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Tales from the Thousand and One Nights

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Know O Prince, that once upon a time, there was a collection of such tales as could freeze the blood with trepidition, or stoke the raging fires of the imagination anew with tales of wickedness, debauchery, wonder and faith; tales of fantastic creatures, of magic and mystery, of the squalid and the high. Where O Prince, you ask may they be found?

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (also known as Tales of the Arabian Nights) are a collection of Arabic, Persian and Indian folktales and legendary stories, dating from as far back as 850 AD. Rich with humor (often low-brow), allegory, social satire, fantasy, magic, sex and the vageries of daily life, the stories were originally translated and publicized in the West by Sir Richard Burton.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights includes a mixture of selected stories (there are many, both short and long) including the classic adventure tales of Sindbad the Sailor (which almost certainly includes some of the Odyssey tales that wove their way across the Middle East and into the Sindbad canon), Aladdin and Haroun al-Rashid. The stories are excellent fun, richly woven with characters (both memorable and cliched) from all walks of life. The tales are often nested and interwoven with one story incorporating another, followed by another within it’s further recesses, making the reading experience one that feels not unlike a slow, sinking immersion into a new world.

Stories in this volume include (among others): The Tale of the Hunchback, the Barber’s Tale, the Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad, and The Tale of Judar and His Brothers. My personal favorite story (and one of the shorter tales): The Historic Fart.

The only suggestion I can offer for an improvement would be that footnotes and annotations might have added more to the reading experience as some of the satire and subtlty are very probably dependent on a greater understanding of the social context of the story. Learn a little more about the background of the Thousand and One Tales here and a site dedicated to the history of the Thousand and One Nights here.

For those interested, British explorer Tim Severin rebuilt a traditional medieval sailng ship (sewn together with rope – no nails), taking it to China in an epic recreation of the famous Arabic sea traders on whom the Sindbad legends and tales were based. Read about it in Severin’s book The Sindbad Voyage ( I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Severin at a lecture a few years ago and consequently have a signed copy!).

Sir Richard Burton, the original translator and popularizer of the tales is an interesting bloke all on his own. Burton was a noted explorer (endlessly thrashing about searching for the source of the Nile River), linguist, scholar and devil-may-care adventurer. Burton also translated the Kama Sutra, complete with the naughty parts intact (surprising for a Victorian). Read about him in Edward Rice’s definative account Captain Sir Richard Burton: A Biography. You can also find his original translation of the Nights online.

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  • Eric Olsen


  • Actually, they were first introduced in the West by Abbé Antoine Galland, in 1704, and first done into English (with the freaky-deaky bits, such as the rhetorical tour-de-force on poetic synonyms for the female genitalia, cut out) by Edward Lane, in 1840. That Burton jerk came out with his in 1885, but Lane’s is much more faithful to the original Arabic. Burton, a thorough rascal in life, pornographized and exoticized his version with elaborate Biblical diction that violates the translator’s credo of “semantic equivalence,” along with a rather free way with his choice of words. If you can’t hold of a Lane (I have the 1865 edition), the best modern translation is that of Muhsin Mahdi.

  • P.S., traces of some of these tales appear in medieval story-collections such as the Disciplina Clericalis of Petrus Alfonsi, a source for Bocaccio and Chaucer, and the anonymous Old Spanish Libro de Buen Amor.

  • Eric is correct. The first Western translation was Galland’s French, and the first English translation, oft reprinted, was Edward Lane’s, illustrated by William Harvey. For the 1847 to 1865 editions see: “The Thousand and One Nights, commonly called in England, the Arabian Nights’ Entertainments, A new translation from the Arabic with copious notes by Edward William Lane, illustrated by many hundred engravings on wood from original designs by William Harvey, a new edition edited by his nephew Edward Stanley Poole in Three Volumes.” It can be found on the British Public Library site: http://blpc.bl.uk/adp0349iFsBlpc.jsp?Userid=2719151068708758864
    and several editions are listed on http://www.Bookfinder.com. And actually, Lane’s first edition was issued in monthly parts between 1839-1841, before being published in three volumes by C. Knight & Co, London. Lane made his first journey to Egypt in 1825 where he made many sketches, explored the Nile and laid the foundations of his Arabic scholarship. He spent years in laborious research, finally producing his huge Arabic lexicon (1863-74). His translation of the Arabian Nights was intended for general reading so he eliminated any scurrilous inuendo, unlike Burton. He remains the only Arabist who maintained the stories were from the pen of one, or at most two people (which btw is highly unlikely). The primary draw of the Burton translation, as evidenced in The Limited Editions Club and Heritage Press reprint of same, are Burton’s “Complete Burton Notes, and The Terminal essay”, which give anecdotal bits, as well as the erotic portions so popular with his fans.

  • Eric Olsen

    Actually, it’s Iggy who is “correct,” unless I am being given credit for writing “cool.”

  • Sorry Iggy. *You* are correct. And thanks Eric, for pointing that out.