recite to us some new story... to while away the waking hours of night
January 8, 2015 2:58 PM   Subscribe

The general structure of this tale are well known; a young lady tells a king a series of stories, enough to fill one thousand and one nights, ensuring her survival. The themes became common enough that L. Frank Baum listed the "stereotyped genie, dwarf, and fairy" as traditional fairy tale characters to exclude from his attempts at modern tales, yet there's enough to unpack and discuss to consume multiple lifetimes. This is One Thousand and One Nights, the multinational compilation of folktales and stories, passed as word of mouth, then written and compiled into one large volume. But it was only when one of these collections was translated into French, at a time that fairy tales were already in vogue, did this large frame story and its contained tales really catch on. But it's history is not all that simple a tale.

Where do you start telling the story of One Thousand and One Nights? The origins of individual stories are hard to track down defintively, but some have been tied back to Indian (including The Jataka Tales, on, Persian and Iranian sources, to name a few. Some stories include temporal, geographical and/or political context as to help define the place and time of their origins, while others appear completely fictional, and the characters are a similar mix of fictional and factual. As early examples, samples or records of such a bound compilation of tales, one of the oldest refereces is record of an early Persian volume titled Hazār Afsān, which can be translated as "A Thousand Stories" though simply meant "a great number of tales" (Google books preview) and is described as a tale in which Scheherazade tells less 200 stories.

Note now that between various versions, there are more than 550 stories considered to be part of the nebulous collection of tales known as One Thousand and One Nights. Add to this complexity the fact that there are three "layers" that can be broken into five "stages, though in terms of "complete" manuscripts, there are two distinct periods for these tales, split between various editions (more details on various editions, both Google books previews). The first are the Syrian collections, and then the later Egyptian collections, which only share eight core stories between the collections. As you might now realize, specific details are about the origins of One Thousand and One Nights are hazy at best, in part due to the low-to-mid-level status of such "semiliterary stories of folk extraction reworked by literate editors and redactors," which only gained attention from the the traditional Arab and Muslim elite after the work circulated in the west and was imported back as a foreign good (Google books preview).

That takes us to Europe, specifically France. In the 1690s, France was fond of whimsical fairy tales, especially those written by Madame d'Aulnoy (thesis; translation on, Google books, and Sur LaLune). This set the stage for traveler and translator Antoine Galland's versions of Arabian tales. Galland had traveled throughout the Middle East, where he picked up the manuscript for Sindbad, which he translated to French. That translation was well-received, so Galland turned to كتاب ألف ليلة وليلة‎ Kitāb alf laylah wa-laylah. He stripped out the poems and eroticism to better match the social norms of the French reading public who were fond of the lighter fairy tales. His versions were then re-translated throughout Europe, and One Thousand and One Nights had gone international. (Fun fact: the Grub Street edition introduced the title Arabian Nights' Entertainments.)

Galland's source material wasn't a single tome, but he credited some of his translations, including "Aladdin's Lamp" and "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves" as coming from a Syrian Christian storyteller from Aleppo, a Maronite scholar whom he called "Hanna Diab," who told Galland fourteen new stories, from which Galland selected and modified seven (Google books preview). But Galland wasn't the only translator who took liberties with stories. Edward William Lane translated One Thousand and One Nights to mixed reviews (1853 edition scanned on, while British explorer and Arabist Richard Francis Burton's translations, titled The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night, have been considered overly sexual (pornographic in his time), and "mock-Gothic." Burton (previously) had been working with John Payne on the initial translation efforts, though Payne published his volumes ( first, complete with copious and often quite lengthy annotations of the tales and his modernized system of transliteration, as well as his unapologetic pedantry, [which] impressed and alienated his first readers in about equal measure.

For a number of reasons, Burton's translations have been referred to as the most widely available and complete version of English translation. For example, to celebrate the 300th anniversary of Gallad's initial publication in 2004, an English-language compendium titled the Arabian Nights Encyclopedia relied upon Burton's text as a point of reference, but covered 551 stories, beyond the scope of Burton. But this doesn't mean that translations stopped at this point. A critically regarded edition of the earliest archetypal core was compiled and edited by Professor Muhsin S. Mahdi, a leading specialist in medieval Arabic and Islamic philosophy, who wrote on his interest in the introduction to The Thousand And One Nights (Google books preview), a collection of articles on his exploration of the literary history of Nights .

One of the most recent translations to English was published in 2009, when Malcolm C Lyons completed the first direct translation into English of the Calcutta II (a later, extended) recension since Burton's version, which has been criticized for the "painstaking plainness of his diction," which comes across as "clinical" in some cases. That review in the Independent compares Lyons' work to the Mardrus/Mathers translation, in which J. C. Mardus' French translation was then translated to English by Edward Powys Mathers.

By now, you probably realize you can get lost in the translations alone, and if that sounds like something you'd enjoy, here are a few more resources. Wollamshram's collection of versions of The Thousand Nights and a Night provides basic text versions of a number of different translations, while ELF presents The Arabian Nights offers a few different ways to navigate through the translations of Lane and Burton. Professor D. L. Ashliman has a collection of folk texts (The Aarne-Thompson Classification System, previously), collecting stories by topic or theme, including many tales from 1001 Nights.

Beyond translations, One Thousand and One Nights influenced creative efforts in many areas. Many of the early riffs and tributes to Nights came from French authors, but they weren't alone in their efforts. Edgar Allen Poe wrote The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade, creating a new appendix to Burton's compendium. Following that, Raymond Smullyan wrote The Riddle of Scheherzade, utilizing Coercive Logic. If you want to delve into music inspired by the tales, Mark Alburger's Music History blog has a long article on various pieces, beyond Nikolai Rimsky Korsakov's Scheherazade (IMSLP; NPR: 1001 Nights Retold in a Symphony), but no mention of Renaissance - Scheherazade & Other Stories (1975 prog rock album), and of course Wikipedia has more, and film, television and radio programs.

If all that is not yet enough, there's so much more. You might then enjoy The Journal of the 1001 Nights and Scheherazade's Web, two blogs that periodically post new items from the world(s) of the Nights.
posted by filthy light thief (18 comments total) 76 users marked this as a favorite
Dude the contest was last month
posted by wheelieman at 3:09 PM on January 8, 2015 [3 favorites]

But this is post 1001 extremely well played
posted by wheelieman at 3:11 PM on January 8, 2015 [25 favorites]

Dude the contest was last month

I know, but my wife had a baby

But this is post 1001 extremely well played

Now I can get back to sleeping baby-tending stuff.
posted by filthy light thief at 3:11 PM on January 8, 2015 [7 favorites]

This is badass, thank you. I'm primed and ready from a recent reading of Barth's Chimera, which reimagines (in part) Scheherazade and the One Thousand and One Nights.
posted by stinkfoot at 3:16 PM on January 8, 2015

Nice. I was really fucking hoping you would change your tune at 1000 and just post normal boring shit like the rest of us. But heeeeeeeeerrreeee you go again, embarrassing us still.
posted by nevercalm at 3:23 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

Fantastic! Thank you so much for this post -- The Book of a Thousand Nights and a Night (or whatever you'd like to call it) is one of my very favorite cultural phenomena ever produced by the human species -- and like stinkfoot, it was John Barth's Chimera that first clued me into its wonders, way back in high school. Happy baby-tending!
posted by slappy_pinchbottom at 3:45 PM on January 8, 2015

Suppose I offer you a million dollars, in return for which you agree to answer a certain yes/no question. You can answer either truthfully or falsely as you desire.

...Of course, you should not accept my offer. If you did accept, and if you adhered strictly to the rules of the game, then you would find yourself paying me two million dollars. You see, the question I would have you answer is, “Will you either truthfully answer no to this question, or falsely answer yes, or pay me two million dollars?”
But it's not a yes/no question, in terms of responses. It's a yes/no/pay-this-guy-two-million-clams question, and so invalid. (I was going to keep the money anyhow, but this way I do it with a clear conscience.)
posted by Iridic at 4:07 PM on January 8, 2015

It is a yes/no question.
posted by Wolfdog at 4:46 PM on January 8, 2015

you just answer "no" as in "No i will not either truthfully answer no, falsely answer yes, or pay you two million dollars"

But, in terms of the OP, I gather that there are only about 500 stories? Is there a collection that is actually 1001 tales? And would that make a good gift to parents who want to read to their children / adults who enjoy pre-sleep reading?
posted by rebent at 5:08 PM on January 8, 2015

there's also the science fiction take on it, 2001 Nights
posted by kokaku at 5:21 PM on January 8, 2015 [1 favorite]

you just answer "no" as in "No i will not either truthfully answer no, falsely answer yes, or pay you two million dollars"

So you truthfully answer no (and thus lie) or you falsely answer no (And thus forfeit)?
posted by 256 at 5:34 PM on January 8, 2015

There are 10 ways to answer a yes/no question.

filthy light thief this is a great post! I recently bought a Burton translation and am loving all of these links.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 6:12 PM on January 8, 2015

hmm. not sure AT ALL what this derail has to do with the OP, but, the key is that one never agreed to "correctly" answer the question, AHA!
posted by rebent at 6:54 PM on January 8, 2015

I own an antique Lane translation of 1001 Nights. The book has beautiful illustrations, and is a wealth of cultural lore. The last third of the book is notes to explain the footnotes and historical background, and Sharia law as it stood in the nineteenth century. Sharia was complicated and grim to my western view. Lane's translation goes a long way to describe that idealized Caliphate we hear about in current Jihadi daydreams. The theory and practice of chattel is clearly explained. I was able to read this and suspend judgement at the time because Lane was a white traveler in someone else's world, and he was thorough in his recounting of customs. Anyway, Thousand and One Nights, fascinating tales, supposedly Sufi teaching stories.

Morgiana from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, was one of my first heroines, so resourceful! The Middle East has such a long and rich literary history, I read Children of the Alley a while back, a very good read.
posted by Oyéah at 8:33 PM on January 8, 2015

It's a good thing Baum didn't waste his time on genies, dwarves, and fairies. That way he had more time for wizards, munchkins, and winged witches.
posted by DirtyOldTown at 8:01 AM on January 9, 2015

Regarding illustrations, here's a Guardian article that came to mind -- The Arabian Nights: a thousand and one illustrations. The descriptions are detailed, but it is sadly lacking in embedded artwork. On the other hand, a similar article in The Atlantic makes up for that (originally posted on Brain Pickings), but lacks the detailed background and instead serve as a single-page gallery.
posted by filthy light thief at 8:12 AM on January 9, 2015

On topic - there's a Tales of the Arabian Nights board game. It's kind of a choose your own adventure board game. I find it something enjoyable to pass the time while drinking with friends. Particular once the tales start getting embellished.
posted by booooooze at 8:41 PM on January 9, 2015

But, in terms of the OP, I gather that there are only about 500 stories? Is there a collection that is actually 1001 tales? And would that make a good gift to parents who want to read to their children / adults who enjoy pre-sleep reading?

No and (most likely) no. The "original" Syrian recension(s) contained around 200 stories, and I've read that the Persian "thousand stories" title could also be interpreted to mean "many stories." To get to that magical 1001 nights (not stories), Burton's edition spanned 10 volumes, with some stories taking a series of nights to tell.

As for the family-appropriateness of these stories, just start reading from the beginning: adultery and murder abound before Scheherazade, the primary story teller, is introduced. But there was one vote in support of the Mardrus/Mathers translation in a related question in search of books of fairy tales well-suited to bedtime reading.
posted by filthy light thief at 2:55 PM on January 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

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