Academic journal article Folklore

Motifs in the Arabian Nights and in Ancient and Medieval European Literature: A Comparison

Academic journal article Folklore

Motifs in the Arabian Nights and in Ancient and Medieval European Literature: A Comparison

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper is a contribution to the ongoing debate about the origins of parallel motifs in The Arabian Nights and in ancient and medieval popular and learned literature about exotic lands of the East. This preliminary survey focuses on seven related motifs: the magnetic mountain, the congealed sea, flying griffins, automata and genies, the mysterious walled city, the living island, and the underground river. This paper is intended as a contribution toward a motif-Index of The Arabian Nights in order to facilitate further comparative study of the motifs involved.

Introduction

Scholars and poets of the Romantic period were the first to acknowledge the broad influence of central and south Asian motifs and plots on medieval German folk literature. Modern scholars have since followed suit, but this topic deserves deeper scrutiny, particularly by medievalists. This paper is a contribution to the ongoing debate over the origins of parallel motifs in the body of The Arabian Nights and in ancient and medieval popular and learned literature about exotic lands of the East. This preliminary survey focuses on seven related motifs--the magnetic mountain, the congealed sea, flying griffins, automatons and genies, the mysterious walled city, the living island, and the underground river. I hope that medievalists will be encouraged to undertake further comparative studies of these motifs.

Although the work known as The Arabian Nights was first translated into a European language (into French between 1704 and 1717 by Antoine Galland [Galland 1704-17 and 1965]), scholars generally agree that the text's sources are much older and that its genealogy is very complicated. Based on Indian, Persian, and Arabic folklore, this work, as a unified collection, dates back at least one thousand years and many of its individual stories are undoubtedly even more ancient. One of the collection's forebears is a book of Persian tales, probably of Indian origin, titled A Thousand Legends. These stories were translated into Arabic in about 850 AD, and at least one reference from about 950 AD calls them The Thousand and One Nights. Arabic stories, primarily from Baghdad and Cairo, were added to the collection, which, by the early 1500s, had more or less assumed its final form. Scholars agree that there has been mutual interaction between The Thousand and One Nights and Western stories (cf Elisseeff 1949; Rehatsek 1880, 74-85; Tekinay 1980).

In early European travel and marvel literature, heroes are depicted as journeying to the Orient to obtain treasures and to view wonders. Medieval romances describe a poetic geography with magnetic mountains, congealed seas, wondrous islands, flying griffins, Djinn-like figures, mysterious walled or shining cities, and subterranean rivers--all motifs that also appear in The Arabian Nights. These awed travellers in the East, believing they had reached paradise, also encountered monstrous races symbolic of Satan's realms and of the world's vanity. To Western sensibilities, this magical destination in the Orient simultaneously represented beauty and sensual refinement, as well as a paradigm of religious fanaticism, oppression, and despotism. Of The Arabian Nights narratives, the tales of Sindbad the sailor achieved immense popularity in medieval literature (Marzolph 1997, 639-40).

The following sections discuss seven related motifs found in The Arabian Nights and in ancient and medieval folklore.

The Magnetic Mountain and the Congealed Sea

The motif of the magnetic mountain (F 754; ATU 322 *) is very ancient. Pliny the Elder (23-79 AD) was one of the first to mention magnetic mountains as situated near the River Indus, in his Natural History:

   Duo sunt montes iuxta flumen Indum, alteri ut ferrum omne teat,
   alteri ut respuat, itaque si sint clavi in calciamento, vestigia
   avelli in altero non posse, in altero sisti (Bk. II, c. … 
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