād enjoying the delight of communion 1001 nights successively without the number of children Shahrazād is plausibly to have in that time, and therefore amended the number, or whether she has them because three children were thought to touch the king's heart more effectively than only one child. The latter does not seem to be wholly incompatible with ZER, since here changed numbers occur in two other places in the frame-story as well. In the well-known orgy observed by Shāhzamān, the queen enters the garden together with twenty slave girls and twenty male slaves; in G (see n. 30) and other earlier texts, the queen is escorted only by twenty slave girls, ten of whom, however, are disguised male slaves, which becomes clear to Shāhzamān only some time later, when they strip off their clothes. In ZER, the trophies of the young woman held captive in the chest are five hundred and seventy seal-rings; in G and most of the other texts, the number is ninety-eight. The change in both instances is no doubt due to a defective or somewhat illegible text.10 Nevertheless, it shows the predilection of the redactor of ZER, or more likely of one of his predecessors, for strengthening essential elements of the narration by quantitative arguments.

By linking the end of Shahrazād's story-telling with the thousand and first night, the internal logic of the conclusion is lost: when Shahrazād on the 1001th night requests the king to grant her a wish, namely to exempt her from slaughter for the sake of her three children whom she presents to him, her step has not been prepared in the narrative. Nor has any reason been given—except through the title—that she should do so this very night, since the period of story-telling has nowhere previously been limited, unlike the period of seven days in the Book of the Seven Sages, where the span to be bridged by telling stories is set in advance by the horoscope of the hero. One or other among the copyists or compilers of Nights-recensions also realized this lack. Hammer owned (and translated) a ZER-MS containing a revised ZER-version. Its conclusion says that on the 1001th night, after the story of Ma‘rūf the Cobbler, king Shahriyār was bored by Shahrazād's story-telling and ordered her to be excuted the following morning, whereupon Shahrazād sent for her three children and asked for mercy, which was granted her, in the same way as in the other ZER-versions. This surprising turn, which could have been borrowed from a parody of the frame-story, fully explains why Shahrazād must proceed to act as well as why she finishes telling stories to the king.11

Even the author of the poor conclusion which ends the recension contained in the so-called Sabbāgh-MS12 conceived such a double motivation, though one which perfectly fits the poorness of the composition: Shahrazād has related to the king all she knew (hādā mā ‘indī min tawārīh as-sālifīn wan-nās al-awwalīn), “and when king Shahriyār had heard all the tales of Shahrazād, and since God had blessed him by her (sc. with children) during the time he had been occupied by listening to her tales, he said to himself: ‘By God, this wife is intelligent, erudite, reasonable, experienced, so I must not slay her, specially since God has blessed me by her with two children.’ And he continued that night admiring her wisdom, and his love for her increased in his heart. In the following morning, he rose and went to the cabinet, bestowed a robe of honour and all kinds of favour upon her father the wazīr, and lived together with her in happiness and delight until the angel of Death came to them and made them dwell in the grave” (MS arabe 4679, fol. 401b). In these artless, simple or poor conclusions13 we meet the same deterioration that is often to be observed in stories transmitted by long oral tradition: the elements as such of the stories are still preserved, but the original connection between them has become distorted or totally lost. So it is reasonable to assume that the conclusions of ZER and the Sabbāgh-MS reproduce what was known about the end of the Nights from oral tradition in a more or less skilful arrangement by the respective compiler.

There exists, however, an elaborate skilful conclusion, entirely different from that of ZER. It is attested by some manuscript sources considerably older than ZER, and one printed one, namely Habicht's edition. But since this edition, following Macdonald's article in JRAS [Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society] 1909, was discredited in its entirety, though parts of it reproduce “authentic” Nights-material, particularly fragments of Nights-recensions prior to ZER, its conclusion was no longer paid any attention.

So far, I know of four sources for this conclusion:

H: Habicht's edition or compilation of the Nights; the end of his compilation, nights 885-end, is based upon the transcript made by Ibn an-Najjār (Habicht's Tunisian friend) of a fragment of a Nights-recension transcribed in 1123/1711 (see Macdonald 1909, p. 696).

K: MS Edebiyât 38 in Kayseri, Raşid Efendi kütüphane; this MS is described by H. Ritter in Oriens 2, 1949, pp. 287-289; on the basis of its script Ritter gives the 16th or the 17th century as the date of its transcription (“frühestens 10.jh.H.”). The text is divided into nights, but the nights are not numbered, the space for the numbers, which probably were to have been rubricated, not having been filled.

B: MS We.662 in Berlin, Stiftung Preussischer Kulturbesitz-Staatsbibliothek (formerly Royal Library), Nr. 9104 in Ahlwardt's catalogue; the transcription of the part concerning us is from 1173/1759. The night-formulae and the numbering have been crossed out (see below p. 87).

P: MS arabe 3619 in Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale; the MS. was formerly marked “Supplément arabe 1721 II” (so in Zotenberg 1887, p. 214); “d'origine égyptienne écrit au XVIIe siècle ou au commencement du XVIIIe siècle”.

The conclusion of these sources differs from the conclusion attested by the Fihrist and narrated in ZER, in that Shahrazād does not implore the king's mercy by referring to her status as mother of his child or children, but “converts” the king by telling stories which make him reflect on his own situation so that he begins to doubt whether it was right to execute his wives after the bridal night. No sooner is Shahrazād sure that her stories have taken effect than she begins to tell the prologue/frame-story of the Nights themselves, somewhat condensed and slightly alienated in that the characters have no names, but are labelled “the king”, “the wazīr”, “the wazīr's daughter” and “her sister”, and the scene is simply “a town”:14

It has reached me, o auspicious King, that someone said: People pretend that a man once declared to his mates: I will set forth to you a means of security against annoy. A friend of mine once related to me and said: We attained to security against annoy, and the origin of it was other than this; that is, it was the following: I over-travelled whilome lands and climes and towns and visited the cities of high renown … Towards the last of my life, I entered a city,15 wherein was a king of the Chosroës and the Tobbas and the Caesars. Now that city had been peopled with its inhabitants by means of justice and equity; but its then king was a tyrant dire who despoiled lives and souls at his desire; in fine, there was no warming oneself at his fire, for that indeed he oppressed the believing band and wasted the land. Now he had a younger brother, who was king in Samarcand of the Persians, and the two kings sojourned a while of time, each in his own city and stead, till they yearned unto each other and the elder king despatched his Wazir to fetch his younger brother …

(Burton XII, pp. 192-193; I shall skip the rest of the story, which ends as follows)

… on the fifth night she told him anecdotes of Kings and Wazirs and Notables. Brief, she ceased not to entertain him many days and nights, while the king still said to himself, ‘Whenas I shall have heard the end of the tale, I will do her die,’ and the people redoubled their marvel and admiration. Also the folk of the circuits and cities heard of this thing, to wit, that the king had turned from his custom and from that which he had imposed upon himself and had renounced his heresy, wherefor they rejoiced and the lieges returned to the capital and took up their abode therein, after they had departed thence; and they were in constant prayer to Allah Almighty that He would stablish the king in his present stead. And this ‹ said Shahrazad › is the end of that which my friend16 related to me.” Quoth Shahriyar, “O Shahrazad, finish for us the tale thy friend told thee, inasmuch as it resembleth the story of a King whom I knew; but fain would I hear that which betided the people of this city and what they said of the affair of the king, so I may return from the case wherein I was.”17 Shahrazad replies that, “when the folk heard how the king had put away from him his malpractice and returned from his unrighteous wont, they rejoiced in this with joy exceeding and offered up prayers for him. Then they talked one with other of the cause of the slaughter of the maidens ‹ and they told this story and it became obvious for them, that only women had caused all that ›18 and the wise said, ‘Women are not all alike, nor are the fingers of the hand alike.’”

(Burton XII, p. 197).

The king comes to himself and awakens from his drunkenness; he acknowledges that the story was his own and that he has deserved God's wrath and punishment, and he thanks God for having sent him Shahrazād to guide him back on the right way. Shahrazād, then, lectures on the interrelation between ruler and army, between ruler and subjects, on the indispensability of a good wazīr (which is all somewhat inappropriate in this context), argues by reference to sūra 33:35 that there are also chaste women,19 and by relating the Story of the Concubine and the Caliph (Burton XII, pp. 199-201; Chauvin's Nr. 178) and the Story of the Concubine of al-Maamun20 (Burton XII, pp. 202-206; Chauvin's Nr. 179) she demonstrates for Shahriyār that his case is not as unique as he thought, because “that which hath befallen thee, verily, it hath befallen many kings before thee … all they were more majestical of puissance than thou, mightier of kingship and had troops more manifold” (Burton XII, p. 199). The king is now fully convinced that he was wrong and that Shahrazād has no equal. He arranges his marriage with her, and marries Dīnāzād to his brother Shāhzamān, who in Samarcand behaved the same way as he had done until Shahrazād entered the scene. Dīnāzād, however, stipulates that the two kings and the two sisters should live together for ever. So the wazīr is sent to Samarcand as their governor. The king orders the stories told by Shahrazād to be recorded by the annalists; they fill thirty volumes. There is no mention in these texts of a child, much less three children, as an argument for granting mercy to Shahrazād.21

The texts of the four sources mentioned above are essentially identical, the variants in number and nature being within the usual confines. But though derived from one and the same version, they constitute the end of two different recensions of the Nights. In H, this conclusion follows the “Tale of the King and his Son and his Wife and the seven Wazirs” (i.e. the Arabic version of the Book of Sindibād or Book of the Seven Sages); the transition from this tale to the conclusion is seamless and logical:

King Shahriban (i.e. Shahriyār's name in the Breslau edition) marvelled at this history and said, ‘By Allah, verily, injustice slayeth its folk!’22 And he was edified23 by that, wherewith Shahrazad bespoke him, and sought help of Allah the Most High. Then he said to her, ‘Tell me another of thy tales, O Shahrazad; supply me with a pleasant story and this shall be the completion of the story-telling.’ Shahrazad replied, ‘With love and gladness! It has reached me, O auspicious King, that a man once declared …’

(Burton XII, p. 192; see above p. 79).

In the three other texts, this conclusion is interwoven with the “Tale of Baibars and the Sixteen Captains of Police”24 as follows: the 16th Captain tells to King Baibars the prologue-story as if related to himself by a friend. The stories told in the Breslau edition by the 14th, 15th, 16th Captain (n, o, p in Burton's translation) in this recension of the Baibars-cycle are told by the 13th, 14th and 15th respectively (this shift is already prepared in the first half of the cycle: the 5th Captain relates two stories, his “own” and that of the 6th Captain). The stories of the Clever Thief and of the Old Sharper (Burton's na and nb) remain in their place in the order of tales between n and o. The 15th Captain thus tells, in the first person singular, the story of the traveller who was threatened by a robber sitting on his breast with a knife drawn in his hand, but is delivered by a crocodile which came

‘forth of the river and snatching him up from off my breast plunged into the water, with him still hending knife in hand, even within the jaws of the beast which was in the river. And I praised God for having escaped from the one who wanted to slay me.’ The king25 marvelled and said: ‘Injustice harms26 its folk.’ Then he was alarmed27 in his heart and said: ‘By God, I was in foolishness before these exhortations, and the coming of this maiden is nothing but (a sign of God's) mercy.’ Then he said: ‘I conjure thee, O Shahrazad, supply me with another one of these pleasant tales and exhortations, and this shall be the completion of the Story of King az-Zāhir and the sixteen Captains.’ And she said: ‘Well, then came forward another Captain, and he was the sixteenth of the Captains, and said: ‘I will set forth to you a means of security against annoy. One of my friends once related to me …’

(B, fol. 113a; I have borrowed from Burton XII, p. 44 and 192 the translations of the corresponding parts in the Breslau edition = H).

The text of the story told by the 16th Captain (see [above]) is somewhat fuller in B than in H, which is, for its part, close to the text of K. B and K coincide, however, in minor details both internal (e.g. even the first wives of the two brother-kings are sisters) and external (e.g. the 16th Captain's story has night-divisions at the same places), so there is no doubt that B and K derive from the same version, the fuller text of B being due to a more recent polishing. In P, a considerable portion of the text is missing here: the “Tale of the two Kings” which is told by the Captain, breaks off after the words characterizing the elder kind (‘… and wasted the land’); then follows immediately the “Tale of the Concubine of the Caliph” (fol. 163b, lines 5-6). The lacuna is superficially dissimulated by the interpolation of fa-ta‘ağğab al-malik az-Zāhir min hādihi l-umūr, fa-lā ta‘ağğab ayyuhā l-malik Šahriyār at the end of the second Concubine-tale (fol. 170a). Even the division into nights continues; the numbering, however, runs thus: fol. 163a: 908; fol. 165b: 909; fol. 168a: 1000 (!). Shahrazād finishes telling her stories in that night.

Incorporating the prologue-story into the Baibars-cycle involved a threefold oblique narration, which necessitated some adjustments in the text to be transcribed. The redactor mastered this task well, but eventually, certainly because of failing attention, made a mistake, which then was copied by over-scrupulous scribes. In K, as in B (P: lacuna), the Baibars-cycle ends as follows (somewhat less abruptly than in the Breslau edition, vol. 11, p. 399):

‘… and this is the end of what my friend related to me, O King az-Zāhir.’ Those who were attending and King az-Zāhir marvelled, then they dispersed. And this is ‹ said Shahrazad › what reached me from their invitation. Then King Shahriyar said: ‘This is indeed marvellous, but O Shahrazad, this story which the Captain related to me (aḥkā lī), resembles the story of a king whom I know …’

He then asks what the reaction of the subjects was, “so I may return from the case wherein I was.” (K, fol. 122b). Shahrazād replies by using nearly the same words as in H (see above), though on the basis of the premises of this composition she cannot have any further information. In the text of B, the inappropriate to me has been eliminated. The story then continues and ends in the same way as in H.

The literary ambition and the skill of this composition—at least of parts of it—are clearly discernible in spite of the somewhat degenerated versions in which it is accessible to us. Redactional mistakes as the aforementioned one indicate that this conclusion was not originally composed for these versions, but is a “recycled” fragment.28 Since the recensions into which this conclusion has been inserted were in all probability compiled as early as the 16th century,29 the recensions to which this conclusion originally belonged must be considerably older.

Such an early date of origin is suggested by some characteristic details in which the Story of the Two Kings and the Wazīr's Daughter, i.e. the prologue-story, agrees with the prologue in Galland's MS, the earliest extant MS of the Nights.30 As in G, the story immediately begins with two kings who are brothers (ZER begins with a king who divides his kingdom and assigns it to either of his two sons); the younger brother returns to his castle, as in G, to take leave of his wife (in ZER he returns because he forgot ḥāga ‘something’ or ḥaraza ‘a pearl’) and, as in G, he perceives in the garden the wife of his brother together with ten white slave girls and ten male negro slaves (in ZER the number is twenty for each group). The lover of the younger brother's wife is “a man” (ragul, K and B) or “a strange man” (ragul agnabī, H), which fits in better with the “man from the kitchen-boys” (ragl min ṣubyān al-maṭbah) in G than with the “negro slave” in ZER. Last not least, the epithets gabbār—lā yuṣṭalā lahū bin-nār (“a tyrant dire—there was no warming oneself at his fire”, see above) which characterize the elder brother occur even in G among the epithets of Shahriyār (they are not found in ZER nor in any other MS which is independent of the G-group).31 This congruence does not necessarily imply that this conclusion ever constituted the end of that recension of which G is an initial fragment, since the prologue in G, too, is most probably a literary spolium;32 it implies, however, that a prologue like that of G and a conclusion like that of H and K, B, P once formed the beginning and the end of a recension of the Nights considerably earlier than G.

Though the conclusion incontestably bears an Islamic stamp and at first sight hardly has anything in common with the conclusion summarized by Ibn an-Nadīm, we have to ask ourselves, considering the great age of the composition, whether it is a totally new creation achieved without any knowledge of other conclusions of the Nights—or at least without any regard to them—, or whether the author of this composition has perhaps also inserted, besides comparatively young elements such as the two concubine tales,33 fragments of older recensions. I think we have good reasons to assume that this composition includes an element which was part not only of a very old recension of the Nights, but also, most probably, of the Indian archetype. Ibn an-Nadīm's words concerning the end of the Nights, “until she was given a child by him, which she showed to him, informing him of the stratagem she had used with him”, imply, no doubt, the device by which in this composition the king is informed of the matter. For, how did Shahrazād instruct the king? It is hardly conceivable that the structural element par excellence of the (older parts of the) Nights, namely telling a story for the most varied purposes (to obtain ransom, to gain time, to entertain, to instruct), should not be employed here: for Shahrazād nothing is better suited to reveal her stratagem to the king than to relate to him the story in its alienated form in which Shahriyār recognizes himself and his own fate as in a mirror. I have no doubt that in the recension of the Nights which the author of the Fihrist had before his eyes the conclusion was introduced by this revelation story, but I consider it also very likely that this was the case already in the Indian archetype of the Nights.

Since the king is converted from his hatred for women to an indulgent attitude towards them, and does not simply show mercy, as he does in the Fihrist/ZER-conclusion, there is no need for Shahrazād to produce a child, or three children respectively, as an argument to obtain pardon. Children would even mar the picture of the sumptuous wedding by which this composition is closed. Therefore I assume that the author of this conclusion dropped the children-motif on purpose.

A third version of the end is found in the recension represented by the so-called MS Reinhardt.34 After the tale of Hārūn ar-Rashīd and Abū Hasan, The Merchant of Oman, which is the last tale of this recension (nights 946-952 in ZER), Shahrazād immediately begins the Tale of the Two Kings and the Wazīr's Daughters, without any preparatory transition except for the usual wa-ḥukiya, “one relates”. The first part of this tale repeats almost verbatim, without any abridgement, the prologue of this recension,35 the two kings and their father, for instance, being given their names. Only the latter part of the tale is more condensed (the two daughters of the wazīr remain nameless here):

(Shahrazād is still talking:) ‘… and she occupied him with tales and stories until she got pregnant and gave birth to a boy, got pregnant once again with a girl, and for a third time got pregnant with a boy. They bought white and black slave girls and populated the palace anew, as it had been before, the king not being aware of any of this.’ The king turned his face to her (i.e. he pricked his ears) and asked: ‘Where are my children?’—She replied: ‘They are here.’ Then he said: ‘So that is the way to let me know! By God, if you had not acted in this manner and caught me with your stories, you would not have remained alive until now. Well done!’ Shahrazād replied: ‘A woman is worth only as much as her intelligence and her faith. Women are very different form one another.’ And she ordered (amarat) her sister Dunyazad to bring the children. …

(4281, fol. 477 b—478a)

The king rejoices at his children and tells Shahrazād that he loves her still more. Complying with her request, he brings back servants and domestics to the palace;36 he writes a letter to his brother relating to him this happy ending; the brother sends his congratulations and gifts for all of them, “and King Shah Baz and the wazir's daughter abode in all solace of life and its delight until there came the Destroyer of delights and the Sunderer of societies” (the translation of this frequent end-clausula is borrowed from Burton).

I have evidence that the Reinhardt MS is the original copy of this recension or compilation;37 so the date of transcription, 1247/1832, is at the same time that of the compilation. In view of this recent date one is not inclined to assume that the end of this recension is a proof of another ancient conclusion of the Nights. Nevertheless, it cannot be contested that this conclusion comes closest to that summarized by Ibn an-Nadīm: There are children involved;38 Shahrazād reveals her stratagem to the king; the king admires her intelligence, he inclines towards her and preserves her alive. Shahrazād's sister has, in this conclusion, the same function as Shahrazād's accomplice in the Fihrist-version: she is only a nurse (thus, there is no need to marry her to the king's brother); there is no trace of a “conversion” or “listening to reason”. These congruences are not accidental; there must be a connection between the end of the recension known to Ibn an-Nadīm and the conclusion of the Reinhardt MS. It is not likely that the compiler of this recension knew a version of the conclusions discussed above. It is true that he did not hesitate to recast stories radically, as is shown by the prologue, but if he had rewritten the end, there should be some traces left from the former text. As to Shahrazād's device of informing the king of her stratagem, namely relating his own story to him, there is no model for it in the finale of ZER (which was certainly known to the compiler), nor does it follow immediately from what the Fihrist (which the compiler can hardly have known) says about the end. On the other hand, it is obvious that the stories are gathered from very shifting traditions; even such tales as occur under the same title in ZER are not all taken from ZER-fragments; the tale of Tawaddud, for instance, is from a tradition which can be traced back to the 16th century,39 quite independently of ZER. Thus, we cannot but deduce that the compiler of the Reinhardt MS knew a model stemming from a separate tradition, and we must for the present accept the curious fact that the latest recension of the Nights obviously presents the very conclusion which is closest to its original form.40

Since ZER was regarded as canonical not only in Europe but also in the Arabic World, other recensions were less appreciated even there. The Nights-fragment B, then, less than a hundred years after its transcription was considered to be trash and was rehashed; by means of a rather superficial revision it was turned into a “new” work: Kitāb samarīyāt wa-qiṣaṣ ‘ibarīyāt. The redactor's work, however, consisted chiefly in crossing out the Night-formulae and numbers and in adding a few excerpts from other books as well as a new title page (cf. Ahlwardt Nr. 9103 and 9104). We should not let ourselves be deluded by this procedure, any more than that unknown Arabic reader of the “new” work who wrote the following beneath its new title: hāda kitāb min sīrat alf layla ilā intihā’ as-sīra (“this is a part of the Story of the Thousand Nights right to the end of the story”).


  1. Cf. Macdonald, D. B., A preliminary classification of some MSS of the Arabian Nights. In: A Volume of Oriental Studies, presented to E. G. Browne; ed. by T. W. Arnold and R. A. Nicholson, Cambridge 1922, pp. 313 and 305. The “Egyptian MS brought to India by the late Major Turner Macan”, from which II Calcutta was printed, is lost. I rather doubt if this MS was a complete ZER-copy. Bulaq and II Calcutta differ chiefly in the first quarter, Calcutta presenting in its prose passages an unrevised “middle Arabic” like any other MS of ZER. In the three remaining quarters, the text of Bulaq and II Calcutta is almost identical, Calcutta presenting here the same “polished” Arabic as Bulaq, which is somewhat strange. But this can easily be explained by the—heretical—assumption that these parts of II Calcutta were printed directly or indirectly from the printed Bulaq text.

  2. Zotenberg called this recension “la rédaction moderne d'Égypte”, Macdonald introduced the abbreviation ZER = Zotenberg's Egyptian Recension.

  3. All known manuscript evidences for ZER were transcribed shortly before or after 1800; in all probability, the compilation of ZER itself had been carried out only a few years earlier. Mardrus's affirmation that he owned the very MS “de la fin du XVIIe siècle” from which the Bulaq edition was printed (cf. Chauvin IV, p. 109) is a lie.

  4. Macdonald, D. B., Maximilian Habicht and his recension of the Thousand and One Nights, JRAS 1909, p. 685-704.

  5. It was out of reverence for their first translator that Mia Gerhardt, The Art of Story-Telling, Leiden 1963, p. 15, did not call them so, but euphemistically spoke of “Galland's orphan stories”.

  6. Burton expanded it with passages taken from the Breslau edition. Lane translated the end as he had found it in his Bulaq copy.

  7. Ibn an-Nadīm, Kitāb al-Fihrist, maqāla 8, fann 1; I quote the translation of Macdonald, D. B., The earlier history of the Arabian Nights, JRAS 1924, pp. 353-397; p. 365.

  8. Or until she was pregnant, as in the frame-story of the Hundred and One Nights, which corresponds much better to our feeling of plausibility. It is quite unreasonable of ZER to demand the audience or the reader to believe that Shahrazād managed to hide her three pregnancies from the king.

  9. The oldest documentary evidence for the actual title alf layla wa-layla is from the 12th century and comes from the Cairo Geniza; see S. D. Goitein in JAOS [Journal of the American Oriental Society] 78, 1958, pp. 301-302.

  10. The number 570 is obviously a taṣḥīf of 98, the rasm of a carelessly written tamāniya wa-tis‘īn being very close to that of kamsimi’a wa-sab‘īn; it is to be found already in the Paris MS 3612, which is prior to the compilation of ZER. The twenty male slaves have been added in order to make plausible a text in which the passage relating the disguise had been dropped, obviously by a copyist who was unable to guess how the story could have run.

  11. Burton missed the point of this modification or interpolation. Though he knew that this reading was to be found in some MSS, he accused Trébutien, the French translator of Hammer-Zinserling, that he “cannot deny himself the pleasure of a French touch” (X, p. 54, n. 2).

  12. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, MS arabe 4678-4679, formerly marked “Supplément arabe 2522-2523”, transcribed at the beginning of the 19th century in Paris by Michel Sabbāg from an unknown MS which had been transcribed in 1115/1703 in Bagdad, according to its colophon copied literally by Sabbāg; cf. Zotenberg p. 202.

  13. Burton says that the Wortley Montague MS in the Bodleian Library “has no especial conclusion relating the marriage of the two brother kings with the two sisters” (XV, p. 351). Does this mean that the MS has a poor conclusion, like that in ZER, or no conclusion at all?

  14. This is certainly what was originally intended. The beginning of H and B is still in accord with this intention. In the sequel, names have slipped into the narration: the younger brother lives in Samarcand, the elder in Sīn. In K, the alleged friend who relates the story came to “a town in Sīn”.

  15. Burton has added here “of the cities of China” and explained in note 6 that this “is taken from the sequence of the prologue where the elder brother's kingdom is placed in China”. He missed the point that in this tale, which he qualifies as “a rechauffé of the Introduction” (note 4), persons and places must remain nameless. Fīāhir al-‘umr (H = the text translated by Burton; B) is no doubt a corruption of fī āhir al-‘umrān (K); the best reading is to be found in P: dahaltu madīna fī āhir al-‘umrān ‘I came to a town at the end of the civilized world’ (fol. 163b).

  16. This short-cut isnād is in contradiction with the longer isnād in the introductory passage, but it is no doubt that of the older version.

  17. The words hādihi l-ḥikāya tušbih li-ḥikāyat malik anā a‘rif-hu are certainly an integral part of this revelation scene; so is the king's request to hear about the reaction of the subjects urīd an asma‘mā garā li-ahl hādihi l-madīna wa-mā qālū min amr al-malik. But the subsequent final clause li-argi‘‘am-mā kuntu fīhi is not quite logical. An emendation lammā raga‘’am-mā kān fīhi ‘when he returned from the case wherein he was’, which, regarding the rasm, seems to suggest itself, would make the text reasonable.

  18. This passage has been dropped from H, but the following statement of the wise presupposes at least sabab hādā an-nisā; the addition is from B, fol. 114b; nearly the same text is to be found in K, fol. 124b.

  19. Women qualified as muslimāt, mu’mināt, qānitāt, ṣādiqāt … ḥāfizāt (sc. furūgahunna) must exist in reality, as they are mentioned in this āya.

  20. The name of the Caliph in this story is al-Ma’mūn al-Hākim bi-amrillāh. The ism of the historical caliph al-Hākim (who reigned from 996 to 1021) was al-Manṣūr. The scene of the story is Cairo.

  21. The spread of this conclusion in the 17th century is attested indirectly by Galland. He had tried in vain to get a complete copy of the Nights, nor had he ever had at his disposal an Arabic text of an end-fragment. The ending of his translation therefore has been suspected, until quite recently, to be of Galland's own invention. But from oral information he knew at least the basic concept of this conclusion: as early as August 1702, two years before he published the first volume of his translation, he outlined in a letter “le dessein de ce grand ouvrage: (…) De nuit en nuit la nouvelle sultane le mesne [Schahriar] jusques à mille et une et l'oblige, en la laissant vivre, de se défaire de la prévention où il étoit généralement contre toutes les femmes”. The words in italics are to be found in the conclusion of Galland's translation, in which Shahrazād does not present children, but is granted mercy because the king's “esprit étoit adouci” and the king is convinced of Shahrazād's chastity. (The quotation from Galland's letter in M. Abdel-Halim, Galland, sa vie et son œuvre, Paris 1964, pp. 286-287).

  22. Text: al-bagyu yaqtulu ahlahū. This looks like a proverb, a variant of the one recorded by al-Maydānī, Magma‘al-amtāl, Cairo 1953, nr. 555 = Freytag, Proverbia Maidanii, cap. II, nr. 129: albagyu āhiru muddati l-qawmi, ya‘nī anna z-zulma idā mtadda madāhu, ādana bi-nqirāḍi muddatihim.

  23. Text: itta‘aza; but see the parallel texts, note 27.

  24. Translated by Burton from the Breslau edition, XII, pp. 2-44.

  25. In K, the king is nameless; P: al-malik az-Zāhir; in B, his name is Šahribāz.

  26. B: yaḍurru; P: yuhliku; K: yusri‘u (=?).

  27. B: irtā‘a fī nafsihī; K: irtada‘a, obviously a taṣḥīf instead of irtā‘a. This passage is not in P, nor is the following dialogue between the king and Shahrazād.

  28. In most cases fragments of older recensions were inserted into the new compilation without extensive revision. So quite often it is not difficult to detect such spolia by inconsistent distribution of the roles (speaker, hearer etc.), stylistic peculiarities and the like. The ZER-text however, specially the printed one, has undergone a careful revision.

  29. The corruptions found in the text of K, the oldest of the four MSS and carefully calligraphed, show that already that text had been transmitted within a long written tradition.

  30. Paris, Bibliothèque Nationale, arabe 3609-3611 (formerly marked “ancien fonds 1508, 1507, 1506”). This MS, commonly designated as G, was transcribed after 1425, the year in which the ašrafī-dinar (mentioned in 3610, fol. 43b) was introduced, and before 943/1535, the earliest date of a reader's expression of thanks at the end of 3610.

  31. lā yuṣṭalā lahū bin-nār is among the epithets of ‘Umar ibn an-Nu‘mān at the beginning of the ‘Umar-Romance.

  32. It does not come up to the same stylistic and narrative level as the tales inserted into the frame, which are, by the way, far better in the version of G than in ZER. Shahrazād's first tale however, that of the Merchant and the Jinnī, is as poor as in the printed texts, which proves that even it was part of the initial fragment left from preceding recensions.

  33. The tale of the Concubine of al-Hākim can have taken its actual shape only after the eccentric person of the historical al-Hākim had been transfigured by time, so that he could become a nucleus of popular story or romance. The Zuwayla-Gate mentioned in all the texts was built in 1092; as a terminus ante quem non, such an early date is rather insignificant.—Also six of the seven poems describing the bride's seven dresses in the Tale of Nūr al-Dīn and his Son (Burton I, pp. 217-219) are used (again?) here for the same pupose.

  34. Strasbourg, Bibliothèque Nationale et Universitaire, MS 4278-4281. Date of transcription 1247/1831-2. As for the date of the compilation, see note 37. Table of contents in Chauvin, Bibliographie IV, pp. 210-212.

  35. The prologue has been considerably remodelled in its details: the seats of the two kings have been exchanged; the younger brother is deceived by his chief concubine, the elder by his wife; the number of slave girls and male slaves who accompany the queen into the garden has been raised to eighty; Shahrazād is the younger of the two daughters of the wazīr.

  36. The untrue slaves had all been executed, so the palace, at least the ḥaramlik, had been totally depopulated.

  37. The text has been divided into nights by relatively long formulae with separate spaces left for the numbers of the nights. The night-formulae always fill half a page; the nights themselves measure two and a half pages, the formulae not included. The scribe has evidently inserted the night-formula rather automatically, on every third or fourth page, into the text he was copying. But he has made a mistake, for there is one too many: after the formula used for the 1001st night, there is yet another, which was crossed out later. If the MS was a transcription from a compilation already lying before the copyist's eyes, the lines that were crossed out and the free space for the night-number would not have been copied.

  38. The composition does not say how many children Shahrazād herself is supposed to have. The number of the heroine's children in Shahrazād's revelation-story is no doubt borrowed from ZER.

  39. The version of Tawaddud is very different from that in ZER, but close to freely circulating versions of the story, e.g. that of MS We.702 in Berlin (Ahlwardt Nr. 9179), transcribed in 1055/1645.

  40. “A quite modern MS may carry a more complete tradition than one centuries older” (Macdonald 1922, p. 321).

Peter D. Molan (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Molan, Peter D. “The Arabian Nights: The Oral Connection.” Edebiyat: The Journal of Middle Eastern Literatures 2, no. 1-2 (1988): 191-204.

[In the following essay, Molan argues that the stories of The Arabian Nights are grounded in folk tradition and attempts to trace changes in the various manuscript adaptations and translations, concentrating especially on a number of anomalous words and phrases that appear in a European translation but are not found in early Arabic versions.]

In attempting to establish an “operational definition” of folk literature,

Francis Lee Utley has noted that:

In the Middle East we have vast repositories (of tales), like the Arabian Nights and the Midrash Rabbah, which certainly have some connection with folklore, but which bear always the marks of artistic handling.1

Utley's statement raises certain obvious questions which have not been quite precisely posed in the scholarly literature on the Arabian Nights. What is the connection of the Nights to folklore? Are they popular literature which Richard Dorson has characterized as “… sophisticated compositions written for and responsive to a popular audience, but nevertheless literary products …”?2 Are they popular literature containing folkloric elements? Or are they, fundamentally, folk tales drawn from an oral tradition and polished up by their redactors upon being written down?

I would suggest that a good deal of early scholarly work indicates clearly, though not intentionally, that the latter is the case. We may cite, for example, Charles Huet's 1918 article, “Les origines du conte de Aladdin et la lampe merveilleuse.”3 Huet fails to demonstrate the origins of the story but does provide an extensive catalogue of analogues to the Aladdin story which includes the Arabian Nights tale of “Ma‘rūf the Cobbler” (we must remind ourselves that the Aladdin tale itself is not, generally considered, an Arabian Nights tale) and a number of demonstrably oral folk tales from both the Arab world and beyond.

Similarly, James G. Frazer, in his translation of Apollodorus' writings, gives an extensive appendix of analogues to the Homeric story of Ulysses and Polyphemus.4 It properly includes the Arabian Nights tale of “The Third Voyage of Sinbad” as well as, again, a large number of demonstrably oral folk tales in a geographic dispersion stretching from Mongolia to the British Isles. We might add here mention of the Cyclops tale among the Palestinian Arabic folk tales collected by Paul Kahle.5 Finally, we may also note Joseph Campbell's use of the Arabian Nights story of “Qamar al-Zamān” in The Hero with a Thousand Faces, which juxtaposes that story with mythic lore from around the world.6

It may thus be seen that one of the major criteria for identifying folklore in a written document, i.e., the discovery of variant forms of the tale in question known to be of oral provenance, has been fulfilled, at least for the Arabian Nights stories of “The Third Voyage of Sinbad,” “Ma‘rūf the Cobbler,” and “Qamar al-Zamān.”7

The foundation for further work of this sort has also been laid by Elisseeff's important work, Thémes et motifs des 1001 nuits8 and by Mia Gerhardt's The Art of Story-Telling.9 A comparison of the themes, motives, and story outlines given by Elisseeff and Gerhardt with the standard catalogues of folk tale types, such as that of Nowak's,10 finally allows us to determine the extent to which the Arabian Nights tales are analogues of authentic oral tales.

Gerhardt's work also represents the beginning of an interest in the application of broadly formalist techniques to the analysis of individual Arabian Nights tales, and even to the whole body of stories.11 As with the work of Huet, such studies do not have as their aim an identification of the folkloric connections of the Arabian Nights, but much that is found in them seems relevant to the question.

Gerhardt, for instance, observes that the arrangement of the Sinbad tales is structurally significant12 and not, as Richard Burton had asserted, “bad ordering.”13 But neither Gerhardt nor I, in our assessments of the symmetrically rising and falling number of adventures in Sinbad's seven voyages, connected the “lozenge” shaped order of the tales with the techniques of oral composition. Let me defend Ms. Gerhardt and myself by saying that it was not our immediate purpose to make that connection, but I will try to do so here.

Axel Olrik, the distinguished Danish folklorist, at the beginning of this century attempted to determine “laws” governing the composition of folk narrative.14 His analysis must still, today, be considered basic. Among Olrik's “laws” of folk narrative are “the laws of opening and closing.” Let me quote Olrik at some length:

The Sage [Olrik's inclusive term for all types of folk narrative] begins by moving from calm to excitement, and after the concluding event … the Sage ends by moving from excitement to calm. For example, the epos cannot end with the last breath of Roland. Before ending, it needs to relax the clenched fist of the sword-hand; it needs the burial of the hero, the revenge, the death through grief of the beloved, and the execution of the traitor. A longer narrative needs only one. Hundreds of folk songs end, not with the death of the lovers, but with the interweaving of the branches of the two roses which grow out of their graves … The constant reappearance of this element of terminal calm shows that it is based, not just on a manifestation of the inclination of an individual narrator, but on the formal constraint of an epic law.15

When Sinbad has one additional adventure, each being more perilous than the last, in each of his first three voyages; when he has yet another adventure culminating in being sealed in a tomb and then murdering innocent men and women after finding an escape from the tomb in the fourth voyage, and when his adventures decrease in number and perilousness in the fifth, sixth and seventh voyages, we see neither Burton's “bad ordering” nor merely Gerhardt's and Molan's “beautiful structuring,” but rather the exact operation of Olrik's “epic laws of opening and closing” in oral narrative.

Olrik goes on to note that “… if there are not other possibilities for continuation, then the storyteller always adds a long jesting closing formula in order to quiet the mood.”16 Here again we recognize the closing formula of the Arabian Nights tales which, if not quite jesting, is certainly ubiquitous. By way of example, we need cite only their version which occurs in the story of Ma‘rūf. The climax of the story comes when Ma‘rūf's son kills Ma‘rūf's evil first wife. But the story goes on further and then closes with the familiar Arabian Nights formula:

After this, King Ma‘rūf sent for the farmer whose guest he had been when he was a fugitive, and made him his Prime Minister and Chief Counselor. Then learning that he had a daughter of unsurpassed beauty and loveliness, of qualities enobled at birth by nature, of exalted worth, he took her to wife. In due time he married his son. So, they abode a while in all solace of life and its delight and their days were serene and their joys untroubled until there came to them that destroyer of delights, that sunderer of societies, that depopulator of populous places, the orphaner of sons and daughters. So, glory be to the Living One who does not die and whose hands are the keys of the seen and the unseen.17

Many more stories from the Arabian Nights must be analyzed in terms of the catalogues of folk tale types and in the light of folklore studies such as Olrik's or Lord Raglan's18 before concluding finally that the whole body of Arabian Nights tales are drawn from an oral tradition and not popular literary compositions. When we recall Archer Taylor's observations on the “… curious unawareness of the commonplaces of folklore style”19 among most literate authors attempting to imitate folklore, however, we may conclude that it seems likely that the rest of the stories of the Arabian Nights will prove to be as fully grounded on a folk tradition as the stories of Sinbad and Ma‘rūf have proven to be.

To the extent that this is true, we must turn to the problem of trying to identify the nature and extent of “artistic handling” to which Arab folktales have been subjected in being brought into the written versions of the Arabian Nights that we know today. It is to one aspect of this question that I would like to devote the remainder of this paper.

In rereading portions of the Arabian Nights, my attention has been drawn back to a number of apparently anomalous words and phrases which occur in the MacNaghten edition of the work but which do not appear in the Būlāq edition. For example, when King Shahriyār's brother informs him that his wife is being unfaithful, Shahriyār demands to see this with his own eyes. They secret themselves to watch, and it is true. The wife, her handmaids and the household slaves hold a day-long orgy lasting, as the two texts say, respectively,

MacNaghten: … ilā adhāni al-‘asri qāla fa-lammā ra'ā al-malik

Bulaq: … ilā al-‘asri fa-lammā ra'ā al-malik20

… till (the call to prayer of) the afternoon. (He said,) when the king saw …

The use of the otherwise totally anomalous qāla, ‘he said,’ in the MacNaghten text suggests to me the phrase wa-qāla al-rāwī, ‘and the reciter said,’ of so many Arabic texts which we know to derive from oral sources. The phrase wa-qāla al-rāwī does actually occur in one instance known to me in the MacNaghten edition.21 I would argue, therefore, that its use here implies that the MacNaghten text has been taken down from an oral reciter with the scribe inserting the common phrase and reminding us of the tale's oral provenance.

The suppression of the anomalous verb qāla in the Būlāq text, on the other hand, seems to suggest exactly that artistic handling to which Francis Utley referred. The same is probably also true of the suppression in the Būlāq text of the term adhān, ‘call to prayer.’ For the Muslim teller of tales, the phrase ilā adhān al-‘asr, ‘until the afternoon call to prayer,’ is probably no more than the extremely common and perfectly usual cliche to express ‘late afternoon.’ For the literate and history-bound philologist who, I assume, edited the Būlāq text, it is a clear anachronism as the story is about pre-Islamic, Persian kings.

There are, in the first seventy-five pages of the MacNaghten text, thirteen similar examples of this verb qāla. They are grammatically anomalous unless recognized as interpolations signaling the oral origins of the text. All but one, which seems to have escaped him, are omitted by the editor of the Būlāq text. It might be argued, of course, that the phrase wa-qāla al-rāwī is inserted by a literate author or editor to give the tale a folkloric air. The use of the verb qāla alone, however (which is, at first reading, merely confusing), and the particular relationship of occurrence and nonoccurrence in the two editions seems clearly to militate against such an assertion.

Included in the texts immediately surrounding the verbs in question are several other examples of emendations of the type noted above in the use of the word adhān. For example, Shahriyār, having disposed of his unfaithful wife, still finds no solace. His shame is so great that only finding someone who is more powerful than he who has suffered yet greater pain will console him. If he fails to do so, the two texts continue respectively,

MacNaghten: … mawtu-nā khayrun min hayāti-nā.

Būlāq: … fa-yakūnu mawtu-nā khayrun min hayāti-nā.

… (then) our dying (will) be better than our living.

MacNaghten: qāla thumma inna-humā kharajā.

Būlāq: fa-ajāba li-dhālika thumma inna-humā kharajā.22

(So he agreed to that.) (He said,) then the two went out.

Besides the use of the qāla, we also notice the insertion of the phrase ‘so he [that is, the king's brother] agreed to that.’ Logically, the insertion is useful, for the king's brother, it may be remembered, had been suffering the same sense of shame, having also been deceived by his wife. His grief, however, had been abated precisely because he learned that such a thing could happen even to his own, more powerful brother. Technically, he has no further need to relieve his already allayed misery. Such an addition does not, of course, demonstrate a literate emendation on a point glossed over in a necessarily oral work. Taken as one or more element in an assemblage of stylistic details, however, it may be instructive.

Considerably more interesting is another item to be found in the “Story of the Three Apples.” Hārūn al-Rashīd has discovered the murder of a beautiful young woman. Outraged that such an occurrence could happen in his realm, he orders his Prime Minister, Ja‘far the Barmakī, to find the killer or die in his place. Ja‘far fails, and the Caliph's men erect the gibbet to hang him (or “crucify” him in Būlāq). A crowd gathers and, the two texts continue respectively,

MacNaghten: sārū yantazirūna al-idhna min al-khalīfa.

Būlāq: sārū yantazirūna al-idhna min al-khalīfa.

They began awaiting permission from the Caliph.

MacNaghten: wa-kanāt al-ishāra hākadhā. wa-sāra al-khalqu

Būlāq: wa-sāra al-khalqu

(And the signal was thus.) And the crowd began

MacNaghten: yatabakawna‘alā Ja‘far.

Būlāq: yatabakawna‘alā Ja‘far.23

crying over Ja‘far.

As may readily be seen, the MacNaghten text includes, and the Būlāq text suppresses, the phrase “and the signal was thus.” It seems inescapable that the statement must have been accompanied by the gesture of an oral performer. This is hardly surprising. As D. B. MacDonald points out in his Encyclopedia of Islam discussion of the term hikāya, “the oriental storyteller always acts out his story.”24 MacDonald goes on to relate the term hikāya directly to mime.

Yet another item seems to bear on a number of points relating to oral performance. In the story of the “Merchant and the Jinni,” each of three shaykhs comes by the merchant who is waiting to keep his appointment with the jinnī. Each is astounded to find the merchant sitting and waiting in such an inauspicious place as a ma'wā, ‘a place where the jinn howl.’ Each demands an explanation and after the third shaykh is told the story “from its beginning to its end,” the MacNaghten and Būlāq texts read respectively,

MacNaghten: laysa fī al-i‘ādati ifādatun yā sādah.

Būlāq: laysa fī al-i‘ādati ifādatun.25

There is no benefit in repetition (O sirs).

The phrase ‘O sirs,’ which occurs in the MacNaghten text but not in the Būlāq, again seems to imply the presence of an audience, but what of the phrase ‘there is no benefit in repetition?’

One of the recurring themes of the oral literature conference of which this article was a part is that repetition is a particularly characteristic trait of oral literature. This is hardly a new discovery to folklorists nor was it unobserved in earlier eras. Muhammad ibn Daniyāl, the 13th-century Egyptian author, notes of the folkloric shadow plays to which he attempts to give a literary polish:

You state that oral reports have spit out [news of] the shadow theater, but that natural good taste has shunned it because of its repetitiveness.26

One might suppose that a denial of the utility of repetition ought not to occur in a type of literature which is characterized by repetition. Interestingly enough, this is not the case. As B. Connelly points out in her work on the three Egyptian Rabāb poets whom she recorded, the singer whose performance depends most particularly on repetition states on several occasions:

wa-lli a‘āūl-uh ma a‘īd-uh

‘That which I say I will not repeat’27

Connelly's work also bears on another aspect of difference between the MacNaghten and Būlāq editions of the Arabian Nights. As may be seen, from an examination of the texts cited above and in the appendix, the MacNaghten and Būlāq editions, despite the differences which do occur, seem at first glance to be really quite close to each other. Nonetheless, substantial differences do occur, and one of the most common, I suspect, is the replacement or paraphrase of poetic texts of the MacNaghten edition by prose texts in the Būlāq edition. One of the texts which exhibits the anomalous use of the verb qāla also exhibits this phenomenon.

When the porter in the story of the “Three Ladies of Baghdad” first sees the bawwāba, the lady doorkeeper of the mansion, he goes, in the MacNaghten text, into poetic raptures over her beauty. The poem which describes the lady's charms, however, has been replaced, in the Būlāq edition, with a prose description. The texts then come together again after the appearance (in MacNaghten) and suppression (in Būlāq) of the verb qāla.

MacNaghten: (poem) qāla fa-lammā nazara al-hammāl ilāy-ha

Būlāq: (prose) fa-lammā nazara al-hammāl ilāy-ha28

(He said,) then when the porter looked at her

Many other examples of poetry in MacNaghten being replaced by prose in Būlāq may be readily observed. This phenomenon is strikingly similar to a parallel feature found by Connelly in the development of the Sirat Bani Hilāl where, she observes, each subsequent printing of the text further reduces the oral bard's poetry and music into prose narrative.29

On the basis of the evidence presented here, then, we may hypothesize that the MacNaghten edition of the Arabian Nights (and the Egyptian manuscript upon which it is based) stand in fairly close relationship to an authentically oral tradition. Conversely, the Būlāq edition (and the manuscript tradition upon which it is based), by suppressing elements which are only relevant in the setting of oral performance, by polishing up certain logical and chronological details, and in general by reducing the poetic passages in favor of prose, exhibits the kind of literate handling of folklore to which Francis Utley refers.

On the basis of this hypothesis, we may proceed to a heretofore unattempted stylistic analysis of the various Arabian Nights texts. In conjunction with a continuing effort in structural or formal analyses, we may achieve a much fuller appreciation of this collection of Arabian tales to which we have been instinctively drawn for so long.



1. M (p. 4): ilā adhāni al-‘asri qāla fa-lammā ra'ā al-malik

B (p. 3): ilā al-‘asri fa-lammā ra'ā al-malik

till (the call to prayer of) the afternoon. (He said) Then, when the king saw. …

2. M (p. 4): mawtu-nā khayrun min hayāti-na fa-ajāba li-dhālika qāla thumma inna-humā kharajā

B (p. 3): mawtu-nā khayrun min hayāti-na fa-ajāba li-dhālika thumma inna-humā kharajā

Our death (will) be better than our life. (So, he agreed to that.) (He said) Then, the two of them went out.

3. M (p. 6): khā’ifun ‘alā nafsi-hi min al-maliki qāla wa-kāna al-wazīru

B (p. 4): khā’ifun ‘alā nafsi-hi min al-maliki wa-kāna al-wazīru

… fearing for himself because of the king. (He said) and the minister had …

4. M (p. 7): tastarīhu min al-ta‘bi wa-al-jahdi qāla wa-kāna al-tājiru

B (p. 5): tastarīhu min al-ta‘bi wa-al-jahdi wa-kāna al-tājiru

… you will rest from fatigue and effort. (He said) And the merchant …

5. M (p. 8): al-yawma kulla-hu qāla fa-lammā raja‘a

B (p. 5): al-yawma kulla-hu fa-lammā raja‘a

… all day. (He said) Then, when he returned …

6. M (p. 8): nasahtu-ka wa-al-salām qāla fa-lammā sami‘a al-thawru

B (p. 5): nasahtu-ka wa-al-salām fa-lammā sami‘a al-thawru

I have advised you and so peace. (He said) Then, when the bull heard …

7. M (p. 9): ilā al-mamāti qāla fa-lammā sami‘at ibnat-al-wazīri

B (p. 6): ilā al-mamāti fa-lammā sami‘at ibnat-al-wazīri

… until death. (He said) then, when the minister's daughter heard …

8. M (p. 23): fī hādhā al-qimqimi qāla fa-lammā sami‘a al-māridu

B (p. 11): fī hādhā al-qimqimi fa-lammā sami‘a al-māridu

… in this bottle. (He said) Then, when the jinnī heard …

9. M (p. 37): [poem] qāla fa-lammā farigha ra's al-hakīmu kalāma-hu

B (p. 18): [poem] fa-lammā farigha rūyān al-hakīmu kalāma-hu

(He said) Then, when ra's/rūyān) al-hakim finished his say …

10. M (p. 40): lil-jāriyati al-tabbākhati qāla wa-kānat hādhihi al-jāriyatu

B (p. 19): lil-jāriyati al-tabbākhati wa-kānat hādhihi al-jāriyatu

… to the slave girl cook. (He said) And when this slave girl …

11. M (p. 58): [poem] qāla fa-nahadat al-sabiyyatu al-thālithatu

B (p. 25): [poem] fa-nahadat al-sabiyyatu al-thālithatu

(He said) Then, the third maiden arose …

12. M (p. 58): [poem] qāla fa-lammā nazara al-hammālu ilay-hā

B (p. 25): [prose] fa-lammā nazara al-hammālu ilay-hā

(He said) Then, when the porter looked at her …

13. M (p. 74): li-man i‘tabara qāla wa-sa'alat al-thāniya wa-al-thālitha

B (p.): li-man i‘tabara wa-sa'alat al-thāniya wa-al-thālitha

… for he who has taken a lesson. (He said) she asked the second and third …


1. M (p. 9): lā ta‘ūd tas'alu-hu ‘an shay'in qāla fa-lammā sami‘a

B (p. 6): lā ta‘ūd tas'alu-hu ‘an shay'in qāla fa-lammā sami‘a

Ask him no more about anything. He said Then, when he heard …


1. M (p. 143): al-idhnu min al-khalīfati wa-kānat al-ishāratu hākadhā wa-sāra al-khalqu

B (p. 52): al-idhnu min al-khalīfati wa-sāra al-khalqu

… permission from the caliph. (And the signal was thus) And the people began …

2. M (p. 12): laysa fī al-i’dati ifādatun ya sādah fa-jalasa ‘inda-hum wa-idhā bi-ghabaratin qad aqbalat. …

B (p. 7): laysa fī al-i’dah ifādah wa-idhā bi-ghabarah qad hājat

There is no benefit in repetition (O sirs. Then he sat with them) and all of a sudden a dust cloud came along …


  1. Francis Lee Utley, “Folk Literature: An Operational Definition,” Journal of American Folklore 74 (1961): 193-206 [pp. 7-24 in The Study of Folklore, ed. Alan Dundes (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1965)].

  2. Richard M. Dorson, “The Identification of Folklore in American Literature,” in “Folklore in Literature: A Symposium,” Journal of American Folklore, 70 (1957): 1-24.

  3. C. Huet, “Les origines du conte de Aladdin et la lampe merveilleuse,” Revue de l'histoire des religions 77 (1918): 1-50.

  4. Apollodorus, The Library, 2 vols., trans. J. G. Frazer, Loeb Classical Library (New York, 1921), 2: 751ff.

  5. Paul Kahle, Bauernerzählungen aus Palestina [Volkserzählungen aus Palästina*], ed. H. Schmidt and P. Kahle (Göttingen, 1918).

  6. Joseph Campbell, The Hero with a Thousand Faces (Princeton, 1968).

  7. Dorson, op. cit., esp. p. 4.

  8. N. Elisseeff, Thèmes et motifs des 1001 nuits: essai de classification (Beirut, 1949).

  9. Mia I. Gerhardt, The Art of Story-Telling: A Literary Study of the Thousand and One Nights (Leiden, 1963).

  10. Ursula Nowak, Beiträge zur Typologie des arabischen Volksmärchens (Freiburg, 1969).

  11. See Gerhardt, op. cit.; Andras Hamori, On the Art of Medieval Arabic Literature (Princeton, 1974), pp. 145-180; Peter D. Molan, “Sinbad the Sailor: A Commentary on the Ethics of Violence,” JAOS [Journal of the American Oriental Society] 98/3 (1978): 237-247; idem., “Ma‘rūf the Cobbler: The Mythic Structure of an Arabian Nights Tale,” Edebiyat, III/2 (1978): 121-136; and Ferial Ghazoul, “Nocturnal Dialectics: A Structural Study of the 1001 Nights” (Ph.D. thesis, Columbia U., 1978).

  12. Gerhardt, op. cit., pp. 236-263.

  13. Richard F. Burton, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments (New York, n.d.) vol. 6, p. 77, n. 2.

  14. The following discussion of Olrik is based on Axel Olrik, “Epic Laws of Folk Narrative” in The Study of Folklore, pp. 129-141.

  15. Ibid., p. 132.

  16. Ibid.

  17. Burton, op. cit., p. 53.

  18. Lord Raglan, “The Hero of Tradition,” Folklore 45 (1934): 212-231 [The Study of Folklore, pp. 142-157].

  19. Archer Taylor, “Folklore and the Student of Literature,” Pacific Spectator 2 (1948): 216-223 [The Study of Folklore, pp. 32-42, esp. p. 42].

  20. W. H. MacNaghten ed., Alf Lailā wa-Lailā (Calcutta, 1839), vol. I, p. 4; Alf Lailā wa-Lailā (Būlāq, 1252 A.H.), vol. I, p. 3.

  21. MacNaghten, op. cit., p. 29.

  22. MacNaghten, op. cit., p. 4; Būlāq, p. 3

  23. MacNaghten, op. cit., p. 143; Būlāq, p. 52.

  24. D. B. MacDonald, “Hikaya,” EI1.

  25. MacNaghten, op. cit., p. 12; Būlāq, p. 7.

  26. Escorial Ms. 469, folio I verso.

  27. Private communication.

  28. MacNaghten, op. cit., p. 58; Būlāq, p. 25.

  29. Private communication.

Fatma Moussa-Mahmoud (essay date 1988)

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SOURCE: Moussa-Mahmoud, Fatma. “English Travellers and the Arabian Nights.” In The Arabian Nights in English Literature, edited by Peter L. Caracciolo, pp. 95-110. London, England: Macmillan, 1988.

[In the following essay, Moussa-Mahmoud presents a brief survey of English travel literature influenced by the tales of The Arabian Nights.]

In the opening years of the eighteenth century the strange distant East was brought vividly and imaginatively before the eyes of French and English readers with Antoine Galland's translation of the Nights into French (1704-17). The French version was immediately translated into English and the tales were so popular that they started a literary fashion on both sides of the Channel, the ‘oriental tale’ of the eighteenth century.1 There were so many preposterous imitations of the Nights that some genuine translations such as the Persian Tales (1710) and the New Arabian Nights (1792) were long taken for forgeries. As travelling to the East was difficult and relatively infrequent, readers were very curious about the customs and religion of the infidel inhabitants of those far-off lands. Galland's translation was from the first advertised as a book where ‘the customs of Orientals and the ceremonies of their religion were better traced than in the tales of the travellers. … All Orientals, Persians, Tartars and Indians … appear just as they are from sovereigns to people of the lowest condition. Thus the reader will have the pleasure of seeing them and hearing them without taking the trouble of travelling to seek them in their own countries’. The rich imaginative power of the Nights and the dazzling splendour of its descriptions, together with the realistic, homely atmosphere of some of the tales have kept their hold on European imagination to this day.

It soon became part of the task of the travellers to verify the authenticity of the Nights and relate them to what they saw. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu was the first English lady to visit Turkey and reside in Constantinople, as the wife of the British Ambassador to the Porte (1716-18). In her letters she gave lively descriptions of Turkish houses, mosques and public baths. She had the chance to penetrate into the harems of the great officials of the Ottoman Court. She wrote in one of her letters, ‘This is but too like (says you) the Arabian tales; these embroider'd Napkins and a jewel as large as a Turkey's egg! You forget dear Sister, those very tales were writ by an Author of this Country and (excepting the Enchantments) are a real representation of the manners here.’2 Lady Mary's letters were widely circulated during her lifetime and some of the details of Turkish life were regarded as being as fabulous as the Nights. ‘We travellers’, she complained, ‘are in very hard circumstances if we say nothing but what has been said before us, we are dull. … If we tell anything new, we are laugh'd at as fabulous and Romantic’ (p. 385).

In 1756 Alexander Russell, resident physician to the English factory in Aleppo, described how oriental men of fashion were lulled to sleep with ‘stories told out of the Arabian Nights Entertainments … which their women were taught to repeat for this purpose’.3 Patrick Russell's enlarged edition of Aleppo (1794) provided more interesting information on the Nights, together with more detailed description of the life of the inhabitants among whom he spent many years as his brother's successor. He added a chapter on Arabic literature, and in a note on the Nights he testified to their authenticity:

The Arabic title of our Arabian Nights is Hakayat Elf Leily wa Leily a Thousand and one Nights. It is a scarce book at Aleppo. After much inquiry, I found only two volumes, containing two hundred and eighty nights, and with difficulty obtained liberty to have a copy taken. I was shown more than one complete copy in the Vatican Library; and one at Paris in the King's Library said also to be complete.4

He added that he had collected a number of separate tales which he later found in the first and third volumes of the ‘Continuation of the Arabian Nights published at Edinburgh in 1792’. His note was quoted by the Oriental Collections (Caddell and Davies, 1797, i, 246-7). The editor announced that Jonathan Scott, a retired servant of the East India Company, had acquired a complete manuscript of the Nights in five volumes, brought by Edward Wortley Montagu from the East, which he intended to translate.5 Queries appeared in the Gentleman's Magazine as to the two manuscripts and the authenticity of Galland's version. Dr Russell in reply gave a description of his manuscript and again testified to the authenticity of Galland's translation.6

In an account of entertainments at coffee houses, Russell's Aleppo gives a description of the manner of narration by professional story-tellers that was widely quoted by other travellers and by students of the Nights:

The recitation of Eastern fables and tales partakes somewhat of a dramatic performance. It is not merely a simple narrative; the story is animated by the manner, and action of the speaker. A variety of other story books, besides the Arabian Nights Entertainment (which under that title, are little known at Aleppo) furnish material for the story teller, who by combining the incidents of different tales, and varying the catastrophe of such as he has related before, gives them an air of novelty. … He recites walking to and fro, in the middle of the coffee room, stopping only now and then when the expression requires some emphatical attitude. He is commonly heard with great attention, and, not infrequently, in the midst of some interesting adventure, when the expectation of his audience is raised to the highest pitch, he breaks off abruptly, and makes his escape from the room, leaving both his heroine and his audience, in the utmost embarrassment … and the auditors, suspending their curiosity, are induced to return at the same hour next day to hear the sequel. He no sooner has made his exit, than the company in separate parties, fall a disputing about the characters of the drama, or the event of the unfinished adventure. The controversy by degrees becomes serious, and opposite opinions are maintained with no less warmth, than if the fate of the city depended on the decision.

(i, 148-50)

An increasing number of travellers sought scenes from the Nights in the crowded bazaars and narrow streets of oriental cities, and their testimonies and experiences were quoted in new editions of the Nights. Edward Forster in 1802 quotes Dallaway's book on Constantinople:

Much of the romantic air which pervades the domestic habits of the persons described in the Arabian Nights, particularly in inferior life, will be observed in passing through the streets of Constantinople. And we receive, with additional pleasure, a remembrance of the delight, with which we at first perused them, in finding them authentic portraits of every Oriental nation.

James Capper's Observations on the Passage to India through Egypt (1783) is cited as recommending the Nights as a necessary piece of equipment for a traveller in the East: ‘they are in the same estimation all over Asia, that the adventures of Don Quixote are in Spain, and it is presumed no man of genius or taste would think of making the tour of that country without previously reading the works of Cervantes’.7

The establishment of the British Empire in India by the end of the eighteenth century, the French Expedition to Egypt (1797-1801) and the continued rivalry between Britain and France for influence with oriental rulers, whose territory lay on the short routes to India, resulted in an unprecedented increase in the number of British travellers to the East. The traveller, whether soldier, diplomat or antiquarian, took notes, preparatory to producing the heavy volumes of travel consumed by a reading public eager for any new information on the East. James Justinian Morier (1780-1849) made two journeys to Persia in 1808 and 1810, as secretary of two successive ambassadors, and, after the signing of a treaty with the Shah to counteract French influence, he resided for some time in Teheran. He published two travel books,8 but some writers think that his third and most famous book, the Adventures of Hajji Baba of Ispahan (1824), is actually a travel book in disguise:

it is proper to regard [Hajji Baba] both as a novel and a book of travel, since in its episodes and characters it follows closely the author's actual experiences as recorded in his Journeys, and was intended by him to present facts in a dramatic form that would create a vivid impression on readers completely ignorant of the customs of a Mohammedan Community.9

Morier was partly influenced by Thomas Hope's Anastasius, an oriental picaresque tale which met great success in 1819, but he only confessed to the influence of Le Sage and the Nights. His choice of a barber for his rogue hero is indicative. In the Introductory Epistle, Morier states that for ‘delineation of Asiatic manners … the Arabian Nights' Entertainments give the truest picture of the Orientals … because it is the work of one of their own community’. He adds, however, that ‘few would be likely to understand them thoroughly who have not lived some time in the East’. He summarises a story from the Nights, an episode of the Three Calenders, where Amina buys wine from the house of a white-bearded Christian without their exchanging a word. He assumes that the explanation would be only understood by someone who had lived in the East. His intention was to write a kind of supplement to the Nights that would illustrate the manners and customs of an oriental nation. The reference to the Nights was taken up by the Quarterly Review:

We have subjected these little volumes, as far as regards the measure of their agreement to the test of a severe examination … we turned over the pages of several of the tales in the Arabian Nights Entertainments … it is really curious to observe how exactly … [he] has identified the current of the hero's fortunes, the character of his adventures and associates; the customs, feelings and opinions of his country, with the example of everyday Eastern life which may be gathered from those singular chronicles of Asiatic manners.10

The triumph of Hajji Baba lay in Morier's clever imitation of Eastern style and imagery. The narrative, which is supposed to be in Hajji's own words, keeps up the illusion of the narrator's nationality. When the author wishes to introduce episodes or descriptions of places the hero could not have seen, the tale-within-a-tale is a handy device. As he has no chance of seeing the inside of a grandee's harem or observing how it is run, the fair Zeenab, his sweetheart and the slave of his master the doctor, gives us the details in a most natural way. She takes him on a tour of her mistress's apartment, in the absence of that lady, and the description could have come from the pages of the Nights. There were numerous editions of Hajji Baba before the end of the century and the book has remained a classic. It was translated into French, German and even Persian. The Persians were understandably furious at the picture of them given in the book, for Hajji Baba, like other picarós, is shown as a mean liar, a coward and a thief; moreover, he was taken by European readers as a typical Persian and a typical oriental. Morier later devoted himself to a literary career. He wrote ‘oriental tales’ but he never repeated the triumphant success of Hajji Baba. In The Mirza (1841) he tried to give an imitation of the Nights, a series of tales narrated by the court poet (the Mirza), strings of anecdotes and tales within tales he composed for the entertainment of the Shah. The author keeps the outward trappings of the ‘oriental tale’ and tries to give a picture of manners and customs in three volumes, but the collection is far inferior to Hajji Baba and has deservedly sunk into oblivion.

Nineteenth-century interest in the manners and customs of orientals was still fed by publications of various degrees of impartiality or downright bigotry. Missionaries in India provided horrific accounts of the lives and practices of benighted Hindu heathens, but descriptions of the Muslim Near East were much more sympathetic. The popularity of the Nights and the ‘oriental tale’ together with the growing bulk of travel literature explain the difference in attitude. Impartial objectivity in portraying Arab Muslim manners and customs was brought to a peak with E. W. Lane's Modern Egyptians (1836). Lane (1801-76) also became famous for producing the first direct translation into English of the Nights. He first arrived in Egypt as a young engraver, who had studied Arabic for a year before leaving England. He followed the routine of former travellers who sailed up the Nile to Luxor. He joined a group of artists who were making detailed drawings of Ancient Egyptian monuments. He spent some time in Egypt taking notes on the life of contemporary Egyptians. Though he could not find a publisher for the long account of his travels, the section on contemporary life was accepted by the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. He returned for a year and a half in 1833-4 to prepare that section for publication. His Modern Egyptians has never been superseded. Lane was fully equipped for his task. On his second visit he assumed Arab dress and lived away from the Frank colony in Cairo. He had native informants and he was steeped in oriental literature, not least the Nights. In a note to the Preface to his book he pointed out the importance of the Nights as a guide to the customs of the Arabs:

There is one work, however, which presents most admirable pictures of the manners and customs of the Arabs, and particularly those of the Egyptians; it is ‘The Thousand and One Nights; or, Arabian Nights' Entertainments’. If the English reader had possessed a close translation of it with sufficient illustrative notes, I might almost have spared myself the labour of the present undertaking.11

His partiality for the Nights was obviously no impediment to absolute objectivity. He told his readers in the same Preface, ‘I am not conscious of having endeavoured to render interesting any matter that I have related by the slightest sacrifice of truth.’

Lane had two models which he reluctantly admitted in the Preface, Russell's Aleppo and Chabrol's ‘Essai sur les moeurs des habitants modernes de l'Egypte’, published in one of the volumes of the French Institute's Description de l'Egypte (1822). Actually Lane modelled the organisation of his material on Chabrol's example, but he had more information to offer than the French writer. Lane, the translator of the Nights could give a more comprehensive picture of the life of Muslim Arabs. He could always bring in an incident from the Nights to illustrate a custom or an opinion held by the people he so closely observed. When discussing the women's reputation for licentiousness he reminds his readers, ‘Some of the stories of the intrigues of women in “The Thousand and One Nights” present faithful pictures of occurrences not infrequent in the modern metropolis of Egypt’ (p. 304). On the other hand, his impartiality induces him to translate a note which a sheikh, one of his friends, wrote commenting on a passage on this subject in the Nights. The sheikh testifies that many women do not marry a second time after they are widowed or divorced, thus defending his countrywomen against the imputations in the Nights (p. 304). In an earlier chapter, describing the customs at mealtime, he is naturally reminded of the constant feasting and drinking in the Nights and tries to correct the impression it gives:

Though we read, in some of the delightful tales of ‘The Thousand and One Nights’, of removing ‘the table of viands’ and bringing ‘the table of wine’, this prohibited beverage is not often introduced in general society … by the Muslims of Egypt in the present day. Many of them, however, habitually indulge in drinking wine with select parties of their acquaintance.

(p. 154)

A chapter entitled ‘Language, Literature and Science’ is immediately followed by a chapter on superstition, ‘a knowledge of which is necessary to enable [the reader] to understand their character’. The first elements of superstition are of course the ‘Ginn’, who naturally bring in the Nights. Precautions against offending the ‘Ginn’ are best understood through certain incidents in the Nights (p. 229). When he is told of a wali's head speaking after it was cut off, it brings in the story of the Sage Dooban (p. 241 n. 1). Three chapters are devoted to ‘Public Recitations of Romances’, including the Nights. The manner of recitation, which had excited the curiosity of Russell's readers about forty years before, is again described accompanied by a good engraving (p. 399). Lane finds it necessary to give a summary of a number of the romances recited in the coffee shops, but he expects his readers to be familiar with the Nights. He admits, however, that recitations from the Nights have become rare, for ‘when a complete copy of “The Thousand and One Nights” is found, the price demanded for it is too great for a reciter to have it in his power to pay’ (p. 420). One would guess that foreign demand for copies of the Nights must have raised the price, for it was the ambition of every European traveller to acquire a copy of the famous tales. In a note to a later edition he cites that the Nights and other important books were printed at the government press at Boulak (p. 227 n. 1). It was actually this printed edition that Lane used for his translation of the Nights.

When he brought out the third edition of Modern Egyptians in 1842, Lane had already published his translation of the Nights. He added some notes on songs and anecdotes mentioned in the Nights. The story of the ignorant ‘fikee’ (schoolmaster) on p. 63 is related to a similar anecdote in his translation. He concludes, ‘either my informant's account is not strictly true, or the man alluded to by him was, in the main, an imitator; the latter is not improbable, as I have been credibly informed of several similar imitations, one of which I know to be a fact’ (p. 63n.). So some of the Egyptians he describes actually imitate the Nights! In his account of public festivals, he gives a full translation of a song sung in a ‘zikr’ (a fervently devotional performance) then adds in a note, ‘since the above was written, I have found the last six of the lines here translated with some slight alterations, inserted as a common love song in a portion of the Thousand and One Nights’ (p. 454n.).

Lane's translation of the Nights (1839-41) was one of the first attempts at a direct translation from Arabic into English. He used the Boulak edition, which supported his view that the tales were originally Egyptian. He dispensed with the division into nights and divided his narrative into chapters. The translation proved a great commercial success, for the text was expurgated to suit family reading. It was elucidated with copious notes written by Lane for the purpose. The tales lost much of their charm under the heavy hand of the scholarly orientalist. In spite of its faults, Galland's version had been powerfully imaginative and had consequently fascinated its readers. Lane's translation had a pronounced biblical tone which did not suit the homely atmosphere of some of the tales or the romantic exaggerations in others. The notes, however, were illuminating. They were later published separately as Arabian Society in the Middle Ages (1883). In the Preface to his own unexpurgated translation of the Nights (1885), Richard Burton, though contemptuous of Lane's version of the Nights, greatly appreciated the notes: ‘The student who adds the notes of Lane (‘Arabian Society’, etc …) to mine will know as much of the Moslem East and more than many Europeans who have spent half their lives in Orient lands.’12

Another traveller who toured the Near East at the time of Lane's second visit to Egypt (1833-4) produced a classic of travel literature the opposite of Lane's scholarly Modern Egyptians: A. W. Kinglake (1809-91) rewrote the text of Eothen (1844) three times. The final version was an intimate account of his personal experience of travelling in the area, addressed to his friend Eliot Warburton, who intended to make the same tour. His excuse for dwelling only on ‘matters that happened to interest [him]’ was that these countries had ‘been thoroughly and ably described and even artistically illustrated by others’. Kinglake was devoted to the Nights; he carried a copy in his luggage which he sometimes read in his lodgings in Cairo. He classed it with Homer's Iliad as a book dear to him from childhood. While crossing from Smyrna to Cyprus on a Greek ship, he heard a folktale narrated to the mariners in Greek and ‘recognised with some alterations an old friend of the Arabian Nights’. Further reading of the Nights produced a theory:

I became strongly impressed with a notion that they must have sprung from the brain of a Greek. It seems to me that these stories, whilst they disclose a complete and habitual knowledge of things Asiatic, have about them so much of freshness and life, so much of the stirring and volatile European character, that they cannot have owed their conception to a mere Oriental, who for creative purposes is a thing dead and dry—a mental mummy …13

As Kinglake's intention, expressed in his Preface, was to steer free from ‘all display of “sound learning”’ or ‘antiquarian research’, the problem of the ‘European dress’ of the translation of the Nights he read, still based on Galland, is not mentioned, nor is the subject of frequent borrowings in folk literature.

He sought the Nights in the streets of Cairo, though the city was ravaged by the plague. His interests were mainly erotic and supernatural. He visited the open slave market and was not satisfied with the sight of fifty girls, all black. The slave agent promised to show him a Circassian girl as ‘fair as the full moon’. This too proved a disappointment, for she was too fat for his taste. She gave him the impression ‘of having been got up for sale, of having been fattened or whitened by medicines or by some peculiar diet’ (pp. 199-200). Later, he ‘thought it worth while to see something of the magicians’. The old man hired by his servants failed to satisfy the inquisitive traveller. However, he bargained to ‘raise the devil for two pounds ten, play or pay—no devil, no piastres’ (p. 203). The magician did not keep his part of the bargain, for he was carried off by the plague.

Kinglake's fresh, individualistic approach to his subject matter secured him lasting fame as a man of letters. No oriental, however, can easily like Eothen, for the Englishman who had come to test his mettle against the hardships of Eastern travel proves his superiority to things Arabic and Islamic at every turn. This attitude was regularly adopted by later travellers, starting with his friend Warburton's The Crescent and the Cross (1843).

Richard Burton (1821-90) is most remembered for his translation of the Nights (1885-8). It was the crowning work of a long career as soldier, linguist and explorer. It was the outcome, after more than thirty years, of his first visit to the Arab East, his pilgrimage to Makka and Madina in 1853. Burton taught himself Arabic at Oxford and continued studying the language in India, where he served as officer in the army of the East India Company (1842-9). He acquired other oriental languages, both classical and vernacular, learned parts of the Koran by heart and studied Sufism. Burton was familiar with the Nights from an early age. His colleagues in India, when engaged on intelligence work, were content with getting information from paid native agents. Burton assumed disguises reminiscent of Harun al-Rashid and his minister in the Nights. He pretended to be a rich merchant, half Arab and half Persian, and set up shop in the market as Mirza Abdalla, a name he kept to the end of his life. It is decoratively painted on the first page of his translation of the Nights. He was sent home in 1849, ostensibly on sick leave, because his superiors were shocked at the detailed information on male brothels in his reports. The information was later used in his chapter on pederasty in the Terminal Essay in volume x of his translation of the Nights.14 Like Sindbad the Sailor, he could not rest quietly at home, and he obtained financial support from the Royal Geographical Society to explore what he could of Arabia. He intended to make the pilgrimage in disguise as Mirza Abdalla, a Persian. He landed in Alexandria in April 1953 and was advised to change his supposed nationality to Afghan. He travelled to Cairo by steamboat on the Nile and set up in a ‘wekallah’ or inn, practising as a ‘hakim’ or physician, which opened many houses before him, giving him the chance to make valuable observations. In his description of Cairo in the first volume of his Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage to al Madinah and Meccah (1855), he cites and corrects Lane on almost every page. Burton stayed in Cairo for some weeks perfecting his pronunciation of Arabic and his knowledge of Muslim customs before joining the pilgrim caravan to Suez. He undertook the strict Ramadan fast in spite of the long days of scorching heat in June. The realities of the traveller's experience and his detailed observations are vividly described (and annotated) without the least attempt at glossing or romanticising. The Nights, however, is part of the furniture of his mind. When describing a fellow pilgrim, who at the age of twenty-eight had not yet acquired a wife, the example of Kamer al-Zaman is cited, and he expects his readers to recognise its relevance: ‘His parents have urged him to marry, he like Kamer al-Zaman, has informed his father that he is “a person of great age, but little sense”.’15 The caliph Harun al-Rashid is mentioned a number of times in his account of the Hijaz, but it is not the mythical figure of Tennyson's ‘good Haroun Al Raschid’ in his ‘golden prime’, but the Abbasid monarch who had many wells sunk on the pilgrim road from Baghdad to Makka (Personal Narrative, ii, 70, 134).

Burton's great achievement in 1853 was his visit to Makka and Madina and his detailed description of the ceremonies of Haj and Umra, though he was not the first European to do either. His account of the itinerary, together with the crowning visit to the two holy cities of Islam, is full of absorbing details, livened by the sense of danger hanging over ‘the pilgrim from the north’. He shows good knowledge of Arab history and literature and of the work of previous travellers, chastising some of them for their erroneous sense of superiority towards customs and literature they did not understand. Harriet Martineau's attack on Muslim harims brings out a defence of marriage customs in the East, which he was later to repeat in the notes of his translation of the Nights: ‘In quality of doctor I have seen a little and heard much of the harim. It often resembles a European home composed of a man, his wife and his mother. And I have seen in the West many a “happy fireside” fitter to make Miss Martineau's heart ache than any harim in Grand Cairo’ (Personal Narrative, ii, 91). He proceeds to give examples of the importance of love in Arabia, taken from Arabic poetry. Burton retained the same curiosity for marriage customs and sexual practices of different nations that had horrified his compatriots in India. He included some such information in the notes to his travel book, but the publisher suppressed it all as ‘garbage’. Burton later used it in the notes to his translation of the Nights. Burton was in Aden in 1854, preparing for his second journey of exploration to an Islamic stronghold, the city of Harar in Somaliland, when he conceived the idea of producing a ‘full complete unvarnished, uncastrated copy’ of the Nights.16 He had a copy of the tales with him when he crossed from Aden to Zayla on the East coast of Africa in October 1854. He had assumed his Arab disguise and from Zayla he travelled inland with a party of nine. It was presumably during this march that ‘the wildlings of Somaliland’ enjoyed his recitations from the Nights, as mentioned in his Translator's Foreword. Two cookmaids who accompanied the party were ‘buxom dames about thirty years old, who presently secured the classical nicknames of Shehrazade and Deenarzade’.17 Another member of the party, ‘one-eyed Musa’, was dubbed the ‘Kalendar’. To his report of the expedition (1856), Burton added an appendix on the sexual customs of the Somalis and an account of the practice of female circumcision (written in Latin). It was torn out by the publisher before the copies were bound, but Burton later used some of the material in a long note in the fifth volume of his Nights.

In 1869, after a long career of exploration in Africa and South America, he was finally appointed Consul in Damascus. To him it was again the land of the Arabian Nights, ‘the land of [his] predilection’. Burton and his wife were very happy in Damascus, and he thought he would spend the rest of his life there. He assumed Arab dress and rode in the Syrian desert. According to his wife, he recited the Nights to the bedouins, some of whom ‘rolled with pleasure’ at some exciting points of the recitation.18 He vividly describes the scene in his Foreword to the Nights. ‘The Shaykks and “whitebeards” of the tribe take their places sitting with outspread skirts … round the campfire. … The women and children stand motionless as silhouettes with attention’ (p. viii). In Syria Burton took up archaeology, one of the typical traveller's interests he had never indulged before. He went on trips to Baalbek and Palmyra and made a visit to Palestine. Burton was unpopular with the Turkish wali (the provincial governor), with his superior the British Consul General in Beirut, and with the British Ambassador in Constantinople, because of his unconventional and sympathetic relations with the Arab population. His position was undermined by the proselytising zeal of his Roman Catholic wife and by the intrigues of money-lenders, who had functioned under the protection of his predecessors, but whose applications for help in extorting debts from poor inhabitants he angrily spurned. He was recalled in 1871 ‘at the age of fifty, without a month's notice or wages or character’. Burton made two short visits to Egypt and the Eastern coast of Arabia in 1877 and 1878. He had written to the bankrupt Khedive Ismail of Egypt about the possibility of prospecting for gold in Midian in the north-west of Arabia, because of a story he had heard more than twenty years before from Haj Wali, a man he had met in Cairo in 1853. The two expeditions were a failure, Burton lost a lot of money but he produced two volumes with detailed accounts of his travels.19 He did not realise at the time that he did not need to prospect for gold on desert shores, for he had a goldmine in hand, his translation of the Nights. He was working on it when in 1881 he read of John Payne's intention of publishing a complete translation of the Nights. Burton wrote to the Athenaeum welcoming Payne's project and announcing his own intention of publishing an unexpurgated translation. In the correspondence between him and Payne which followed, he urged the poet to be as literal as possible, but Payne resisted Burton's urging as his intention was basically aesthetic rather than anthropological. When Payne's nine volumes of the Nights started appearing in 1882 (dedicated to Richard Burton), the latter saw that there was still a need for his translation.

Burton's Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights was privately printed, allegedly for the Kamashastra Society in Benares, a society he invented. It was limited to 1,000 copies for subscribers only, and he made a profit on it of 10,000 guineas. The work is monumental, ten volumes of the original tales with six volumes of Supplemental Nights from the Wortley-Montagu manuscript in the Bodleian Library. The ‘Terminal Essay’ in volume x gives a scholarly study and bibliography of the Nights, together with a chance for Burton to hit back at his critics with more anthropological data ‘to shock Mrs Grundy’ to the utmost. The notes to the tales carry details of varied information he collected in his extensive travels. His main point was that previous translations had degraded ‘a chef d'oeuvre of the highest anthropological and ethnographical interest and importance to a mere fairy-book, a nice present for little boys’.

Burton's devotion to the Nights, which were ‘an unfailing source of solace and satisfaction’ during his travels, is in great contrast to the attitude of the next traveller of importance in Arabia. Charles M. Doughty spent twenty months in the country, starting from Damascus with the pilgrim caravan in 1876, but he had no use for disguise, for Islam or for the Arabian Nights. He was a scientist interested in noting the land formation in the regions he crossed as well as the customs of the bedouins with whom he travelled. He saw parts of Arabia that had not been visited by any European before him, and, when he published his travel book nine years later,20 he warned his readers ‘that nothing be looked for in this book but the seeing of a hungry man and the telling of a most weary man’. His intention in writing was mainly literary ‘to redeem English from the slough into which it had fallen since the days of Elizabeth’. The hardships of desert life came over in language suited to Bedouin austerity. The translation of Arabic sentences into biblical or Shakespearian idiom, the Arabic words transliterated into English and the numerous newly coined Anglo-Arabic words all add to the beauty and literary value of the work.

It must be confessed that travellers such as Doughty who had to cope with genuine desert life in the Arabian peninsula at the latter end of the nineteenth century had little occasion or use for the Nights. T. E. Lawrence, whose name is associated with Arabia more than any Englishman before him, does not mention the Nights in Seven Pillars of Wisdom except to show the romantic element in the Arab Revolt:

A second buttress of a polity of Arab motive was the dim glory of the early Khalifat whose memory endured among the people through centuries of Turkish misgovernment. The accident that these traditions savoured rather of the Arabian Nights than of sheer history maintained the Arab rank and file in their conviction that their past was more splendid than the present of the Ottoman Turk. Yet we knew that these were dreams.21

Lawrence was right, for he best knew what lay in wait for the Arab Revolt, but the dream persisted with both Arabs and Europeans. Travellers continued to flock into the cities of the Near East changed by the advent of steam and later of the aeroplane. They still looked for the Nights, for the flourishing tourist industry adopted them for its own. From Aladdin nightclubs to Harun al-Rashid restaurants, chartered groups are regaled with oriental experience packaged and ready-made. Only the perceptive traveller armed with real knowledge of the Nights may suddenly light on an old house with latticed windows and a marble hall of which the fountain is dry, or a row of little old shops in a side street in Cairo, Damascus or Baghdad, and see the scene come alive peopled with the familiar characters of the tales.


  1. Martha Pike Conant, The Oriental Tale in England in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1908).

  2. Lady Mary Wortley-Montagu, The Complete Letters, i: 1708-1720, ed. Robert Halsband (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) pp. 385.

  3. Alexander Russell, The Natural History of Aleppo … (A. Millar, 1[7]56; p. 90.

  4. The Natural History of Aleppo, 2nd edn, rev. and illustrated by Patrick Russell (G. G. and J. Robinson, 1794) i, 385-6.

  5. For details of this manuscript, see my ‘A MS Translation of the Arabian Nights in the Beckford Papers’, Journal of Arabic Literature (Leiden) vii, (1976) 7-23.

  6. Gentleman's Magazine, Apr 1798, pp. 304-5, and Feb 1799, pp. 91-2.

  7. The Arabian Nights, in 5 vols, tr. Edward Forster (William Miller, 1802) i, xli, xliii.

  8. A Journey through Persia, Armenia and Asia Minor … (1812); A Second Journey through Persia … (1818).

  9. The Adventures of Hajji Baba …, intro. by C.W. Stewart, The World's Classics (Oxford University Press, 1923).

  10. Quarterly Review, xxx (1824) 200-1.

  11. E. W. Lane, The Manners and Customs of Modern Egyptians, Everyman edn (Dent, 1908) p. xxi n.

  12. Richard Burton, A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights … (Kamashastra Society, Benares, 1885) i. Translator's Foreword.

  13. A. W. Kinglake, Eothen (Macmillan, 1960) p. 64.

  14. Fawn M. Brodie, The Devil Drives: A Life of Sir Richard Burton (Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1967) p. 66.

  15. Richard Burton, Personal Narrative of a Pilgrimage … Memorial Edition (New York: Dover) i, 161.

  16. In the Foreword to his translation of the Nights, Burton erroneously gives the date of the inception of the plan for the translation as 1852. In 1852 he was in Europe, and the visit to Aden after the pilgrimage took place in 1854.

  17. Richard Burton, First Footsteps in East Africa, Everyman's Library (Dent, 1910) p. 101.

  18. Isabel Burton, Inner Life of Syria, Palestine and the Holy Land, 2 vols (H. S. King, 1875) i, 128, 353; see Brodie, The Devil Drives, p. 254.

  19. Richard Burton, The Gold-Mines of Midian … (1878), and The Land of Midian (Revisited), 2 vols (1879).

  20. Charles M. Doughty, Travels to Arabia Deserta (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1888). See i, 263 for his adverse comments on the Nights.

  21. T. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom, Penguin Modern Classics (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962) p. 344.

Books published in London unless otherwise stated.

Sandra Naddaff (essay date 1991)

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SOURCE: Naddaff, Sandra. “Magic Time: The Movement and Meaning of Narrative Repetition.” In Arabesque: Narrative Structure and the Aesthetics of Repetition in the 1001 Nights, pp. 89-108. Evanston, Ill.: Northwestern University Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Naddaff argues that The Arabian Nights uses repetition to structure narrative discourse, thus exploring and emphasizing the relation between time, repetition, and narrative; she goes on to examine how these structural devices are used to comment on power and gender in the tales.]


We come finally to the crucial connection between repetition and time, a connection that, although of particular interest vis-à-vis the repetitive mode, is of course maintained with all types of narrative discourse. For all narrative must take first root in the temporal realm. Indeed, not only must narrative move within the various confines of its own temporal boundaries, but we as readers can participate in narrative only by following the temporal continuum of our own universe, by establishing a time of reading. What is the relation between these two temporal spheres? How does one clock narrative time so that the reader's sense of time remains mains intact? How can one move forward or backward in narrative time without destroying the limits of temporality? The answers differ according to individual narrative genre and effect. Epic, romance, realist novel: each genre requires a different temporal perspective specific to its narrative structure. But regardless of generic constraints, each must engage on some level with Proust's “jeu formidable … avec le Temps.”

In the cycle of “The Porter and the Three Ladies,” it is primarily the repeated recurrence of certain patterned structures of story and discourse which undeniably and somewhat ironically signals the movement of the cycle in time and the correlative unfolding of the narrative. One must again remember that exact identity between repeated events of whatever nature is, strictly speaking, impossible; that the linear constraints of the temporal realm must necessarily prevent the exact repetition of events no matter how similar, simply because any repeated event occurs at a time later than that of the instigating event. At best, narrative can know only near repetition, the replaying of the same events, the same verbal components at a different time.1 The very fact that the same phrase exists at one or more points in a text points to the necessary temporal movement of the narrative, its incapacity to maintain a static position. In the third dervish's description of the opening of the forbidden doors, for example, the repetition of both story and discourse underscores not only the significance of the act of discovery but both the temporal movement that accompanies the act and the narrative that describes it. The repeated interruption at the end of each night serves much the same function—only in this case the act being described is that of narration itself. In short, given the insistent foregrounding of repetition as a means of structuring narrative discourse, the 1001 Nights seems to be telling us something significant about the relation between time, repetition, and narrative.

That repetition within narrative is essentially a temporal phenomenon cannot be disputed, since without the context of advancing linear time, repetition has no frame of reference and therefore no meaning. A narrative structured by repetition consequently relies upon and often silently points to its temporal framework. Not surprisingly, then, time is of the essence, both structurally and thematically, in the three ladies cycle. Everyone is trying to beat the clock in both narrative and performative terms, and time's passage accordingly assumes critical importance. Repetition appropriately underscores this temporal movement.

I will return to this crucial relationship shortly, but let me digress briefly here to note that other levels of narrative time are operative within the cycle as a whole. While the repetition of structures of story and discourse is sustained primarily on the horizontal plot axis of the narrative and accordingly manipulates the temporal movement within the individual narratives, there is a corresponding vertical axis along which the temporal movement of the act of narration itself moves. This temporal movement can be designated as narrational time, that time specific to a given act of narration. Given the basic repetition of the narrative act within the cycle, as discussed earlier, the corresponding temporal movement is clearly significant.

We must again go back to the beginning. The first level of time specific to the narrative act—and there is here an equivalence between narrative time and narrative voice—is that in which the storyteller tells his story about Shahrazad telling her stories. This level of primary narration remains largely implicit and substantially unvoiced. It is, in fact, brought to the fore only in the interruption that occurs at the end of each night—“But morning overtook Shahrazad, and she lapsed into silence”—and in the occasional voice markers, “said Shahrazad,” which necessarily follow this interruption. The second level of narrational time and voice is appropriately that of Shahrazad herself. This level is only slightly more pronounced than that of the primary narrator; indeed, since both share the third-person past tense, it is easy to mistake the one for the other. The only time Shahrazad's voice comes through clearly is at the beginning of each night when she refers to herself in the first person and directly addresses the king: “I heard, O happy King.” But it should be emphasized that within the primary narrative of the storyteller, the time and voice of Shahrazad are themselves primary; they repeat the function of the time and voice within which they are embedded. It is within their limits that the most substantial narratives of the cycle unfold.

The Chinese box syndrome continues. The third level of narrational time belongs to the story being told by Shahrazad. This is the realm which is initially indicated by the indeterminate equivalent of the implicit “once upon a time” that opens the three ladies cycle, but which is later specified by Shahrazad as the time of Harun al-Rashid. It is in this time that the characters of the tale exist and tell their own stories. In the case of the three ladies cycle, this level is established initially in the frame story and subsequently reasserted in the intervals that separate the individual tales. It is at this point that the story is evaluated and its narrator summarily dismissed. At the end of the first tale, for example, the dervish concludes: “But God drove us to your house, and you were kind and generous enough to let us in and help me forget the loss of my eye and the shaving off of my beard”; and the narrative continues: “The girl said to him, ‘Stroke your head and go.’ He replied, ‘By God, I will not go until I hear the tales of the others.’ … It is related, O happy King, that those who were present marveled at the tale of the first dervish. The caliph said to Ja'far, ‘In all my life I have never heard a stranger tale.’ Then the second dervish came forward and said: …” (91-92). Again, the third-person past tense prevails. The voice is ostensibly Shahrazad's, but the tone of the narrative bears a strong resemblance to that of an unspecified, omniscient narrator. It would seem that the further back in narrational time we go, the fainter the original narrative voice becomes.

The loss of the primary narrative voice—be it that of the storyteller or of Shahrazad—is finalized in the fourth level of narrational time. This is that time in which the narrative-men and -women speak, a time that is necessarily antecedent to that of the act of narration. These stories are also told in the past tense, but there is here a switch in the narrative voice from the third person to the first person: “Then the first dervish came forward and said: ‘My lady, the cause of my eye being torn out and my beard being shaved off was as follows. My father was a king …” (emphasis added) (86). A complete narrative transition involving the transference of the authoritative narrative voice and a corresponding shift in the level of narrational time has been made.

With the exception of the narrative night markers, nowhere else in the cycle is the passing of time noted with such care as it is in this final narrational realm. Each dervish makes a deliberate point of marking the amount of time spent in any given place. The first dervish spends four days looking for his cousin. The second dervish spends one year chopping wood. The beautiful woman has spent twenty-five years in her underground prison; the demon comes to stay with her once every ten days; and she rather calculatingly informs her new-found companion: “He has been away for four days, so there remain only six days before he comes again. Would you like to spend five days with me and leave on the day before he arrives?” (96). The third dervish in his turn sails at sea for forty days before the storm; he spends forty days with the boy whom he eventually kills, and one year minus forty days with the women in the palace. Clearly, time's passage has a peculiar significance within these tales, as if the careful marking of time were to compensate for the narrative and corresponding temporal distance that has been traveled between the primary narrative and those at the furthest narrational remove. Yet no matter how deep into the past we travel with the dervishes, and no matter how long they stay there, we and they all end up in the same place in and at the same time. In the end, we all rejoin the narrative present.

What results is a fundamental disturbance and confusion of temporal levels within the work as a whole and the cycle in particular. In addition to the standard horizontal range of the temporal spectrum within which narrative can move from left to right at ease, the three ladies cycle offers as well vertical levels of time whose only connection is that the one contains the other. If within each level a certain horizontal progression (or regression as is often the case) occurs, it is eventually confounded by the narrative constraints restricting each level. In short, a simple diachronic, linear connection in time cannot be made among the individual tales within the cycle. As the story unfolds, one must move up and down within the various levels of narrational time as well as back and forth in narrative time. A fundamental jarring of temporal perspective occurs.

Ultimately, one of the main reasons it is so difficult to maintain a distinction among the separate stories of the cycle, to remember what the 1001 Nights narrative of “The Porter and the Three Ladies” is all about—a difficulty I suspect every reader encounters—is because the line against which the narrative unfolds is so deviant. It is a difficulty that the use of repetition as a mode of narrative discourse largely maintains and essentially instigates; indeed, the vertical movement of narrational times and voices is itself little more than the echoing, the verbal mirroring of one time and voice by another. That narrative repetition has no significance without a linear temporal base, indeed derives its essence from its temporal affiliation, is clear. What is not so clear, perhaps, is that by its very nature repetition is an attempt to destroy its own essence, to kill the natural movement of linear time, to turn time back upon itself, to make time repeat itself, reflect itself, do anything but continue its unimpeded advance. That such an attempt is ultimately fruitless is the necessary result of the condition that all narrative must somehow move from one point to another, from beginning to end by way of the middle, if it is to maintain its status not only as narrative but as a linguistic construct. The fact remains, however, that every effort has been made to slow this movement, indeed to subvert this movement, to alter the inevitable march of narrative time without altering the fundamental nature of narrative.

One of the prerogatives of any narrative is to play with time, to create its own time. If the 1001 Nights is a narrative telling about the making and telling of other narratives, it is also necessarily a work about the relation between narratives, or specific types of narrative, and their temporal foundation. The motivating force behind Shahrazad's telling of the 1001 Nights is, as it is for her counterparts in Baghdad, a desire to forestall death, to impede time's natural flow, to ward off the sense of an ending. At the behest of their audience, these tellers of tales must kill time, or be killed themselves. It is ironic but essential that in order to kill time, and thereby to avoid the inevitable end of time, the narrators must make time, create narrative time. Not surprisingly, they narratively manifest this irony by developing their tales according to repetitive structures of story and discourse which counteract the forward movement of time and in so doing undercut the fundamental impulse of narrative.


It stands to reason that this effort to forestall the inevitable human end of time, the physical sense of an ending, affects the narrative sense of an ending as well. Given that narrative repetition is essentially a kind of recurrent textual return, a backward narrative movement that seeks to reunite, realign a later textual moment with its original preceding one, it is not surprising that the ending of a work structured according to various patterns of repetition is significantly different from that of a work that progresses more or less straightforwardly from beginning to end. Peter Brooks notes that in the grammar of plot, “repetition, taking us back again over the same ground, could have to do with the choice of ends.”2 The pertinent suggestion is that the ending of a repetitive narrative functions differently in relation to the preceding whole. The particular intent of this difference is focused on the narrative beginning.

If one accepts Todorov's premise that the ideal narrative consists in its broadest outlines of a fundamentally stable situation (the beginning), which is subsequently disturbed (the middle), and finally resolved (the end)—that is, that any narrative moves between two equilibriums that are related but not identical (the same but different)—one looks to the ending of a traditional narrative as a resolution marked by its necessarily later difference from the beginning.3 In short, the movement inherent in any narrative structure requires a distance between beginning and end along which the narrative can unfold, and this distance in turn requires a difference between the two limiting points of the narrative. The absence of this distance of difference would seemingly lead to a kind of narrative collapse, an inability on the part of narrative to pursue its necessary course. A repetitive narrative, however, a narrative whose structural impulse is always to look backward, to turn back upon itself, necessarily subverts this sense of an ending as something in the distant and different future.

The cycle of “The Porter and the Three Ladies” drives the point home. When the second woman has finished her tale and the caliph has ordered that it be entered as a recorded history and placed in the treasury, the closing frame of the story as told by Shahrazad to the king follows. This last section of the tale, structurally separated from the preceding section of the narrative by a night break, fulfills much the same function as an epilogue. Not only are the primary characters of all five embedded tales gathered together at one time and in one place, but the future of each one is irrevocably determined by the political and narrative authorities in question, with some assistance from a dea ex machina in the guise of a Muslim ifrit. In sum, the ultimate conclusion of the narrative, the final weaving together of assorted narrative strands, is achieved.

What happens at the end of the three ladies cycle is not unlike what happens at the happy end of a nineteenth-century novel: people are married; losses are compensated; futures are ensured. The ifrit is instrumental in this activity. In gestures that remind us that at a certain point it is potentially the women in this tale who wield the power (especially the narrative power), she helps to bring the cycle to its close by releasing the two sisters of the eldest lady from their inhuman captivity as black bitches and by informing the caliph of the true identity of the second woman's jealous husband, who, conveniently, is both geographically and genetically close at hand. Harun al-Rashid then takes over and asserts his secular authority. He expediently marries the three sisters of the first woman's story to the three dervishes, whom he subsequently enlists as his chamberlains; he reunites the second woman with his son, her estranged husband; and he obligingly offers himself as a spouse to the third woman, the shopper, who curiously is richly rewarded for having no story to tell. A fearful, perhaps because unearthly, symmetry results. It is no wonder that at the close of the entire narrative, the caliph orders that all the preceding stories be recorded and thereby preserved for posterity.

What has happened at the end of this cycle is remarkable for reasons other than its patterned design. Instead of progressing toward a future state, a condition distantly different because later than the beginning, the narrative has moved backward, has restored its characters to a time and a state predating that of the cycle's opening. The narrative has been markedly conservative, even retrograde in its driving impulse. When the ifrit, muttering words that no one can understand, releases the two women from bestial captivity, she expresses in summary form the basic thrust of the cycle's ending. The women return to their original state; the three dervishes reacquire their royal status (the narrative interestingly reminds us of this, as if to underline the socially conservative nature of the caliph's act: “He married the first girl and her sisters who had been cast under a spell to the three dervishes, who were the sons of kings” [150]). And finally, the doorkeeper is returned to her former husband. The happy end of the cycle has not provided a new and different because importantly later equilibrium on which the narrative can rest. It has, on the contrary, done little more than return the narrative to an earlier state, one prior to that of its beginning. The status quo has been reestablished. Time has not doggedly marched onward and taken its inevitable toll; it has, in fact, moved backward and ultimately been frozen through narrative at a still and stable moment.


I would like now to move from this discussion about the conservative power of repetition to examine the way in which this narrative pattern relates to issues centering on the female body and questions of gender raised earlier in this study. Such generic issues of narrative time are not, I would suggest, unrelated to the way that gender (the etymological connection between genre and gender is here significant) means in a given narrative context. And they are particularly connected to the kinds of power struggles that gender, almost by definition, elicits.

Such struggles are at the very center of Alf Laylah. Indeed, one might argue that the text itself is instigated by the unanticipated appropriation of power by women. It is worth digressing to reexamine the familiar though crucial first scene. Shahzaman, Shahrayar's brother, has returned to his palace to find his wife in bed with a cook. Shahzaman responds to this scene by cutting his wife and her lover in two, only to discover some time later his brother's wife in a similar situation. This time, however, the treachery is magnified. Twenty concubines initially accompany the queen into the garden, ten of whom quickly reveal themselves to be men, specifically black slaves. Shahrayar's wife then allies herself with another black slave, who descends from a tree in response to her call. The scene is repeated a second time for the voyeuristic and legalistic benefit of Shahrayar, following which the two brothers go forth to seek comfort in the possibility of similar wrongdoing.

In an article entitled “Infidelity and Fiction,” Judith Grossman has examined this scene with an eye to the question of women's subjectivity in the 1001 Nights and has argued that what Shahzaman and Shahrayar are encountering here is “the problem which the recognition of female subjectivity has set for male-dominated cultures”;4 that the two brothers are confronting the fact that women have autonomous desires and, perhaps more frightening, the capacity to satisfy these desires at the expense of the “normal” boundaries of patriarchal society and culture. What is particularly interesting, though, is that it is not simply the women in whom these subversive desires are embodied. Shahzaman's wife, one recalls, was found with a cook, a representative of the domestic realm; while Shahrayar's wife, whose garden party suggests the way such subversive gestures are fruitful and multiply, has her male cohorts assume female guise, further intensifying this association between the feminine and the subversive. That her lover is himself black and a marginal figure (suggested by his tree-house location) suggests that such subversive behavior is distributed among all those who are not part of the dominant hierarchy. Clearly, speaking about gender is a constant reminder of the other categories of difference, such as race and class, that structure culture.

The response of the two kings to the potential for social revolution within their realm is to eradicate the threat in an effort to maintain the status quo. Both destroy the actual bodies that have sinned against authority, though it is interesting that while Shahzaman wreaks his own vengeance, Shahrayar delegates the punitive action to his wazir, Shahrazad's father, perhaps thereby formally asserting his unqualified resumption of power. Since it is precisely the declaration of unrestrained sexuality and desire that inaugurates this potential revolution, it makes perfect sense within the logic of the situation to mutilate the body that is the locus of such threatening actions.

It is not for nothing, I would argue, that as the interlude in “The Porter and the Three Ladies” has suggested, the 1001 Nights is haunted by bodies. Bodies scarred, transported, naked, metamorphosed, bodies that seem incapable of maintaining a secure, stable, respectable position in society are, in a sense, the signature of Alf Laylah.5 There are three groups of these specifically female bodies both in the frame tale and again in “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad” that are worth examining in order to explore the ways in which sex and text, male and female, come to grips with each other in this work, and to suggest thereby one kind of power struggle generated both in and by the Nights as well as the way the narrative, as suggested above, resolves it.

As Grossman notes, the presence that immediately counters the precipitating actions of those first female bodies, those of the kings' wives, is, surprisingly, not Shahrazad, but the woman possessed by the demon. Having discovered the betrayal of Shahrayar's wife, Shahzaman and his brother have responded by going forth to compare their fate with that of other men. Soon after their departure from the city they encounter a woman whose body, if not spirit, is quite literally possessed by a demon who contains her in a glass box with four padlocks. (The fact that the chest is glass is interesting because it gives the illusion of free will and movement.) It is this woman who forces the two brothers to have intercourse with her, as she has done with many hundreds of men before them, and it is, consequently, this woman who convinces them of the essential depravity and subversive nature of the feminine. It is after encountering her that Shahrayar returns home and implements his plan of daily execution. Grossman remarks that what is particularly noteworthy here is that the authority commanded by the woman is not her own. In clear bondage to her demon husband, she is only able to manipulate her situation within the terms of power established by the one who possesses her body. She can only compel Shahzaman and Shahrayar to do her bidding by invoking the power of her husband. Three times she threatens the two brothers with the wrath and ensuing violence of the ifrit if they deny her satisfaction; and although she brings her encounter with Shahzaman and Shahrayar to a close by pronouncing, “When a woman desires something, no one can stop her” (10), what neither she nor the kings realize is that she is doing so according to the conditions established by a society that legislates the possession of the female body. She is not acting subversively; she is simply appropriating the power that belongs to her husband.

The woman who is eventually summoned by this encounter is Shahrazad. But I would like to return for the moment to those three Baghdadian women, who mirror not only Shahrazad in their commanding narrative presence and power but also—in their ultimate narrative objectification and confinement—those women she sets out to redeem. I argued earlier in this study that what the three ladies are doing in the frame story of their cycle is establishing a specific kind of discourse, a discourse that focuses on the female body and on the relation of this body to metaphoric language. These are, apparently, the first fully self-possessed, seemingly integral and unmarked female bodies that the reader encounters in the Nights (though this cycle is immediately followed by “The Story of the Three Apples,” a story ostentatiously generated by the discovery of a mutilated female body). These are women who, apparently, not only control their own bodies and celebrate their own sexuality but also determine their own language and their own narrative rules. When the women demand further on in the frame tale that the men who have joined them for the evening either tell their tales or be permanently silenced, they are asserting their prerogative as the essential lawmakers in this particular realm.

It would seem that these three women are establishing an alternative society with radically different customs and laws that they themselves have determined. The specifically feminine space that they inhabit and that separates them from medieval Baghdad, the autonomous control they have over their own bodies, their legislative powers, which are backed by both oral and written authority and unquestioningly asserted, all suggest that within the confines of the frame tale at least, the actions and aims of these women are driven by anything but a desire to maintain the status quo of the society from which they have divorced themselves.

Indeed it seems that the three ladies are anxious to throw into question the values of those men who enter their privileged realm. But the facts of the extended narrative tell otherwise. The women's power turns out to be short-lived and confined to the initiating frame. It takes only the simple assertion of the real, historical, and political power of Harun al-Rashid, the embodiment of the dominant, established culture, to override the women's voices. Ja'far states: “You are in the presence of the seventh of the sons of 'Abbas, al-Rashid, son of al-Mahdi son of al-Hadi and brother of al-Saffah son of Mansur. Take courage, be frank, and tell the truth and nothing but the truth, and do not lie, for ‘you should be truthful even if truth sends you to burning Hell’” (134). And once commanded by this authority, the three ladies revoke the essential rule of their realm, Speak not of what concerns you not, lest you hear what pleases you not, and obey the caliph's commands that they tell their own story—the truth and nothing but the truth.

The result of this all-too-ready abdication of power on the part of the three women leads to the reestablishment, or, since it has never really been threatened, the reassertion, of historical authority and the status quo it embodies. Again, the closing frame of the cycle as told by Shahrazad to Shahrayar drives the point home. The potential for a state of change and difference, a state in which the linguistic and social order suggested by the three ladies might be enacted, has been abolished. The interlude initiated by the three ladies has proved to be just that—a playful, insignificant moment prior to real action whose suggestions for rewriting the social and linguistic codes have been appropriated by the proper authorities. In this light it seems important to note that the bodies these three women so proudly reveal in the opening frame are not as whole and unmarked as they initially appear. The back of the doorkeeper bears the tell-tale traces of a previous whipping, and it is these signs that initially excite the caliph's curiosity. Significantly, the caliph himself, by association, is responsible for these bodily etchings since, ironically, it is his son who has engraved them on the woman's back.

There is one more encounter with a dis-rupted body in this cycle that warrants examination. Physical metamorphosis—the transformation of a person from one bodily state to another—occurs almost as frequently in the Nights as physical mutilation. Both men and women are subject to metamorphic transformation, though women seem more likely to lose their human aspect than men. The great example of metamorphosis in the three ladies cycle is, of course, that of the king's daughter, who through her powers of autometamorphosis releases the second dervish from bestial captivity.

The incident is interesting in part because of the way it plays off of earlier moments of physical enclosure or transformation. The dervish whom the princess redeems has been transformed as a result of his encounter with the woman in the underground cave. This woman, held there against her will by an ifrit, is, in essence, a duplicate of that other woman in captivity, discussed earlier, who instigates Shahrayar's revenge. The underground woman is content to entertain her unexpected, and indeed uninvited, visitor until she needs to fulfill her obligations to the ifrit in much the same way that her double economically uses the short measure of the demon's sleep to assert her own desires. Their fates, however, are radically different. The demon husband responds to the woman's infraction of justice by engaging in nothing less than physical torture and mutilation. (The dervish reports first, “Then he [the demon] seized her, stripped her naked and, binding her hands and feet to four stakes, proceeded to torture her”; and later, “I saw the girl stripped naked, her limbs tied, and her sides bleeding”; and finally, “Then he took the sword and struck the girl, severing her arm from her shoulder and sending it flying. Then he struck again and severed the other arm and sent it flying” (98-101).

For his part in the deception, the dervish is transformed into an ape, but an ape who, critically, can still write though not speak. In order to release him, the king's daughter herself willingly undergoes a series of stunning metamorphoses during which she engages in combat with the ifrit, who counters with his own transformations. What is unusual about this encounter is that the princess alone controls what happens to her body. Her intellectual and corresponding metamorphic powers have been transmitted to her by an old woman (emphasizing, perhaps, the connection between such powers and the feminine) and are unbeknownst even to her father, who values her over a hundred sons. In her capacity for autonomy and self-determination, she counters the previous images of contained and possessed women with the image of a female body so supple and unbounded that it can change shape at will. Indeed, in her metamorphic powers, she recalls the three ladies and their metaphoric powers—both united in their potential to alter the given structure of reality. The affiliation, unfortunately, extends further, for like these other women, the princess's power is only temporary and, indeed, self-destructive. In working to release the second dervish from his bestial form, the princess effects not only the death of the ifrit but her own annihilation as well. Her final transformation into a heap of ashes suggests the ultimate ineffectualness of her power. In order to reestablish the “natural” order of things, in order to reassert the “normal” boundaries that structure society—the division between human and animal, between higher and lower, between male and female—the princess must extinguish her own “unnatural” powers precisely because they threaten such order. It is striking in this context that the dervish, who is both the instigator of all this trouble and one of the primary beholders of this scene, escapes almost wholly intact. The lost eye, the only mark he bears of this encounter, is the price he must pay for having borne witness, for having seen what should not be seen or even allowed to become visible. What the king's daughter has done is to stave off the breakdown of all “normal,” established boundaries and limits, a breakdown that would force a reorganization of reality in the same way that the metaphoric language of the three ladies would. In sum, what she has indicated through her metamorphosis and consequent death, and what the three ladies themselves ultimately acknowledge, is the necessity, perhaps even the desirability, of returning society to its earlier patriarchal state.


I would argue that the use of repetition in this narrative is the structural device that has worked its will in this reestablishment, in this conservative movement back to an earlier, more stable moment before narrative became necessary. For the most part, in any case. But what of the stories of the two women, which bring the embedded portion of the cycle to an asymmetric close? Why the growing attenuation of repetitive patterns of story and discourse precisely at that point closest to the final return, the final inversion of beginning and end, achieved by the frame's close? The answer lies in the very nature of the narrative movement associated with repetitive structures. If, as discussed earlier, such a narrative does move in a fashion contrary to that of a more horizontal, linear narrative; if repetition as a mode of narrative discourse structurally urges a narrative to return to its origins, ever to antecede its narrative beginnings, the narrative must, in practical storytelling terms, never end, for it must always and eternally repeat itself at the very point of its real narrative beginning. No matter how hard a narrative might try to counteract the sense of an ending as a future moment, then, it must inevitably concede at some point to the basic dictates of the narrative movement it is subverting. A practical end point must be located, since the potential of and for repetition is infinite. The endlessly repeating is, in fact, the interminable; there is theoretically no way to halt a narrative that has embarked on a fundamentally repetitive course. Just as metaphor must have metonymy in order to achieve its final metaphoric state, so must a repetitive narrative engage in a forward movement not only to assert the very fact of its repetition but also to bring the narrative at some arbitrary point to its practical close.

I would suggest that the final two tales of this cycle gradually provide a counter to this overriding movement of repetition; that in unwinding the ever more complicated structures of the preceding tales, they help to ease this potentially endless narrative to its rest. And I would further suggest that it is important that these are the stories of two of those ladies who sought to overturn the dominant culture in which they, as narrative-women, are embedded, for it is yet another concession to the literary, social, and political norms embodied in Harun al-Rashid.

The way in which the actual story of each of the five major tales is handled in the closing frame is significant. The three dervishes' narratives receive barely passing notice. No steps are taken to counteract their action; no attempt is made to right any of the physical wrongs committed in their course. The response to the two ladies' tales, however, is quite different. Not only is the ifrit necessary literally to undo the damage cited by the two women, but the narrative takes great pains to track this reversal in some detail. The story of the ifrit is repeated by the ifrit herself before she returns the dogs to their former human state, in much the same way that she reminds the caliph of his son's action before al-Amin can confirm it himself. Fortunately, the repeated narratives are relatively brief. The ifrit waxes fairly eloquent about her own personal history but repeats only in shortened form the story of the second lady and her jealous husband. The same narrative attitude is maintained with al-Amin: “Then the caliph, O King, summoned his son al-Amin and questioned him to confirm the truth of the story” (150). The closing frame of the cycle employs in relatively concentrated fashion many of the repetitive patterns discussed in relation to the three dervishes' tales; but what the ifrit's retelling of the ladies' stories suggests is that since the structural underpinnings of the stories are themselves of little use in returning the ladies to an earlier state, since the ladies have apparently lost their metaphoric power, the story and discourse of the closing frame must compensate.

Regardless of the means, we finally arrive at the cycle's end, which predates, in a sense, its beginning, at the point at which all of the characters (with the exception of the luckless porter, who has long disappeared from narrative sight) are restored to their former condition and forever removed from further narrative influence. I have suggested throughout this discussion that the kind of narrative movement that instigates such an ending is intimately linked to an effort to contradict and counteract the forward-moving march of time, which necessitates the kind of change and potential for revolution that the 1001 Nights is apparently arguing against.

But this forward temporal movement also brings us all, characters and readers alike, to our natural end. One might argue that the drive of such a repetitively structured narrative is to achieve the status of the timeless, the eternal, the ultimate conservative state, and to move beyond the boundaries of beginning and end. It is a status achieved on a minimal level by every narrative in its capacity to be reread, reexperienced, repeated, at any time and place. It is, nonetheless, particularly significant in a narrative created according to the structures and restrictions of a repetitive mode. Shahrazad's own narrative is intensely aware of such time-breaking narrative potential. Not only is it structured according to the fundamental repetitive act of narration, which provides the foundation upon which the 1001 Nights is built; but its very title accentuates the narrative drive that actualizes such potential. As Ferial Ghazoul notes, in Arabic the number one thousand (1000) connotes a number beyond count; one thousand and one (1001) suggests that final move into eternity, into the realm where the mere passing of days and nights has no significance.6 Shahrazad tells stories for one thousand and one nights in order to move beyond time, to reassert certain deeply embedded cultural norms and patterns of literary and social behavior that are being subject against their will to alteration and reconsideration. The three ladies and their companions in Baghdad do the same.


  1. See Kawin, Telling It Again and Again, p. 7.

  2. Brooks, “Freud's Masterplot,” p. 286.

  3. See Todorov's discussion of this issue in “La grammaire du récit.”

  4. Grossman, “Infidelity and Fiction,” p. 114. I have found Grossman's article particularly suggestive for the terms in which she discusses the problem of women's selfhood and subjectivity in the Nights.

  5. The two meanings of the word corpus again intersect. Richard Burton most demonstrably suggests this etymological conjunction when in the “Translator's Foreword” to his Thousand Nights and a Night he remarks, “Before parting we [a colleague and himself] agreed to ‘collaborate’ and produce a full, complete, unvarnished, uncastrated copy of the great original” (emphasis mine).

  6. I have benefited greatly from the fascinating discussion of the significance of numbers in the 1001 Nights in Ghazoul, The Arabian Nights, pp. 62-65. She addresses the issue of the number 1001 on p. 65.


Brooks, Peter. “Freud's Masterplot.” Yale French Studies 55-56 (1977): 280-300.

Kawin, Bruce. Telling It Again and Again. Ithaca, N.Y., 1972.

Burton, Richard, trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. 16 vols. N.d.

Ghazoul, Ferial. The Arabian Nights: A Structural Analysis. Cairo, 1980.

Grossman, Judith. “Infidelity and Fiction.” Georgia Review 34, no. 1 (Spring 1980): 113-26.

Todorov, Tzvetan. “La grammaire du récit.” Langages 12 (1968): 94-102.

David Pinault (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: Pinault, David. “An Introduction to the Arabian Nights.” In Story-Telling Techniques in the Arabian Nights, pp. 16-30. Leiden, Netherlands: E. J. Brill, 1992.

[In the following excerpt, Pinault introduces some of the narrative devices used in The Arabian Nights, including repetitive designation, Leitmotifstil, or, lead-word style, and patterns of theme and form.]


In [what follows] I describe narrative devices used by redactors in numerous stories found in the Alf laylah. …


Under this heading I group repeated references to some character or object which appears insignificant when first mentioned but which reappears later to intrude suddenly on the narrative. At the moment of the initial designation the given object seems unimportant and the reference casual and incidental. Later in the story, however, the object is brought forward once more and proves to play a significant role.

A good example of this technique can be found in one of the early episodes in the frame-story of King Shāhrayār and Scheherazade as presented in the Leiden edition of the G manuscript [a certain fourteenth-century text of the Alf laylah know as Bibliothèque Nationale 3609-3611].1 Shāhrayār's brother Shāhzamān arrives for a visit, and the G redactor offers a detailed description of the guest-quarters where Shāhzamān is housed: a palace overlooking an enclosed garden and facing a second house containing the women's quarters. Furthermore, it is carefully explained that his chambers have windows overlooking the garden. Finally, we are told that the nobleman repeatedly sighs and laments, “No one has ever had happen to him what happened to me!,” a reference to the adulterous betrayal by his wife which opened the story. These references seem incidental enough at first, but in fact the redactor has made mention of all these details—the women's quarters, the garden, the guest-chamber windows which happen to overlook the garden, Shāhzamān's lament—by way of foreshadowing and preparation for the next development in the plot. One day King Shāhrayār departs to go hunting, and Shāhzamān, the redactor tells us, chances to look out his window at the garden which is visible below. Suddenly he sees his brother's wife, followed by an entourage of men and women, emerge from the harem opposite and enter the garden. From his window-perch he sees them all join lustily in sexual congress. Shāhzamān then realizes that his repeated lament is untrue, for his brother too has had happen to him what happened to Shāzamān.

Another instance of repetitive designation emerges in the Leiden version of The Merchant and the Genie.2 The tale opens with a description of the protagonist putting loaves of bread and dates in his saddlebag as provisions for a journey he is about to undertake. Trivial enough data this seems at first, a description of the food a man takes on a business trip. But to the contrary: in the next scene the merchant pauses in his journey for lunch and eats his dates, flinging away the date-stones at random. Shortly thereafter a wrathful genie appears, which informs the man that his life is now forfeit: the date-stones he flung away so thoughtlessly at lunch struck and killied the genie's invisible son; in turn the genie must now kill him. The hapless merchant pleads for mercy, a plea which will ultimately trigger the stories-told-for-ransom which comprise the bulk of this narrative-cycle.

Thus in the two examples cited above the initial reference establishes an object (e.g., a garden-window or a saddlebag full of dates) in the background of a scene and readies it for its appearance at the proper moment. Repetitive designation creates thereby an effect of apparently casual foreshadowing and allows the audience the pleasure of recognition at that later moment when the object reappears and proves significant.


In his work The Art of Biblical Literature Robert Alter explains that the term Leitwortstil (“leading-word style”) was coined by Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig and applied to the field of Biblical textual studies. Alter states that the term designates the “purposeful repetition of words” in a given literary piece. The individual Leitwort or “leading word” usually expresses a motif or theme important to the given story; the repetition of this Leitwort ensures that the theme will gradually force itself on the reader's attention.3

In the preface to his German Bible translation Buber discusses the triliteral root system in Hebrew and the opportunities it offers for verbal repetition. He labels this technique of repetition as a Leitwortstil and defines the term as follows:

A Leitwort is a word or a word-root that recurs significantly in a text, in a continuum of texts, or in a configuration of texts: by following these repetitions, one is able to decipher or grasp a meaning of the text … The repetition, as we have said, need not be merely of the word itself but also of the word-root; in fact, the very difference of words can often intensify the dynamic action of the repetition. I call it “dynamic” because between combinations of sounds related to one another in this manner a kind of movement takes place: if one imagines the entire text deployed before him one can sense waves moving back and forth between the words.4

What is true for Hebrew triliteral roots and the Bible holds good, I believe, for Arabic and the Arabic Nights. Leitwortstil can be discerned at work in the MN version of The Magian City, a minor narrative enframed within The Tale of the First Lady (which in turn belongs to the story-cycle known as The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad).5

Three sisters leave Baghdad to undertake a business trip by sea. Their ship goes off course, and for several days the vessel drifts without direction. Neither captain nor crew has any idea where they are; but after a number of days an unknown shore is sighted. The lookout cries, “Good news! … I see what looks like a city”; and the ship is brought to harbor. The captain goes ashore to investigate:

He was gone for some time; then he came to us and said, “Come, go up to the city and marvel at what God has done to His creatures, and seek refuge from His wrath! (wa-ista‘īdhū min sukhṭihi). And so we went up to the city.

Then when I came to the gate I saw people with staves in their hands at the gate of the city. So I drew near to them, and behold!: they had been metamorphosed and had become stone (wa-idhā hum maskhūṭīn wa-qad ṣārū aḥjāran). Then we entered the city and found everyone in it metamorphosed into black stone (maskhūṭan aḥjāran sūdan). And in it [i.e., in the city] there were neither houses with inhabitants nor people to tend the hearths. We marveled at that and then traversed the markets.6

A note by Edward Lane from his translation of the Nights suggests the significance of the verbal root s-kh-ṭ which occurs three times in the above passage:

The term “maskhooṭ,” employed to signify “a human being converted by the wrath of God into stone,” is commonly applied in Egypt to an ancient statue. Hence the Arabs have become familiar with the idea of cities whose inhabitants are petrified, such as that described in “The Story of the First of the Three Ladies of Baghdad.”7

In his Arabic-English Lexicon Lane also notes that the primary sense of the passive participle maskhūṭ is “transformed, or metamorphosed … in consequence of having incurred the wrath of God.” In addition, Lane records the gerund sukhṭ, which he defines as “dislike, displeasure, disapprobation, or discontent.”8

The term maskhūṭ may of course be understood in a very general sense simply to mean “transformed” or “metamorphosed.” Burton's commentary on this tale notes that maskhūṭ is “mostly applied to change of shape as man enchanted to monkey, and in vulgar parlance applied to a statue (of stone, etc.)”; elsewhere in his edition of the Nights he offers the gloss “transformed (mostly in something hideous), a statue.”9 But the connotations enumerated by Lane are brought forward in the MN edition by the captain's exclamation at the beginning of the Magian City episode: ta‘ajjabū min ṣan‘Allāh fī khalqihi wa-ista‘īdhū min sukhṭihi (“Marvel at what God has done to His creatures, and seek refuge from His wrath!”). The redactor uses this sentence to achieve a resonance of meanings between sukhṭ (“divine wrath”) and maskhūṭ (“metamorphosed”), words derived from the same verbal root, s-kh-ṭ. The presence of the noun sukhṭ gives maskhūṭ a religious connotation; and the implication that arises from this juxtaposition of words is that the city's inhabitants were transformed specifically as a punishment for having aroused God's anger.

Of interest to our discussion is a remark by ‘Abd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī (d. AD 1078) on the subject of context and meaning in his work Dalā’il al-i‘jāz (“Demonstrations of Qur’anic Inimitability”):

It becomes clear then, with a clarity that leaves no place for doubt, that verbal expressions are not remarkable for their excellence insofar as they are mere abstracted utterances, nor insofar as they are isolated words. Rather the worth or lack of worth of a given expression depends on the harmony established between the meaning of a given expression and the meaning [of the word or phrase] which follows that expression.10

As G. J. H. van Gelder notes in his analysis of al-Jurjānī's work: “The qualities do not depend on the single words but on the ‘wonderful harmony’ (ittisāq ‘ajīb) in the passage.”11 Al-Jurjānī's insight can be applied to the ‘harmony of meanings’ found in a story such as The Magian City. By placing the phrase ista‘īdhū min sukhṭihi immediately before the sentences describing the lost city and its metamorphosed populace, the MN redactor reminds the reader of the root-meaning of maskhūṭ, with its original denotation of God's wrath against the impious. The words sukhṭ and maskhūṭ will recur throughout this narrative-frame as related Leitwörter highlighting the tale's moralistic concerns.

The story continues with a description of how passengers and crew disembark and then wander the lifeless city. The protagonist ventures on her own into a palace where she discovers the preserved corpses of a king and queen, each of which has been transformed into black stone (and each described with the term maskhūṭ). Finally she encounters a young man who alone has survived the fate of all the other inhabitants. He tells her the story of this city, explaining that all its people were Magians and devoted to the worship of fire. He himself, however, was secretly Muslim. Year after year divine warnings visited the city to the effect that the infidel inhabitants must abandon their fire-worship and turn to the true God; to no avail. And so, the young man explains:

They never ceased with their adherence to the way they were, until there descended upon them hatred and divine wrath (al-maqt wa-al sukhṭ) from heaven, one morning at dawn. And so they were transformed into black stone (fa-sukhiṭū aḥjāran sūdan), and their riding beasts and cattle as well.12

The Magian City frame ends when the protagonist rejoins her companions and conveys to them the story she has just heard:

I reported to them what I had seen, and I told them the tale of the young man and the reason for the metamorphosis of this city (wa-sabab sukhṭ hādhihi al-madīnah) and what had happened to them; and they marveled at that.13

Thus in this story the condition of the city's inhabitants (maskhūṭ, sukhiṭū) is explained as a consequence of divine wrath (al-sukhṭ), with the two states described in terms of the single root s-kh-ṭ. Not only does this motif-word accent relationships among events within The Magian City; it also demarcates this enframed minor narrative at both beginning and end and distinguishes the tale from the surrounding major narrative.

In other Alf laylah stories one notes the operation of what may be termed (as an extension of Buber's model) Leitsätze (“leading-sentences”): entire clauses or sentences which are repeated at salient points throughout a narrative and encapsulate its theme. In chapter 2 we will see how the Leitsatz “Spare me and God will spare you” is used to link minor narratives to the overarching tale of The Fisherman and the Genie. The sentence “This is a warning to whoso would be warned” is a familiar moralistic utterance encountered frequently throughout the Nights; in The City of Brass, however …, the redactor repeatedly introduces variants of this conventional admonition (all built around the Leitwörter ‘ibrah—“warning”—and i‘tabara—“to take warning”) so as to draw attention to the thematic concerns which unite the various episodes in the tale.


In those stories from the Alf laylah (as with works of fiction in general) which are especially well crafted, the structure is disposed so as to draw the audience's attention to certain narrative elements over others. Recurrent vocabulary, repeated gestures, accumulations of descriptive phrases around selected objects: such patterns guide the audience in picking out particular actions as important in the flow of narrative. And once the audience has had its attention drawn to the patterns which give shape to a story, it experiences the pleasure of recognition: so this is the revelation toward which the storyteller is guiding us; this must be the object which constitutes the story's focus. The reader attempting to discern such patterns in a story, however, should beware of examining too narrowly any one given incident from the tale, for an individual dialogue or isolated event, taken alone, may not have enough context to let the observer establish its significance for the story at hand. The observer's emphasis, rather, should be on the particular event as it exists in relation to the rest of the narrative and the way in which the events and other narrative elements in a story join to form a structural pattern.

In my study of individual tales I have noted two kinds of structural patterning, thematic and formal. By thematic patterning I mean the distribution of recurrent concepts and moralistic motifs among the various incidents and frames of a story. In a skilfully crafted tale, thematic patterning may be arranged so as to emphasize the unifying argument or salient idea which disparate events and disparate narrative frames have in common.

Thematic patterning binds the tales contained within The Fisherman and the Genie. The argument of this narrative-cycle may be baldly stated as: violence against one's benefactors or intimate companions, whether triggered by mistrust, envy, or jealous rage, leads inevitably to regret and repentance. This concept is illustrated both in the major narrative of the Fisherman and in its enframed minor narratives such as Yunan and Duban and The Jealous Husband and the Parrot. … Of course all these stories are also linked thematically to the outermost narrative frame, where Scheherazade is quite literally trying to talk her way out of violent death at the hands of a husband who himself is dominated by mistrust and jealous rage.

Another example of thematic patterning can be found in The City of Brass, a story which at first glance may appear to have little structural unity. The primary action, in which a party of travellers crosses the North African desert in search of ancient brass bottles, is continually interrupted by subsidiary narratives: the tale recorded on inscriptions in the lost palace of Kūsh ibn Shaddād; the imprisoned ‘ifrīt's account of Solomon's war with the jinn; and the encounter with Queen Tadmur and the automata which guard her corpse. But each of these minor narratives introduces a character who confesses that he once proudly enjoyed worldly prosperity: subsequently, we learn, the given character has been brought low by God and forced to acknowledge Him as greater than all worldly pomp. These minor tales ultimately reinforce the theme of the major narrative: riches and pomp tempt one away from God; asceticism is the way to salvation. Thus a clearly discernible thematic pattern of pride—punishment from God—submission to the Divine Will unifies the otherwise divergent stories which are gathered into this tale.

By formal patterning I mean the organization of the events, actions and gestures which constitute a narrative and give shape to a story; when done well, formal patterning allows the audience the pleasure of discerning and anticipating the structure of the plot as it unfolds. An example can be found in The Tale of the Three Shaykhs, where three old men come upon a merchant in the desert about to be slain by a demon which has a claim of blood-vengeance against him (we have encountered the earlier part of this tale already, in my analysis of incidents from The Merchant and the Genie). First the redactor takes care to note that each shaykh has with him some object of interest: the first, a chained gazelle; the second, a pair of black hunting dogs; the third, a mule. Then the first shaykh approaches the genie and pleads with it for the merchant's life: if you grant me one-third of the blood-claim due you from this man, he states, I will recite for you a wondrous tale concerning this chained gazelle. The demon accepts, and the audience can already recognize the symmetries of the formal patterning at work in this story-cycle: each of the three shaykhs in turn will advance to tell a wondrous tale concerning his animal and claim one-third of the blood-punishment. And such in fact is what happens: the merchant is saved by the recitation of the three tales.14

A more elaborate instance of formal patterning is at work in a story-cycle entitled The Tale of the Hunchback.15 Four characters, a Christian broker, a steward, a Jewish doctor, and a tailor, are summoned before a sultan and each must tell a satisfyingly amazing anecdote in order to have his life spared. This story-as-ransom motif obviously connects the entire cycle with the Scheherazade frame, where the heroine also recites tales to avert death. But there is more. Each of the four characters in The Hunchback tells a story in which he describes an encounter with a young man who has been mysteriously maimed or crippled. In each encounter the narrator asks the young man how he suffered his hurt, and the latter's explanation constitutes the tale offered to the sultan as ransom. The last of the four reciters, the tailor, tells how at a marriage-feast he met a young man who had been lamed. The youth recounts the misfortunes whereby he came to be crippled; and it turns out that the person responsible for this injury, an insufferably garrulous barber, is seated at the same table as the tailor. No sooner does the youth conclude his tale than the barber insists on offering the tailor and his friends a succession of stories, first one about himself, then a good half-dozen anecdotes about his six unfortunate brothers. The tales narrated by the barber are not demanded as any kind of ransom by the tailor, in contrast to the four tales required by the sultan in the overarching Hunchback cycle. Nor do the barber's stories seem controlled by a common thematic concern or moral argument. All six brothers suffer harm, but some deserve punishment for their foolishness or lust, while others (especially the third and fourth brothers) are clearly innocent victims of malicious sharpsters. But common to the vignettes in this series is that each tells how one of the brothers was blinded, castrated or somehow deprived of lips and ears.16 This structural pattern of mutilation links the six tales formally to one another and in turn unites the Barber cycle as a whole with The Hunchback, where each of the four enframed tales also displays a formal patterning of mutilation/crippling. Thus the stories contained in The Barber's Six Brothers constitute an example of a narrative cycle where the unity lacking at the thematic level is compensated for by a consistent formal patterning.


I define dramatic visualization as the representing of an object or character with an abundance of descriptive detail, or the mimetic rendering of gestures and dialogue in such a way as to make the given scene ‘visual’ or imaginatively present to an audience. I contrast ‘dramatic visualization’ with ‘summary presentation,’ where an author informs his audience of an object or event in abbreviated fashion without dramatizing the scene or encouraging the audience to form a visual picture of it. In The Rhetoric of Fiction Wayne Booth analyzes the modern novel by making analogous distinctions between what he calls “showing” and “telling”: when an author “shows” his audience something he renders it dramatically so as to give the “intensity of realistic illusion”; when he “tells” his audience about a thing he is using his authorial powers to summarize an event or render judgment on a character's behavior, without, however, using descriptive detail to make the given event or character imaginatively present.17

To understand how these techniques function let us compare the wording of analogous scenes in two different Alf laylah stories. Both portray exemplary punishment in the form of amputation which is to be inflicted on the protagonist. The first scene is from The Lover Who Pretended to be a Thief. Khālid, governor of Basrah, is confronted with the men of a family who have caught a handsome young man breaking into their home. They accuse the boy of theft, and the prisoner confesses freely. To Khālid the youth seems too well-spoken and of too noble a bearing to be a thief; yet given the boy's insistence on his own guilt, the governor has no choice but to order the legally mandated punishment. Suspecting nevertheless that the prisoner is for some reason concealing the truth, Khālid counsels him privately to “state that which may ward off from you the punishment of amputation” the next morning when he is to be interrogated one last time by the judge before the sentence is executed (not till the end of the story do we learn that the youth is a lover who had entered the home for a tryst with the daughter of the house, and that he has allowed himself to be labeled a thief so as to protect her honor). The punishment-scene reads as follows:

When morning dawned the people assembled to see the youth's hand cut off; and there was not a single person in Basrah, neither man nor woman, who failed to be present so as to see the punishment of this young man. Khālid came riding up, and with him were prominent dignitaries and others from among the people of Basrah. Then he summoned the judges and called for the young man to be brought. And so he approached, stumbling in his chains; and not one of the people saw him without weeping for him. And the voices of the women rose up in lamentation.

The judge thereupon ordered the women to be silenced; and then he said to him, “These persons contend that you entered their home and stole their possessions. Perhaps you stole less than the amount which makes this a crime legally necessitating such punishment?”

“On the contrary,” he replied. “I stole precisely an amount which necessitates such punishment.”

He said, “Perhaps you were co-owner with these persons in some of those possessions.”

“On the contrary,” he replied. “Those things belong entirely to them. I have no legal claim to those things.”

At this point Khālid grew angry. He himself stood up, went over to him and struck him in the face with his whip, quoting aloud this verse:

Man wishes to be given his desire
But God refuses all save what He desires.

Thereupon he called for the butcher so that the latter might cut off his hand. And so he came, and he took out the knife. Then he stretched out the boy's hand and placed upon it the knife.

But suddenly there rushed forward a young woman from the midst of the women, clad in soiled and tattered clothes. She screamed and threw herself upon him. She drew back her veil, to reveal a face like the moon for beauty. And there rose up from the people a great outcry.18

The beloved has appeared: she will sacrifice her reputation and their love-secret so as to save the boy from punishment.

We will return to the lovers in a moment, but let us look first at our second amputation-scene, this one from The Reward of Charity. A capricious king has ordered that henceforth no one in his realm is to offer alms or bestow charity under any circumstances; all those caught violating this command will have their hands chopped off. In what follows a starving beggar approaches a woman who proves to be the protagonist:

The beggar said to the woman, “Give me something in the way of charity!”

She replied, “How can I give you alms when the king is cutting off the hand of everyone who gives alms?”

He said, “I beg you in God's name, give me something in the way of alms!”

So when he asked her in God's name she felt pity for him and gave him two loaves of bread as an act of charity.

Thereafter report of this reached the king and he ordered that she be brought to him. Then when she appeared he cut off her hands and she returned to her home.19

Brief, brutal, and to the point.

But the two passages, juxtaposed as they are here, trigger a question: why is dramatic visualization employed in the amputation-scene from The Lover, while the redactor contents himself with the technique of summary presentation in an analogous episode from The Reward of Charity? The answer I believe is related to the fact that the punishment-scene in The Lover is the climax of the entire story. Throughout the Alf laylah dramatic visualization is reserved especially for scenes which form the heart of a given narrative. Such is the case here. What follows the girl's appearance in the public square is narrated succinctly: the boy's punishment is averted, the couple's love is made known, and Khālid prevails on the girl's father to allow them to marry. But the redactor lingers over the spectacle of punishment: the wailing crowds, the pathetic glimpse of the youth stumbling in his chains, the extended dialogue between judge and prisoner, and the sketch of the frustrated Khālid giving up all attempt to save the boy and lashing out with his whip. The effect of all this visualized detail is to slow the pace of narration; and we are not permitted any resolution till the last possible moment, when the heroine is introduced just as the butcher is about to apply his knife. Thus the technique of dramatic visualization enables the storyteller to heighten the tension in a scene and increase his audience's experience of pleasurable suspense.

By way of contrast the amputation in The Reward of Charity is not the narrative focus of the story at all. The punishment is presented in summary fashion because it is only a prelude to the true climax: the scene where the woman's generous impulse is vindicated. Mutilated as she is and subsequently expelled to the desert with her infant son clinging to her, she wanders until she comes upon a stream:

She knelt down to drink, because of the extreme thirst which had overtaken her from her walking and her fatigue and her sorrow. But when she bent over, the boy fell into the water. She sat weeping greatly for her child.

And while she was crying, behold!: two men passed by; and they said to her, “What is making you weep?”

She answered them, “I had a boy who was holding me about the neck, and he fell into the water.”

They said to her, “Would you like us to bring him forth for you?”

She replied, “Yes,” and so they called on God most high. Thereupon the child came forth to her unharmed; nothing ill had befallen him.

Then they said to her, “Would you like God to restore your hands to you as they had been?”

She replied, “Yes,” and so they called on God—all praise and glory to Him!—and her hands were restored to her, more beautiful than they ever had been before.

Then they said to her, “Do you know who we are?”

She replied, “Only God knows!”

They said, “We are your two loaves of bread, which you bestowed in charity on the beggar.”20

The redactor has reserved dramatic visualization for the scene which most merits it, that episode illustrating the moralistic theme which drives the whole narrative.


  1. Leiden edition, vol. 1, pp. 57-59.

  2. Leiden edition, vol. 1, pp. 72-73.

  3. Robert Alter, The Art of Biblical Narrative (New York: Basic Books, 1981), p. 92.

  4. Quoted and translated by Alter, op. cit., p. 93.

  5. The MacNaghten (MN) version of The Magian City is found in vol. 1, pp. 123-128. Būlāq (B) (vol. 1, pp. 44-46) and Leiden (vol. 1, pp. 203-207) lack MN's pattern of Leitwörter. The three versions are compared in D. Pinault, “Stylistic Features in Selected Tales from The Thousand and One Nights” (Ph.D. diss., University of Pennsylvania, 1986), pp. 172-194.

  6. MN vol. 1, p. 123.

  7. Edward William Lane, The Arabian Nights' Entertainments (New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1927), p. 1209, n. 1.

  8. Edward William Lane, An Arabic-English Lexicon (Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968), vol. 4, p. 1325.

  9. Richard Burton, Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (London: Burton Club for Private Subscribers, “Bagdad Edition,” n.d.), vol. 1, p. 165, n. 1, and vol. 10, p. 362.

  10. ‘Abd al-Qāhir al-Jurjānī, Dalā’il al-i‘jāz, ed. Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Khafājī (Cairo: Maktabat al-Qāhirah, 1969), p. 90.

  11. G. J. H. van Gelder, Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1982), p. 131.

  12. MN vol. 1, p. 127.

  13. MN vol. 1, p. 128.

  14. Such at least is the structure of this story-cycle as found in B [Būlāq edition] (vol. 1, pp. 7-10) and MN [MacNaghten edition] (vol. 1, pp. 12-20); but it is of interest to note that, from the point of view of formal patterning, G (as found in the Leiden ed., vol. 1, pp. 78-86) is markedly deficient. As in the two Egyptian texts, in G the first of three shaykhs advances to claim one-third of the blood-punishment, and the audience is prepared for a pattern of three stories. The first two shaykhs bring forward their beasts and recite wondrous tales concerning them, as in B and MN. But when it comes the third shaykh's turn, he is not described in G's version as having with him any animal; hence he quite literally has no tale worth speaking of. And G in fact at this juncture (Leiden, p. 86) contains no more than the bald statement:

    The third shaykh told the genie a tale more wondrous and stranger than the other two tales. Then the genie marvelled greatly and shook with pleasure and said, “I grant you one-third of the blood-claim.”

    Thus in G we are told only that the shaykh recited his story, but we are not permitted to hear the story itself, in contrast to the pattern followed with the full recitals given by the first two shaykhs. The audience is denied hearing the third tale which it had been led to expect by the narrative's structure. The passage quoted above shows that G acknowledges the structure dictated by the formal patterning of the three shaykhs and the blood-punishment divided into thirds; but G disposes of this structure at the end in very perfunctory fashion.

  15. The story is found in Leiden, vol. 1, pp. 280-379; B vol. 1, pp. 73-106; and MN vol. 1, pp. 199-278.

  16. Some of these mutilations are central to the given story, others incidental. One significant variant among the three editions occurs in the account of The Barber's Fifth Brother. The Egyptian texts (MN, vol. 1, p. 271 and B, vol. 1, p. 103) conclude this story by having thieves fall upon the barber's fifth brother and cut off his ears, an incident not found in the Leiden version. This act is not essential to the story proper of the fifth brother, but it does link the tale to its larger frame by bringing forward the motif of maiming/mutilation which characterizes all the stories of the Hunchback cycle. As such the Egyptian versions of The Barber's Fifth Brother offer a more consistent example than does the Syrian text of the use of formal patterning as a means of achieving structural unity for a series of otherwise unrelated tales.

  17. Wayne Booth, The Rhetoric of Fiction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961), pp. 3-9, 40.

  18. B vol. 1 (Night 298), p. 471.

  19. B vol. 1 (Night 348), p. 527.

  20. Ibid., p. 527.

Published editions of the Alf laylah wa-laylah and the Mi’at laylah wa-laylah

Habicht, Maximilian, and Fleischer, M. H. L., eds. Tausend und Eine Nacht, Arabisch. Nach einer Handschrift aus Tunis herausgegeben. 12 vols. Breslau: Josef Max & Co., 1825-1843.

MacNaghten, W.H. ed. The Alif Laila or Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night … 4 vols. Calcutta: W. Thacker & Co., 1839-1842.

Mahdi, Muhsin, ed. The Thousand and One Nights (Alf layla wa-layla) from the Earliest Known Sources. 2 vols. to date. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984.

Other sources

Alter, Robert. The Art of Biblical Narrative. New York: Basic Books, 1981.

Booth, Wayne C. The Rhetoric of Fiction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1961.

Burton, Richard. The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night. 10 vols. [London]: Burton Club for Private Subscribers, “Bagdad Edition,” n.d.

al-Jurjānī, ‘Abd al-Qāhir. Dalā’il al-i‘jāz. Edited by Muḥammad ‘Abd al-Mun‘im Khafājī. Cairo: Maktabat al-Qāhirah, 1969.

Lane, Edward William. The Arabian Nights' Entertainments. New York: Tudor Publishing Co., 1927.

Lane, Edward William. An Arabic-English Lexicon. 8 vols. Beirut: Librairie du Liban, 1968.

Pinault, David. “Stylistic Features in Selected Tales from The Thousand and One Nights.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 1986.

van Gelder, G. J. H. Beyond the Line: Classical Arabic Literary Critics on the Coherence and Unity of the Poem. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1982.

Ferial J. Ghazoul (essay date 1996)

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SOURCE: Ghazoul, Ferial J. “Narrative Dialectics.” In Nocturnal Poetics: The Arabian Nights in Comparative Context, pp. 17-28. Cairo, Egypt: The American University in Cairo Press, 1996.

[In the following essay, Ghazoul argues that the operational structure of The Arabian Nights consists of four major blocks: the story of Shahrayar as king, Shahrayar as a traveler seeking knowledge, the story of Shaharazad, and the frame story as narrated by the vizier.]


Roman Jakobson defined literature as a message centered on its mode of expression. Every literary text poses two questions to the specialist: how is the text generated and what is its final outcome? The answer to the first question, on how the text flows from its beginning to its end, throws light on the message that the text enunciates. The first step, therefore, is to try to understand the essential course of the text.

The Arabian Nights is a narrative discourse, but the narrative component does not cover the entire discourse. There are certain parts in the story which can be discarded without damaging the narrative line. This is evident enough since we know that there are many ways of telling the same story. Vladimir Propp has shown that the functions in a tale are the crucial points in the unfolding of narrative—these help us to see the story as a series of functional transformations connected in a causal relationship.1 Tzvetan Todorov went further by demonstrating the hierarchical nature of these functions, and that some of them are more essential to the narrative line than others, thus condensing the narrative to its essential identity.2 The analysis of The Arabian Nights in this chapter will follow the operations undertaken by Propp and Todorov, to observe the phenomenal changes in their essential role, and then to retain the principal transformations which will lead to the significance of the fiction.

The overall structure of The Arabian Nights is that of a principal preposition enclosing other prepositions connected by conjunctions, and so on. The fundamental preposition in The Arabian Nights, at the basic level, is the story of a king who, having found himself betrayed by his wife, vows to marry a virgin every night and behead her in the morning. After a succession of such wives, one of them—Shahrazad—manages to postpone her verdict and eventually waive it by narrating stories which captivate the king. This is the indispensable part of the narrative; it covers but a few pages at the beginning and the end. This is called the frame story. The stories related by Shahrazad (as well as one related to her by her father to dissuade her from marrying the king) can be omitted from the discourse without infringing on the narrative thread. On the other hand, if the frame story were omitted, the result would simply be unconnected stories. In the first case, we have a necklace without beads; in the latter, beads without a necklace.

The narrative line can be retold in more abstract terms as that of a rupture leading to a curse and its ultimate undoing. This invariably carries with it overtones of Semitic sacred narratives of Creation where an initial order and equilibrium are lost. In this sense, The Arabian Nights is essentially a demotic version of paradise lost and recovered. The bliss of the original couple was ruptured when they ate the fruits of the forbidden tree, that is, by tasting the fruits of knowledge. Similarly, taboo and knowledge are keys to the unfolding of The Arabian Nights. Sin and death go hand in hand in both. The sacred narrative in Genesis underlines the loss. The Arabian Nights points to recovery and redemption. Shahrazad's story echoes and develops the myth of Origin.

Apart from the power of The Arabian Nights to evoke dormant mythological texts, its structure offers a model of symbolic economy. The essence of narrative is a chronological transformation, a series of changes along a diachronic axis. Succession is as vital to narrative as seriality—that is, paradigmatic repetition—is to poetry. The narrative is the temporal discourse par excellence. There is an element of poetic justice in Shahrazad's struggle against deadline (and it is literally a dead line) armed with narrative: she fights time with time. In the Odyssey, Penelope's struggle to gain time is based on a simple device of doing and undoing; she unravels at night what she weaves in the daytime. Penelope marks time in order to delay temporal events, but Shahrazad's art lies in annulling the very limits of time. Penelope's struggle is against given time, while Shahrazad's is against the notion of time itself. The Arabian Nights deals with one of the most excruciatingly difficult philosophical concepts, that of abstract time.

Technically, The Arabian Nights offers an example of a struggle that has been used frequently in more modern literary works, such as Tristram Shandy and Through the Looking Glass, where the initial binary opposition of thesis and antithesis is not resolved by a mediating synthesis, but by the triumph of parentheses and digressions. The frame story can be broken down into four narrative blocks. In other words, the frame story combines four narratives which could stand independently, one from the other, although in this case they are artfully linked together.3 The four blocks are the story of Shahrayar as a king, the story of Shahrayar as a traveler seeking knowledge, the story of Shahrazad, and the story narrated by her father.


The beginning narrative block relates the story of two brothers who are monarchs; the older is called Shahrayar and the younger Shahzaman. After twenty years of happy rule, Shahrayar misses his brother and sends his vizier to fetch him. Shahzaman sets out to visit his brother. At midnight, he remembers something he had forgotten and goes back to his palace. There he finds his wife in bed with a black slave. He kills them both and goes on to visit his brother. Although Shahrayar had ordered a proper welcome for his brother upon his arrival, Shahzaman remains sullen. Sharayar assumes that his brother is homesick and Shahzaman will only refer enigmatically to an internal wound that is bothering him. One day, there is a royal hunting expedition but Shahzaman refuses to join the group and stays home. As Shahzaman is looking into the garden of his brother's palace, twenty slave girls, twenty slave men, and his sister-in-law come strolling along. They all undress and Shahrayar's wife copulates with a black slave, while the other girls do likewise. Shahzaman feels somewhat better after witnessing this orgy as it proves that his calamity is no worse than his brother's, and he soon regains his gaiety. On returning, Shahrayar is surprised by the sudden change in his brother, and he questions him about it. But Shahzaman only explains the reason for his grief by relating how his wife betrayed him, and will not explain how he got over it. Upon the insistence of his brother, Shahzaman gives in and explains how the betrayal of his sister-in-law had lessened his grief. Shahrayar then wants to check the story for himself and he arranges another royal hunting expedition, but secretly comes home and watches his wife's orgy with his own eyes.

The narrative line of this story is interrupted by introducing another narrative block, but it will be continued later.


Shahrayar decides with his brother to travel in order to find out if theirs is a singular case. They walk until they come to a spring next to the sea and they sit down to rest. After a while, a black column appears from the sea, and the two brothers become frightened and climb up a tree. It turns out to be a giant demon carrying a chest on top of his head. He comes and sits underneath their tree. The demon then proceeds to open the chest, from which he removes a beautiful young maiden. He puts his head in her lap and goes to sleep. The girl looks up, sees the two brothers, and asks them to come down. They protest, to no avail, and in the end they have to come down for fear that she will turn the demon against them. She orders them to copulate with her and they obey. When this is over, she takes out a bag with five hundred and seventy rings, which she has gotten from previous lovers who made love to her while the demon slept, and she asks them for a ring each.4 They do as she requests. She relates to them how she had been kidnapped on her wedding night by the demon, put into a box, placed in a trunk with seven locks, and then put at the bottom of the sea so as to assure her chastity. The two brothers are amazed at what has befallen such a mighty demon and are somewhat consoled.

Here the line of the first narrative block is resumed. The two brothers go back to Shahrayar's kingdom, and there Shahrayar puts his wife and her slaves to death.


For three years, Shahrayar marries a virgin every night and has her killed the next morning. It becomes increasingly difficult to find brides for him. The vizier, having failed to do so, goes home worried. The vizier has two daughters, Shahrazad the elder, who is well read, and Dinazad the younger. When the vizier is questioned by his elder daughter, he tells her all that has happened. Shahrazad offers to marry the king with the hope of delivering her fellow women. Her father warns her that she might have to face what befell the ass and the bull with the farmer. She inquires about that, and her father starts relating the story.

The story line of this narrative block is interrupted here and resumed later.


There was a farmer who knew the language of animals. He owned an ass and a bull. The bull found out that the ass was much better off and told him how much he envied his leisurely life, as he was only occasionally used for his master's transport. The ass advised the bull to pretend to be sick, to lie down and not to eat, and by so doing avoid hard work. The bull did so accordingly, but since the farmer had overheard the conversation, he gave instructions that the ass be used to replace the bull in drawing the plough. The ass regretted his advice and tried to get out of the new situation by telling the bull that he had better return to work soon, as the owner intended to have him slaughtered if he continued to be sick. The next day, the bull did his best to display appetite when eating and energy at work. The farmer, who had overheard these conversations, roared with laughter. Although he knew the language of animals, he was required not to divulge what he knew, otherwise he would surely die. His wife asked him why he was laughing and he told her that it was a secret which, if revealed, would entail his death. But she insisted on knowing, even at the cost of her husband's life. The husband did not know what to do, since he loved his wife dearly. He called his relatives and neighbors and told them about his predicament. Everyone entreated the wife to abandon the matter, to no avail. So the man resigned himself to her wish and went to perform his last ablutions before telling the secret. He then overheard his dog cursing the cock and accusing him of lightheartedness when his master was about to die. The cock inquired how that had come about and the dog told him the story of their master and his wife. The cock accused his master of stupidity on the grounds that he could not manage even one wife when the cock succeeded in satisfying fifty of them, and wondered why his master did not give his wife a good beating. The farmer, having overheard this, decided to take up the cock's suggestion. He hid some branches in the closet and invited his wife in, pretending he was about to reveal the secret to her. When she came in, she got a beating and consequently asked to be pardoned.

Then the narrative takes up the story of Shahrazad, which eventually fuses with the story of Shahrayar. The vizier says to his daughter Shahrazad that her fate might very well be that of the farmer's wife. But Shahrazad insists on going ahead with her plan. Shahrazad has instructed her sister that she will ask for her on the wedding night, and that Dinazad is to ask for tales to pass the night. The vizier takes Shahrazad to Shahrayar and she requests that her sister be with her. Dinazad comes and sits under the bed. After the deflowering of Shahrazad, Dinazad asks her to relate some stories to pass the time. Shahrazad agrees to do so, if the king will permit it. He does, and is delighted with her discourse. Shahrazad continues to tell her story all night but stops at daybreak. Shahrayar, anxious to hear more, postpones her sentence night after night until one thousand nights have passed. On the thousand and first night, after finishing a story, Shahrazad asks to be granted a wish. She brings her three sons and asks Shahrayar to free her from beheading for the sake of the children. Shaharyar embraces his children and assures her that he has pardoned her. She is delighted and joy overwhelms the people. Then, Shahrayar summons his vizier and thanks him for arranging his marriage with his daughter, who has begotten him three sons. He also orders festivities for thirty days and charitable acts for the people. They live happily ever after until death separates them.



These narrative blocks exhibit a rigorous organizational system in terms of major characters. The first block presents the reader with the most striking impulse in The Arabian Nights, that of binarism. The two brothers present to us in full dimension the question of duplication. They are both knights and kings and rule happily. Shahzaman's experience foreshadows Shahrayar's and is almost identical to it. He kills his wife instantly when he finds her in bed with a black slave, while Shahrayar's death order is delayed and undertaken only after his searching voyage. The striking similarity of Shahzaman's and Shahrayar's stories makes them sound like a voice and an echo. Here the text provides us with the first variant of binarism: pairing. This form of male pairing is symmetrically balanced by female pairing, represented in Shahrazad's and Dinazad's relationship in the third narrative block. However, there is a subtle difference in these two pairs. The male pair (Shahrayar and Shahzaman)—as in Flaubert's Bouvard et Pécuchet—is two parties in two performances of the same drama. Each reinforces the other but is completely independent in his actions. With the female pair, there is an explicit complicity between the two sisters. Dinazad is a shadow or a negative of Shahrazad, who accompanies her all along. Shahzaman is more than a negative; he is a double and a copy of Shahrayar.

The names of the dramatis personae also carry with them a phonetic duplication. Shahrazad and Dinazad share an end rhyme, Shahrayar and Shahzaman an initial rhyme. The sonorous repetition in the system of names manifests itself in the characters of the enframed stories, such as Sindbad the Porter and Sindbad the Sailor, Abdallah the Hunter and Abdallah the Mariner, and in the story of the two brothers ‘Ajib and Gharib. It is a common feature of legends and mythological narratives to have two parallel characters with rhyming names, such as the two giants Gog and Magog who were believed to have been imprisoned by a great wall during the reign of Alexander the Great. Another example is that of Harut and Marut, the fallen angels who were hung by their feet in a well in Babylon, yet another is that of Qahtan and ‘Adnan, the mythical ancestors of the Arabs. This phonetic parallelism in The Arabian Nights, a phenomenon that can be observed on the surface of the text, confirms and accentuates parallelism on the semiotic level. The significance of the correspondence between these two levels lies in the reinforcement of the impact on the reader and consequently prepares the reader for a deeper assimilation of the text and its patterns.

The protagonists in The Arabian Nights are Shahrayar and Shahrazad. They are the backbone of the narrative. While Shahzaman and Dinazad can be removed from the narrative, it is impossible to remove Shahrayar or Shahrazad without damaging the story. The relationship between Shahrayar and Shahrazad presents the second variant of binarism: coupling. This is how their attributes contrast:

Shahrayar Shahrazad
husband wife
sultan subject
listener narrator

This royal couple offers opposed and complementary polarity. The terms “husband,” “sultan,” and “listener” connote antinomically “wife,” “subject,” and “narrator” because they are parts of a split union. A husband cannot be comprehended as a term without its complementary contrast—a wife. Similarly, a king or sultan without subjects is such an incongruity that Antoine de Saint-Exupéry played on its absurdity in Le petit prince. In the same vein, a listener, by definition, conjures up a speaker, a narrator, or at least a voice. Shahrazad's attributes are, thus, mirror reflections of Shahrayar's, and vice versa. The interlocking of these two poles produces a totality and generates a process. They are a model of a structural couple: opposed and complementary like the yin-yang principles in Chinese cosmology. This coupling is realized on the phonetic level as well; Shahrazad and Shahrayar share both an initial and a medial “rhyme.”

There is yet a third variant of binarism—ambivalence—which is presented in the character of Shahrazad on the one hand and Shahrayar on the other. On the surface, Shahrayar is a paradigm of power: an Oriental despot and virile male who consumes a woman every night, while Shahrazad embodies the very principle of female vulnerability. She is at the total mercy of Shahrayar's monstrous appetite. However, she does not try to strike at him as in the wonder tales of giants and monsters, as in “Jack and the Beanstalk” or the Biblical story of David and Goliath. She tries to appease his appetite, to tame him, as it were, and replaces his steady diet of women with tales of women. Shahrazad's genius lies in turning women from objects of sex to objects of sexual fantasy. This entry into the symbolic is the most critical step undertaken by Shahrazad. It is a crucial transformation that parallels the substitution of ritual enactment for the concrete offering of a sacrifice in religion. Once the signifier replaces the signified, language becomes possible—and once language is installed, unlimited discourses become possible.

By obtaining the privilege of narrating, Shahrazad has inverted her relationship with her master. As the narrator, she has the upper hand. Shahrazad has become a “dictator” in the etymological sense of the word—derived from the verb dicere (to say). The listener, by definition, is the passive party in the act of narration. Shahrazad's position is the reversal of the conventional one, where discourse is the prerogative of the sovereign. Shahrazad's narrative gift and gigantic knowledge are stressed in The Arabian Nights:

The former [Shahrazad] had read various books of histories, and the lives of preceding kings, and stories of past generations: it is asserted that she had collected together a thousand books of histories, relating to preceding generations and kings, and works of the poets.5

Shahrazad is, therefore, an exceptional person in her own right. She is potentially powerful though technically helpless. Her status is ambivalent and so is her condition. She is—to borrow the paradox of Kierkegaard—put to death but kept alive.6 Shahrayar, by being completely entangled in her fictional web, mesmerized by her narration, evokes the image of an enslaved titan. Both hero and heroine dramatize a case of ambivalence and are examples of coincidentia oppositorum.

The relationship between Shahrazad and Shahrayar becomes consequently more complex, or at least more subtle, since their opposition is further complicated by internal contradictions. Neither is a pure type. There is something of the empowerment associated with Shahrayar in Shahrazad, and something of her helplessness in him. Their struggle is not a clear-cut one of forces of light versus forces of darkness. It is by no means a Manichean struggle, but something of an unblocking of dormant potentials in the weak partner and exposing the underlying limits of the strong partner. At bottom, both Shahrayar and Shahrazad are complex and ambiguous types, combining strength with weakness.

Throughout, the text persistently displays binarism and uses the principle of duality in three logically possible ways: duplication, opposition, and ambiguity. It is perhaps worth pointing out that these three variants of binarism correspond faithfully to three orders in semantics: synonymy, antinomy, and heteronomy.


The binary scale which governs the relationships between the principal characters permeates the thematic contents of the story as well. The major themes of the narrative are the principal actions that occur. In the frame story these are unequivocally those of love and death. The relationship between these fundamental acts in the unfolding of the story falls under three dialectics—repetition, inversion, and fusion—which parallel the relationship of pairing, opposition, and ambivalence. In analyzing these three dialectics within the text, it is often important to note how stylistic craftsmanship superbly coordinates the move from love to death and from death to love.

The first dramatic incident occurs when Shahzaman finds his wife in bed with a black slave. This erotic motif recurs when Shahzaman sees his sister-in-law copulating with a black slave, and it is seen once again by Shahrayar himself. This tripling of the one single incident amplifies it. The accompanying twenty slave girls and twenty slave men copulating in the royal garden further intensify the image. The death motif is equally insistent—participants in the orgy are slain—so the first narrative block presents us with the binarism of Eros and Thanatos.

The second narrative block displays the principle of inversion, where one act changes syntactic position and becomes reversed. The force seems to change direction while maintaining its full thrust. In the voyage undertaken by the two monarchs in the second narrative block, both Shahrayar and Shahzaman have experiences which constitute a drastic change from their earlier ones in the first narrative block. The two kings have sexual intercourse with a young woman kidnapped on her wedding night and kept under many locks. Earlier, their wives had managed to have lovers despite the fenced protection of a royal palace. Shahrayar's love-making with the young woman parallels that of the black slave with his wife. The analogy is evident:

Slave: Shahrayar = Shahrayar: Demon

This neat criss-crossing process also occurs within the story related by the vizier, Shahrazad's father, about the ass and the bull. The ass who has advised the bull to feign sickness in order to have an easy life ends up replacing the bull at hard work, while the bull indulges himself in the pleasures formerly enjoyed by the ass.

The difference between the inverted dialectic of Shahrayar and the bull is that the bull's inversion represents a complete transposition in the two elements given, something akin to the rhetorical figure of antimetabole, while the inversion of Shahrayar is something of a chiasmus. Both inversions—Shahrayar's and the bull's—are crucial in the narrative context. Shahrayar learns a lesson from his experience, acknowledges that this is not a singular case, and goes back to his throne. The ass, too, realizes that he is paying dearly for his advice and sets out to regain his former prestige.

The third dialectic in the narrative text is that of fusion, where two seemingly contradictory motifs are soldered together. Both the powerful notions of blackness and defloration carry with their use in the text what Arab grammarians have called the principle of addad, or the fusion of two opposing meanings in one term.

The episode of Shahzaman's return to his palace shows amply the clever use the text makes of blackness:

[He] set out towards his brother's domains. At midnight, however, he remembered that he had left in his Palace an article which he should have brought with him, and having returned to the palace to fetch it, he there beheld his wife sleeping in his bed, and attended by [in the arms of] a male negro slave. On beholding this scene, the world became black before his eyes, and he said within himself, if this is the case when I have not departed from the city, what will be the conduct of this vile woman while I am sojourning with my brother? He then drew his sword, and slew them both in bed.7

The text alone plays to the utmost on the semantic fields and associations of blackness, linking this opening and crucial incident to the stuff of the book—nocturnal narration. The text specifies that Shahzaman remembers the article he forgot in his palace at night, indeed, at the very peak of night. Night evokes darkness and midnight evokes the heart of darkness. Shahzaman, then, finds his wife in bed with a black slave. Blackness seems to crown this darkness. And when Shahzaman sees all this, “the world became black before his eyes.” The final blackening of death completes the somber process. One pigment has been sufficient to describe the timing, the adulterer, and the reaction. The swift movement from one situation to the other is unified by the color scheme.8

The concentration on one color is a clear example of textual economy where one term functions as a conceptual transformer of the night, from being read as equivalent to erotic time to a reading of it as murder time. The darkness of the night works as a cover and is associated both with sexual love and illicit actions. In Arabic literature, the night of lovers has been glorified in the most celebrated lines in Arabic poetry (though occasionally lovers were portrayed as meeting at other times of day, such as dawn). Both Imru' al-Qays, the pre-Islamic paragon poet, and ‘Umar ibn abi Rabi‘a, the early Islamic playful poet, set the mode and the model. The love scene set at night builds simply on a literary cliché, but the text moves from presenting the night as a protective veil into the night as absence of vision, where it infuriates Shahzaman to the point where he kills both his wife and her lover instantly. Here, night evokes darkness and blindness. Both opposed semantic poles of the night are used in this short passage.

What turns this discourse into a text is precisely this stylistic compactness. Thematically and logically, the sequence of events in the above passage is banal enough. A man finds his wife in bed with another and commits a crime de passion killing both of them. It sounds rather journalistic and of only passing interest. However, the style enhancing the sequence of events turns the report of such an occurrence into a literary text. In this case, the leitmotif of blackness shows how repetitions of one vehicle can produce highly differentiated and somewhat opposing tenors, to use the terms of I. A. Richards. The fusion here can be called duality in unity.

The text offers, furthermore, a fusion in which different vehicles are united by one overriding tenor, displaying the principle of divergence in convergence. The text specifies the kind of women Shahrayar wanted every night:

and henceforth he made it his regular custom, every time he took a virgin to his bed, to kill her at the expiration of the night. This he continued to do during a period of three years.9

It is clear that Shahrayar suffers from a wound and is trying to avenge himself, but what he is after is not women qua women but virginity. His own innocence, i.e., his mental “virginity,” has been wounded and he is making up for it by inflicting wounds. Defloration, a symbol of the erotic act and the procreative drive, is juxtaposed and simultaneously contrasted with beheading. The antithetical nature of the defloration, which is both a synecdoche for life while being literally a bloody rupture, renders the development of the paradox possible. Shahrayar, by the very act of rendering a female procreative and life-producing by inseminating her, is condemning her to death. On the other hand, Shahrayar is doing unto his brides the same act twice over: a metaphoric death followed by a literal death. Eros and Thanatos are fused together. Deflowering and killing, opposite rites, turn out to be facets of one act, namely laceration.

Thus, the binary impulse in The Arabian Nights manifests itself both in characters and themes, in the nouns and in the verbs of this great preposition which constitutes the text. Binarism is used in three distinct ways which I shall call—borrowing terms from medieval Arabic rhetoric—(1) correlation (mumathala) which covers pairing and repetition, (2) confrontation (muqabala), which includes opposition and inversion, and (3) antithetical meaning (addad), which delineates internal contradictions in characters and cleavage in actions. The effect is invariably that of amplification and hyperbole in the first place (mumathala), revolution and upside-down transformations in the second place (muqabala), and paradox and reversibility in the third place (addad).

A dyadic organizational system such as that of The Arabian Nights, which cannot build a third term, is invariably committed to radical changes but not to growth. A paradox may split apart, and a force may change its position in the syntactic order, but the constituent units remain essentially the same.

If we were to think of The Arabian Nights as parole, an enunciation, then the organizational system outlined above would constitute its language (langue). There is something disturbingly inorganic about this langue. It works through sedimentation, mutation, and explosions. The metaphors describing this text should perhaps be drawn from geology rather than biology. The mode of expression, as Jakobson points out, is profoundly linked to the message. The Arabian Nights, in using a binary structure, falls inevitably into repetition rather than growth.


  1. Vladimir Propp, The Morphology of the Folktale, second edition, ed. L. A. Wagner (Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1968).

  2. Tzvetan Todorov, “The Two Principles of Narrative,” Diacritics I: 1 (Fall 1971): 37-44.

  3. A narrative block is a textual unit. It constitutes a segment of the story that can (potentially) make narrative sense autonomously.

  4. The number of rings varies in the different manuscripts/editions of The Arabian Nights. In Mahdi's edition, there are ninety-eight. But the exact number of rings in itself and in this specific context is not important. What is significant is the indication of an enormous quantity (be it ninety-eight or five hundred and seventy) of lovers.

  5. Lane, The Thousand and One Nights, I:10.

  6. Søren Kierkegaard, Repetition: An Essay in Experimental Psychology, trans. W. Lowrie (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1946), 152.

  7. Lane, The Thousand and One Nights, I:4. Emphasis mine.

  8. At the end of The Thousand and One Nights, when the happy ending is announced and Shahrayar pardons Shahrazad, the color of the night is said to have been “whiter than the face of the day.” Lane, III:672.

  9. Ibid., I:10.

Works Cited

Lane, E. W., trans. The Thousand and One Nights. 3 vols. London: Chatto and Windos, 1912.

Mahdi, Muhsin. “Mazahir al-riwaya wa-l-mushafaha fi usul alf layla wa layla.” In Revue de l'Institut des Manuscrits Arabes 20 (May 1974): 125-44.

Daniel Beaumont (essay date 2002)

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SOURCE: Beaumont, Daniel. “Alf Laylah wa Laylah or The Thousand and One Nights.” In Slave of Desire: Sex, Love, and Death in The 1001 Nights, pp. 15-31. Cranbury, N.J.: Associated University Presses, 2002.

[In the following excerpt, Beaumont traces the literary history of The Arabian Nights, offering an overview of European translations that he contends have influenced modern versions of the tales, examining the original sources of the stories, and discussing the research and criticism generated a “multiple text” that he considers not at all representative of medieval Arabic literature.]

By the night when she hides with her veil,
By the day when he reveals,
By that which created male and female—
Truly your paths are varied

—Qur’ān, Surah “Night” (92: 1-3)

Like one of the Jinn who suddenly materialize and vanish in its pages, Alf laylah wa laylah or The Thousand and One Nights is a book that is in many ways difficult to pin down. Indeed, exactly what texts and what stories constitute the Nights has always been the subject of some disagreement, and so whoever would write about The Thousand and One Nights must say exactly what entity he means by that title. I have relied for the most part on the Arabic edition printed in Calcutta in the 1830s and known as Macnaghten's Second Calcutta edition, but I would certainly not claim that the Second Calcutta is the definitive Nights. I have used two other important nineteenth-century Arabic editions, the Bulaq and the Breslau editions, and I have also consulted some of the major European translations such as Burton and Lane. But the only way to respond to the question of what I mean by The Thousand and One Nights is to give some account of the history of the book. That account will also refer to the European editions, not only because I have made use of some of them but, more importantly, because it can be argued that these translations influenced modern Arabic versions of the Nights, such as the Second Calcutta edition.


The first thing to be said is that The Thousand and One Nights is a rather exceptional work in the context of medieval Arabic literature. It happens sometimes that a person takes up the study of a language because of his love for a single work, but if someone were tempted to begin the task of learning Arabic because of his love of The Thousand and One Nights, he should be forewarned that the book is sui generis. He will really find nothing else like it in the literature, one reason being that the Nights seems to have absorbed a number of once independent medieval Arabic fictions; the story of “Sindbad” is probably the most famous example. The borders of this text were not, it seems, ever very well defined. Hence the size of the Nights. Unfortunately, in the case of the Nights its marginality in this respect has also worked to veil its history in a good deal of obscurity. Indeed, in recounting its history in the medieval period, there is no need to summarize; a fairly complete account will read like a summary, since most of its medieval history is unknown and is likely to remain unknown. To retell the story, let us think of it for the moment as a piece of architecture—a palace, as Borges calls it. “To erect the palace of The Thousand and One Nights, it took generations of men, and those men are our benefactors, as we have inherited this inexhaustible book, this book capable of so much metamorphosis,” Borges said of one of his favorite books.1

The “palace” of the Nights, in the form in which we now know and enjoy it—which is to say the nineteenth-century Arabic editions printed in Egypt, India, and Germany that have served as the basis for all but one of the translations since Galland—that structure with its spacious pavilions, its charming recesses, its secret chambers and mysterious passages must have been the work of many literary hands, and it must have been the result of a development in Arabic alone that lasted seven or eight centuries. Evidence about the development of the book may be divided into two categories: testimony by medieval writers and what in a legal hearing would be called “material evidence”—here, textual evidence—those stories in The Thousand and One Nights that show some relation to other works in medieval Arabic literature and to works in other literatures.

Earliest mention of a text with a clearly antecedent relation to the contemporary work is found in a papyrus dating from the ninth century a.d. The papyrus mentions two characters, Dînâzâd and Shîrâzâd—later to become Dunyâzâd and Shahrazâd—and has a few lines of narrative in which the former asks the latter to tell a story.2 There is also mention of a title that anticipates the title we now know: “The Book of Stories from the Thousand Nights.”

About a century later two writers in Baghdad, al-Mas‘ûdî and Ibn al-Nadîm, mention the same work. In his book Meadows of Gold (Murûj al-dhahab), the historian Mas‘udi (d. 956) states that among the translations made in Baghdad of stories from Persian, Indian, and Greek sources was a book called “A Thousand Tales” (Alf khurâfah), also known as “A Thousand Nights” (Alf laylah).3 Mas‘udi says that it is the story of a king, his vizier, the vizier's daughter and her slave, and that the last two are called Shirazad and Dinazad. They are not yet sisters, as they will be later. In his bibliographic work The Catalogue (Al-Fihrist), Ibn al-Nadim (d. circa 995) mentions a work translated from Persian called “The Thousand Stories.” He also gives a summary of the frame story, but he criticizes it as “a coarse book, without warmth in the telling.”4

For the next seven centuries, there are only two even briefer references to its existence. In the twelfth century, a loan record for a Jewish bookseller in Cairo mentions the title “The Thousand and One Nights”—the earliest mention of its present title: “Majd ibn al-‘Azîzî has The One Thousand and One Nights.5 And in the early fifteenth century the Egyptian historian al-Maqrîzî (d. 1442) cites authors who indicate the work was in circulation in Cairo in the late eleventh century.6 These brief references separated by long periods when the book all but vanishes from view suggest an analogy with an unconscious thought that only infrequently and briefly makes its presence known in conscious thought and then quickly vanishes again beneath the force of repression—and repression is not mere metaphor here, as we shall see.

On the basis of these facts, we know that there are three main layers to the book: a translation of a group of Persian stories (which themselves incorporated Indian stories), a Baghdad layer, and a Cairo layer. D. B. Macdonald, in an important article published in 1924, “The Earlier History of the Arabian Nights,”7 further divided its development into five stages: a Persian core “The Thousand Stories” (Hazâr Afsânah); an Arabic version of this; the frame story of “The Thousand Stories” with new Arabic stories added to it; a late Fatimid version (twelfth century); and the Syrian recension whose sixteenth-century manuscript was the basis of the first European translation, that of Galland. Stages two and three correspond to the Baghdad layer, while four and five are part of the later Egyptian layer. To this we may add a sixth and final stage, suggested by Nabia Abbott, a stage that extends into the sixteenth century and introduces the materials from popular epics.

The infrequency of the medieval references to the work cited above, their brevity, and their tone all point to the insignificance of the work in the eyes of recognized practitioners of medieval Arabic literature. Yet it seems to have been a popular work—the work has not completely shed this paradoxical reputation in Arab countries even today.

In addition to these testimonies, there is also the textual evidence: stories in the Nights that bear unmistakable links to other works in medieval Arabic literature and to works in other literatures. Here it will be useful to distinguish between three categories.

The first category would contain stories that reveal its links with a few specific works in medieval Arabic literature. For example, “The Story of the Steward,” told within the longer story of “The Hunchback,” is roughly the same story recounted as fact by the tenth-century author al-Tanûkhî (d. 994) in his book Happiness after Hardship (Al-Faraj ba‘d al-shiddah). It is the story of a husband who offends the delicate sensibility of his wife on their wedding night by forgetting to wash his hands after having eaten a certain spicy stew called zîrbâjah.8 Years later, the same dish is served at a banquet and the other diners demand that he eat some of it; the unfortunate man washes his hands one hundred and twenty times, then tells the story of his disastrous wedding night.

Another story narrated within “The Hunchback,” “The Story of the Lame Young Man,” also shares its plot with stories and anecdotes found elsewhere in the literature. In the other versions this plot makes use of a certain stew called maḍîrah, which similarly provokes the recounting of a painful story. However, in “The Story of the Lame Young Man,” as regards its plot function, the dish of stew is transformed and split into two human characters: a judge and his daughter.9 A purportedly factual madirah anecdote which focuses on a clash between guest and host over the provocative dish is fairly widespread in medieval anecdotal literature. An example can be found in the anecdotal work The Misers (Al-Bukhalâ’) by the eleventh century writer al-Khatîb al-Baghdâdî (d. 1071).10 Interestingly, the anecdote there is attributed to the same author, Tanukhi, who has the analogue of the previous story, “The Story of the Steward,” in one of his books. The story “The Madirah Maqamah,” found in a late tenth or early eleventh-century work Al-Maqâmât by al-Hamadhânî (d. 1008), makes use of the same madirah plot.11 The eleventh-century physician Ibn Buṭlân (d. 1066) also makes use of this plot in his comic work The Physicians' Banquet (Da‘wat al-aṭibbâ’). And, finally, it is also found in an anonymous thirteenth-century work Wonderful Stories (al-Hikâyât al-‘ajîbah).

Finally, more such textual links are found in the story “The Sleeper Awakened,” a story that Galland translates, but which is not found in two of the major nineteenth-century Arabic editions, the Bulaq or the Second Calcutta editions. The story is comprised of two parts. In the first part, the main character, Abû’l-Hasan, is drugged by the caliph Hârûn al-Rashîd and tricked into believing that he is the caliph. In the second part, Abu’l-Hasan tricks Harun into thinking that he and his wife have died. The first part of the story is also found in a work by a seventeenth-century Egyptian author al-Isḥâqî (d. 1651). Ishaqi writes when Egypt is a province in the Ottoman Empire, and in his work Accounts of Previous Rulers of Egypt, he gives the first half of the story as fact in the section devoted to Harun al-Rashid. The second half of the story seems to be an elaboration of an anecdote told of the Abbasid poet/buffoon Abû Dulâmah that is found in the famous work of Abû’l-Faraj al-Iṣfahânî (d. 967), The Songs (Al-Aghânî).12 The relative lateness of Ishaqi makes the occurrence there more interesting from the perspective of literary history, for with him we are within a few decades of Galland's discovery of the manuscript of the Nights in Istanbul. Another brief passage in Ishaqi is also of interest in this context. In an account of a visit to a graveyard by an anonymous narrator said only to be one of the “people of refinement,” the narrator states that the purpose of his visit is “to visit the dead and reflect on the lessons of what has passed … and to remember the destroyer of delights, the separator of societies, he who makes orphans of son and daughters.”13 The phrase “the destroyer of delights” (hâdim al-ladhdhât) is found at the end of numerous stories in The Thousand and One Nights, and indeed the version here with mention of the “maker of orphans” (muyattim al-banîn wa’l-banât) is, word for word, the same as the version of this sentence that comes at the end of the last story Shahrazad tells, the story of “Ma‘rûf the Cobbler.”14 The nature of Ishaqi's work is also telling; much of it is patent fiction passed off as historical and edifying anecdote. These things suggest that Ishaqi knew the Nights in a version very much like the one we know, and we are only a few decades removed from the date when Antoine Galland, the first European translator of the Nights, purchases his Syrian manuscript in Istanbul.

The second category of textual evidence contains stories in The Thousand and One Nights that make use of and revise the plots of extremely well-known stories in Islamic culture; stories about figures like Abraham, Joseph, and Solomon are examples.

Finally, in the third category are the stories that make use of plots which are even more widely spread, the “Cinderella” plot, the “Phaedra” plot, and so on.

What do these textual links suggest about the development of the text of The Thousand and One Nights at any particular stage in the Middle Ages? Unfortunately, not very much more than I have already said. The latter two categories of material tell us nothing at all since the material is pervasive throughout the period. With regard to the first, more specific, category, the safest assumption would seem to be that the storytellers involved in the creation of the Nights sometimes made use of “factual” anecdotal collections for plots, revising them freely to suit their purposes. But even this modest conclusion must carry a caveat.

The earliest manuscripts of The Thousand and One Nights date from the fourteenth century, and most of the works cited above for containing analogues are earlier. Yet as we have seen, on the basis of the testimony of earlier authors we know that some sort of collection with a title The Thousand Nights existed centuries prior to the fourteenth century. So lacking any knowledge of what the book contained in, say, the tenth and eleventh centuries, it is not absolutely certain that material moved only in one direction, out of established writers and works and into the Nights. For, a priori, it is not impossible that an author like Tanukhi and a One Thousand and One Nights storyteller drew upon a common store of material. Or a third possibility: it is not out of the question that some material might have moved in the other direction, out of the Nights and into the “factual” works of a writer like Tanukhi. After all, writers do lie sometimes. In fact, in some instances in Tanukhi's Happiness after Hardship I think this third possibility is the most likely one—that it is Tanukhi who is borrowing from some version of The Thousand and One Nights. For example, in the first chapter Tanukhi tells as fact a brief story about a traveler who is shipwrecked. The story has two parts. In the first, a voice from the sky shouts at the man and his fellow travelers that they should throw their money overboard in order to gain a piece of knowledge that will be of spiritual benefit to them. But only the one man does so. Then, when a storm destroys the ship, he is saved while all the others drown. In the second part, the saved man washes ashore on a desert island and finds a subterranean chamber that contains a treasure and a beautiful girl (also shipwrecked).15 While these elements are found in various combinations in many stories in The Thousand and One Nights, this story is basically that of “The Story of the Second Qalandâr” told in “The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad.” In this case, since the story is an obvious fiction for which he gives no sources, it seems likely that Tanukhi has borrowed the second part from one of two places, either from some version of the Nights or from a store of narratives (perhaps as yet unwritten) that the Nights also uses; this he joined to a Sufi conversion tale. In view of its similarity to “The Story of the Second Qalandâr,” it is tempting to say that the first case is what happened, and that, therefore, “The Story of the Second Qalandâr” must have existed in the tenth century. But given the ubiquity of these plots and motifs, given the instability of the texts, especially in a manuscript culture, and given the question of oral and written versions and their possible interaction—given all these factors, who can say for certain what happened in any particular case?

Thus, while the textual evidence—its demonstrated links with other works—may tell us something about the sorts of literature that furnished the raw materials for the storytellers of The Thousand and One Nights and how they reworked it, that evidence does not, in my opinion, tell us much about the specific content and shape of the text at any particular stage prior to the fourteenth century, roughly the date of the earliest Arabic manuscript.


The first appearance of The Thousand and One Nights in Europe in 1704 was not unlike the uncanny appearance of the jinni in the first story Shahrazad tells. The jinni is a paradoxical being, now tiny and now enormous; he towers over the merchant and yet his son is so small that the merchant's date pit has killed him. A similar sort of paradox attached to Antoine Galland's French translation of an Arabic manuscript. The book immediately enjoyed huge popular success, yet, as Georges May points out, it drew scarcely any critical or scholarly attention.16 The disparity between popular success and critical attention, which recalls its status in medieval Arabic literature, has waxed and waned over the course of almost three centuries but has never entirely disappeared—a fact all the more problematic when one considers that the publication of Galland's translation is an early landmark in what Raymond Schwab was to call “The Oriental Renaissance.” And there are other complications and paradoxes, for ever since Galland's translation the book has led an unusual double life in Europe and the Arab world. Indeed, to speak of “doubles” here merely hints at the complicated relations between various European translations and Arabic editions.

In 1704 Antoine Galland began to publish his translation of a manuscript he had purchased in Istanbul while serving there as an assistant to the French ambassador to the Ottoman Empire. The first six volumes of Galland's translation contained 234 Nights, after which he abandoned the divisions of Nights in the last six volumes. Given the title however, some of his readers may well have wondered when the rest of the Nights would appear. And at this point things get a little complicated.

There are basically two opposed explanations of what happened next. The first and simplest is that Europeans seeking the rest of the book more or less found it, either in manuscript form or in the form of persons—Arabs—who knew more stories that had made their way into the work by this time. The result was the “complete editions” published in the nineteenth century, the Arabic editions of Bulaq and Second Calcutta and Breslau—the latter two we should note were the work of Europeans. According to this version of its history, the late medieval Nights looked much like the texts of Bulaq and the First and Second Calcutta and Breslau. This version has its contemporary defenders who have made some important arguments (and revisions) to support it.

Those adherents must deal in one way or another with a “revisionist” version put forth recently by Muhsin Mahdi that opposes the first explanation on almost all the important points. Mahdi devoted years to the study of Galland's manuscript sources, some of which are now lost, and to the reconstruction of a prototype manuscript for The Thousand and One Nights. The results of those labors were a reconstructed Arabic text faithful, in Mahdi's view, to the presumed antecedent of Galland's manuscript, a fourteenth-century Syrian manuscript, and a book detailing his views on the history of the Nights.17 His conclusions as to which stories belong in The Thousand and One Nights are based on this research. Mahdi argues that European demand for a “complete version” of the work distorted the Mamluk-era original.18 Europeans wanted a book with literally one thousand and one nights of stories, which the work, in Mahdi's view, did not have through most of its existence. The result was the creation of Arabic manuscripts in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that delivered more nights and more stories, and, as Mahdi puts it, the book came to be a “catch all” for popular narratives to meet European demand. In his view, the medieval Nights was a much smaller and more coherent work, perhaps one-quarter the length of the nineteenth-century editions. In this view, the number “one thousand and one” for much of its history simply meant “a lot,” in accordance with the rather free use of numbers in medieval Arabic literature. But after Galland the number proved fateful, and, if Mahdi is right, the subsequent history of The Thousand and One Nights followed “the path of the signifier,” so to speak. From that point on, the work's dual versions in European translations and in Arabic manuscripts became intertwined in a very complicated relation, with its popularity in Europe creating a demand for a “complete version.” Mahdi's comparison of his presumed “original” with the Bulaq edition and Macnaghten's Second Calcutta, which are based on later Egyptian manuscripts, leads him to conclude that a huge number of the stories in modern versions of The Thousand and One Nights do not “belong” in it. Thus, Mahdi's version of the Nights and a nineteenth-century Arabic edition like the Second Calcutta confront each other as uncanny doubles with a claim to the same name. It is rather like the Amphitryon-like moment in “The False Caliph” when Harun al-Rashid is confronted with his double in the form of the false caliph.

Mahdi's investigations have done much to clarify the modern history of the text. It seems clear that European demand influenced, to some degree, the shape and content of subsequent Arabic editions. He has also produced an Arabic text that is probably closer in style to the medieval work than any of the nineteenth-century editions.19 But recent criticism of his “revisionist” version raises some important objections to it. Robert Irwin argues that Mahdi's conclusions proceed from mistaken assumptions about what sort of book The Thousand and One Nights was in the medieval period. Mahdi's work on the transmission of the manuscripts is based on theories about manuscript transmission developed from the study of texts by known and esteemed classical authors; but, as Irwin says, the Nights never was accorded the sort of respect that such texts enjoyed, hence we cannot assume that its manuscripts were copied and transmitted with anything like the same sort of care.20 Moreover, there is manuscript evidence for medieval versions of the Nights with many more nights than Mahdi would allow. In her recent book, Eva Sallis points out that there are manuscripts predating Galland with many more nights. Moreover, these manuscripts contain stories—“‘Umar ibn Nu‘mân,” for example—that must be regarded as relatively late additions. Hence, she argues that the “expansion” beyond Mahdi's “core” of stories “was a feature of Nights compilation earlier than the eighteenth century.”21 In other words, well before the “European demand” created by Galland's work, Middle Eastern writers had already created a text much longer than Mahdi's “original” Mamluk-era text.

Although Mahdi's argument does not bear directly on the analyses that follow, my position on it is largely that of Irwin and Sallis. Even were Mahdi right about what constituted the real medieval Nights, only the logic of the specialist could impel someone to reach the conclusion that such stories as “The Seven Voyages of Sindbad” or “Aladdin and His Lamp” do not “belong” in The Thousand and One Nights. At this point in its history, this seems rather like mounting a campaign to change the name of the West Indies to rectify Columbus's error. The most recent English translation of the work, which is based on Mahdi's Arabic text, illustrates my point.

In 1990 Husain Haddawy published a translation called The Arabian Nights based on Mahdi's reconstructed Arabic text. In his introduction, Haddawy naturally enough subscribes to Mahdi's position; he writes of the Egyptian manuscript tradition that it “produced an abundance of poisonous fruits that almost proved fatal to the original.”22 “Aladdin and His Lamp,” he tells us, must be regarded as a “forgery” (xiii). Five years later, however, Haddawy brought out a second volume, The Arabian NightsII containing—yes, the “forgeries” and “poisonous fruits.”23

For my part, the diversity of stories in the later manuscripts does not bother me, and I think, in any case, there is rather more unity to be found in the nineteenth-century Arabic editions than Mahdi is ready to allow—a point I will argue in chapter 8. Even later stories like “Jûdar and His Brothers” show features that relate them stylistically and thematically to earlier stories. But more importantly, given the general aversion of the medieval Arabic literary elite for outright fictions, we should be happy if the book did act as a kind of “catch-all” for stories. For, setting aside the popular sîrahs like “‘Antar” and his literary kin (which admittedly are not to my taste), if a story did not find its way into The Thousand and One Nights, it likely did not survive.24 Beginning probably from a core of translated and reworked stories, the book must have grown by process of accretion—the Ottoman royal palace Topkapi may furnish an architectural image for the process; what were originally independent structures are gradually joined together. And what we know of the later history does not seem to depart from this pattern. Insofar as the later additions preserve more stories, I think they are welcome additions to the palace. After all, in such a vast structure, if one does not care for a certain passage, one can move along.

For the reader who is interested in a more detailed history of the text, there is a fairly extensive literature. Unfortunately, much of it is printed in old and obscure journals. Besides Mahdi's work, a few of the more important works in English and French may be mentioned here. The article in the new edition of The Encyclopedia of Islam under its Arabic title Alf laylah wa laylah is a good place to start. Irwin and Sallis offer the best and most recent “anti-revisionist” accounts. Irwin devotes a chapter in The Arabian Nights: A Companion to both the development of the Arabic work and its European editions. I would recommend Irwin's whole book without hesitation; it is an excellent work. The second chapter of Sallis's book offers a very readable and current account of the history of the Arabic text with a good discussion of various manuscripts. The first chapter by André Miquel in the work Les mille et un contes de la nuit speculates in a very interesting way on the reasons for the “eclipse” of the work in Arabic in the Middle Ages. Mia Gerhardt's book, The Art of Storytelling, published in 1963, also discusses the history of the work, though her account is superseded in some degree by recent work. Lastly I will mention a book by David Pinault, Story-telling Techniques in The Arabian Nights, which tries to show us how the storyteller worked; Pinault's analysis is based on a detailed examination of differences between manuscripts.

In my view, despite the antiquity of many of the plots in The Thousand and One Nights, the stories as we have them now seem to wear the garb of the late medieval period in the Arab-Islamic world; that is, the eras of the Mamluks and the Ottomans. Thus, stories about the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid, who ruled about five centuries before the Mamluks established their power, may reflect popular notions about how a Mamluk sultan lived in the fourteenth century rather more than they reflect such images of the way Harun lived five hundred years earlier. Not that ornate palaces, gardens, wine drinking, cup bearers, and slave consorts were not features of the Abbasid court, but as found here these features often seem like those of the Mamluks or the Ottomans. An obvious example comes in the frame story, in the scene in which King Shahriyâr's wife commits adultery in the garden with a black slave; the lover and the enclosed garden are stock elements in any Ottoman Turkish gazel or love poem. On the general question of the work's historical context, I might finally remark that the Ottoman period is viewed in the Arab world now as one of cultural decadence, a view propounded by Arab nationalism. However, the very existence of this book is testimony, I think, to cultural vitality in that period.

On the basis of the preceding discussion of the various versions of the Nights, my reader may well wonder at this point which Arabic text or texts (and which translations) are in my view the “real” Nights. My answer is simple: all of them. The Thousand and One Nights is a multiple text, and I see no reason to exclude any standard Arabic edition or any of the translations based on it, no matter how controversial they may be. I have for the most part relied on Macnaghten's Second Calcutta edition, an edition based, it seems, on the Bulaq edition and a now-lost manuscript probably copied sometime shortly after 1830. The manuscript belonged to the late Egyptian recension on which the Bulaq edition was also based. Those manuscripts are now known as Zotenburg's Egyptian Recension (ZER) after the scholar who studied them. But I have made free use of other editions (and of various translations) as it suited my purposes and in accordance with my “maximalist” position.

So much for literary history. Much more important for this study are the reasons why the book had such a shadowy existence in the pre-modern Arabic literature. That is to say, the historical problems posed by the book's orphan-like existence in Arabic literary culture are of less importance for what follows than the characteristics of the book that made it an orphan. These call for some discussion here because, as I have said, my readers should know that The Thousand and One Nights is an exceptional, even aberrant work with respect to some of the most important conventions of medieval Arabic literature.25 Hence, that the stories say the things I contend they do stems in many ways from the fact that this work is the “repressed” of the literature. The factors that contribute to this status may be discussed under three headings: its genre, its linguistic style, and its content. Foremost is genre, and this raises the question of the place of narrative in medieval Arabic literature.


The early development of medieval Arabic literature was part and parcel with the development of Islam. While there existed a rich poetic tradition in pre-Islamic Arabia and a body of narratives that accompanied it and purported to provide the factual background of the poetry, this material seems to have been preserved in oral form until it began to be written down in the late eighth and early ninth centuries—that is, at the same time that, with one exception, the other early texts of Arabic literature are being written. The one exception, of course, is the Qur’an.

The death of Muhammad in 632 a.d. furnishes a reference point. The Qur’an is the only major text that we know to have existed in some written form in the century after his death. It is, we should note, a work that contains little narrative as compared to the Bible.

After the Qur’an, the next major work we possess is The Life of the Prophet (Sîrat al-nabî), composed in the first half of the eighth century by Ibn Isḥâq (d.767), but available to us in the recension of Ibn Hishâm (d. 828 or 833), who made his own cuts and additions. Close on its heels comes a book by al-Wâqidî (d. 823) called The Raids (Al-Maghâzî) describing the raids Muhammad and his followers made on the pagan tribes of western Arabia.

Because of their priority and the importance of their subject matter, these works established precedents for the use of narrative that would have lasting effects throughout the Islamic Middle Ages. They are made up of the earliest narratives in Arabic, traditions about what Muhammad and his followers said and did in the course of conquering western Arabia. These narratives are known as akhbâr; al-akhbar in modern vernacular simply means “the news.” The singular khabar means a piece of information recounted for someone—the same term is used in Arabic grammar to mean the predicate of a sentence. In the early literature a khabar is a short narrative, usually a half page or less in length, and hence confined to the pithy recounting of a single incident. Because of its religious significance and to buttress its factual claims, each khabar-narrative came to be preceded by a feature known as the isnâd or “chain,” a series of names representing a kind of bucket brigade of tradents who, it is claimed, have passed the narrative along to the writer from an eyewitness to the original event. Both with respect to narrative form and the uses to which narrative may be put, these traditions exerted enormous influence on subsequent narrative literature. Thus, in its beginning, narrative literature in Arabic purports to confine itself to fact, to the recounting of real events by eyewitnesses, real people. If one accepts everything at face value in works such as Ibn Ishaq's Life of the Prophet and Waqidi's Raids, then Ibn Ishaq and Waqidi, the “authors,” have composed very little of their books' texts, having simply copied verbatim the “accounts” from other people and other written sources.

For various historical and ideological reasons, it proved very difficult for narrative literature to free itself of these conventions.26 The theoretical and practical problems these conventions pose for the development of fictional narrative should not be underestimated. First of all, narratives are always about “real events.”27 Within the literature proper, a generic space for fiction never really opened up. That which never happened is simply a lie. Curiously, The Thousand and One Nights is in agreement with this attitude—it has “internalized” the prejudice, so to speak. Shahrazad does not make up stories. As Abdelfattah Kilito writes: “It sometimes happens that characters in the Nights make up a story, that is to say, they affirm that they know it to be false. Invention is then synonymous with lying.”28

Secondly, the device of the isnad poses a formal obstacle for beginning a fiction. It bars the way to the space where a fiction unfolds. This can be seen in some of the few fictional narratives composed by recognized authors. Thus Ibn Butlan, deferring to the need for an isnad, begins his The Physicians' Banquet, “One of them said. …” One of whom? We can imagine a novel beginning with those words, but we would expect shortly to be given at least a hint as to the identity of “one of them” within the fiction. That never happens in Ibn Butlan's work. We never learn anything about “one of them,” for this “one of them” exists in some extratextual place. The French Symbolist Paul Valéry remarks somewhere that he could not write fiction because he could never bring himself to write a sentence like, “The marquise went out at five.” Being so used to the conventions of fiction, we may underestimate the amount of literary development that prepares the way for someone to begin with a sentence like that.

The isnad can also pose a problem with respect to the length of a narrative if one must represent a fiction as fact. Here I might remark that speculation about length per se as a factor that distinguishes The Thousand and One Nights narrative from the anecdotal works of adab like those of Tanukhi misses the larger point. It is not a question of length in and of itself, but of length as an index of fictionality.29 A second glance at a work like Tanukhi's Happiness after Hardship—which, as we have seen, contains some analogues with stories found in The Thousand and One Nights—shows this. The stories in Tanukhi are almost entirely anecdotal, by which I mean most are a page or less in length. They rarely have the scope or the detail found in the full-blown fictions of The Thousand and One Nights. The very length of a narrative would pose a problem vis à vis the assertion of fact staked out by the isnad. To focus on only one aspect, any khabar is likely to contain direct speech, but if such an account extends for many pages, one must grant the original eyewitness/reporter extraordinary powers of recollection to think that the reported speeches are the verbatim words of the various persons involved. The question must inevitably arise, “How could he (and all of the other persons in the isnad) have remembered all of this exactly as it was said?”

Other conventions pose other sorts of difficulties for the development of fictional narrative. Being supposedly a literature of hard fact, in a khabar-narrative no one would presume to make a statement about what someone else was thinking or feeling, for how would he know such a thing? Thus, only the grossest sorts of emotions are registered—“He was very angry”—and thought, unless it is spoken, remains absent. The continuing influence of these features will be seen in The Thousand and One Nights.

There may also have been ideological constraints. M. Arkoun has written: “The theological and philosophical tradition imposed an ontological weakness on the imagination. The Koran contributed to this weakening with its attacks against ‘the poets whom the erring follow, who wander in every valley and who say what they do not do’ (26:224-226).”30 And a well-known episode in the sirah and maghazi literature shows Muhammad's anger with a storyteller who claimed his stories were “better” than Muhammad's. Naḍr ibn al-Hârith so vexed Muhammad that the latter ordered him killed.31

In time, to be sure, some obvious fictions came to exist within the literary canon; Kalîlah wa Dimnah, the fables translated by Ibn al-Muqaffa‘(d. 756), and the Maqamat or “Seances” of al-Hamadhani (mentioned above) and al-Harîrî (d. 1122) are the most notable examples. But such works are also exceptional. Kalilah wa Dimnah is a translation of a Persian work based on the Panchatantra, and Hariri was attacked for having made up his stories by Ibn al-Khashshâb (d. 1172).

As a result of all of these developments, in the general view of the literate minority inventing stories was not distinguishable from simply telling lies. And on all these accounts, The Thousand and One Nights just goes too far. Its excessively fictional character in this respect can be seen in the way the Nights' version of “The Sleeper Awakened” adds a second part to the story that Ishaqi has. Thus its genre, its clearly fictional nature, is the first major reason why The Thousand and One Nights is an exceptional work; there is no generic space in the medieval literary canon for it.

Another important factor has to do with its style; the sort of Arabic found in The Thousand and One Nights also counted against it. As far back as linguists can determine, Arabic seems to have been characterized by a considerable divergence between the written and spoken forms, a divergence in both vocabulary and grammar. The difference is perhaps most visible in the case endings that are preserved in the written language, but almost completely ignored in spoken dialects. With such a divergence, literacy is a rather more difficult and elusive goal to attain—something that remains the case today in the Arab world. In the Middle Ages, the spoken dialects were not even considered real languages by the literate minority. The power of that minority rested in their grasp of al-‘arabîyah, the classical written language in which the official discourse of the culture was carried on, while the illiterate were excluded from speech, in their view, since they had no language proper. They were, in a sense, “unspeakable”—one could say “repressed” in the strict sense that they were denied the words to express themselves.

In such a vast work as The Thousand and One Nights there are many registers of language, but apart from perhaps conscious stylistic variations, the different manuscripts of The Thousand and One Nights all are salted with significant amounts of colloquial usages. These usages have led various scholars to speak of it as being written in “Middle Arabic,” but that term, coined by a modern Western scholar, had no status at all among the authors who wrote “Middle Arabic”; those men were attempting to adhere to the classical grammar—they simply no longer mastered it. In the case of the Nights the writers may simply not have thought enough of it to go to the bother of adhering to al-‘arabiyah with the result being “Middle Arabic.” It may also have been in part the result, as Sallis suggests, of “the accretions of a random textual history.”32 In any case, the language of The Thousand and One Nights works against it. The influence of popular tongues, Syrian and Egyptian, is heard in it, and those sounds were, no doubt, repellent to the ears of the litterateurs who wrote in the “pure language” of al-‘arabiyah.

Finally, there is the subject matter. Illicit sex and wine stain the pages. Hashish is used frequently. Despite the way the book is used as a stock reference for certain sorts of events (“It was like something out of The Arabian Nights”), many people are surprised by the real contents of the book. There is a widespread assumption that it is something like children's literature, but it is not.

On the other hand, whether the book is “a faithful mirror of medieval Islam,” as one edition touts it, is difficult to say. In such a view, one of the reasons the Nights is so valuable is that it depicts many things that are not often treated in the literature proper. That literature, as I have said, was the product of an elite who seldom wrote about such homely subjects. But since the Nights is in many ways a unique source, the argument threatens to become circular if one claims it is a faithful picture of medieval Muslim society. Moreover, the book is a “catch-all” or omnium gatherum—to use Irwin's phrase—and as Irwin says, “one can use its texts, through selective quotation from stories, to support the argument that homosexuality was widely approved of, or to argue that it was indifferently accepted, or to argue that it was absolutely abominated.”33 In other words, one would have to take a Hegelian stance—(“the truth is the whole”)—to make it a “faithful mirror.” It is some sort of reflection no doubt, but some literary refraction and distortion must be involved. The fantastic elements that abound also seem to pose some problems for this view of the book: jinn fly back and forth between China and the Near East in the course of a single night; humans are transformed into animals and back into humans; islands turn out to be whales; mountains pull the nails from ships' hulls by means of mysterious, magnetic powers. So, even while one “feels” the truth of its stories, as a source for social history The Thousand and One Nights must be used carefully. Yet this much is clear: its subject matter could be an affront to the pious writers who always made up a considerable portion of the literary elite, men who wrote books with titles like The Condemnation of Fun (Dhamm al-lahû).

For all of these reasons The Thousand and One Nights was a marginalized work in medieval Arabic literature, and that is one reason why it is so valuable. It escaped the self-censorship of more typical narrative works, and from the outset its pages are filled with desires and ideas that are rarely articulated elsewhere in the literature. …


  1. Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights, trans. Eliot Weinberger (New York: New Directions, 1980), p. 54.

  2. First described by Nabia Abbott in her article “A Ninth-Century Fragment of the Thousand Nights: New Light on the Early History of the Arabian Nights,” Journal of Near Eastern Studies 8 (1949), pp. 129-64.

  3. Al-Mas‘ûdî, Murûj al-dhahab, ed. and trans. C. Barbier de Meynard and Pavet de Courteille, as Les prairies d'or (Paris: Imprimerie imperiale, 1861-1877), vol. 4, pp. 89-90.

  4. Ibn al-Nadîm, The Fihrist of Ibn al-Nadim, trans. Bayard Dodge (New York: Columbia University Press, 1970), vol. 2, p. 714.

  5. Samuel Goitein, “The Oldest Documentary Evidence for the title Alf layla wa layla,Journal of the American Oriental Society 78 (1958), p. 301.

  6. Al-Maqrîzî, Al-Khiṭaṭ (Cairo: Bulaq, 1854), vol. 1, p. 484.

  7. D. B. Macdonald, “The Earlier History of the Arabian Nights,” Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (July 1924), pt. 3, pp. 353 ff.

  8. The similarities were first noted and discussed by H. F. Amedroz in his article “A Tale of the Arabian Nights Told as History in the ‘Muntazam’ of Ibn al-Jawzî,” in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society (1904), pp. 273-93. Muhsin Mahdi has recently discussed them in his book The Thousand and One Nights (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1995), in appendix 3, “From History to Fiction,” pp. 164-80.

  9. This and other transformations of the madirah plot tell us something of the plasticity of the material in the hands of the medieval storyteller, matters I discuss in an article called “A Mighty and Never Ending Affair,” Journal of Arabic Literature 24, pt. 2 (July 1993), pp. 139-59. One finds other echoes in the Maqamat of al-Hamadhani: in “The Hunchback” the barber brings the apparently dead hunchback back to life, and in al-Hamadhani's “The Maqamah of Mosul,” the trickster Abu’l-Fatḥ comes upon a corpse and also tells an astonished crowd, “This man is not dead!” He promises to raise him within two days, but he fails—the man is dead after all.

  10. Al-Khatîb al-Baghdâdî, Al-Bukhalâ’ (Baghdad: Al-Majma’ al-‘Ilmî al-‘Iraqî, 1964), p. 148.

  11. The Maqâmât are written in a style of rhymed prose peculiar to Arabic known as saj‘, and are rich in word play and rhetorical tricks. Al-Hamadhani's eleventh century work Al-Maqâmât (Beirut: Dâr al-Mashriq, 1986) is the first example.

  12. The story in al-Isḥâqî's Accounts of … Egypt (Akhbâr al-uwal fî man taṣarrafa fî Miṣra min arbâb al-duwal) (Cairo: Al-Maṭba’ât al-Fakhrah, 1859) begins on p. 129. The anecdote in al-Iṣfahânî's Al-Aghânî (Cairo: Bulaq, 1868-69) is in vol. 9, p. 131.

  13. Al-Isḥâqî, Akhbâr al-uwal fî man tasarrafa fî Misra min arbâb al-duwal, p. 91.

  14. Book of the Thousand and One Nights Commonly Known as “The Arabian Nights Entertainments” Now for the First Time Published Complete in the Original Arabic, ed. W. H. Macnaghten (Calcutta: Thacker, 1839-1842), vol. 4, p. 730. Unless otherwise noted, all references to an Arabic text will be to this edition, the so-called Second Calcutta, giving volume and page numbers in the text.

  15. In Al-Faraj ba‘d al-shiddah (Cairo: Khanji, 1956), pp. 23-24. I discuss this and other examples in “In the Second Degree: Fictional Technique in Tanukhi's Al-Faraj ba‘d ash-shiddah,Journal of Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures 1, no. 2 (July 1998), pp. 125-39.

  16. Georges May, Les Mille et une nuits d'Antoine Galland (Paris: Presses universitaire de France, 1986), pp. 8-23.

  17. Kitâb alf layla wa layla, ed. Muhsin Mahdi (Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1984), and The Thousand and One Nights, (Leiden: Brill 1995).

  18. The Mamluk dynasty ruled Egypt from 1258 to 1517.

  19. Robert Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion (New York: Penguin, 1995), pp. 55-56.

  20. Ibid., pp. 57-62.

  21. Eva Sallis, Sheherazade through the Looking Glass (London: Curzon, 1999), p. 34. Sallis even speculates that by the close of the twelfth century that work “incorporated most probably literally one thousand and one nights … and around two hundred tales” (p. 27). It is certainly possible, but then again—who knows?

  22. Hussain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights (New York: Norton, 1990), p. xii.

  23. Hussain Haddawy, The Arabian Nights II (New York: Norton, 1995).

  24. They are called “popular” sirahs to distinguish them generically from works like the first biography of Muhammad, also a called a sirah. They are long fictions of chivalry, relating the adventures of a hero/knight; ‘Antar and Sultan Baybars are notable examples of which at least parts are now available in English and French. In my view, these works do not have the formal brilliance of The Thousand and One Nights, and while individual episodes may be entertaining enough, in the aggregate, they take on a monotonous character.

  25. Even measured against other works of a hitherto denigrated “popular literature,” The Thousand and One Nights is a rather singular work. More typical representatives of that literature are the “popular sîrahs” mentioned above.

  26. S. A. Bonebakker considers the problematic status of fiction in his essay “Nihil obstat in Storytelling?” found in the recent volume The Thousand and One Nights in Arabic Literature and Society, ed. Richard C. Hovannisian and Georges Sabagh (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), pp. 56-77. But he seems to think the question is an open one. I think I have shown that something does tend to obstruct it in my articles on parody and lying, on Tanukhi, and on early Muslim historical traditions. I am more or less going over the same ground here.

  27. This, despite the fact that the greater portion of “legal” traditions or ḥadîths and much of the “historical” ones are now known to be “fictions.”

  28. Abdelfattah Kilito, L'oeil et l'aiguille (Paris: Éditons la Découverte, 1992), p. 14.

  29. The same can be said of attempts to distinguish between different forms of the fantastic that would act as criteria. It is not a question of forms of the fantastic per se, but of forms that would be unmistakable indices of fictionality. Joseph Sadan's review, in Journal of Arabic Literature 25 (March 1994), pp. 81-83, of a book by Wiebke Walther discusses some of these questions.

  30. Cited by Mohammed Arkoun in L'Islam, morale et politique (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1986), p. 12.

  31. Ibn Isḥâq, Sîrat an-nabî, trans. Alfred Guillaume, The Life of Muhammad (London: Oxford University Press, 1955), pp. 135-36, p. 308.

  32. Eva Sallis, Sheherazade through the Looking Glass, p. 40.

  33. Irwin, The Arabian Nights: A Companion, p. 169.


Critical Overview