Genies, Viziers, and Thieves, Oh My! 'The Arabian Nights'

by Imran Khan

5 March 2012

Capturing the imaginations of readers for centuries, the stories in The Arabian Nights have inspired many a writer and filmmaker, who in turn have helped to define this mysterious and colourful body of work. These tales may trade on their Old World stylings, but they still have the power to charm.
A Victorian illustration of The Arabian Nights 
cover art

The Arabian Nights

Sir Richard Burton

(Canterbury Classics / Baker & Taylor)
US: Nov 2011

Growing up, I always thought The Arabian Nights tales were rather silly. My only points of references for the stories were the countless picture-book versions that I found on our school library shelves and the Disney version of Aladdin, which I absolutely hated. Being a rather serious child, there wasn’t anything I could take seriously about stories that involved flying carpets, wish-granting genies and treasures buried in caves. It didn’t help that Disney had managed to reduce one of the more popular tales in the collection down to a vanilla cake of Western-world clichés and saccharine kiddie sap. 

Strangely enough, there didn’t seem to be anything remotely Arabian about any of the books and films I watched that were based on the stories. I would later learn how much of an influence the West would have on The Arabian Nights, which date as far back as the 12th century and cover a geography spanning the Middle East, Africa and Central and East Asia. It probably wasn’t until I started reading some of the work by A.S. Byatt and watching the films by Ferzan Özpetek (particularly his film Harem Suare), that I began to pay attention to the source material which, of course, was The Arabian Nights

Suddenly, things that had not been revealed to me about the tales or made clearly evident opened up; namely, the darkly disturbing sensuality inherent in many of the stories. Most of the tales I had previously read or watched in The Arabian Nights were bloodless and lightweight adaptations of stories that were originally cruel, erotic and dangerous and almost certainly not intended for children. I wouldn’t be alone in the camp that often perceived these tales as mere counterparts to the more popular stories found in the collections by Hans Christian Andersen or as inspiration for trivial Hollywood fluff. 

The stories in The Arabian Nights in fact, have great depth and complexity. To some degree The Arabian Nights introduced (or at least popularized) the literary device of the story-within-a story. The tales are bookended by the narrator and heroine Scheherazade, a Persian queen sentenced to death by her jealously insane husband who has since murdered hundreds of previous wives charged with adultery on mere suspicion alone. Scheherazade, his newest wife, is suspected of such a charge and now must use all of her resources and charms to save her life. The queen’s greatest skill, it turns out, is telling a good yarn. And so begin the tales.

Every night the queen tells her husband the beginning of a story involving the fantastic; genies, sorcerers, viziers from mythical lands and heroes who acquire powers of magic that lift them from a life of mediocrity and into preternatural realms. But every night she deliberately neglects to tell the ending, saving it for the next night. The king, enraptured by the tales, is forced to spare her life for yet another night until the thousandth and one night (thus giving the stories their alternate title), upon which she is pardoned from death. 

Of those tales, “Aladdin”, “Ali Baba”, “The Forty Thieves” and “Sinbad” are easily the most recognized (though it is often contested whether those particular stories originated from the Middle East or were, in fact, Western creations).  The Arabian Nights tales are unique in that they marry the esoteric with the erotic in a way that has defied both the conventions of story-telling and the very culture that these stories depict. Many tales bravely flirt with themes of liberation through infidelity and even explore the ideas of sex entering the realms of the demonic. Not exactly the kind of material Disney was plumbing when adapting for its blockbuster hit.

I’ve just begun to rediscover many of these stories I initially wrote off as a child. I can appreciate them for what they are now: examples of just really good, old-fashioned story-telling. For those who have had a passionate love for these tales, Baker & Taylor Publishing have released a beautifully lavish edition of The Arabian Nights.  Leather-bound with gilded pages and a cover embossed with gold-lettering against a sea-blue background, this edition retains the old-world charm of a sumptuously full and care-worn book from a Victorian bookshop. 

There are many editions of The Arabian Nights; the most popular ones are translated by Sir Richard Burton (such as the edition featured here), the British explorer and colonialist who is often credited with discovering the tales and introducing them to the West.  Burton’s translations are filled with lush and heavily perfumed prose that can at times read a little too thick, but still, it captures the mysterious air of the exotic that these stories inspire. 

My only gripe is that much of this edition focuses on better known tales in the collection, including “Aladdin”, “Sinbad” and “Ali Baba”, and not some of the lesser known material that has appeared in other collections over the years. But there are still enough stories in this edition that may be new to the casual fan to keep them happy. Also,  the illustrations that have accompanied numerous editions of the stories are strangely absent, here. These were usually Victorian-styled woodcut renderings of scenes in the stories. It doesn’t exactly rob the stories of anything in particular, but it does appear a little bare without them. 

Ultimately Baker & Taylor’s edition may not be groundbreaking in its approach to presenting these classic tales, but it certainly provides a way-in for anyone who has wished to explore these stories on a much deeper and satisfying level than the Disney rendition.

The Arabian Nights


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