To which Shahrazâd replied, 'With the greatest of pleasure. . . .'"
The Arabian Nights
If someone says those three words to you, what do you think of? Aladdin and his Magical Lamp, either in the flesh or in Disneyesque celluloid with an overly garrulous genie? Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, perhaps, complete with the cave that only reveals itself in response to the phrase "Open, Sesame"? Maybe you recall Sinbad the Sailor, whose voyages have been fodder for some Ray Harryhausen extravaganzas, and even a feature–length Popeye cartoon that's a real standout in the history of Max Fleischer animations. Undoubtedly, given a minute or so, you'll come to clever Shahrazâd and her tales that kept a sultan from having her beheaded night after night until finally, after a good thousand of them, he changed his mind and married her instead.
Four famous stories in the history of fairy tales. Guess what, though? Only one of them actually belongs to the core group of stories that make up the Alf Laylah wa Laylah, the Thousand and One Arabian Nights. The other three are accretions, added to the body of tales later and, for the most part, in order to stretch their length to encompass a thousand nights.
Essentially, everything you think you know about the Arabian Nights is probably wrong. Even the number of nights and stories. The history of the tales is itself an enormous puzzle.
Yet no other body of work in the history of the Orient — from Africa to India to China — has had the influence upon Western culture that these tales have had. And that's true even though we know so little about most of them. What I'll attempt to do in this article is piece together the puzzle of The Arabian Nights, and hopefully present you with a clearer picture of how it came to be.
The Nights comprises tales of Persian, Indian and Arabic origins, which began as oral tales, adapting to various times and cultures as they evolved. The stories did not originate together, either. Tellers probably fashioned them to their audience. A story that stood on its own for years might have reminded one teller of another story, so that he or she fitted it onto the first, and soon the first had swallowed the second, becoming a single, flowing narrative. Characters and events blended, taking on a new shape, and then at some point years or decades later — and maybe in a different country — someone else attached still another similar story to this new compound, and before you knew it, you had "The Story of the Fisherman and the Demon," which incorporated "The Tale of King Yunan and the Sage Duban," which itself incorporated "The Tale of the Husband and Parrot," which led to "The Tale of the King's Son and the She—Ghoul."
You have a story within a story within a story within a story and so on and so forth.
These compound stories are themselves set within that most famous of framing stories about a king named Shahrayar, who discovers that his wife has betrayed him and decides therefore that no woman can be considered trustworthy. He dispatches her, then sets about deflowering a different woman every night and the following morning has her executed. This king has a vizier who has a beautiful, nubile daughter named Shahrazâd, who insists over her father's protests that she must take her turn in this terrible terminal roulette. However, she has a plan to break the chain of events and rescue herself, her servant, Dunyâzâd (who in later versions becomes her sister), and all the remaining women sure to fall victim to the lethal king. In bed with him, having like her predecessors been deprived of her virginity, she serves up a story, which she narrates in casual fashion so that at a critical point in the tale, morning arrives. She suspends her narrative.
The king, of course, cannot kill her or he'll never hear how the story turns out. So he spares her, and the following night, Dunyâzâd requests that the tale be concluded. Shahrazâd obediently picks up the story and continues. Somehow she manages to thread this story through the remaining night without reaching the desired conclusion by morning. Instead of coming to a tidy resolution, the story unfolds into another story, and that into another. Quickly the pattern is established, and even the most foolish king must realize this is going to go on for a very long time — for a thousand nights at least. But Shahrazâd is so superb a storyteller, Shahrayar must have her continue. Storytelling has become a magical art.
The tale of Shahrazâd and her stories was at first called The Thousand Nights, a title itself derived from the Persian Hazar Afsaneh, The Thousand Tales (or Legends). How it became The Thousand Nights and a Night is unclear, although one possibility is that the extra night was added because odd numbers are associated with good fortune in Arabic culture.
Earliest mention of a text that's identifiable as an antecedent of the work comes in a ninth–century A.D. manuscript. It names our storyteller, Shahrazâd, and her slave Dunyâzâd, who asks her mistress to tell a story. The pieces of the puzzle are already assembling.
In the tenth century, two writers reference the Alf Laylah, describing the frame story once again. Dunyâzâd is still identified as Shahrazâd's slave at this point. These tantalizing glimpses are almost all we have for the next seven hundred years. Surviving records from a twelfth–century Jewish bookseller in Cairo lists a copy of a book, The Thousand and One Nights, as having been out on loan. This may be the first mention of the title as we have it today, and we have it courtesy of a lending library, as it were, from the 1100s.
The stories continued to circulate through the Arab world, metamorphosing, and absorbing pieces of other, similar works, and finally splitting into three main identifiable branches — the aforementioned Persian, Indian, and Arabic. A thirteenth–century version of the Nights, from either Syria or Egypt, is lost, as is a copy made of it a generation later.
The oldest surviving manuscript is Syrian. It dates to the fourteenth century, and compared to the surviving Egyptian manuscripts — the oldest of which dates to the sixteenth century — it is a conservative document. In Egypt, it seems, a real attempt was made to fill all one thousand and one nights by stuffing more and more stories into the framework. Some more ambitious copyists resorted to composing their own stories, forgeries in the style of the other tales. According to one of the more recent and accurate translators, Husain Haddawy, the most famous of these forgeries is "The Tale of 'Al al–Din and The Magic Lamp."
Aladdin and his lamp are fakes.
Despite its title, the book really only contains at most some 300 odd nights' worth of stories (Haddawy's superior translation of the core stories concludes after 271). That isn't 300 stories, either. Shahrazâd was keeping the king on a hook that she baited by withholding the ending of her story night after night. Sometimes an individual story would be told for five nights running without reaching a conclusion. What that number — One Thousand or One Thousand and One — really represents is a succinct way of saying "an awful lot of nights."