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Many Fables and Tales

The nex few tales are based on Sir Richard Burton's version of Arabian Nights Entertainment. The established composition of the Arabian Nights consists of tales within tales within tales in a certain order. Such a way of composing fairy tale collections is typically Indian - it was a very popular way of composing fairy tale collections in ancient India.

The earliest tales in Arabian Nights may be from India and Persia. Several scholars have seen an ultimate Indian origin for the works. Indian folklore is represented by animal stories made like those in ancient Sanskrit fables. Tales from the Panchatantra are particularly notable. And old Buddhist tales, Jataka Tales are more or less copied in the Arabian Nights.

Somewhere in the 900s CE, the brilliant storyteller Abu abd-Allah Muhammed el-Gahshigar formed the Arabian Nights. Since then the work has been vastly popular, first in the Orient, and since the beginning of the 1600s in France, the rest of Europe, and America too. There have been changes and additions to it. The most important one was done by the French orientalist Galland who inserted ten new stories. Among them were "Aladdin and the lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Robbers": tales from the Middle East, but not of the Nights.

The famous story of Sjeherasad and her murderous husband existed in a Persian book already about 750 CE. There is little doubt that Arabs had translated that book already in the 9th century, says Waldemar Brøgger in the first volume of his translation (1985, 1:19).

Transplanted Tales Are Common

It is easily seen in the latest classification catalogue of international folktales that many European folk tales derive from the Arabian Nights and further (cf. Uther 2004).

A few retold tales from Arabian Nights on the coming pages are presented one by one and not nested, much as Waldemar Brøgger (1911-91) did in a very readable, nearly complete six-volumed translation from 1950.

Tales that are told, tend to get transposed; it is typical where stories are passed on orally for a long time. The setting is changed to reflect what listeners tend to know about, the animals likewise, and so on. It is a matter of appropriating the stories to make them serve young and old better.

So it quite often happens fo "imported tales" that:

  • The names of people might be changed and even stylised into "The Ashlad", "Cinderella" and so on.
  • Where the action first took place, mattered little: it all took place "long ago," for example.
  • Names of people may be missing, but the main persons may have names.
  • The places don't get much specified.


The World Goes On

Some tell tales, some listen to them.
Some change tales by telling them.
Some write about the tales, about changes that are made, and more, much more.

The following is something about the tales:

What the tale collection is

One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern folk tales. It is often known in English as the Arabian Nights, and The Arabian Nights' Entertainment, or just the Nights.

The work was collected over many centuries, and many tales were originally folk stories. Many tales in the collection might trace their roots back to ancient and medieval folklore and literature.

The bulk of the text is in prose, although verse is occasionally used for songs and riddles and to express heightened emotion. Most of the poems are single couplets or quatrains, but some are longer.

The tales vary widely. Djinns, ghouls, apes, sorcerers and magicians are often and haltingly intermingled with real people and geography.

The history of the Nights is extremely complex. Devices found in Sanskrit literature such as frame stories and animal fables are seen by some scholars as lying at the root of the conception of the Nights. The motif of the wise young woman who delays and finally removes an impending danger by telling stories has been traced back to Indian sources. Indian folklore is represented in the Nights by certain animal stories, which reflect influence from ancient Sanskrit fables. The Tale of the Bull and the Donkey and the linked Tale of the Merchant and his Wife are found in the frame stories of both the Jataka and the Nights, for example.

The Panchatantra and various Jataka tales were first translated into Persian by Borzuya in 570 CE. They were later translated into Arabic by Ibn al-Muqaffa in 750 CE. The Arabic version was translated into several languages.

Versions differ, and we too

Two main Arabic manuscript traditions of the Nights are known: (1) the Syrian and (2) the Egyptian:

(1) The Syrian tradition includes the oldest manuscripts; these versions are also much shorter and include fewer tales. It is represented in print by the so-called Calcutta I (18141818) and most notably by the Leiden edition (1984). It is believed to be the purest expression of the style of the mediaeval Arabian Nights.

(2) Texts of the Egyptian tradition emerge later and contain many more tales of much more varied content; a much larger number of originally independent tales have been incorporated into the collection over the centuries, the so-called Calcutta II (18391842).

The first European version (17041717) was translated into French by Antoine Galland from an Arabic text of the Syrian recension and other sources. Galland's version of the Nights was immensely popular throughout Europe.

Unabridged and unexpurgated translations of the more voluminous texts of the Egyptian recension were made, first by John Payne, under the title The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (1882, nine volumes), and then by Sir Richard Francis Burton, The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885, ten volumes). Both of these translations were printed as private editions for subscribers only. Burton's original 10 volumes were followed by a further six. There is a lot in them to make you lose interest.

Later versions of the Nights include that of the French doctor J. C. Mardrus, issued from 1898 to 1904. It was translated into English by Powys Mathers, and issued in 1923. Like Payne's and Burton's texts, it is based on the Egyptian recension and retains the erotic material. Further, it has been criticized for inaccuracy.

A notable recent version, which reverts to the Syrian recension, is a critical edition based on the 14th- or 15th-century Syrian manuscript in the Bibliothèque Nationale, originally used by Galland. This Syrian manuscript is known as the Leiden text. It was rendered into English by Husain Haddawy in 1990. An added, second volume about Sindbad the Sailor was also translated by Haddawy (1995).

In 2008 a new English translation was published by Penguin Classics in three volumes. It is translated by Malcolm C. Lyons and Ursula Lyons with introduction and annotations by Robert Irwin. This is called a complete translation of the Calcutta II edition (Egyptian recension) since Burton's. It also contains the stories of Aladdin and Ali Baba. The cuts in the translation makes you wonder what makes a complete translation.

A few hallmarks

  • Fate may be considered having a leading role in the collection.

  • Foreshadowing plays another part.

  • There is an abundance of pleading, beseeching and praising poetry.

From the Influence

The influence of the versions of The Nights on world literature is immense, although there is little evidence that the Nights was particularly treasured in the Arab world. Fiction had a low cultural status among Medieval Arabs compared with poetry.

Although the first known translation into a European language only appeared in 1704, Christian writers in Medieval Spain translated Arab fiction. Themes and motifs with parallels in the Nights are found in Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (in The Squire's Tale the hero travels on a flying brass horse) and Boccaccio's Decameron.

The modern fame of the Nights derives from the French translation by Antoine Galland (1704).

The Nights was a favourite book of many British authors of the Romantic and Victorian eras.

Modern authors influenced by the Nights include James Joyce, Marcel Proust, Jorge Luis Borges and John Barth.

(Main source: Wikipedia, "One Thousand and One Nights")

Sir Richard Burton - Quotations

Sir Richard (1821–90), a British consul, explorer, translator, writer, poet, Orientalist and swordsman with an extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures, wrote:

The point must be delivered smartly. - Sir Richard F. Burton

I have struggled for forty-seven years, distinguishing myself honourably in every way that I possibly could. I never had a compliment, nor a "thank you," nor a single farthing. I translate a doubtful book in my old age, and I immediately make sixteen thousand guineas. Now that I know the tastes of England, we need never be without money.

As quoted in The Life of Captain Sir Richd. F. Burton, Vol. II (1893), by Lady Isabel Burton, p. 442


Arabian Nights tales reworked, Literature  

Brøgger, Waldemar, tr. Boken om tusen og en natt. Vols 1-6. S. A. Spain: Triangle Commercial Corporation, 1985.

Burton, Sir Richard, tr. The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night. 10 Vols. (1882-84) Privately Printed, Burton Club, 1970.

Burton, Sir Richard, tr. Supplemental Nights. Six Vols. (1886-88) Privately Printed, Burton Club, 1970.

Lane, Edward, tr. One Thousand and One Nights. Vol 1. London: Chatto & Windus, 1912.

Lane, Edward, tr. One Thousand and One Nights. Vol 2. London: Bickers and Son, 1877.

Lane, Edward, tr. One Thousand and One Nights. Vol 3. London: Bickers and Son, 1877.

Lang, Andrew, ed. The Arabian Nights Entertainments. London: Longmans, Green and Co, 1918. ⍽▢⍽ Smooth, fairy-tale-like versions.

Lyons, Malcolm C., with Ursula Lyons. The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights. Introduction by Robert Irwin. Vols. 1- 3. Paperback ed. London: Penguin, 2010.

Mardrus, Joseph Charles, and Powys Mathers. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. Vols 1-4. Paperback ed. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1986.

Marzolph, Ulrich, and Richard van Leeuwen. The Arabian Nights Encyclopedia. Vol. 1 and 2. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

Payne, John, tr. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. 9 Vol. London: For Private Subscribers, (1882-84). The Delhi-edition, 1901.

Uther, Hans-Jörg. The Types of International Folktales: A Classification and Bibliography Based on the System of Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson. Vols 1-3. FF Communications No. 284-86, Helsinki: Academia Scientiarum Fennica, 2004.

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