The Thousand and One Nights
The Thousand and One Nights, also know as The Arabian Nights, or Alf laylah wa laylah in Arabic, is a collection of stories from unknown dates and authors taking place largely in the Middle East. The range of locations of the stories - India, Iran, Egypt - indicates that the tales came from multiple authors. The earliest narratives were written around 750 AD, while others were first told centuries later. Famous stories include Aladdin, Sindbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba. The Thousand and One Nights follows the story of the king, Shahryar, and his wife, Shahrazad, who tells him part of a story each night before dawn.
|Title: The Thousand and One Nights, or Arabian Nights Entertainment|
|First European edition published in 1704|
The earliest piece of the frame story of Shahryar and Shahrazad was written in the ninth century, written in Arabic. A century later, al-Mas'udi, an Arabic historian, wrote about Alf Layla or "Thousand Nights," and suggests that their origin is Persian. He also describes the Persian works of Hasar Afsana or "Thousand Legends." The stories changed over the years as they were translated and rewritten to accommodate the current society. It circulated throughout the Middle East before being introduced to Europe in the 18th century. It was first translated into French by Antoine Golland. Golland also added the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba to the work, which were told to him by a friend's Arabic friend. The first English version appeared in the 19th century, translated by Sir Richard Burton. In 1814, the first Arabic printed edition was published. Since then, there have been a series of new translations and editions.
The primary story is about Shahryar and Shahrazad. When Shahryar discovers that his queen at the beginning of the tale is being unfaithful, he declares that all women are the same and vows to take a new bride each night and have her killed the next morning. The people shocked by the brutality of this law and watches in horror as their king murders their daughters. Shahrazad, daughter of the vizier, convinces her father to offer her to Shahryar. She asks her sister, Dinazad, to wake her before sunrise and ask for a story. Dinazad wakes her as commanded and, with the king's permission, Shahrazad begins to tell her a story. But she halts her story at a suspenseful moment and tells Dinazad that she will finish the tale the following night, if the king permits her to live so long. Shahryar wishes to hear the rest of the story, so he agrees. This continues for 1,001 nights (although it has actually been counted to be 280 nights).
Shahrazad tells stories about romances, tragedies, and epic adventures. Often, one of her characters will tell his own story, creating an imbedded narrative. Eventually, Shahryar falls in love with her and renounces his law.
Aladdin is a misbehaving young boy who joins the company of a sorcerer who pretends to be Aladdin's uncle. The sorcerer promises Aladdin's mother that he will help him become a wealthy merchant. One day they go for a walk outside of town, and the sorcerer convinces Aladdin to enter a cave to fetch a lamp; he gives Aladdin a ring for protection. The sorcerer reveals his true motives and attempts to take the lamp but fails, and Aladdin is trapped in the cave. He accidentally rubs the ring and a genie appears and takes him home. Aladdin gives the lamp to his mother for cleaning. When his mother rubs lamp, an even more powerful genie appears.
Aladdin uses the genie to provide him and his mother with food, and eventually becomes very wealthy. He uses the magic to marry Princess Badroulbadour and build a great palace.
The sorcerer attempts to recover the lamp by tricking Princess Badroulbadour into exchanging it for a new one. Aladdin uses the power of the genie from the ring to transport him to the sorcerer where he takes back the lamp and kills the sorcerer.
The sorcerer's brother attempts to avenge his brother's death by disguising himself as an old woman. Princess Badroulbadour falls for the disguise and takes him in. Aladdin is warned by the genie and kills the brother. Everyone lives happily ever after and Aladdin becomes king.
The Story of the Porter and the Three Ladies
A porter in Baghdad is hired by a beautiful lady on her own to carry her goods. She makes various stops in the market before going back to her house, where she lives alone with two other beautiful women, although one of them has scars on her body. Over the entrance are the words, "Whoever speaks of what concerns him not, lest he hears what pleases him not." They allow him to stay for dinner and feast on the day's purchases, and they agree that he may spend the night if he heeds the words above the entrance.
Later, three one-eyed dervishes arrive, as well as the disguised Caliph and vizier. They agree not to ask questions. Then, the first woman beats two black dogs, the second woman sings sad love songs, and the third woman screams in pain. The Caliph has his vizier question the ladies.
The First Dervish's Tale
The first Dervish used to be a prince. He had taken out his father's vizier's eye in a slingshot accident, and lost his own eye as vengeance. He leaves his home to visit his uncle, and shortly after, his cousin goes missing. The prince and his uncle find his cousin in a tomb with his cousin's sister; the bodies were charred. They had been in love, despite their uncle's disapproval, and had tried to consummate their love in the tomb, leading to their death. When they leave the tomb, they find that the land had been taken over by the vizier. He escapes and encounters the other dervishes before meeting the three ladies.
The Second Dervish's Tale
The second dervish was also once a prince who was ambushed during travel. He escaped and made his way to a village, where he began work as a woodcutter. In the forest, he meets a beautiful woman who is prisoner to an Ifrit, who visits once every ten days. The prince spends the other nine nights with her, but then he challenges the Ifrit. The Ifrit captures the prince, kills the lady, and is about to kill the prince when tells the Tale of the Envious and the Envied as a plea for mercy. Instead of killing him, the prince is turned into an ape. The prince becomes a scribe for a king, and is recognized as a human. The king's daughter fights the Ifrit's magic and returns the prince to human form, but dies in the process. The dervish loses his eye during the fight. The king asks the prince to leave, and he becomes a dervish.
The Tale of the Envious and the Envied
The Envious and the Envied were two neighbors. The Envied left his home and became a holy man when he discovered that the Envious was jealous of him. The Envious visited him, and pushed him down a well, but he was saved by several demons, who told him that the princess was possessed by a demon, and that she could be cured by burning seven hairs from a black cat. The Envied saved the princess and was married to her as a reward. He eventually became king, and sent riches to the Envious instead of punishment.
The Third Dervish's Tale
The third dervish was also a prince whose ship is destroyed by a magnetic mountain. He makes it to an island and stays with a boy in an underground hiding place. The boy was hidden there to avoid fulfilling a prophecy of his death. They keep each other company for forty days, until the prince accidentally tripped while holding a knife and pierced the boy's heart. The prince leaves and finds a castle with ten one-eyed men. During the night, they painted their faces black and beat themselves, weeping. The prince begs to know why they behave this way, and they give him instructions to get to a castle. The prince finds a castle full of women. He sleeps with another women every night, and is free to explore the castle as long has he doesn't enter a certain room. His curiosity gets the best of him and he finds a room with a winged horse. He gets on the horse and is flown away from the castle. He is hit by the horse and loses an eye. Then he becomes a dervish.
The Tale of the First Lady
The first lady was travelling with her two sisters. She came across a city where all its inhabitants had been frozen for worshiping a false religion, except for the prince. She and the prince were married, but were thrown overboard by her sisters out of jealousy. The prince drowned, but the lady survived and saved a serpent from a larger serpent. The serpent turns out to be magical, and in return, turns the two older sisters into dogs that must be beaten every day. But the lady no longer wishes to hurt them.
The Tale of the Second Lady
The second lady married a prince under the condition that she wouldn't interact with other men. One day, a merchant convinces her to kiss him in exchange for cloth. She does and he bites her cheek. She lies to her husband about the mark, but he learns the truth and beats her severely before making her leave. She moves in with one of her sisters. They agree to remain single
At the end of the story, the Caliph summons the magical serpent to turn the dogs back into sisters. He says that his son was married to one of the sisters, and he makes her go back to him. The three ladies are married to the dervishes, and the Caliph marries the last lady.
Frame Story and Subsequent Layers
A frame story, often used with imbedded narratives, sets the stage for other stories to be told. In The Thousand and One Nights, Shahryar and Shahrazad provide the frame story. Many of Shahrazad's stories also serve as frame stories for their characters to tell about their own adventures. Subsequent layers are the levels of stories within stories. The Thousand and One Nights often goes several layers deep.
The Thousand and One Nights uses repetition to create a rhythm to the storytelling. For example, The Story of the three Calenders, Sons of Kings includes the embedded narratives of each of the Calenders. There is also repetition in the story of Shahryar and Shahrazad, where Shahrazad tells part of a story every night and asks her husband for another day to continue the tale.
Point of View
The stories use a variety of points of view. This has the effect of showing different perspectives in the world, including the female perspective. This encourages sympathy and understanding among the characters. The point of view also has an effect on the message. At the beginning, the king encounters a woman who is possessed by a genie, but chooses to sleep with other men. He views her as an unfaithful woman. But a story from her perspective might show her as a prisoner trying retain some of her agency and get revenge on the genie.
Many of the stories involve a character asking for mercy or forgiveness. In The Merchant and the Genie, the merchant accidentally kills the genie's son and will be killed for revenge. But three sympathetic travelers make an agreement with the genie that the merchant should be pardoned in exchange for three fantastic stories. One of the travelers tells the story of how his wife turned his son into a cow. But the man didn't want his wife to die and had her turned into a dog instead as an act of mercy. Meanwhile in the frame story, Shahrazad asks the king to prolong her life. So there are three levels of mercy occurring at that moment.
The Power of Storytelling
Storytelling is used to soften the heart and elicit sympathy. In The Merchant and the Genie, the three men exchange stories for a man's life. In The Story of the Three Calenders, the calenders share their life histories to prevent their being killed. In the frame story, Shahrazad uses stories to make the king forget his grudge against women and fall in love.
Storytelling is also used as a warning. In the beginning, Shahrazad's father tells her stories to try to change her mind about marrying the king.
In Modern Culture
The Thousand and One Nights has been adapted into many films. These include Arabian Nights in 1924, and Disney's Aladdin, which was released in 1992 with Robin Williams as the genie. It also influenced Jorge Luis Borges.
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