Thousand and One Nights, The (The Arabian Nights)

Thousand and One Nights, The (The Arabian Nights) English translation of the Arabic collection of tales, Alf Laylah wa-laylah, which is based on a Persian collection, compiled between 988 and 1011 c.e. The tales are arranged within a narrative framework. The Persian monarch Shahriyar had little trust in women’s fidelity, so he adopted the habit of taking a new wife each night and killing her the next morning.

However, the clever Shahrazad, or Sheherazade, kept the monarch amused each night by telling a tale that always carried over to the next night so that, as it says at the end of the massive collection, “the Sultan of the Indies could not fail to admire the prodigious store of interesting stories with which the sultana had whiled away the time through one thousand and one nights.”

He decided not to kill her. The two lived happily together, and “their names were loved and respected throughout the wide territory of the Empire of the Indies.” The collection contains 264 tales of varying length, from short anecdotes of a few lines to novellas of several hundred pages.

The tales generally fall into the following categories:

1. Histories or long romances, containing references to actual events. There are few of this type, but they make up the longest tales of the collection.

2. Anecdotes and short stories dealing with historical personages or with incidents of everyday life. These are the most numerous tales in the collection, and they relate for the most part to the period of the Abbaside caliphs El Mensour, El Mutawekkil, El Mutezid, El Mustensir, and Harun al-Rashid. Other tales in this category tell of ancient Persian kings.

3. Romantic tales. There are four types that fit into this category: long romantic and supernatural tales, referring to no particular historical epoch; long purely fictitious tales, laid in some definite historical era and introducing historical personages; novellas of rogues, sharpers, and impostors at the time of the caliphs; and fantastic tales, the most numerous of this section, which include saints’ tales, stories of unfortunate lovers, short purely fictional tales, and tales in a Boccaccio-like mode.

4. Fables and apologues, or short moral tales. The numerous animal fables are derived mainly from Greek, Persian, and Indian sources, though some are even from Chinese and Japanese works.

5. Tales that display wit and learning on the barest thread of narrative. In many of the tales there are poetical compositions, some of high artistic merit and some on the level of doggerel.

The first translation of the tales into a European tongue was done by a French Orientalist, Antoine Galland (1646–1715), who adapted many of the tales to the taste of his age with elaborate fictional detail. This version’s influence on European literature was immense. Direct imitation of the collection is found in such works as Beckford’s Vathek and Marryat’s The Pasha of Many Tales; the form of the work inspired Robert Louis Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights and More Arabian Nights.

Among other writers, Goethe, in his Westostlicher Diwan; Platen in Die Abbassiden; and Victor Hugo, in Orientales, Demonstrate the influence of the Arabic work. In general the English reaction to the work was one of approval. Tennyson’s Recollections of the Arabian Nights was, according to the poet, based on two tales in Galland’s translation. Thomas Carlyle, however, would not allow the book in his house because it was filled with “downright lies.”

His puritanical attitude is similar to the general one of orthodox Muslims, as reflected by one 10th-century historian, Ali Aboulhusn el Mesoudi, who said the collection was “indeed vulgar.” The Thousand and One Nights has influenced other European arts in addition to literature. In music Rimsky-Korsakov’s symphonic suite Scheherezade attempts, in its four movements, to evoke the mood of the tales. The suite was used by Michel Fokine for a ballet of the same title with fantastical costumes by Léon Bakst.

In 1898 Maurice Ravel began an opera to be titled Shéhérazade but completed only an overture. He did compose a set of songs to words by Tristan Klingsor, called Shéhérazade. One of the most popular operas of the last century, The Barber of Bagdad by Peter Cornelius, was based on the collection, and Ernest Reyer’s La Statue, Issai Obrowen’s A Thousand and One Nights, and Henri Raboud’s Mârouf also are based on this source.

Other works in the 20th century include British composer Benno Bardi’s Fatme and Victor de Sabata’s Mille e una notte. Filmmakers have been fascinated by the Oriental background of the collection and have produced numerous film epics drawn from the tales. Typical is Arabian Nights, starring Maria Montez, Jon Hall, and Sabu.


Encyclopedia of World Mythology and Legend, Third Edition – Written by Anthony S. Mercatante & James R. Dow– Copyright © 2009 by Anthony S. Mercatante