April 29, 2014

How One Thousand and One Nights Came to Be, By Christina Ruth Johnson, Vintage Fairy Tale Sleuth

One Thousand and One Nights or The Arabian Nights did not always comprise its nigh-proverbial 1,001 tales. The anthology, as we are familiar with it today, actually has no single source and stems from no single culture. Growing up, I could recognize tales as belonging to the Nights, but I had not (and still probably haven’t) read every tale ever included. Before today, I was even unsure about which title was the correct one to use (and am still unconvinced there is one).

So what is the history of Scheherazade and her 1,001 tales? Where did this story about stories come from? The Vintage Sleuth is on the case!

"Princess Scheherazade," by Edmund Dulac, 1907

The first known use of the title “One Thousand and One Nights” appears (in Arabic) in, of all places, a 12th century notebook belonging to a Jewish bookseller from Cairo. The content of the book, however, originates from much earlier. The frame narrative--that of Scheherazade and of the ruler Shahryar, whom she entertains with stories for a thousand and one nights to stave off his boredom and her execution--is modeled on a Persian story, translated into Arabic in the 9th century. This “A Thousand Tales” tells how a caliph, who kills a new wife every night for three years, is finally outwitted by a vizier’s daughter and her slave-girl.

"The Fisherman and the Genie," by Dulac, 1907

The compendium of stories from this 9th century collection and other later manuscripts originate, of course, in the oral tradition, making these stories-within-a-story potentially much older than the literary versions. According to The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales (to which I owe most of the information I relate in this post--thank you Oxford!): “The oldest preserved manuscripts, comprising a core corpus of about 270 nights, appear to date from the 15th century.” The oral stories, therefore, likely date between the 9th and 15th centuries--or slightly earlier. Once the stories began to be written down, a wide variety of anonymous authors, all writing in Middle Arabic but with different styles, interpreted and re-wrote them either as part of the now-expected frame narrative or as independent tales. Studying these multiple versions, scholars have discerned three distinct oral traditions from which the tales originated: Persian, Indian, and Arab.

"The Princess of Deryabar," by Dulac, 1907

So how did these Middle Eastern tales come to impact the Western imagination so heavily? Other wonderful examples of Middle Eastern literature from this period, such as The Romance of ‘Antar (11th-12th centuries), is much less well known outside of culturally specific studies.

The answer lies, as it often does, in the world of publication and translation.

Antoine Galland was the first European translator of the tales. His 12-volume compendium, Le Mille et une nuits (1704-1717), was based mainly on one Arabic source with the addition of a translation of “The Voyages of Sinbad,” as well as tales told to him by an Arab acquaintance. These included “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp.” Over 120 years later, Edward William Lane published the first English translation of the tales (1839-1841)--heavily culling from his sources, so his final product was much shorter than Galland’s.
"Aladdin and His Wonderful Lamp," by Dulac, 1907
Some forty years after this, Richard Burton set out on a monumental translation project that resulted in 10 volumes entitled “Book of a Thousand Nights and A Night,” published between 1885 and 1886. Apparently not completely satisfied, he then published “Supplemental Nights” in the years immediately following. These volumes were fanciful to the extreme, taking artistic license when translation failed. From 1921 to 1928, Enno Littmann transcribed a German edition of 6 volumes with an incredibly faithful translation and scholarly footnotes. (Funny side note: he translated the scandalous scenes into Latin, not German.) Beyond Littmann, the twentieth century oversaw a multitude of translations of the tales into a wide variety of European (and other) languages. 

Galland’s translation from the early 18th century marked the beginning of the popularity of the Nights. “In some respects, the Nights are more important and famous in the West than they are in the Orient” (OCFT). The list of famous authors and poets and artists who drew inspiration from the Nights is incredibly long and varied, including Votaire, Samuel Johnson, Robert Louis Stevenson, Herman Melville, Edmund Dulac (whose gorgeous illustrations I showcase here), Jorge Luis Borges, Salman Rushdie, Neil Gaiman, and, of course, Disney. 

"City of Brass," by Dulac, 1907

The beauty, the wonder, the enchantment, and the Otherness of these tales draws us in and refuses to leave our minds even after the book cover is closed. Join the family of Enchanted Conversation, and let us know which of the thousand and one (give or take) tales is your favorite!

Christina Ruth Johnson recently received her Masters in Art History with a focus on the ancient Mediterranean and a side interest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Her other great love is fantasy literature from ancient times to present day.

Jack Zipes, ed. The Oxford Companion to Fairy Tales. Oxford University Press, 2000.
Robert Irwin. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. London: Taurus Park Paperbacks, 2005.


Lissa Sloan said...

Informative, as always! I'm fascinated by the origin of fairy tales and how they "get around", so I particularly enjoyed this column:)

Laura B. said...

Fascinating and helpful. These tales are on my "to read" list and it helps to know that there are not 1001 to read!

Amy said...

Great article! I have yet to read any of these fairy tales, which needs to be rectified! I've seen them under both titles and always been confused as to whether they're the same, and also seen collections that vary in the stories they include. Reading this has helped to clear some of that up, and the illustrations are beautiful.