A Prologue Tale as Manifesto Tale: Establishing a Narrative Literary Form and the Formation of Arabian Nights

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The Prologue Tale

Nights 756-78 of the Arabic-language Bulaq edition of Arabian Nights comprise a prologue to the tale that follows. The Bulaq edition is widely known, enjoys broad acceptance, and is routinely used as a reference source. The tale itself, reproduced in this issue of Marvels & Tales, was relegated to a note by its nineteenth-century translator Edward Lane, and Arabic scholars have not acknowledged its importance.

The prologue tale recounts events that took place during the search for a tale titled "Sayf al-Muluk." A distinct narrative unit, the prologue tale's separate cast of characters does not appear in "Sayf al-Muluk," and hence it is as if acquiring a written copy of the tale completely achieves the prologue's purpose. The prologue, a narration about narration, arouses a feeling of "lack" or "deficit" requiring a subsequent narration to liquidate that deficit. The deficitproducing narration about narration motivates the episodes, until the lack is liquidated by a quest that results in the acquisition of a written copy of the tale.

The prologue's quest and the incidents that comprise it grow out of scenes and practices within the Arabic world of narration and tale transmission, just as the actual storytellers and writers of the Nights themselves did. Viewed in this manner, the prologue to "Sayf al-Muluk" derives its content from the written tradition of the tales in the Nights and provides the only trace of their written transmission evident within the Nights.

Prologue Tale Content

An initial approach to the "Sayf al-Muluk" prologue requires a review of its contents to lay out its constituent elements, its morphological features, and its statements about itself. The first element is the tale opener, a customary invocation that refers readers to the overall frame of the Nights tales, in which Scheherezade repeatedly resumes narrating, adding the tale she is about to narrate to her ongoing narration, just as the prologue tale sets about adding a tale to the overall collection of tales. The prologue tale's formulaic introductory words take us into the realm of the tale and introduce the first of its characters, "a just, brave, generous, liberal King . . . [who] was fond of conversations over the cup, and traditions and verses, and histories and tales, and night-discourses, and the lives of the ancients."1

The king's love for tales sets the prologue tale's subject and determines its action: widespread knowledge of his generous rewards for good tales draws storytellers to him. The king chose Hasan, a merchant and confidante who also loved tales, to find an extraordinary story, the like of which he had never heard, and promised him rich gifts if he liked the tale Hasan found but dire punishments should he fail.

To carry out his assignment Hasan selected five qualified (literate, virtuous, reasonable, highly cultured) mamelukes from his household retainers.2 He gave each five thousand pieces of gold and dispatched them to the corners of the known world-Persia, China, India, Morocco, and Syria/Egypt-to search for "Sayf al-Muluk" among "the learned, and the accomplished in polite literature, and the excellent in science, and the relaters of extraordinary tales and wonderful histories" and to pay its owner however much he asked for it. Hasan further promised to reward the one who brought him the tale with great gifts and the assurance that "none [would be] dearer than he."

The first four mamelukes returned empty-handed, but the fifth went to Syria and in Damascus encountered a young man hurrying to hear "an excellent sheykh, who every day seateth himself upon a stool at this time, and relateth pleasant tales and histories and night-stories, the like of which no one hath heard; and I am running that I may find for myself a place near unto him, and fear that I shall not obtain a place, on account of the crowd."

When the mameluke reached the place where the sheikh "recited amid the people," he saw a sheikh sitting on a chair, talking to the audience. …