The Arabian Nights is an explosion of the imagination, a cacophony of the impossible, a cornucopia of fairy tale delights. At once it has you appalled by savagery, and impressed by the human heart; it tickles the mind with magic and strokes the heart with emotions, all the while leading you through a world that is nothing short of dazzling, for the difference it is so much from our own. And yet the similarities are there, which explains why The Arabian Nights withstands the test of time. Because it shows us that no matter how much we sense the essence of difference as we turn through the pages, it’s the commonality of the human condition that remains forever transcendental.
Scheherazade is the star of The Arabian Nights. She’s archetypal, a woman of courage and intelligence (she’s strong and she’s smart). She is courageous for her self-sacrifice, which means that her courage is imbued with second-sight: no matter the cost, she’s possessed of the urge to implement change, according to the injustice that she perceives. And she’s intelligent for the way she calculates her solutions — for the treatment of women — and equally so for the preservation of her own life. Her method of operation, the telling of stories, is as spell-binding as the tales which are told. I mean, who defeats the enemy by telling stories?
What we find within the stories is the reason why The Arabian Nights is so captivating: the feature of elevated implausibility. In the first story there is the merchant, which gives us our someone to identify with; and then there’s the genie that accosts him, who transforms reality into spectacle. His behavior adds to this spectacle. He threatens to execute the merchant because he’s killed his son, a situation made stranger for the way the son died: the merchant had been throwing stones while eating, and had accidentally hit the genie’s son in the eye, causing instant death. The merchant is horrified by the thought of being executed and pleads — that he may return in one year to receive his sentence.
We have to consider the intended audience when we realize how ludicrous this all sounds. Are we to believe that the ancients believed genies existed? Did people back then really keep their word like that? It’s a clue that ties into Scheherazade’s tactics: she’s trying to exact an outcome by activating the imagination. The story-writer of The Merchant and the Genie has a mission to accomplish as well, both of whom seek to occupy the faculties of the mind with the power of elevated implausibility. The goal for one is to save lives while the other is to lay a moral groundwork — but then, Scheherazade’s story is a work of fiction, which means the wool has been pulled there as well. It’s all geared to keep listeners focused on being distracted until goals have been achieved.
Does this mean The Arabian Nights is solely didactic? Not hardly, and that is why the first question that really comes to mind when considering a review remains: Where do we even begin? Each story that is told may boil down to a storyteller attempting to entertain, all the while providing a moral to consider. But rumor has it that the collection has its roots in ancient Persian, Indian, Chinese, Greek and Jewish lore, for starters. The stories of Sinbad, with mention of the many “islands,” leads me to consider input from Indochina and the Indonesian Islands among others. On the whole, we’re not learning about the lives and ways of any one particular group, only to close our study guides and move on to the next text. We’re talking about the cross-pollination of world culture over the span of hundreds if not thousands of years, over a vast area, effecting stories that seem to have materialized from everywhere out of thin air. It’s staggering to think of and tends to induce a sort of literary vertigo.
The form is based on the morphing of the oral tradition into the written. Now, because we’re dealing with “ancient” material, it’s for a dissertation to define exactly “why” people began telling these stories, but it’s fair to say that keeping hold of the attention span had been of vital importance: hence the form of getting right to the point, going from one plot point to the next in a matter of sentences, not chapters. We’re so attuned to vivid passages of description that reading The Arabian Nights can seem rushed; it’s hard to remember that it’s meant to be heard, not read. And if this comes across as the “fairy tale” form, then the collection has a distinct trait unto its own, not only in the “frame narrative” (the story told is a about a woman who tells stories); but also in what I would call the “Russian Doll” narrative technique (nesting), wherein a story is told about someone who is telling a story, wherein another character has a story to tell, and so on and so forth. Maybe The Arabian Nights takes time for acclimating, but encountering the Russian Doll narrative technique for the first time is really something else.
The thematic aspects speak to some of the more profound characteristics of humankind. This is because the stories come to us from an ancient world and yet, if there’s something we can relate to as modern people, then it becomes possible to understand how humankind has fared throughout the passage of time. For example, there’s a visible preoccupation with wealth. In the Gutenberg-Lang text, the word “gold” is mentioned 114 times. Sinbad’s second voyage has him finding a spot where the “ground was strewed with diamonds.” An orphan grows up to gain access to a “treasure so great that if my eighty camels were loaded till they could carry no more, the hiding place would seem as full as if it had never been touched.” And Ali Baba can be remembered for the “bags of gold which he carried in to his wife.” Stories that revolve around the accumulation of abundant wealth, as it comes to us from ancient times, are indicative of a collective consciousness that pits mankind as forever anxious about the prospect of poverty, forever mired in the need for money.
These dreams of wealth are offset in the slightest way — the word “alms” comes up 4 times. In The Merchant and the Genie, during the year before he’s scheduled to die, the merchant is sure to give “large alms to the poor.” On returning home after finding wealth, Sinbad’s “first action was to bestow large sums of money upon the poor.” Sinbad additionally feels obligated to give money to a wretched man who had complained about his wealth. In The Story of the Blind Baba-Abdalla, the Caliph tells the beggar: “I will see that enough money is given you day by day for all your wants.” In fact, the word “poor” is used 33 times which means, in comparison to the amount of gold mentioned, the thought of being poor is a much less-attractive topic for discussion; but it doesn’t detract from the notion that some collective conscience is at work which considers the plight of the less-fortunate.
Inevitably, this leads into the long-standing theme and phenomenon of class distinction. The Arabian Nights is about the story of a great king and from there, the word “king” is used 174 times. “Prince” comes in at 235 and “Princess” at 243. The awareness of class superiority is lucidly evident: people were orating about the nobility (notorious 1%) because it’s dreamy to think of being a king, or a prince, or a princess. Or maybe it’s envy, or being respectable, or obsessiveness — as our modern Brits are infatuated with the royal line. From the modern perspective, the phenomenon explained is frustratingly simple: life once it forms cannot progress without dividing into social strata, in which, some people will always have it better than others.
The problem with considering additional themes concerns the nature of the text itself. That is, I want to discuss Morgiana the slave-girl who, along with Scheherazade, function to defy the female stereotype that Schahriar establishes in order to justify his actions. But Morgiana’s story is from Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, which is not included in the Gutenberg-Lang version, nor is the conclusion to Scheherazade’s story. The only way I knew about either of these was through research, but the question stands: Why am I thinking about them if they’re not part of the text? The problem opens up a can of worms as to constitution, provenance and interpretation. The best that can be done for a blog-post is that we know, with some degree of certainty, that The Arabian Nights exploded onto the world stage circa 1704-1717 by the efforts of a Frenchman named Antoine Galland (1646-1715). Grub Street produced the English version Jane Austen would’ve read, and the versions we have today start with Lane and Burton, on to the Lang version which I’ve read; from which nowadays any number of versions can be chosen from in most languages from around the world.
The timeline that extends from Galland-past and Galland-forward spells disaster for trying to define exactly what The Arabian Nights is and the specifics of the content that it delivers; which means it’s problematic for thematic interpretation. For example, the Youtube version of Scheherazade’s story does not include her sister, Dinarzade. This poses a difference to be discerned between work accomplished as an individual versus accomplishment as a team. Would women of the time have thought more in terms of individual agency versus the enlisting of a family member to attempt dangerous efforts? This is only the tip of the iceberg as to the messiness of the interpretive scheme. Additionally speaking, having read Burton’s Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves after reading the entirety of Lang’s version had me feeling queasy, because I enjoyed the one and singular Burton experience more than I did the entire Lang reading. The aesthetics of a text can play a large role in how we feel about the story points and characters of a story to which we’re exposed.
Without delving too far into how destabilized the original version of The Arabian Nights have become, there seems a curious reliability in that which remains the most intriguing aspect of the collection, the spirit of elevated implausibility. Apart from genies the stories include talking fish, giant birds, magic spells, magic lamps, fairies, spirits, demons, ghouls, horrible giants, creeping snakes, flying carpets, enchanted horses, people-dogs, etc., etc. — the list could go on and on. This is the world of the imagination that comprises the storyteller’s toolbox, because everyone knows that stories of the mundane do not work. We don’t want to hear about how long it took to pull a donkey back and forth along a field so that some seeds could be planted, really. We want to hear about magic genies who threaten our lives and we want to know how people escaped danger. We want to dream that we were the ones who found bags of gold, and we want listeners to consider the value of sharing the wealth we find. For all the princes that find their princesses, we want to dream about living happily ever, and for the voyages that are taken, we want to know that life has meaning. And when we tell these tall tales to our children before they go to bed at night, we take great pleasure in how it feels to tuck their angelic forms in, ready for sleep, so that we can kiss them goodnight knowing that life really isn’t so bad. In this way, The Arabian Nights of new are The Arabian Nights of old, transmogrified from ancient times, because there’s something about the magic they contain that is purely unchangeable.