Week 12: Thousand-and-One Nights

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Background Reading

English translations of the Nights

Galland's French translation of the Nights became popular throughout Europe, and there were many English translations of the Nights that were prepared. After a while, the English translators began working with manuscript sources, rather than relying on Galland. The problem, of course, was that there was not not just one definitive Arabic manuscript. Instead, the 1001 Nights existed in many different versions, as the different editors of the text had added or subtracted stories as they saw fit.

In addition, there were also efforts made to "clean up" the stories, removing their sometimes extravagant sexuality, making the stories suitable for children. The version that you will be reading this week, by Andrew Lang, is one of those versions which adapts the stories in the 1001 Nights for a general audience, downplaying the sexual elements in the plots.

Here, for example, is how Andrew Lang describes the problems that set in motion the frametale of the story, the rift between the sultan Schahriar and his wife:

Now the Sultan Schahriar had a wife whom he loved more than all the world, and his greatest happiness was to surround her with splendour, and to give her the finest dresses and the most beautiful jewels. It was therefore with the deepest shame and sorrow that he accidentally discovered, after several years, that she had deceived him completely, and her whole conduct turned out to have been so bad, that he felt himself obliged to carry out the law of the land, and order the grand-vizir to put her to death.

Here is how the rift is described in the translation by Husain Haddawy (which is an excellent modern English translation):

There emerged as usual the wife of King Shahrayar, walking among twenty slave-girls. They made their way under the trees. There they took off their women's clothes, and suddenly there were ten slaves, who mounted the ten girls and made love to them. As for the lady, she called, "Mas'ud, Masu'd," and a black slave jumped from the tree to the ground, came to her, and said, "What do you want, you slut? Here is Sa'ad al-Din Mas'ud." She laughed and fell on her back, while the slave mounted her and like the others did his business with her.

Although it is clear in Lang that the sultan's wife betrayed him in some way, the specific sexual antics are not described, while in many versions of the Nights, the sexual antics form a major part of the text. So as you read the stories this week, you may find some lingering sense of "gaps" where you can tell that some titillating sexual encounter has been removed from the text. Andrew Lang has provided a retelling of the stories from the 1001 Nights, and he definitely wanted the stories to be suitable for family reading. Strange, marvelous, exciting... but not sexual.

About Andrew Lang

Andrew Lang was born in 1844, in the early years of Queen Victoria's reign (Victoria had become queen in 1837). When Andrew Lang died in 1912, he had outlived Queen Victoria by only a decade (Victoria died in 1901). Andrew Lang's life is thus almost perfectly "Victorian," so it is not surprising that he was inclined to downplay the sexual content of the 1001 Nights (this is also true of other mythological and folklore texts that he adapted and edited).

For many years, Lang was a professor of anthropology at Oxford, one of the notorious "armchair anthropologists" of the late 19th century (the most famous example being Sir James Frazier, best known for his book The Golden Bough: A Study in Magic and Religion). As the British Empire expanded its reach around the world, these British armchair anthropologists worked hard to popularize the folk literature and traditions of "primitive" peoples around the world. This also included the "exotic"cultures of the Middle East and Asia, which were the keen objects of European imperial interest as well. These armchair anthropologists did not do field work themselves, but they read the reports of far-flung anthropologists and they compiled, compared, and published voluminously. You can see the range of Lang's interests in a bibliography of his publications. In addition to books on myth, religion and folklore, he published popular adaptations of many classics, such as the Iliad, the Odyssey, the Morte d'Arthur, in addition to the Arabian Nights which you will be reading from both this week and next.

Frametales in the 1001 Nights

The core portion of the 1001 Nights is a very elaborate experiment in frametale construction, under the influence of Indian and Persian literature, such as the Hitopadesha which you read earlier in the semester. Just as the Hitopadesha featured stories within stories within stories, you will find this same structure in the 1001 Nights, which can sometimes go as far as five layers deep into the frametale (story-within a story-within a story-within a story-within a story!). In the reading selections for this week, you will have stories that go three layers deep, as when Scheherazade tells the sultan a story about a fisherman, and that fisherman tells a story about a king and his physician, and the king tells a story about a talkative parrot and an adulterous woman.

Yet the frametale structure of the 1001 Nights breaks down after a while, and the book becomes more and more a collection of very long stories, some of them even short novellas, rather than an actual storytelling scene where you can imagine Scheherazade actually telling stories to the sultan night after night. Yet the figure of Scheherazade captivated the popular imagination, so even when the 1001 Nights is not always explicit about what happened to her in the end, popular legend holds that she eventually bore several children to her husband the sultan and that, in the end, he spared her life and they lived happily ever after.

Modern Languages MLLL-2003. World Literature: Frametales. Laura Gibbs, Ph.D. This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License. You must give the original author credit. You may not use this work for commercial purposes. If you alter, transform, or build upon this work, you may distribute the resulting work only under a license identical to this one.
Page last updated: October 9, 2004 12:48 PM