The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (also known as the Arabian Nights) is a collection of Middle East, Central and South Asian stories and folk tales compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age.
Two main Arabic manuscript traditions of the Nights are known: the Syrian and the Egyptian. The Syrian tradition includes the oldest manuscripts. The tales trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folklore and literature. Some scholars have seen an ultimate Indian origin since the collection makes use of devices found in Sanskrit literature such as frame stories and animal fables. The text is in prose, although it also includes some verse (couplets or quatrains), songs and riddles. In the mid-20th century the scholar Nabia Abbott found a document with a few lines from a Arabic work under this title, dating from the 9th century. This is the earliest known surviving fragment originating in Iraq, to which e cycles of Arabic tales were eventually added, replacing some of the Persian materials. One such cycle of Arabic tales centres around a group of historical figures from 9th-century Baghdad, including the caliph Harun al-Rashid (died 809). From the 13th century onwards, stories from Syria and Egypt were also included. The initial frame story tells of the ruler Shahryār (Persian “king” or “sovereign”; Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid) and his wife Scheherazade (“of noble lineage”). The king is shocked to discover that his brother’s wife is unfaithful, and in his bitterness and grief decides that all women are the same. He begins to marry a succession of virgins only to have them executed the next morning, before they have a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier cannot find any more virgins and his daughter Scheherazade offers herself. On the night of their marriage, she begins to tell the tales and the king, curious about the story, postpones her execution for 1,001 nights.
The tales vary widely, including historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, fantastic and erotic stories. Sometimes a character in Scheherazade’s tale will tells other characters a story of his/her own, and that story may have another one told within it, resulting in a richly layered narrative texture, as in Boccaccio’s Decameron or Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. The first European version (1704–1717) was translated into French by Antoine Galland from an Arabic text of Syrian source. Some of the stories, particularly “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp”, “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor”, were added into the collection by Antoine Galland and other European translators. The first English language edition was published in 1706. Later English translations (Edward Lane 1840-1859, John Payne and Sir Richard Francis Burton, 1885) included the Egyptian sources. 1 Burton’s translation was considered obscene during the Victorian period because of the increased emphasis on the sexual aspects of the stories, and many of his translations were printed as private editions for subscribers only. Jorge Luis Borges wrote a celebrated essay on “The Translators of The Thousand and One Nights” on the topic. 2
The inspiration of the Arabian Nights is remarkable in works such as Mary de Lariviere Manely’s Almyna or The Arabian Vow (1707)Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726), Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, Goldsmith’s Citizen of the World (1760), Johnson’s Rasselas (1759), Mary Wortley Montagu’s The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan, William Thomas Beckford’s The History of the Caliph Vathek (1786), John Keats’s Endymion (1818), Tennyson’s Recollections of the Arabian Nights (1830). Writers like Charles Dickens, Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, E.M. Forster, W.B. Yeats, H. G. Wells, James Joyce, T.S. Eliot and Doris Lessing mention the Arabian Nights in their works.
The influence of the Arabian Nights on Joyce is deep. He had an Italian translation of the Arabian Nights in Trieste and when he moved to Paris, he replaced it with the Burton Club Edition. There are Arabian images from the Arabian Nights in Joyce’s Ulysses, when Stephen dreams of “Street of harlots…and Haroun al Raschid” in the Circe Episode. 3
1. http://www.burtoniana.org/books/1885-Arabian%20Nights/index.htm See pages 35 – 53 of the pdf
2. Borges, Jorge Luis (1999), Selected Non-Fictions, Editor: Eliot Weinberger; Translators: Esther Allen, Suzanne Jill Levine, and Eliot Weinberger; New York: Viking, pp 92–109.