Stories from the Thousand and One Nights. The Harvard Classics. 190914.
THE THOUSAND AND ONE NIGHTS is one of the great story-books of the world. It was introduced to European readers by the French scholar Galland, who discovered the Arabic original and translated it into French in the first decade of the eighteenth century; but its earlier history is still involved in obscurity. There existed as early as the tenth century of our era a Persian collection of a thousand tales, enclosed in a framework which is practically the one used in the present collection, telling of a King who was in the habit of killing his wives after the first night, and who was led to abandon this practise by the cleverness of the Wezirs daughter, who nightly told him a tale which she left unfinished at dawn, so that his curiosity led him to spare her till the tale should be completed. Whether more than the framework of the Arabian collection was borrowed from this Persian work is uncertain. The tales in the collection of Galland and in more complete editions discovered since his time are chiefly Persian, Indian, and Arabian in source, and in ultimate origin come from all the ends of the earth. No two manuscripts have precisely the same contents, and some of the most famous of the tales here printed are probably not properly to be regarded as belonging to the collection, but owe their association with the others to their having been included by Galland. Thus Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is found in no Oriental version of the Nights, and Ala-ed-Din and the Wonderful Lamp was long supposed to be in the same situation, though within recent years it has turned up in two manuscripts.
Both the place and the date of the original compilation are still matters of dispute among scholars. From such evidences as the detailed nature of the references to Cairo and the prevailing Mohammedan background, Lane argued that it must have been put together in Egypt; but this opinion is by no means universally accepted. As to date, estimates vary by several centuries. Burton, who believed in a strong Persian element, thought that some of the oldest tales, such as that of Sindibad, might be as old as the eighth century of our era; some thirteen he dated tenth century, and the latest in the sixteenth. There is a fair amount of agreement on the thirteenth century as the date of arrangement in the present framework, though they were probably not committed to writing till some two centuries later.
Of a collection of fables, fairy-stories, and anecdotes of historical personages such as this, there can, of course, be no question of a single author. Both before and after they were placed in the mouth of Shahrazad, they were handed down by oral recitation, the usual form of story-telling among the Arabs. As in the case of our own popular ballads, whatever marks of individual authorship any one story may originally have borne, would be obliterated in the course of generations of tradition by word of mouth. Of the personality of an original editor or compiler, even, we have no trace. Long after writing had to some extent fixed their forms, the oral repetition went on; and some of them could be heard in Mohammedan countries almost down to our own times.
In the two hundred years of their currency in the West, the stories of the Nights have engrafted themselves upon European culture. They have made the fairy-land of the Oriental imagination and the mode of life of the medieval Arab, his manners and his morals, familiar to young and old; and allusions to their incidents and personages are wrought into the language and literature of all the modern civilized peoples. Their mark is found upon music and painting as well as on letters and the common speech, as is witnessed by such diverse results of their inspiration as the music of Rimsky-Korsakoff, the illustrations of Parrish, and the marvelous idealization of their background and atmosphere in Tennysons Recollections of the Arabian Nights, Barmecide Feast, Open Sesame, Old Lamps for New, Solomons Seal, The Old Man of the Sea, The Slave of the Lamp, The Valley of Diamonds, The Rocs Egg, Haroun al-Raschid and his Garden of Delight,these and many more phrases and allusions of every-day occurrence suggest how pervasive has been the influence of this wonder-book of the mysterious East.
The translation by E. W. Lane used here has been the standard English version for general reading for eighty years. The translations of Ali Baba and Ala-ed-Din are by S. Lane-Poole and for permission to use the latter we are indebted to Messrs. G. P. Putnams Sons.