Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Making Sense of the Nights: Intertextual Connections and Narrative Techniques in the Thousand and One Nights1

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Making Sense of the Nights: Intertextual Connections and Narrative Techniques in the Thousand and One Nights1

Article excerpt

Many of the more than five hundred tales included in the different manuscripts, editions, and translations of the Thousand and One Nights are jewels of traditional storytelling from the Arab world. Both the general audience and scholars of the Nights, however, have chosen to emphasize some tales more than others. In particular, the tales of Aladdin or AU Baba are praised as the acme of Oriental storytelling, and even though these tales were only introduced into the collection by the French translator/editor Antoine Galland, following the oral performance of the contemporary Syrian storyteller Hanna Diyab, they are commonly perceived as representative constituents of (the European versions of) the Nights. In the Arabic collection, the tale of The Hunchback (Marzolph and Van Leeuwen, 1: 224-25), with its complex structure and its numerous tales artfully embedded in various levels, or the tale of The Porter and the Three Ladies of Baghdad (1: 324-26), with its lively, uninhibited atmosphere, continue to fascinate international audiences. At the same time, contemporary Western audiences with their penchant for individual and inventive traits might at times perceive other tales of the Nights as somewhat lengthy in terms of plot development, as rudimentary or inconsequential in terms of action, or as repetitive in terms of narrative motifs-in other words as marginal. In particular, the latter point might easily lead the audiences to misjudge or even disesteem the narrative art of the Nights, as the repetitive use of specific motifs in different tales of the Nights2 risks to be perceived as a lack of imagination or originality on the part of the storytellers. In the present essay, I argue instead that repetition, and specifically the intertextual allusion to themes, motifs, and concepts familiar to the audience, is a highly effective narrative technique for linking new and unknown tales to a web of tradition the audience shares. On the one hand, the process of recognition links to previous experiences and familiar contexts, thus creating an atmosphere in which the audience would feel welcome and appreciated; on the other, a tale's unexpected turn of events would attract attention and entertain the audience by introducing something new.

By discussing in detail a tale of the Nights that at first sight risks being regarded as quite marginal, I hope to demonstrate that most, if not actually all, of the tales in the Nights have good reason for being included, although the agenda justifying their inclusion or the underlying cultural concepts resonating in the mind of the storytellers (and their audience) only becomes obvious when analyzed in a "thick" context, that is, against the backdrop of the narrative culture of their original textualization and/or performance. Moreover, the present essay supports the argument that the anonymous storytellers of the Nights were educated authors well versed in the narrative universe, the "storyrealms" (Young) of their tradition. The narrators of the Nights compiled their stories in a style qualifying as "middle Arabic narrative literature" (Chraïbi, Les Mille et une Nuits, 15-20), implying a literary language influenced by the contemporary vernacular and a content ruled by astonishing and fantastic events. Previous scholarship has at times taken these specifics as indicating a "rather narrow" intellectual horizon of the "true Arabs."3 But rather than lacking refinement, the storytelling techniques the narrators of the Nights employed-such as the introduction of tales that lack an apparent connection with the main narrative or the promise of tales that are not told-demonstrate their art of establishing an atmosphere of suspense that would keep the audience attentive and alert. The concluding reflections look at some of the discussed narratives in international tradition and illustrate how specific tales and narrative motifs were adapted to serve different ends in order to ensure their continuous tradition in changed contexts. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.