Overview of the Text
The Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights in colloquial English, or the Alf Layla wa Layla in Arabic, is an "endlessly flexible world of collection of stories (Puchner)", stemming from the Middle East, Persia, Turkey, and India. The majority of the stories take place during the Golden Age of the Arab Empire, ruled by the fifth Caliph Harun al-Rashid in 786 CE-809 CE. Though the authenticity of some of the inner tales is questioned (most notably the tales of Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves), they are all linked to the larger frame story of King Shahryar and his wife Shahrazad (commonly spelled Scheherazade).
In the frame story, King Shahryar is aggrieved by the infidelity of his sister-in-law and his wife. He embarks on a journey to extract revenge on the womankind by marrying, sleeping with, and executing every virgin in his kingdom one by one every night. Finally, there are no more marriageable women left, so the vizier's daughter, Shahrazad offers herself. In an effort to save herself and earn herself more than one night of life, Shahrazad begins telling the King stories, ending each night on a cliff hanger. Shahrazad's stories are meant not only to entertain and astound the king, but also to provide him an education. There is essentially a crisis of state at hand due to the King's blind hatred for women, so Shahrazad's stories subtly attempt to cure him of his misogyny and teach him of the world.
The exact number of inner tales is unverified, as to date, only one Arabic manuscript containing roughly 280 nights has been found. The number, one thousand, is a significant number in Arabic, colloquially used as infinity. Thus, some scholars argue that the title of the work should not be taken literally, but rather, akin to an infinite plus one number of nights. Because the authenticity of only 280 nights can be verified, the frame story has no ending. 19th century Western translations gave it a happy one, however, it is unclear what the original work had in store for Shahrazad.
This work is essentially one of the first true examples of the amalgamation of Eastern and Western influence on a piece of literature, both in its content and in its preservation. The characters, customs, and cultures depicted in the tale are very much of Eastern origin, but the rush to preserve, compile, and translate the stories was a very Western process. The Turkish writer, Orhan Pamuk, once said The Thousand and One Nights is "a sort of a book which heavily comes from Indian tradition going through Arabic and Persian influences, and then as a sort of a text, an ocean of stories, which was given a shape and an understanding and elevated to a higher stature by the French and English." Even the content is influenced as the text moves from East to West in determining which themes are brought out more in translations or filling in plot gaps with a Western understanding of the way the story should continue. Some of the later orphan tales are even written down for the first time by the French translator Galland.
The Journey of the Text
Fascinatingly, some scholars believe that the core stories of the text began to be told in ancient India until the 9th century when they were translated from Sanskrit into Persian and modified to fit the Persian landscape. During this time, these tales also reached the courts of Harun al-Rashid in Baghdad, who was so delighted with their contents, he modified them again to insert himself in the works as a character. These tales, though delivered orally at first, cannot be considered to be derived from a pure oral tradition. As trade between Persia, India, Egypt, Syria, Turkey, etc opened up, the stories began to travel from cafe to cafe where storytellers would often have to come up with clever ways to supplement or add to the core stories in order to maintain cafe business for longer periods of times. As a result, many of the stories were derived from other written works at the time. This middle class audience has been considered part of the reason these tales were never written down in classical Arabic and contain somewhat licentious subject matters.
Finally in late 1200 CE, the collection was written down into a lengthy Syrian manuscript wrapped up in the familiar frame story of Shahrazad. At this time, another necessary technology that aided the spread of the text was paper. As such, these tales were able to be carried around further and further, but also modified to be more elevated. The introduction of Arabic poetry in the tales is indicative of polishing done by scribes to elevate the work from a collection of rudimentary folktales to a piece of true literature. The poetry in the Thousand and One Nights also serves to slow down the narrative, and would likely have been accompanied by music when told by professional storytellers (Lyons xi).
The work reached the Western world in 1704 through a multivolume French translation by Antoine Galland—a disgraced court writer in desperate need for a steady income. Working through the Syrian manuscript, Galland found significant success in his translation until the manuscript ran out. By a stroke of luck, he was introduced to a Syrian boy, Hanna Diab, who recounted nearly 3-4 volumes worth of stories from the Thousand and One Nights from memory.
In 1884, Richard Burton translated the work into English, bringing back the poetry that Galland had left out. In 1984, Harvard professor, Muhsin Mahdi released the first critical edition of the work, meant to "remove the 'grime of translation'". Thus this so called "authorized" version of the tales only contains roughly 280 nights, no ending, and no orphan tales such as Aladdin.
One of the most crucial writing technologies that made it possible for the Thousand and One Nights to be so widely transmitted across political boundaries was the invention and popularization of paper. Harun al-Rashid (the historical version) was actually a significant patron of paper himself, and he ordered the development of a large paper making factory during his reign.
This work is unique not only in its content but also in its literary construction. While it is difficult to attribute any particular literary device as being faithful to the work due to its highly ambiguous origin story, there are three main literary devices that distinguish the Thousand and One Nights.
Frame Tale: The context behind the collection of stories, Scheherazade's attempt to survive and save the kingdom by reforming King Shahryar, is possibly one of the best known frame tales in the world. This tale sets up an expectation of progression within the tale. Each successive story must be better than the last in order for Scheherazade to stay alive. Furthermore, it is expected that these tales will eventually reform the King. Thus, we understand that every story worth telling should have a significant purpose (entertainment, persuasion, diplomacy, etc). Even within the inner tales, there are tales, such as the three tales of the Three Dervishes within the Porter and the Three Ladies.
Frame tales serve to provide a convenient reason all the tales in the Arabian Nights are linked, and also a clear indication of the importance of stories and storytelling. When each character in the Porter and Three Ladies has a story, the reader gets a clear understanding that every single person has a story and the importance of that story in shaping that person's identity and our understanding of the world.
Narrative Perspective: Each tale in The Thousand and One Nights is told from the perspective of a different narrator. This lends itself to a wide variety of frame of references. On one hand, this allows us to understand the world uniquely and wholesomely by everyone who narrates through Scheherazade, on the other hand, we must understand that the information presented in the story is heavily colored by the person telling it. Furthermore, we must pay attention to when the stories are being told as it almost always changes the fate of the storyteller and the listener.
Magical Realism: Influencing Borges, most notably, the Thousand and One Nights is a master at blending in the supernatural into everyday reality in its tales. From the pervasiveness of magical jinns to the dervish who was turned into a monkey to the daughter of a King who was able to sense witchcraft, this work broadens the reader's understanding of reality. More importantly, magical realism allows for the creation of a flexible imaginary world where institutions and figures in reality can be just abstracted enough and yet still connected enough to safely criticize. Certainly this is why Borges incorporates magical realism in his works.
Themes Between the Tales
Gender Dynamics: The status of women in this tale is a very complicated concept, as it cannot be categorized as strictly inferior or strictly superior to the status of men. In the beginning of the tale, we see King Shahryar and his brother set off on a journey prompted by their wives' infidelity. In the desert, they both sleep with the wife of a demon who shows them her collection of 98 wedding bands. This woman is arguably empowered enough to sleep with whomever she pleases, despite staying in captivity. However, King Shahryar and his brother conclude that all women are calculating and evil, and thus decide to execute their wives. King Shahryar then proceeds to sleep with and marry all the marriageable virgins in the kingdom, showcasing the weakness of this entire gender in defending itself against one man.
And yet, Scheherazade is not a weak character. On the contrary, we see her amass enough power using her intelligence to completely reform the King. It is clear that she is also a better ruler than the King. When we ask ourselves where Scheherazade must have gotten her stories, we must realize that she must have read a lot of them. Thus, it is clear she was highly educated.
In the story of the Porter and the Three Ladies, we see this ambiguity again. The sisters are initially presented as strong and independent women, capable of living on their own (although the Porter's surprise at learning this fact and insisting he stay with them does indicate that this was highly unusual for women at the time). However, by the end of the tale, they are resigned to marry the three dervishes, including the abusive ex-husband.
Court Culture: Interestingly in the stories of the three dervishes, all are former princes. Thus, we understand the broad expanse of geographic area the Thousand and One Nights covers. Much of the court life in these palaces are the same, however, thus indicating some sort of cohesion. All kingdoms in the work are ruled by a monarchial king who is advised by a vizier. There is a court scribe, as well as some sort of artist that depicts the King's legacy. Furthermore, there is a range of etiquettes and behaviors that seem to be common among the courts.
Nobel Prize in Literature winning Turkish author, Orhan Pamuk has spoken widely about the influence of the Thousand and One Nights on his writing. Most notably, in The Black Book and My Name is Red, Pamuk borrows from the tale within the tale structure of the work along with employing a variety of narrative perspectives (in My Name is Red, in particular) to narrate.
Popular British Indian author Salman Rushdie also engages deeply with the Arabian Nights, particularly in his book Midnight's Children. The protagonist of the story, Saleem Sinai tells his fiancé "self referential" tales within a tale about various supernatural elements similar to the Arabian Nights.
Op. 35 Scheherazade composed by Russian composer Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov in 1888 is a four movement piece based on the Thousand and One Nights. This is the composer's most famous work. The first movement is "The Sea and Sinbad's Ship", the second, "The Kalendar Prince", the third, "The Young Prince and Princess", and the fourth, "Festival at Baghdad". In the clip above, the piece is performed by the Gimnazija Kranj Symphony Orchestra in Slovenia.
BBC released a modern interpretation of the Porter and Three Ladies where the porter is actually British writer named Joe, who stumbles upon three beautiful Syrian girls who try to help him save his job.
In 1982, Warner Brother's released a compilation of Looney Tunes connected by a frame story as a movie. The frame story in this instance was a "story hungry sultan's child" (depicted as a white child with a smaller turban) who Bugs Bunny attempts to placate with 1001 stories. The use of this Thousand and One Nights inspired narrative serves as a convenient way to tie all the stories together, while also bringing in an exotic allure.
One of the most popular and well known retelling of one of the Arabian Nights tales is the Disney movie, Aladdin. Disney released its very popular retelling of the orphan tale Aladdin in 1992 (note the vizier named Jafar!):
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Christy P Benny. "MAGIC REALISM AS A POST COLONIAL DEVICE IN SALMAN RUSHDIE'S MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN." (n.d.): n. pag. Web. 4 May 2015.