Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
The Arabian Nights
Critical Introduction by Richard Gottheil (1862–1936)
THE ARABIAN NIGHTS—or, more accurately, ‘The Thousand Nights and a Night’ (Alf Leilah wa-leílah)—have gained a popularity in Europe, since they were first turned into a modern language by Galland in 1704, which rivals, if it does not exceed, their regard in the East. They opened up to Europe a wealth of anecdote, a fertility of daring fancy, which has not ceased to amuse and to interest. It is not their value as literature which has placed them so high in the popular esteem, both in the East and in the West; for they are written in a style not a little slovenly, the same scenes, figures, and expressions are repeated to monotony, and the poetical extracts which are interwoven are often of very uncertain excellence. Some of the modern translations—as by Payne and Burton—have improved upon the original, and have often given it a literary flavor which it certainly has not in the Arabic. For this reason, native historians and writers seldom range the stories in their literary chronicles, or even deign to mention them by name. The ‘Nights’ have become popular from the very fact that they affect little; that they are contes pure and simple, picturing the men and the manners of a certain time without any attempt to gloss over their faults or to excuse their foibles: so that “the doings of the ancients become a lesson to those that follow after, that men look upon the admonitory events that have happened to others and take warning.” All classes of men are to be found there: Harun al-Rashid and his viziers, as well as the baker, the cobbler, the merchant, the courtesan. The very coarseness is a part of the picture; though it strikes us more forcibly than it did those to whom the tales were told and for whom they were written down. It is a kaleidoscope of the errors and failings and virtues of the men whose daily life it records; it is also a picture of the wonderfully rich fantasy of the Oriental mind.  1
  In the better texts (i.e., of Boulak and Calcutta) there are no less than about two hundred and fifty stories; some long, others short. There is no direct order in which they follow one upon the other. The chief story may at any moment suggest a subordinate one; and as the work proceeds, the looseness and disconnectedness of the parts increase. The whole is held together by a “frame”; a device which has passed into the epic of Ariosto (‘Orlando Furioso,’ xxviii.), and which is not unlike that used by Boccaccio (‘Decameron’) and Chaucer (‘Canterbury Tales’). This “frame” is, in short:—A certain king of India, Shahriyar, aroused by his wife’s infidelity, determines to make an end of all the women in his kingdom. As often as he takes a wife, on the morrow he orders her slain. Shahrzad, the daughter of his Vizier, takes upon herself the task of ridding the king of his evil intent. On the night of her marriage to the king, she, together with her sister Dunyazad, so engrosses his mind with her stories that the king seeks their continuance night after night; thus she wards off her fate for nearly three years. At the end of that time she has borne the king three male children; and has, by the sprightliness of her mind, gradually drawn all the conceit out of him, so that his land is at rest. The tales told within this frame may be divided into: (a) Histories, or long romances, which are often founded upon historical facts; (b) Anecdotes and short stories, which deal largely with the caliphs of the house of Abbas; (c) Romantic fiction, which, though freely mingled with supernatural intervention, may also be purely fictitious (contes fantastiques); (d) Fables and Apologues; (e) Tales, which serve the teller as the peg upon which to hang and to exhibit his varied learning. In addition to this “frame,” there is a thread running through the whole; for the grand theme which is played with so many variations is the picturing of love—in the palace and in the hovel, in the city and in the desert. The scenes are laid in all the four corners of the globe, but especially in the two great centers of Muhammadan activity, Bagdad and Cairo. It is not a matter of chance that Harun al-Rashid is the Caliph to whom the legends of the ‘Nights’ have given a crown so very different from the one which he really wore. Though his character was often far from that which is pictured here, he was still a patron of art and of literature. His time was the heyday of Muhammadan splendor; and his city was the metropolis to which the merchants and the scholars flocked from the length and breadth of Arab dominion.  2
  To unravel the literary history of such a collection is difficult indeed, for it has drawn upon all civilizations and all literatures. But since Hammer-Purgstall and De Sacy began to unwind the skein, many additional turns have been given. The idea of the “frame” in general comes undoubtedly from India; and such stories as ‘The Barber’s Fifth Brother,’ ‘The Prince and the Afrit’s Mistress,’ have been “traced back to the Hitopadesa, Panchatantra, and Katha Sarit Sagara.” The ‘Story of the King, his Seven Viziers, his Son, and his Favorite,’ is but a late version, through the Pahlavi, of the Indian Sindibad Romance of the time of Alexander the Great. A number of fables are easily paralleled by those in the famous collection of Bidpai (see the list in Jacobs’s ‘The Fables of Bidpai,’ London, 1888, lxviii.). This is probably true of the whole little collection of beast fables in the One Hundred and Forty-sixth Night; for such fables are based upon the different reincarnations of the Buddha and the doctrine of metempsychosis. The story of Jali’ad and the Vizier Shammas is distinctly reported to have been translated from the Persian into Arabic. Even Greek sources have not been left untouched, if the picture of the cannibal in the adventures of Sindbad the Sailor be really a reflex of the story of Odysseus and Polyphemus. Arabic historians—such as Tabari, Masudi, Kazwini, al-Jaúzi—and the Kitab al-Aghani, have furnished innumerable anecdotes and tales; while such old Arabic poets as Imr al-Kais, ‘Alkamah, Nabhighah, etc., have contributed occasional verses.  3
  It is manifest that such a mass of tales and stories was not composed at any one time, or in any one place. Many must have floated around in drinking-rooms and in houses of revelry for a long time before they were put into one collection. Even to this day the story of Ali Baba is current among the Bedouins in Sinai. Whenever the digest was first made, it is certain that stories were added at a later time. This is evident from the divergences seen in the different manuscripts, and by the additional stories collected by Payne and Burton. But in their present form, everything points to the final redaction of the ‘Nights’ in Egypt. Of all the cities mentioned, Cairo is described the most minutely; the manners and customs of the personæ are those of Egyptian society—say from the thirteenth to the sixteenth century. For this we have the warrant of Mr. Lane, than whom no one is to be heard upon this subject with greater respect. That such stories as these were popular in Egypt seems to follow from the fact that the only mention of them is found in Makrisi’s ‘Description of Cairo’ (1400) and in Abu al-Mahasin, another historian of Egypt (1470). The collection cannot have been made later than 1548, the date placed by a reader on the manuscript used by Galland. But that its date is not much earlier is shown by various chance references. The mention of coffee (discovered in the fourteenth century); of cannon (first mentioned in Egypt in 1383); of the wearing of different-colored garments by Muslims, Jews, and Christians (instituted in 1301 by Muhammad ibn Kelaün); of the order of Carandaliyyah (which did not exist until the thirteenth century); of Sultani peaches (the city Sultaniyyah was founded in the middle of the thirteenth century)—point to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries as the approximate date of the final composition of the ‘Nights.’ This is supported by the mention of the office of the Sheikh al-Islam, an office not created before the year 1453. Additions, such as the ‘Story of Abu Ker and Abu Zer,’ were made as late as the sixteenth century; and tobacco, which is mentioned, was not introduced into Europe until the year 1560. The thirteenth, fourteenth, and fifteenth centuries are a period of the revival of letters in Egypt, which might well have induced some Arab lover of folk-lore to write down a complete copy of these tales. The Emperor Salah-al-din (1169) is the last historical personage mentioned, and there is absolutely no trace of Shiite heresy to be found in the whole collection. This omission would be impossible had they been gathered up at the time of the heretical Fatimide dynasty (900–1171).  4
  But it seems equally certain that the ‘Nights’ did not originate altogether in the land of the Nile. The figure of Harun al-Rashid, the many doings in the “City of Peace” (Bagdad), lead us irresistibly over to the Eastern capital of the Muhammadan Empire. The genii and Afrits and much of the gorgeous picturing remind one of Persia, or at least of Persian influence. The Arabs were largely indebted to Persia for literature of a kind like this; and we know that during the ninth and tenth centuries many books were translated from the Pahlavi and Syriac. Thus Ibn al-Mukaffah (760) gave the Arabs the ‘Kholanamah,’ the ‘Amirnamah’ (Mirror of Princes), ‘Kalilah,’ and ‘Dimnan,’ etc. The historian Masudi (943) expressly refers the story of the ‘Thousand and One Nights’ to a Persian original. “The first who composed such tales and made use of them were the ancient Persians. The Arabs translated them, and made others like them.” He then continues (‘Prairies d’Or,’ ed. De Meynard) and mentions the book ‘Hezar Afsane,’ which means “a thousand tales,” a book popularly called the ‘Thousand and One Nights,’ and containing the story of the king and his vizier, and of his daughter Shirazaad and her slave-girl Dinazad. Other books of the same kind are the book of Simas, containing stories of Indian kings and viziers, the book of Sindibad, etc. (See also ‘Hanzæ Ispahanensis Annalium,’ ed. Gottwaldt, 1844, page 41.) A similar statement is made by Abu Yákub al-Nadim (987) in the ‘Fihrist’ (ed. Flügel, page 304):—“This book, ‘Hezar Afsane,’ is said to have been written by the Princess Homai (or Homain), daughter of Bahman. It comprises a Thousand Nights, but less than two hundred stories; for a night story often was related in a number of nights. I have seen it many times complete; but it is in truth a meager and uninteresting publication.” A translation of the ‘Hezar Afsane’ was made into Arabic, and it is again mentioned in the middle of the twelfth century by Abdulhec al-Házraji; but neither it nor the original Pahlavi has yet been found. It thus remains a matter of speculation as to how much of the ‘Hezar Afsane’ has found its way into the ‘Nights.’ It is evident that to it they are indebted for the whole general idea, for many of the principal names, and probably for the groundwork of a great many of the stories. The change of the title from ‘The Thousand’ to ‘The Thousand and One’ is due to the fact that the Arabs often expressed “a large number” by this second cipher. But the ‘Nights’ cannot be a translation from the Persian; for the other two books mentioned by Masudi are in the Arabic collection. Lane supposes the relationship to be that of the ‘Æneid’ to the ‘Odyssey.’ But it is probably closer: one fifth of the collection which, according to Payne, is common to all manuscripts, will doubtless be found to be based on the Pahlavi original. That the dependence is not greater is evident from the absence of the great heroes of the Persian Epos—Feridun, Zer, Isfandyar, etc. The heroes are all Arabs; the life depicted is wholly Arabic.  5
  The original Persian ‘Nights’ must be quite old. Homai, the Persian Semiramis, is mentioned in the ‘Avesta’; and in Firdawsī she is the daughter and the wife of Artaxerxes Longimanus (B.C. 465–425). Her mother was a Jewess, Shahrazaad, one of the captives brought from Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar; she afterward delivered her nation from captivity. Tabari calls Esther, of Old Testament fame, the mother of Bahman; and Professor de Goeje (de Gids, 1886, iii. 385) has cleverly identified the Homai of the old ‘Nights,’ not only with Shahrazaad of the Arabian, but also with Esther of the Bible. That his argument holds good is seen from its acceptance by Kuenen (‘Hist. Krit. Einleitung,’ 1, 2, page 222), August Müller (Deutsche Rundschau, 1887), and Darmesteter (‘Actes du Huitième Congrès des Orientalistes,’ 1893, ii. 196).  6
  The best translations of the ‘Nights’ have been made by Antoine Galland in French (12 vols., Paris, 1704–1712); by G. Weil in German (4 vols., 1838–1842); and in English by E. W. Lane (3 vols., 1839–1841), John Payne (13 vols., 1882–1884), and Richard Burton (16 vols., 1885–1888). Lane’s and Burton’s translations are enriched by copious notes of great value.  7

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