Saturday, July 11, 2015

The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (Volume I)


Opening Passage:

In the name of Allah, the Compassionating, the Compassionate! Praise be to Allah, The Beneficent King, The Creator of the Universe, Lord of the Three Worlds, Who set up The Firmament without Pillars in its Stead and Who stretched out the Earth even as a Bed; and Grace, and Prayer-Blessing be upon Our Lord Mohammed, Lord of Apostolic Men, and upon His Family and Companion-Train; Prayer and Blessings Enduring and Grace Which unto The Day of Doom shall Remain. Amen! O Thou of The Three Worlds Sovereign!

And afterwards. Verily the works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befel other folk and may therefrom take warning; and that they may peruse the annals of antique peoples and all that hath betided them, and be thereby ruled and restrained:--Praise, therefore be to Him who hath made the histories of the Past an admonition unto the Present! Now of such instances are the tales called "A Thousand Nights and a Night," together with their far-famed legends and wonders.

Summary: The Arabian Nights is a very, very complicated story about sex. The frame narrative is precisely about this. King Shahryar and his brother Shah Zaman, though extraordinarily powerful men, both discover that their wives are cheating on them, and in the most shameful sort of way. Devastated, they set out to discover if anyone else has been so cuckolded. They soon discover a woman married to a Jinni (genie), who uses the threat of her dangerous husband to force men to have sex with her. Astounded at the discovery that you can have all the power of a Jinni and still be betrayed by a woman, King Shahryar returns to his seraglio to kill all the concubines and their slaves, and makes a very fateful decision: Since there are no chaste and faithful women anywhere, he will marry a virgin each night and have her head cut off in the morning, thus eliminating forever any danger that he will ever be cheated on. This goes on for three years, and, needless to say, makes the king considerably less than popular with the people, and the Wazir is no longer able to find any maidens because anyone with a virgin daughter has fled the country. Well, almost everybody. The Wazir has two daughters, Shahrazad and Dunyazad, and while the King out of affection for the Wazir has exempted them from the search, Shahrazad has had about enough of this endless slaughter of virgins, and insists that she will stop it or die.

The psychological insight in Shahrazad's plan is quite impressive. It's not just the stories, although they are quite important. The basic format for each night is that the King and Shahrazad have sex, and then they will sleep; when they awake (it is very nearly universal in societies not ruled by electric lights to wake in the middle of the night), Dunyazad asks Sahrazad to tell a story, which she will do until she has to leave off. The king decides he wants to hear the rest of the story, or sometimes the story she briefly mentions as being even more interesting than the story she just told, and they start the cycle again. A thousand and one nights of sex and entertainment is enough to make any man merciful, no matter how paranoid he might be about women.

This first volume takes us to the 272nd night, so it's almost a year's worth of storytelling; the sections are not all equal because, for obvious reasons, Shahrazad cannot control how much time she has to tell the tale. The stories themselves are of varying length. Some of them are scarcely more than anecdotes. This volume has the longest of all the tales of the Arabian Nights, The Tale of King Omar bin al-Nu'uman and His Sons Sharrkan and Zau al-Makan, which is practically a book in itself, extending from the 45th night to the 145th night, and making up more than four hundred pages in my edition. It's an interesting experience reading it, since it is a chivalrous romance that is Muslim, not Christian.

Everyone bogs down sometimes in the Nights. Judging from the comments in his notes, Burton seems to have found the tale of the brother and sister in the Tale of King Omar very tedious. I didn't have a problem with it, although I thought it less interesting than the tale of Princess Abrizah that makes up a considerable portion of the beginning of the Tale of King Omar. But I bogged down myself in the Tale of Aziz and Azizah, which is also a sub-story in the Tale of King Omar. My favorite stories in this volume were the beast-fables (from the 146th night to the 152nd night), an assessment with which King Shahryar apparently agrees, since they are his first request, and the first tales to which he responds not just with curiosity but with enthusiasm. I also liked the Aladdin tale, The Tale of Ala al-Din Abu al-Shamat. That tale and the Tale of the Fisherman and the Jinni were the most familiar of the tales; I remember very simplified and cleaned-up versions of Aladdin and the talisman from when I was child, and the Fisherman and the Jinni will ring familiarly to anyone who has read Tim Powers's Declare.

The stories are very cynical. Men and women alike will betray you. Whatever Allah has written on your forehead will come to pass, no matter how much you attempt to evade it. No one can avoid their Lot, no matter their forethought. People die, are enslaved, are tortured, are imprisoned, are forced to flee. If you come across anyone showing visible religious devotion, you can be sure that they are out to destroy you. (This played to very interesting effect in the Tale of King Omar, in which the Christian witch Zat al-Dawahi is able over and over and over again to destroy even entire Muslim armies simply by turning their own religion against them, and gulling them all by an elaborate pretense of devotion.) This cynicism is perhaps one reason why Burton's edition has become the gold standard of all editions; the Nights need an editor and commentator as cynical as they are.

But we are not through it all yet, by any means, and we know that the frame narrative will end happily enough.

Favorite Passage:

Now when the Fisherman saw the Ifrit his side muscles quivered, his teeth chattered, his spittle dried up and he became blind about what to do. Upon this the Ifrit looked at him and cried, "There is no god but the God, and Sulayman is the prophet of God"; presently adding, "O Apostle of Allah, slay me not; never again will I gainsay thee in word nor sin against thee in deed." Quoth the Fisherman, "O Mérid, diddest thou say, Sulayman the Apostle of Allah; and Sulauman is dead some thousand and eight hundred years ago, and we are now in the last days of the world!..."

There is something just perfect about this detail in the story of the Fisherman and the Jinni, in which a Fisherman pulls a jar with a genie out of the sea and the genie, having been stuck at the bottom of the sea for hundreds of years, is so out of date that his affirmation of Islam is, "There is no God but God, and Solomon is His Prophet!" It tickles me. And it's made even better by the fisherman's "Wait, what?" reaction.

Because this is just the first volume of a three-volume edition that I will (eventually!) be completing, I will only do the usual 'Recommendation' section at the end for all three volumes.


  1. Enbrethiliel3:33 AM


    "a very, very complicated story about sex" ROFL!!!

    I remember finding a copy of A Thousand and One Nights in my family library when I was a child, and being disappointed that there were less than the expected 1,001 stories. Later, I reasoned that maybe the entire manuscript had been lost, while the title had been retained. Did I just have a "kid friendly" copy?

  2. branemrys6:27 AM

    There is no single standard manuscript of the Nights, and the manuscripts we do have do not have all the same stories or the same number of stories. Originally, the title seems to have just been a figure of speech, but some later manuscripts bulk it up to a total of a thousand and one nights. Perhaps because of this many translators have felt free to select at will, and most editions of the Nights are such selections, and sometimes the selection is more kid-friendly, so it's possible. Burton, however, has a thousand and one, and it's very definitely not a book for kids!


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