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.
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.
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.
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.