224. The Arabian Nights (somewhere between the 9th and 13th centuries)

Source :  The Arabian Nights : an anthology, edited by Wen-Chin Ouyang, published by Alfred A Knopf, 2014 (ISBN 9780375712418)

Thoughts : King Shahryar is convinced all women are unfaithful and hateful, and vows to take a new bride each day, killing her at sunrise and engaging another. As supply starts to run dry, the Grand Vizier’s daughter Shahrazad offers herself as bride to protect her younger sister. She beguiles the King with her storytelling all night until dawn arrives, ending her story on a cliffhanger. The King postpones her execution for a day so he can here the end of the story, only for her to lure him on with more tales. After 1001 nights, the King realises he loves Shahrazad and abandons his vow. Shahrazad’s stories are often layered with characters within each story telling their own stories and so on.

The history of this work, its discovery by Europeans, and the convoluted mix of stories and their sources is not simple. Some may not even by Arabic in origin. The stories selected for this volume feature the three best known stories to modern readers, but even this is not straightforward. Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin and the Magic Lamp, are not even considered part of the original 1001 nights collection, but are appended into this volume as ‘orphan tales’ as they would be expected. Both sound much like fairy tales, albeit in a non-western setting, and feature heroic characters in Aladdin and Marjanah, the clever adopted daughter/slave of Ali Baba.

The third familiar tale, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad (Sinbad the Sailor) is counted as part of the original pantheon but is definitely inferior to the two above; full of repetition, and stretch internal credibility to its limit (how many times can Sinbad undertake the same trading voyage, which inevitably comes to grief, survive horrendous dangers, return home by luck and the grace of Allah, only to forget a few months later and set off again – well, obviously at least seven!). More disturbing is Sinbad’s willingness to cold heartedly kill multiple other victims in the same situation as he finds himself simply to ensure he has enough to eat and drink.

With such a fantastic and unique mythology to draw upon, it is disappointing to see the repetition of both themes and descriptions within and between many of the stories. Surely with magic, djinn, giant rocs and monstrous snakes to populate stories, more variety could have been produced.

Favourite lines/passages: 

“my mistress greeteth thee and infometh thee that her husband purposeth to be abroad this night in the house of some intimate friends of his; so, when he is gone, do thou come to us and spend the night with my lady in delightsomest joyance till the morning”     page 216

Personal rating:  4/10

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