Saturday, August 08, 2015

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


Volume I

Summary: In this middle stretch of the Nights, the narrative frame as become mostly background, with explicit mentions of it almost entirely just marking out the various nights. This does not mean that it has ceased to be relevant, however. One begins to notice by this point certain themes that come up regularly, one of which is kings and Caliphs showing mercy in exchange for a good story. Shahrazad is not telling her tales aimlessly. A good example of this is found in the Tale of Abu al-Husn and His Slave Girl. This story consists mostly of the titular slave girl showing her learning in a very long catechism on a wide variety of subjects (thus showing indirectly that Shahrazad knows it all as well), and ends with a relatively rare direct comment on the story by Shahrazad herself:

Marvel then, O King, at the eloquence of this damsel and the hugeness of her learning and understanding and her perfect excellence in all branches of art and science; and consider the generosity of the Commander of the Faithful, Harun al-Rashid, in that he gave her master this money and said to her, "Ask a boon of me"; and she besought him to restore her to her lord. So he restored her to him and gave her five thousand dinars for herself and made him one of his boon-companions. Where is such generosity to be found after the Abbaside Caliphs?--May Allah Almighty have mercy upon them, one and all! (p. 1821)

Hmm. Indeed, where is a king who could show such generosity -- O king? Again, Shahrazad is not telling her tales aimlessly.

Much of this middle stretch consists of smaller tales of diverse kinds. Some of them are no more than brief anecdotes or bawdy jokes of the kind that open with lines like, "The Caliph Harun al-Rashid once slept with three slave-girls, a Meccan, a Medinite and an Irakite" (p. 1655). There is also an Islamized version of the story of Susannah and the Elders (the Tale of the Devout Woman and the Two Wicked Elders), and several stories that have a striking and lovely fairy-tale quality (The Tale of the Ebony Horse, the Tale of the Queen of the Serpents). And, of course, we get a few story-series the Seven Voyages of Sindbad, which are more violent and comical than I remember from other sources: immense numbers of people die, but somehow or another Sindbad gets wealthier each time around in entirely crazy ways. There are also some humorous tales about rogues and sharpers throughout, of which I thought the best was the Tale of the Rogueries of Dalilah the Crafty and Her Daughter Zaynab.

To this point we have reached the 738th night and page 2650, bringing us two-thirds of the way through.

Favorite Passage: From the Adventures of Bulukiya, which is part of the Tale of the Queen of the Serpents:

Quoth the bird, 'I am one of the birds of Eden and followed Adam when Allah Almighty cast him out thence. And know, O my brother, that Allah also cast out with him four leaves of the trees of the garden to cover his nakedness withal, and they fell to the ground after awhile. One of them was eaten by a worm, and of it came silk: the gazelles ate the second and thence proceeded musk; the third was eaten by bees and gave rise to honey, whilst the fourth fell in the land of Hind and from it sprang all manner of spices. As for me, I wandered over the face of earth till Allah deigned to give me this island for a dwelling-place, and I took up my abode here. And every Friday from night till morning the Saints and Princes of the Faith flock to this place and make pious visitation and eat from this table spread by Allah Almighty; and after they have eaten, the table is taken up again to Heaven: nor doth the food ever waste or corrupt.' (p. 1989)

Because this is just the second 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.

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