History of Literature



Sir Richard Burton, translator

Illustrated by Virginia Frances Sterrett


Edmund Dulac






Type of work: Tales
Author: Unknown
Type of plots: Adventure romances
Time of plots: The legendary past
Locale: India, China, Persia, and Arabia
First transcribed: Fifteenth century

This group of tales, more properly called The Thousand and One Nights, was passed down by word of mouth in many lands throughout the East and was eventually formalized and standardized by bazaar storytellers. Most scholars believe that the collection took its present form in Cairo in the fifteenth century; it was introduced to the West in Antoine Gallad's 1704 translation published in Paris. The stories often have striking parallels to Biblical tales and incidents from the Iliad and the Odyssey.

Principal Characters

Shahriar, emperor of Persia and India. Convinced of the unfaithfulness of all women, he vows to marry a new woman every day and have her executed the next morning.
Scheherazade, his wise and beautiful bride. On the night of their wedding, she begins to tell him a tale which so fascinates him that he stays her execution for a day so that he can learn the end of the story. The stories are continued for a thousand and one nights. Then, convinced of her worthiness, he bids her live and makes her his consort. The following are characters in some of her stories:
The King of the Black Isles. He nearly kills the lover of his unfaithful queen, who gets revenge by turning her husband's lower half into marble and changing his town and all its people into a lake offish. A neighboring sultan kills the lover and deceives the queen into undoing all her enchantments; then she too is killed.
Sindbad the Sailor, who, in the course of his voyages, visits an island that is really the back of a sea monster, a valley of diamonds, an island inhabited by cannibal dwarfs and black one-eyed giants, and an underground river.
The Caliph Harun-al-Rashid of Baghdad, Sindbad's ruler.
Houssain, AH, and Ahmed, sons of the Sultan of India. They compete for the hand of their father's ward; after an archery contest Ali is proclaimed the winner, though Ahmed's arrow has gone so far that no one can find it.
Periebanou, a fairy living in a mountain, at whose door Ahmed finds his arrow. He marries her and with her help performs unreasonable tasks for his father, who has been persuaded by courtiers to be suspicious of his son, now secretive about his life and apparently rich and powerful. The sultan is killed by Periebanou's annoyed brother, and Ahmed succeeds him as sultan.
Princess Nouronnihar, the ward of the sultan. She is sought in marriage by the brothers. Ali wins her.
Ali Baba, a Persian woodcutter who happens upon a thieves' cave filled with riches.
Cassim, his greedy brother, who forgets the password, "Open Sesame," and so cannot get out of the cave. The thieves kill him.
Morgiana, Ali Baba's beautiful slave. She discovers that the thieves are hiding in oil jars brought by their disguised captain to Ali Baba's house. Morgiana kills the robbers, is rewarded with her freedom, and becomes Ali Baba's son's wife.
Aladdin, a young vagabond in China who gets possession of a magic lamp, and through the power of its genie, gains incredible wealth and wins the sultan's daughter as his wife.


The Stories

Convinced by the treachery of his brother's wife and his own that all women were unfaithful, Shahriar, Emperor of Persia and India, vowed that he would marry a new wife every day and have her executed the next morning. Only Scheherazade, wise as well as beautiful, had the courage to try to save the young women of Persia. On the night of her marriage to Shahriar, she began to tell him a tale which fascinated him so much that he stayed her death for one more night so that he could learn the end of the story. Scheherazade told him stories for one thousand and one nights. At that time, convinced of her worthiness and goodness, he bade her live and made her his consort.
One tale Scheherazade told was "The History of the Fisherman and the Genie": A poor Mussulman fisherman drew from the sea in his nets a strange box with a seal on top. When he pried off the top, a huge genie appeared and threatened him with death, offering the poor man no more than his choice in the manner of his death. The fisherman begged for his life because he had done the genie a favor by releasing him, but the genie declared that he had vowed death to the man who opened the box. Finally, the fisherman exclaimed that he could not believe anything as huge and terrible as the genie could ever have been in a space so small. Dissolving into a cloud of smoke, the genie shrank until he could slip back into the box, whereupon the fisherman clamped on the lid. Throwing the box back into the sea, he warned all other fishermen to beware if it should ever fall into their nets.
Another story was "The History of the Young King of the Black Isles": A fisherman caught four beautiful fish, one white, one red, one blue, and one yellow. They were so choice that he took them to the sultan's palace. While the fish were being cooked, a beautiful girl suddenly appeared and talked to the fish, after which they were too charred to take to the sultan. When the same thing happened two days in a row, the sultan was called. After asking where the fish came from, he decided to visit the lake. Nearby, he found a beautiful, apparently deserted palace. As he walked through the beautiful halls, he found one in which a king was sitting on a throne. The king apologized for not rising, explaining that his lower half was marble.
He was the King of the Black Isles. When he had learned that his queen was unfaithful to him, he had nearly killed her blackamoor lover. In revenge, the queen had cast a spell over her husband, making him half marble. She whipped him daily and then had him dressed in coarse goat's hair over which his royal robes were placed. In the meantime, while she had kept her lover barely alive, she had changed her husband's town and all its inhabitants into the lake full of fish.
The king told the sultan where the queen's lover was kept. There the sultan went, killed the lover, and put himself in the blackamoor's place. The queen, overjoyed to hear speaking the one she had kept from the edge of death so long, hastened to do all the voice commanded. She restored the king to his human form and the lake to its previous state as a populous town. The four colors of fish indicated the four different religions of the inhabitants.
When the queen returned to the sultan, whom she mistook for her lover, he killed her for her treachery. Thereafter, he took home with him the King of the Black Isles and rewarded the fisherman who had led him to the magic lake.
Shahriar was vastly entertained by "The History of Sindbad the Sailor": A poor porter in Baghdad, resting before the house of Sindbad, bewailed the fact that his lot was harder than that of Sindbad. Sindbad overheard him and invited the porter to dine with him. During the meal, he told of the hardships he had suffered in order to make his fortune.
On his first voyage to India by way of the Persian Gulf, Sindbad's ship was becalmed near a small green island. The sailors climbed upon the island, only to find that it was really a sea monster which heaved itself up and swam away. Sindbad was the only man who did not get back to the ship. After days of clinging to a piece of driftwood, he landed on an island where some men were gathered. They led him to a maharajah who treated Sindbad graciously. When he had been there some time, his own ship came into port, and he claimed his bales of goods, to the astonishment of the captain, who thought he had seen Sindbad killed at sea. Then Sindbad sailed home in the ship in which he had set out.
The porter was so impressed with the first tale that he came again to hear a second. On his second voyage. Sindbad was left asleep on an island where the sailors had rested. There he found a huge roc's egg. He waited, knowing that the parent bird would return to the nest at dusk. When it came, he used his turban to tie himself to the bird's leg. In the morning, the bird flew to a place surrounded by mountains. There Sindbad freed himself when the bird descended to pick up a serpent. The place seemed deserted, except for large serpents. Diamonds of great size were scattered throughout the valley.
Sindbad remembered that merchants were said to throw joints of meat into the diamond valley, from which big eagles carried the joints to their nests close to shore. At the nests, the merchants frightened away the birds and recovered diamonds which had stuck to the meat. Sindbad collected some large diamonds. With his turban, he fastened a piece of meat to his back and lay down. An eagle picked him up and carried him to its nest. When he was dropped into a nest, the merchant who claimed the nest was indignant and accused Sindbad of stealing his property. Sindbad offered him some choice diamonds. In return, the merchant was glad to take the adventurer back to civilization.
On his third voyage, Sindbad was wrecked on an island inhabited by cannibal dwarfs and huge black creatures with only one eye in the middle of their foreheads. Sindbad and his friends blinded one black giant, but two others helped the blind one to chase the sailors. By the time the giants and a large serpent had overtaken them, only Sindbad was lucky enough to escape.
On his fourth voyage, Sindbad sailed from a port in Persia. He and his friends were shipwrecked on an island inhabited by black cannibals who fattened the sailors before killing them. Sindbad refused the food, grew too thin to interest the black men, and finally found his way to the shore. There he met white men who took him to their kingdom. To please the king, Sindbad made a fine saddle. In appreciation, the king married Sindbad to a beautiful girl. In that country, a man or woman was buried alive if the spouse died. When Sindbad's wife died, he was put in a tomb with a small amount of bread and water. As he ate the last of his food, he heard an animal snuffling, then running away. Following the sound, he found himself on the shore and hailed a ship which carried him home.
On his fifth voyage, Sindbad used his own ship. After his sailors had broken open a roc's egg, the parent rocs hurled tremendous stones on the ship and broke it to pieces. Sindbad came under the power of the Old Man of the Sea and escaped only after making the old man so intoxicated that he loosed his death grip on Sindbad. Again, Sindbad found a ship to take him home, and he did much profitable trading on the way.
On the sixth voyage, all of his companions succumbed on a beautiful but lifeless coast. Expecting to die, Sindbad built a raft which he put in an underground river to drift where it would. When he reached the kingdom of Serendib, he had to be revived. He found the country exceedingly rich and the people kind. When he asked to be allowed to go home, the king sent him there with rich presents for Sindbad's ruler, the Caliph Harun-al-Rashid of Baghdad.
Sindbad made his seventh and final voyage to take gifts from the caliph to the King of Serendib. He carried them safely, but his return trip was delayed when corsairs seized his ship and sold the sailors into slavery. Sindbad was sold to an ivory merchant and was ordered to shoot an elephant a day. Annoyed at Sindbad's persistence, an elephant picked him up and took him to an elephant burial ground, to which Sindbad and his owner returned many times to gather ivory. As a reward, the merchant sent Sindbad home with rich goods.
Another diverting tale was "The History of Prince Ahmed": Houssain, AH, and Ahmed, sons of the Sultan of India, were all in love with the Princess Nouronnihar, their father's ward. To determine who should be the bridegroom, the sultan sent them out to find the most extraordinary things they could. Whoever brought back the rarest object would win the hand of the princess.
Houssain found a magic carpet which would transport him wherever he wished. Ali found an ivory tube containing a glass which would show any object he wished to see. Ahmed found an artificial apple, the odor of which would cure any illness.
The three princes met before they journeyed home. As they displayed their gifts, Houssain, looking through the tube, saw the princess apparently at the point of death. They all jumped on his magic carpet and were whisked to her bedroom, where Ahmed used his magic apple to revive her. The sultan could not determine which article was the most unusual, for all had been of use to effect the princess' recovery. He suggested an archery contest. Prince Ali shot farther than Houssain, but Ahmed's arrow could not be found. The sultan decided in favor of Ali. Houssain retired to become a dervish. Instead of attending the wedding, Ahmed went in search of his arrow, which he found at the foot of a mountain, much farther away than he could have shot. Looking around, he found a door into the mountain. When he passed through the door, he found a fairy called Periebanou, who pleased him so much that he married her.
When Ahmed went to visit his father, he refused to discuss where or how he lived, but he appeared to be so rich that the courtiers grew jealous and persuaded the sultan that it was dangerous to have his son so powerful a neighbor. The sultan asked Ahmed to perform unreasonable tasks, made possible only by Periebanou's help; but while fulfilling one request her brother became so annoyed with the sultan that he killed him. Ahmed became sultan and afterward dealt kindly with his brothers.
Scheherazade also pleased her lord with "The History of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves": Ali Baba was a Persian woodcutter. One day, to hide from a band of strange horsemen, he climbed a tree under which they halted. When the leader cried, "Open, Sesame!" to a rock nearby, a door opened through which the men carried their heavy packs. After the men left, Ali Baba used the secret word to investigate the cave. He found such riches there that the gold he took could never be missed.
He and his wife were content with that amount, but his brother Cassim, to whom he had told his story, was greedy for more wealth. Without telling Ali Baba, Cassim went to the cave. He was so excited by the gold that he forgot the password and could not get out. The robbers found and murdered him.
The robbers tried to find Ali Baba in order to kill him and so keep the secret of their hoard. The leader brought his men, hidden in oil jars, to Ali Baba's house, but a beautiful slave, Morgiana, went in search of oil, discovered the ruse, and killed the bandits. Again the captain, disguised as a merchant, entered the house, but Morgiana saw through his disguise and killed him.
To reward Morgiana, Ali Baba not only made her a free woman but also gave her to his son in marriage. Ali Baba was then the only one who knew the secret of the cave. He used the hidden wealth in moderation and passed the secret on to his posterity.
No less pleasing was "The History of Aladdin, or the Wonderful Lamp": Aladdin was a youthful vagabond who lived in China. An African magician, sensing that Aladdin would suit his plans, and pretending to be the boy's rich uncle, took him to a secret place to get a magic lamp. Passing through halls stored with treasures, Aladdin filled his gown with so many things that he could not give the magician the lamp at the moment he wanted it, and the magician sealed him up in the earth. By chance, Aladdin rubbed a ring which the magician had given him. A genie appeared and escorted him home.
When Aladdin showed his mother the lamp, she tried to clean it to sell. As she rubbed, another genie appeared from whom Aladdin asked food. The food appeared on silver trays that Aladdin sold one by one to a Jewish chapman. When an honest jeweler stopped Aladdin one day and asked to buy the silver, Aladdin began to realize the great riches he had at his fingertips, enough to win him the sultan's daughter as his wife.
Because the grand vizier wanted his own son to marry the princess, he suggested many outrageous demands which the sultan made upon Aladdin before he could be considered a suitor. The genies produced slaves, costumes, jewelry, gold, and chargers in such profusion that the sultan gladly accepted Aladdin's suit. Overnight, Aladdin had the genie build a magnificent palace next to the sultan's.
Life went smoothly until the African magician, while Aladdin was away, persuaded the princess to trade the old lamp for a new one. Then the magician transported the great palace to Africa. When Aladdin came home, the sultan threatened him with arrest but allowed him forty days in which to find the palace with the princess therein. Rubbing his ring by chance and summoning its genie, Aladdin asked to be carried wherever his palace was. The princess was overjoyed to see him. After he had killed the magician by a ruse, he ordered the genie of the lamp to transport the palace back to China. There, after disposing of the magician's brother who had followed them, Aladdin and the princess lived happily ever after.


Critical Evaluation

The Arabian Nights' Entertainments is the title usually used in English to designate a group of tales more properly called The Thousand and One Nights. These stories, adapted and formalized by bazaar storytellers, had their origins in many lands throughout the East and were handed down by word of mouth for hundreds of years. Some present interesting parallels. In the story of "The Three Sisters," a baby is put in a basket to float down a river, a circumstance reminiscent of the biblical account of Moses in the bulrushes. In Sindbad's various journeys by sea, there are similarities to the wanderings of Ulysses as related by Homer, in one instance a close parallel to the Cyclops story. Some of the characters have been drawn from history; but whether the source is folklore, religious tradition, or history, the tales have a timeless quality appealing, from legendary times to the present, to authors of every sort. Most scholars believe that the collection took its present form in Cairo in the fifteenth century; it was introduced to the Western world in a translation by Antoine Galland, published in Paris in 1704. Traditionally, there were a thousand and one stories told by Scheherazade to her emperor-husband, but in extant manuscripts the tales are not always the same. Practically all modern editions contain only a small portion of the complete collection. Those most frequently reprinted have become minor classics of the world's literature.
The older title of the work refers to the implied dramatic situation in which Scheherazade tells a story (or part of one) to Shahriar every night for the famous number of nights in order to forestall her death on the following morning. The tales are embedded in a frame-story, in the tradition of Boccaccio's Decameron and Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. Like the Canterbury Tales, the Arabian Nights includes some tales which are enriched by the situation of their framework.
If readers keep in mind Shahriar's repeated vow to kill his wife in the morning, there is much more of a point to one of Scheherazade's first tales to her new husband and king. "The History of the Fisherman and the Genie" involves another powerful character, the genie, who has similarly vowed to kill. In both cases, the vow would involve the killing of one who has performed an act of charity or of love toward the avowed killer; in the fisherman's case, freeing the genie, and in Scheherazade's case, marrying the king. When the fisherman chastises the rebottled genie, predicting Allah's certain vengeance upon him for killing, the humble man is in fact a mask through which Scheherazade is speaking to Shahriar.
In "The History of the Young King of the Black Isles," other details of the framework are alluded to. It will be remembered that Shahriar's reason for his vow is rooted in his painful experience with his unfaithful wife, whom he discovered to be engaged in adultery with a black slave. The fact that his brother's case paralleled his would indicate that the societies in which this book took form were preoccupied with a sense of inadequacy when placed in sexual competition with blacks.
The racial, psychosexual problem amounts to the thematic focus of the story. The Young King has likewise discovered his wife's infidelity and is greatly disturbed at her fiercely expressed preference for her black lover. Throughout the story, black and white are pointedly juxtaposed. The king is described as extremely pale with only the smallest touch of black, a mole. His palace is black, perhaps an omen of his catastrophe. On the first two occasions of the spoiled fish (they are blackened), a fair lady comes out of the wall to upset the pan; on the third occasion, it is a black giant who performs the same act. The Young King's being turned to stone below the waist is part of the allegory signifying his impotence upon having his male ego destroyed by his wife's preference for the slave. The sympathy and vengeance provided by the sultan are obviously designed to further soothe Shahriar.
With "The History of Sindbad the Sailor," a smaller frame-story within the larger, readers come to the end of selections which contain pointed allusions to Shahriar's life and problems. All that can be said of the remaining selections' relationship to the framework is that they contain within their allegorical forms a wisdom about the ways of the world, which at one and the same time accords with Scheherazade's great learning and would no doubt impress Shahriar so much as to purge him of his unfortunate vision of all women as faithless and blind in their lust.
Sindbad, a wealthy man, tells his seven tales to a poor porter of the same name. The purpose of telling the tales is to justify the wealth of the rich Sindbad to the envious poor Sindbad. In each story, the wealth is justified by a different example of perils endured by the storyteller. Each of the seven stories follows a narrative pattern in which Sindbad, first, sets out to sea to make money; second, loses everything in a catastrophe; third, undergoes a frightening experience (usually underground); fourth, escapes by means of his wits; and, finally, escapes with far greater riches than would ever have been possible by ordinary trading. The most frightening part of each episode is invariably a close brush with death for Sindbad and is recognizably a descent into the mythic world of the dead. Sindbad returns from each descent with treasures commensurate with the risks he had taken.
In "The History of Prince Ahmed," the reader meets with the now-familiar motif of trials undergone to win the hand of a princess. In this case, however, there are two princesses, one mortal and one fairy. Ahmed and his brothers vie for the mortal princess, unaware of the fairy princess' love for Ahmed and of her having planned every detail of their adventures. The allegory involves Ahmed's being led unwittingly (and unwillingly) past the mortal princess and inexorably to the fairy princess (who is more beautiful and wise in the extreme). The story points to the superiority of spiritual riches over material wealth, The sultan is depicted as foolish (and so deserving of his ultimate overthrow) when he ignores the superiority of Ahmed's magic apple, when he disqualifies Ahmed's archery for his arrow's being unrecoverable by ordinary mortal means, and when he demands material wealth of Ahmed.
"The History of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" depicts Ali Baba as a man who prospers through his lack of greed. He is contrasted with his brother Cassim in this; Cassim apparently married for money, while Ali Baba married a poor woman and was a woodcutter. When Ali Baba learns the magic formula for opening the door to wealth, he takes only as much as would not be missed. Cassim's greed, by contrast, causes him to become so excited by the wealth that he forgets the magic word and is killed. It is significant that Cassim, when he is trapped in the cave, has the entire treasure and, having it, has death along with it. When the threat of death for Ali Baba is resolved with the death of the thieves, the hero draws so temperately upon his secret cache that it supports his family for many generations. (The fact that Ali Baba's life and fortunes are preserved by a clever woman, Morgiana, would not be lost on Shahriar.)
This story is another example of riches obtained by a successful descent into the underworld, as is the next, "The History of Aladdin: Or, The Wonderful Lamp." Aladdin is another naif, not suspecting the great material value of the gold and silver trays, considering the food they had carried to be of the utmost importance. This sort of naivete is the stuff of which wisdom is made, making him truly worthy of the Sultan's daughter and of the powerful lamp.
It is helpful in understanding and enjoying The Arabian Nights' Entertainments to keep in mind the parallel symbolism of wealth, power, and beautiful women: all are symbolic of spiritual fulfillment. The omnipresence of the three in this book is one clear indication of the work's purpose: to teach a moral lesson as well as to entertain. It is a storehouse of wisdom couched in the terms all cultures know best, the terms of sight, smell, and touch, and of the delightful forms those sensations take in the imagination.



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