November 24, 2023

#08-361: The 1,001 Nights

Scheherazade and Shahryar by Ferdinand Keller, 1880 (Wikipedia)

Note: This amazing collection is like a library unto itself; some tales are familiar, but there are lots of hidden gems waiting to be discovered!

Get Ready: Do you like stories with lots of magic--genies and other spirits and so on? Why or why not?

Nothing beats a good story collection. In the west we have the Fables of Aesop, and the 200 or so fairy tales collected by the German Brothers Grimm. Then there are the literary collections such as Ovid's Metamorphoses, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, and the fairy tales of Hans Christian Anderson and Charles Perrault.

Turning east, we have the Jataka stories and the Panchatantra from India, and of course China's Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio by Pu Songling.

But straddling east and west are the 1,001 Nights, misnamed Arabian because Europe first encountered them in the Arabic language. In fact, the collection is more Persian than Arabic, and some of the best known tales--like those of Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad the Sailor--were not part of the original collection at all! (Aladdin's origins seem to lie in Western China.)

The first translation of the full collection into a western language was that of Antoine Galland in French in the first decades of the 18th century. It was Galland who included the "orphan tales" like "Aladdin" and "Ali Baba" as though they were authentic parts of the collection.

After various partial efforts, the first full English translations came from John Payne in the 1880s, and then from the travel celebrity Sir Richard Francis Burton a bit later--much of it plagiarized from Payne. Because these translations were unexpurgated, leaving in all the sexual imagery of the originals, they had to be circulated in private editions to avoid censorship in the strict moral atmosphere of Victorian England.

The "frame story" of the collection is well known: King Shahryar's wife had cheated on him. Hurt and angry, he not only killed her, but had a new woman brought to him every night; in the morning, he would kill each new "bride" before she, too, could betray him.

Along came Scheherazade, daughter of the vizier who was procuring these unfortunate women. She volunteered to go in to the king, but with a plan: to tell him a story every night that ends in a "cliffhanger" as the sun rises; if the king wanted to hear the end of the story, he'd have to let her live one more day.

Her plan worked, and after "1,001 nights"--about 2-3/4 years--the king realized what a brilliant woman she was, and decided to let her live on as his true wife.

The tales are often told in a nested manner. That is, as Scheherazade is telling story A, one of the characters will interrupt with story B, and sometimes more and more, before the first story is wrapped up. So the telling might go A start - B start - C start - D whole story - C end - B end - A end. It can be very confusing, especially when you try to retell one of the nested stories!


Practice: Match the term to its definition:

Term Definition
  1. authentic
  2. betray
  3. cliffhanger
  4. misnamed
  5. nested
  6. orphan
  7. procuring
  8. straddling
  9. unfortunate
  10. vizier
  1. standing with one foot on either side of something
  2. be disloyal to
  3. child with no parents
  4. wrongly called
  5. unlucky; to be pitied
  6. obtaining, getting
  7. an ending that leaves the listener in suspense
  8. advisor
  9. situated one within another
  10. genuine, real

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for November 24, 2023

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. j; 2. b; 3. g; 4. d; 5. i; 6. c; 7. f; 8. a; 9. e; 10. h