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Arabian Nights

Related: Arabia - fairy tale - fantastique - fantastic literature - folklore - metamorphoses - night - special effects - Orientalism - world literature

Nowhere as in fantastic literature are special effects so cheaply produced. [Jun 2006]

Legend has it that anyone who reads the whole collection will become mad. [Jun 2006]

A great deal of literature, from every part of the world and dating back to time immemorial, falls within the category of fantastique. Fairy tales like The Book of One Thousand and One Nights and epic literature like the Romance of the Holy Grail are within the scope of this genre. [Jun 2006]

Did these fictions entertain, divert and instruct? Did they as one could assume when reading ancient and medieval myths just provide a substitute for better, more scientific knowledge, or did they add to the luxuries of life a particular culture enjoyed? The ancient Mediterranean erotic stories could afford such an interpretation. In the 18th century, the interpretation and analysis of literary classics placed readers of fictions in an entirely new and improved position: it made a vast difference whether you read a romance and got lost in a dream world or whether you read the same romance with a preface telling you more about the Greeks, Romans, or Arabs who produced titles like the Aethopica or The Book of One Thousand and One Nights (first published in Europe from 1704 to 1715 in French by Antoine Galland, and translated immediately from this edition into English and German). [Jun 2006]

Unidentified edition of Thousand Nights and a Night
Image sourced here.


The Book of One Thousand and One Nights, also known as The book of a Thousand Nights and a Night, 1001 Arabian Nights, or simply the Arabian Nights, is a piece of classic Arabic literature in the style of a frame tale. Many of the stories are thought to have originally been collected from folk tales of Persia (modern day Iran) and later compiled to include stories from various other authors.

Shahryar (or Schriyar) (meaning king in Persian), king of an unnamed island "between India and China" (in modern editions based on Arab transcripts he is king of India and China), is so shocked by his wife's infidelity that he kills her and, believing all women to be likewise unfaithful, gives his vizier (meaning minister in Persian) an order to get him a new wife every night (in some versions, every third night). After spending one night with his bride, the king has her executed at dawn. This practice continues for some time, until the vizier's clever daughter Scheherazade (meaning City-born in Persian) forms a plan and volunteers to become Shahryar's next wife. Every night after their marriage, she spends hours telling him stories, each time stopping at dawn with a cliff-hanger, so the king will commute the execution out of a desire to hear the rest of the tale. In the end, she has given birth to three sons, and the king has been convinced of her faithfulness.

The tales vary widely; they include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and Muslim religious legends. Some of the famous stories Scheherazade spins in many western translations are Aladdin's Lamp, Sindbad the Sailor, and the tale of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves; however Aladdin and Ali Baba were in fact inserted only in the 18th century by Antoine Galland, a French orientalist, who had heard them in oral form from a Maronite story-teller from Aleppo. Numerous stories depict djinns, magicians, and legendary places, which are often intermingled with real people and geography; the historical caliph Harun al-Rashid is a common protagonist. Sometimes a character in Scheherazade's tale will begin telling other characters a story of his own, and that story may have another one told within it, and so on, adding to the fantastic texture. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_One_Thousand_and_One_Nights [Nov 2004]

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

The Book of One Thousand and One Nights has an estranged cousin: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, by Jan Potocki. A Polish noble of the late 18th century, he traveled the Orient looking for an original edition of The Book... but never found it. Upon returning to Europe, he wrote his masterpiece, a multi-leveled frame tale. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Book_of_One_Thousand_and_One_Nights [Jun 2006]

Richard Francis Burton

Thousand Nights and a Night
Perhaps the best-known translation to English speakers is that by Sir Richard Francis Burton, published as The Arabian Nights. Unlike previous editions, his 16-volume translation was not bowdlerized. Though published in the Victorian era, it contained all the erotic nuances of the source material. --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Arabian_Nights#Editions [Sept 2005]

Sir Richard Francis Burton (March 19, 1821 October 19, 1890), British consul, explorer, translator, writer and Orientalist known for his often-unprecedented exploits of travel and exploration as well as his extraordinary knowledge of languages and cultures.

Burton's best-known achievements include travelling alone and in disguise to Mecca, translating The Arabian Nights and the Kama Sutra, journeying with John Hanning Speke to discover the Great Lakes of Africa and the sources of the Nile and visiting Brigham Young in Salt Lake City, Utah. He was probably the third best European swordsman of the period.

In 1863 Burton co-founded the Anthropological Society of London with Dr. James Hunt. In Burton's own words, the main aim of the society (through the publication of the periodical Anthropologia) was "to supply travellers with an organ that would rescue their observations from the outer darkness of manuscript and print their curious information on social and sexual matters". On February 5, 1886 he was knighted a KCMG by Queen Victoria.

By far the most celebrated of all his books is his translation of the Arabian Nights, published under his title of The Thousand Nights and a Night in 16 volumes, (1885-1888). As a monument to his Arabic learning and his encyclopaedic knowledge of Eastern life this translation was his greatest achievement. His scholarship and translation have been criticized, but the work reveals a profound acquaintance with the vocabulary and customs of the Muslims, not only the classical idiom but the vulgar slang, not only their philosophy, but their secret sexual lives as well. Burton's "anthropological notes", both earlier in India, and in the Arabian Nights, were considered pornography at the time they were published. His translation of The Perfumed Garden was burned by his widow, Isabel Arundel Gordon, because she believed it would be harmful to his reputation.

Other works of note included the first lengthy English-language discourse on Sotadic zone and homosexuality; a collection of Hindu tales, Vikram and the Vampire (1870); and his uncompleted history of swordsmanship, The Book of the Sword (1884). He also translated The Lusiads, the Portuguese national epic by Luis de Camoens, in 1880 and wrote a sympathetic biography of the poet and adventurer the next year. The book The Jew, the Gipsy and el Islam, published in 1898, contains a compendium of anti-Semitic myths.

His widow wrote a biography of her husband which is the record of a lifetime of devotion. Another monument is the grandiose Arab tent of stone and marble which she built for his tomb at Mortlake in southwest London. On the other hand, she burnt his 40-year collection of diaries and journals, fearful that public revelation of Burton's lifelong interest in bizarre sexual practices would lead to vicious rumours about his personal inclinations. In the words of the 1997 Britannca, "the loss to history and anthropology was monumental; the loss to Burton's biographers, irreparable". --http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Francis_Burton [Sept 2005]

Il Fiore delle mille e una notte/Arabian Nights (1974) - Pier Paolo Pasolini

Legendary director Pier Paolo Pasolini (Canterbury Tales) combines the heroics and hedonism of the classic Arabian tales with his dreamlike vision of bawdy pleasures and sublime sensuality to create "Arabian Nights," the masterwork of his Trilogy of Life.

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