Way Beyond Retro: Tales from the Thousand and One Nights

Welcome to another instalment of my semi-regular feature Way Beyond Retro. In this feature I’ll be reading the non-speculative books still in my TBR-pile. You can find more details on Way Beyond Retro in this introduction. Tales from the Thousand and One Nights is one of the books I rescued when my mother was throwing out most of her books when she emigrated. 

Originating from India, Persia and Arabia, the Tales from the Thousand and One Nights represent the lively expression of a lay and secular imagination in revolt against religious austerity and zeal in Oriental literature. They depict a fabulous and fanciful world of jinns and sorcerors, but their bawdiness, realism and variety of subject matter also firmly anchor them to everyday life. In this volume the translator has caught the freshness and spontaneity of the stories – which, although imaginative and extravagant, are a faithful mirror of medieval Islam.

When I got the pick of my mother’s books when she needed to get rid of them as she was emigrating, the reason I picked Tales from the Thousand and One Nights was twofold. First of all I was of the opinion that I ought to have read at least part of one of the great, classical literary influences, both on the literature I studied at university and on my beloved speculative genre. Second of all, I had bought Anthony O’Neill’s Scheherazade, a retelling of the story of Scheherazade, a few months earlier and never really got past the first twenty pages and I thought reading some of the original The Thousand and One Nights might help me get into the book more. Of course, this was almost ten years ago and both books have remained unread until now.

The Thousand and One Nights are a collection of folk tales that found their current form in the early nineteenth century. Their first introduction into the West, however, was as early as 1707 when the French Orientalist Antoine Galland. He encountered the stories on his voyages in the East and brought them back and translated them into French. He wasn’t just a translator though, as I learned from the BBC4 program Secrets of the Arabian Nights, which serendipitously aired just as I’d started reading the book. Galland also adapted some stories, which he’d heard being told during his travels, to satisfy the rising demand for more Arabian Nights tales. After their introduction to the West, The Thousand and One Nights went through Europe like a wildfire, being in high demand in upper class drawing rooms. And while they have gone through many incarnations, being bowdlerised by the Victorians and turned into children’s stories by them as well, they have never disappeared into oblivion and have remained popular to this day.

The Thousand and One Nights contain strong themes of compassion, charity, loyalty and forgiveness. As illustrated by The Tale of Judar and his Brothers, where Judar keeps forgiving his brothers and providing for them, regardless of all their greed and scheming. Another strong theme connected to loyalty is the importance of familial relations. It is paramount to care for your family, not just your immediate family, but your extended family as well. And people cast each other in familial roles, even if strangers, as we see in the case of Sindbad the Sailor and Sindbad the Porter, where the former is rescued on his last journey by an old man, who makes him his son and heir by marrying him to his daughter. Familial relations can also be used to deceive, as illustrated by the Moor in Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp, who pretends to be his long lost uncle so he’ll help him recover the lamp.

Women are either Mary’s or Eves, though in some cases they may represent both, such as the three girls from The Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad. These seem to be largely temptresses in their treatment of the porter, but when they later tell their stories to the Caliph they turn out to be victims of circumstance as well. This ambivalent view of the feminine seems to to move from harlots to housewives during the telling of the Tales by Scheherazade, as she wanted to show that not all women were faithless and treacherous and to convince her Sultan to let her live, or at least that is what the BBC show claimed. From the small selection of tales in this book, it is hard to distil this development.

The stories aren’t just fantastical in a speculative sense, but in a literal sense as well. The stories aren’t very logical, not even within the context of the stories. They are, however, very entertaining, ranging from morality tales, such as the Fable of the Donkey, the Ox, and the Farmer, to out and out farce, such as The Historic Fart. Yet these stories favour the rogues and ne’er-do-wells; being good and virtuous doesn’t always equal being rewarded, as illustrated by The Tale of Judar and his Brothers, where the forgiving and loyal Judar ends up being killed by his avaricious brothers. In this case fortune really does favour the brave, as shown by The Tale of Ma’aruf the Cobbler, where Ma’aruf’s outrageous lies become the truth and all’s well that ends well, much to Ma’aruf’s frind Ali’s dismay.

Much of (Middle) Eastern based fantasy draws on The Thousand and One Nights. In some cases more directly than others, such as Howard Andrew Jones’ The Desert of Souls, which is as the author himself says (to paraphrase) Sherlock Holmes meets Arabian Nights meets Sinbad crossed with Indiana Jones. Others are less obvious, but the story-within-a-story model such as used in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Kingkiller Chronicles, is the basis for The Thousand and One Nights. This model can even get very confusing as the nesting becomes Matruschka-like in proportions and it can get difficult to keep straight at which level the story is placed. One thing that I found striking, was the fact that the jinn in these stories aren’t half as treacherous as they are often portrayed. The only malicious jinn is the one from the The Fisherman and the Jinnee, the rest of the jinn in this selection of stories, is nothing more than magical, wishful-filling slaves.

Tales from The Thousand and One Nights was a very entertaining collection of tales taken from The Thousand and One Nights. These stories still need to be read, both because they are a classic in literary history and because they have such a profound influence on much of the Middle-Eastern inspired cultures in the speculative genre. But most importantly, these stories deserve to be read for themselves, as they are fun, adventurous and give a peek at a culture that is both exotic and fascinating.


2 thoughts on “Way Beyond Retro: Tales from the Thousand and One Nights”

  1. I've read very few of the original stories, but being a deeply devoted fan of fairy tales, I've always intended to fully read Tales from the Thousand and One Nights. One of my favorite aspects to the stories is the way the story of the collection is its own fascinating tale…

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