Arabian Nights Entertainment or The Thousand and One Nights

“A collection of ancient tales from India, Persia, and Arabia. They were first introduced into western Europe in a French translation by Antoine Galland (12 volumes, 1704-1717), derived from and Egyptian text, probably dating from the 14th or 15th century. English translations based on Galland were made by R. Heron (1792) and W. Beloe (1795). The later translations by Henry Torrens (1838), E.W. Lane (1839-1841) and John Payne (1882-1884) and Sir Richard Burton’s unexpurgated edition published at Benares (Varanesi; 16 volumes, 18851888) are based on a late 18th-century Egyptian text. The standard French translation (1889-1904) by J.C. Mardrus has been severely criticized.

The framework of the tales is the story of Scheherazade, daughter of the grand vizier of the Indies. The Sultan Schahriah, having discovered the infidelity of his sultana, has resolved to have a fresh wife every night and to have her strangled at daybreak. Scheherazade entreats to become his wife, and so amuses him with tales for a thousand and one nights that he revokes his cruel decree, bestows his affection on her and calls her ‘the liberator of the sex.’ Her stories included the tales of Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba.

The film Arabian Nights (1942) is an Oriental adventure involving the caliph of Baghdad, but has not stronger link to the original tales. Much more in the spirit of the original is The Arabian Nights (1974), a visually beautiful film by Pier Paolo Pasolini (1922-1975) that also encompasses some of the original’s complex narrative structure (tales within tales,  and so on). The Thief of Baghdad (1940), a wonderful fantasy film directed by Michael Powell and others, features elements of the tales in a story about an urchin imprisoned for theft who is joined in his cell by the deposed prince, whom he helps to regain his throne. The first film with this title (1924) was written by and starred Douglas Fairbanks, and there were remakes in 1960 and 1978.

Several pieces of music have been inspired by the Arabian Nights. The best known is Sheherezade, as symphonic suite (1888) by Rimsky-Korsakov (1844-1908), which Fokine turned into a ballet (1910). Sheherezade (1903) is a set of three songs by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937), setting poems by Tristan Klingsor. Schehrezade also makes an interesting appearance in one of the novellas in Chimera (1972) by the US writer John Barth (b. 1930).”

Excerpted from: Crofton, Ian, ed. Brewer’s Curious Titles. London: Cassell, 2002.

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