On a Sea of Stories; the Stories of the Arabian Nights Are So Famous That Most of Us Have Never Read Them, but Just Absorbed Them as Nursery Tales or Cartoons. Now a New Translation, the First in More Than a Century, Allows Us to Enjoy the Vast Original
Kennedy, Hugh, New Statesman (1996)
The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1,001 Nights
Translated by Malcolm C Lyons with Ursula Lyons
Introduced and annotated by Robert Irwin
Penguin Classics, three vols, [pounds sterling] 125
We have all heard of The Arabian Nights, most of us probably as children's stories and cartoon films. The mot famous have become stock images of English writing--the genie in the bottle; the door that responds to the cry of "Open Sesame!". Perhaps the most famous of all is the story of Aladdin and his magical lamp, one of the traditional pantomime plots. How many times have we heard policemen describing entering some criminal's storeroom and saying, "It was like an Aladdin's cave in there"? But there is much more to The Arabian Nights than that, and now, in effect for the first time, the English reader can appreciate the full, vast extent of this "ocean of stories".
The "Nights" as we have them today are the product of more than a thousand years of evolution, development and accretion. The original tale, in which Shahrazad tells stories to the jealous king so that he will not put her to death, comes from a Sanskrit original produced in India, probably in the first centuries AD. This was translated into Middle Persian (that is the language of Sasanian Iran, c.220-650 AD) and many more stories of a moralising and improving, if slightly dull, sort were added. Like much of the literary heritage of pre-Islamic Iran, the originals of these stories have disappeared, but soon after the Muslim conquests of the 7th century, they were translated into Arabic.
One page of a 9th-century version survives, which is enough to show that Shahrazad was already telling stories. Although we know that the Nights continued to be developed and elaborated, the earliest substantial manuscript we have dates from the 15th century.
The Arabian Nights essentially reflect the world of Egyptian and Syrian urban culture of the Mamluk period (1260-1517) and the heroes of the stories are as often merchants as kings and princes, something that would be unimaginable in the contemporary world of Arthurian romance. There is lots of talk of commerce and money, the everyday life of the souks and ports from which the unsuspecting, but not unwilling, merchant can be lured to unimaginable adventures. Some of tales are set in clearly defined historical contexts. The most famous of these are the ones featuring the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786-809), the vizier Ja'far the Barma-kid, Harun's wife Zubayda and the poet/court jester Abu Nuwas. These are all well-known historical figures but none of the stories in which they figure has any known historical basis, and the caliph's night-time, incognito wanderings through his mysterious capital of Baghdad are no more than devices to introduce more fabulous events. In most cases the stories are set in a sort of never-never land, just far enough beyond the horizons of the familiar world to allow for marvels and wonders of all sorts.
It is fair to say that the Nights was looked down on, or more often simply disregarded, by the literary elite of the Arabic-speaking world. The simple narrative flow, the numerous marvels and wholly improbable events, the questionable morality and, perhaps most of all, the sex with which the "Nights" are, to use Robert Irwin's expression, "suffused", all combined to ensure that they were never part of the classical Arabic canon.
There are many Arabic epics, some at least as ling (that is, about a million words), but none of them has achieved the popularity and widespread circulation of the Nights. This is at least in part because most of the other epics consist of endless accounts of wearisome battles in which resolute but entirely one-dimensional heroes achieve impossible feats of arms. What distinguishes the Nights and, despite its great length, stops it from becoming tedious, is the different registers of story--comic, romantic, sad, adventurous. …