It’s bawdy. It’s erotic. It may be inappropriate for young minds. It’s irreverent, especially considering a strict Islamic world such as the 1500s when they were written. And yet, The Arabian Nights has historically been an immensely popular collection of stories.
As The New Lifetime Reading Plan reminds me, these were one of the first “best-sellers,” the popular fiction of centuries past. I read the tales to gain a better understanding of a traditional literature.
It’s easy to see the appeal. The stories remind me of the Grimm brothers’ tales in that magical things take extreme directions. But while Grimms’ tales had morals and were told in the guise of children’s tales, The Arabian Nights tell plain crude stories that cater to the basest of instincts: sex, betrayal, alcohol, and thievery to name just a few. But beyond the magical elements and the crudity, the tales themselves claim a higher place as they emphasize the import of story-telling in general.
The tales themselves are tales within tales within tales. In each section, someone is telling a tale to save their life. In the basic frame element, the queen Shahrazad tells stories every night to keep her husband, Shahrayar, from murdering her in the morning (she stops at key moments of the story to build suspense). The characters in the stories she tells do the same thing, as they come to genies or kings who threaten to kill them.
“What until you hear my incredible story!” the characters cry. In most cases, their creative stories save their skins, for they truly are incredible.
It was entertaining, albeit challenging, for me to read. I struggled at first (as I mentioned here), and so I began by reading just five or ten pages a day. I thought taking it in small doses would help. But the “nights” divisions didn’t really make for good stopping and starting places, and I found myself lost amid the various stories. It worked much better for me to read it in 40-page intervals. If I followed one story from beginning to end, I could keep reading on momentum.
Some stories were much more interesting to me; those without magical elements actually bored me. And while I enjoyed the translation I read (done by Husain Haddawy), it was taken from a 1500s manuscript that omitted stories such as Ali Baba, Aladdin, and Sinbad. After having read 425 pages, I still don’t know those traditional stories, which is a huge disappointment. I knew it was going to be the case, but I’m still disappointed. I’m actually going to get Haddawy’s companion volume (which translates those subsequent stories) so I can experience those “traditional” stories as well.
To be honest, after reading The Arabian Nights and parts of the companion by Robert Irwin, I find myself considering why this is literature. They aren’t written well (in my opinion) and they are really quite crude in subject matter. Don’t misunderstand me: I do think The Nights is “literature” and I did find it worthwhile reading. I just wonder what it is that kept these stories going for so many years.
I think the answer hearkens back to the fact that these stories applaud and reverence stories themselves. The original, now anonymous, author of The Nights wrote something that championed a good story teller. And anyone who loves stories can appreciate that.
What do you think makes something “literature”?
- A Striped Armchair (thoughts on beginning the Huddawy translation)
- Once Upon a Bookshelf (thoughts on a Selection of stories)
If you have reviewed The Arabian Nights, leave a link in the comments and I’ll add it here.