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The New International Encyclopædia/Arabian Nights

ARA'BIAN NIGHTS. An extensive collection of tales forming part of Arabic literature, and the more exact title of which is “The Book of the Thousand and One Nights.” Arabic manuscripts vary considerably, no two agreeing either as to the number of separate tales or as to their order. In their most complete form we have 262 tales, though this does not include one of the most famous stories, that of Aladdin, an Arabic text of which has only recently come to light (published by H. Zotenberg). This variation in the manuscripts, while also an index of the popularity which the collection enjoyed, is due to their gradual growth and to the different centres in which the traditions regarding them developed. They were first made known to Europe by Antoine Galland (A.D. 1646-1715), a French orientalist, who succeeded, after much effort, in obtaining a manuscript, which he supplemented by gathering tales from professional story-tellers with whom he came in contact during his travels in the East. Between 1704 and 1717, Galland published in twelve volumes his French translation of the tales which he entitled Mille et une Nuits, contes Arabes traduits en Français. While received with great enthusiasm by the general public, doubts were freely expressed in learned circles as to their genuineness. Oriental scholars did not hesitate at first to declare against their authenticity, and denounce them as forgeries. Having taken only an obscure place in the literature of the East, and their style unfitting them from being classed among models of eloquence or taste—having no object of a religious, moral, or philosophical kind in view, while the manners and customs delineated in them were different from all received ideas of those of the Moslem nations—their success took the critics by surprise. It was not long, however, before such skepticism gave way, and they were recognized not only as genuine productions but as a characteristic expression of Eastern thought and manners. The success of Galland's translation spread the tales throughout Europe. Few books have been translated into so many different languages, and given delight to so large a number of readers. In addition to the translations into European languages we must bear in mind that the Arabic original has also been the source of renderings into many Eastern tongues, notably Persian, Turkish, and Hindustani, so that more than any other compilation, with the single exception of the Bible, the Arabian Nights has encircled the entire world. It may be said that, in these Oriental tales, there has sprung up a new branch of literature, for their influence on the literature of the present day is easily discernable. Here are found depicted with much simplicity and great effect, the scenes of the town-life of the Moslem. The prowess of the Arab knight, his passion for adventure, his dexterity, his love and his revenge, the craft of his wives, the hypocrisy of his religious teachers, and the corruptibility of his judges, are all dramatically delineated—far more vividly represented, in fact, than is possible in a book of travels; while gilded palaces, charming women, lovely gardens, and exquisite repasts captivate the sense of the reader, and transport him to the land of wonder and enjoyment. Besides entertaining the mind with the kaleidoscopic wonders of a teeming and luxurious fancy, which is their most obvious merit, they present a treasure of instruction upon life in general, and Oriental life in particular. And this is undeniable, notwithstanding the fact that the aspects of society they depict are far from standing high in the social scale either as to civilization or morality. A clue to the origin of the framework of the Arabian Nights is furnished by the authors of the bibliographical work Kitab al-Fihrist. Ibn Yakub relates that he was acquainted with a Persian collection of tales entitled “Hazar Afsan,” meaning “Thousand Nights;” the argument of which, such as described by him, has many points of resemblance with the Arabian Nights. In both, the framework is essentially the same—a king who was in the habit when wedding a damsel to kill her after having spent one night with her, and a damsel who entertained a king with stories so fascinating that he respited her each night in order that he might hear the continuation. This continued for a thousand nights, at the end of which period the king decided to preserve his consort's life. Ibn Yakub gives the name of the heroine of the framework in its Persian form, Sharazad, mother of Humai, wife of Artaxerxes Longimanus. As Artaxerxes is supposed to be identical with the Ahasuerus of the Book of Esther, which, as de Goeje pointed out, has certain elements in common with the framework of the Arabian Nights, it is probable that they are both derived from a Persian folk tale. The Arabian Nights, however, is a most composite production, and whatever its indebtedness may be to the Persian Thousand Tales, it contains stories gathered from all parts of the Eastern world. The tales may have circulated for a long time orally before being committed to writing, and to this day they form the theme frequently of the professional story-tellers or writers who are found in the East—in Morocco, Algiers, Egypt, Syria, and Persia. When and where they began to be gathered into manuscripts are questions hard to determine. Thirteen tales which may be regarded as the nucleus of the collection appear to have been reduced to writing as early as the Tenth Century, and while the collection as a whole assumed a definite shape in the Thirteenth Century, there are a few tales which may be as late as the Sixteenth Century.

Regarding the character of the stories and the material contained in them, we may distinguish three categories: (1) Beast fables; (2) Fairy tales; and (3) Anecdotes. Of these, the beast fables represent probably the oldest structure, reverting, as they eventually do, to the primitive beliefs which attributed to animals human powers and evident superhuman faculties. The fairy tales show the Eastern imagination at its best, though it should be remembered that some of the tales are transformed myths that again belong to a more primitive age than one which was able to exercise the imaginative fancy for its own sake, independent of doctrines or of symbolical purposes. Burton assumes that the fairy tale proper in the Arabian Nights is “wholly and purely Persian” (Terminal Essay to his translation, page 127), and so far as the stimulus toward this branch of literature is involved, he is unquestionably right, for the genuine Arab, while of a highly poetic temperament, is restrained in his fancy through the sober and austere character of his religion, which discountenances the products of the pure imagination. Characteristically Arabic, on the other hand, are the stories introduced to prove a point or to point a moral, while the incidents and anecdotes, historical and otherwise, are likewise the genuine production of the Arabic mind.

In judging of the obscene allusions with which many of the tales are well stocked, and the frankly indelicate manner in which incidents are related that shock Occidental sensibilities, it must be borne in mind that many themes may be discussed in the Orient with perfect simplicity, that would be regarded as improper among us, so that not everything which seems obscene was really intended to be such. But making due allowance for this difference between the Oriental and Occidental point of view, there remains a large residuum of erotic material that is undoubtedly introduced to add piquancy to the tales. Such material, however, has its value for the student of customs and manners, who is given an insight into conditions existing at one time in the Orient which is not to be had in any other way. Indeed, apart from the entertaining character of the tales (when freed from their objectionable features), they abound in references to religious and social customs and manners of thinking that make them a perfect storehouse of valuable material for the one who wishes to study the Orient, and modern scholars have done much toward utilizing this material in their researches regarding Mohammedanism and Arabic antiquities as well as Arabic history.

The best editions of the Arabic text are those of Macnaghton (Calcutta, 1839-1842; lithographed, Bombay, 1879) and the Bulak editions of 1835 (2 vols.) and 1885 (4 vols.). A shorter and at times expurgated text is given by M. Habicht (12 vols., Breslau 1825-1843) and Salhani (5 vols., Beirut, 1888-1890). Galland's French translation (1704) was soon followed by an English rendering, which as early as 1713 had already reached a fourth edition. Of English translations based on the Arabic, there are now three—the first by E. W. Lane, whose edition is abridged (1839-41); a popular edition was published in 1847, The Thousand and One Nights. The notes constitute a valuable feature. Lane's edition has been repeatedly reissued, the last one being in six volumes, edited by Joseph Jacobs (London, 1898). John Payne's translation, based upon the Macnaghton MSS. and prepared for the Villon Society, was issued in nine volumes (London, 1882-84). It takes rank with Sir Richard Burton's translation in ten volumes (1885-86), with a “Terminal Essay” embodying the results of Burton's researches as to the origin, age, and character of the tales. To this he subsequently added six supplemental volumes (1887-88), containing tales not included in Macon's edition and drawn from other printed texts and manuscripts. An abridged and expurgated edition of Burton's work was prepared by Lady Burton and issued in six volumes (London, 1887-88). There are four noteworthy translations in German. The earliest was that of Habicht published at Breslau in fifteen volumes, 1824-25. This was followed by a translation by Zinserling, which was based upon the French translation of Hammer-Purgstall (3 vols., Stuttgart, 1823). Gustav Weil's translation appeared in three volumes at Stuttgart in 1838-43. There has been added lately a spirited translation by Max Henning in the Reclam Universal Bibliothek (Leipzig, 1896 et seq.). Of these the most reliable is that of Weil. In France Galland's translation has been superseded by that of Mardrus (Paris, 1899, et seq.) and editions have been issued by Caussin de Perceval (Paris, 1806, 9 vols.), Edward Gautier (1822-24, 7 vols.), M. Destain (1823-25, 6 vols.), Silvestre de Sacy (1838, 3 vols.), and others.

The success of Galland's venture gave rise to many imitations that appeared in France, England, and Germany, all more or less expurgated and altered to adapt them for popular use. A complete bibliography of the Arabian Nights is given in Chauvin, Bibliographie des ouvrages arabes, V. (Paris, 1901).