Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Beautiful Men and Deceitful Women: The One Hundred and One Nights and World Literature

Academic journal article Narrative Culture

Beautiful Men and Deceitful Women: The One Hundred and One Nights and World Literature

Article excerpt

Tales of Beautiful Men and Deceitful Women in Ariosto and European Folklore

In Canto 28 of Ariosto's Orlando Furioso, Jocundo, having been summoned to meet the powerful king Astolpho, rides out of Rome but quickly returns to recover a precious item from home and encounters his wife in bed with a lowly servant in his household. He arrives at Astolpho's court evidently distraught, and though no one knows the cause of his melancholy, everyone can see its efffects on his mood and appearance. He regains his strength and good humor, however, when he witnesses the king's wife committing adultery with a hideous dwarf.

In the Hungarian folktale "The Most Beautiful Man in the World," a young man summoned by the king sets out on his journey, but turns back upon realizing he left the letter of the royal summons at home, only to discover his wife making love to the black gypsy coachman. He continues on his journey, with great sorrow and bitterness. Underwhelmed by the miserable state in which he arrives, the king grants him one week to recover, or face execution. In his chamber overlooking the king's garden the young man sees the queen seducing a black gardener, and reflects that in comparison to the queen's, his wife's behavior was not so terrible. The king insists on discovering the cause of the young man's recovery, and the young man obliges by revealing the queen's infijidelity in the garden and relating the tale of his own cuckolding (Kovacs 87-90).

In the Belorussian tale of "The Deceit of Women" a young man travels to the king at his father's behest, but along the way realizes he has forgotten something. Returning home unexpectedly, he fijinds his wife in bed with a steward and is humiliated by the sight. Arriving, he is given six months to recover from his wretched condition. In the palace, he sees the prince's wife with the saddler in the garden house and is relieved, reassuring himself that at least his wife had betrayed him with a steward and not a lowly saddler (Barag 392-97).

As others have noted, the plot of these tales is reminiscent of the frame tale of the One Thousand and One Nights, in which Shahzaman goes to visit his brother Shahriyar, but having forgotten something, turns back and discovers his wife in the arms of a lowly servant. Shahzaman is likewise distraught when he arrives at his brother's palace, and also cheered by the sight of Shahriyar's wife betraying him (Solymossy 257-75). World literature scholarship asserts that "there is ample evidence that medieval Europeans" knew the One Thousand and One Nights and encourages the comparison of its stories to the comic tales of Boccaccio (Damrosch 525). From this disciplinary perspective, it makes sense to read European tales of beautiful men and deceitful women as analogues or perhaps even descendants of the famous frame tale of the One Thousand and One Nights.

Yet despite the similar theme of the cuckolded men, there are defijining elements of all three European tales that are not present at all in the frame of the One Thousand and One Nights. In Orlando Furioso, Astolpho, who is very handsome and very vain, summons Jocundo because he is rumored to be even more attractive than the king. Jocundo, however, appears before the king in a miserable state, his looks completely wasted because he has been cuckolded. His eyes have sunken into his face, his nose appears larger because his cheeks have sunken, and none of his former beauty remains. This theme of vanity and beauty is central, as Jocundo's recovery is afffected by his witnessing Astolpho's wife pining for an ugly "monster." Seeing even the beautiful King Astolpho cuckolded, Jocundo takes comfort that at least his wife did not choose such an ugly lover.

Likewise, in the Hungarian tale of "The Most Beautiful Man in the World," as the title suggests, the king summons the young man because he is curious what such a man looks like, but the young man arrives looking not at all beautiful. …

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