Arabian Nights

A description and bibliography, by Zach Tomaszewski

for LIS 685, Fall 2001, taught by Nyla Fujii-Babb

Table of Contents


There is no definitive text for the Arabian Nights, either in Arabic or in English. The works go under a number of different names; among these are Alf Layla Wa-Layla, A Thousand Nights and a Night, The Thousand and One Nights, Arabian Nights, and The Arabian Nights Entertainments.

The tales seem to have come from the Persian work Hazar Afsana. The frame story is still very Persian in nature. The stories were translated into Arabic from the Persian during the 8th century. Through the 17th century, the tales were told orally, though there are manuscript fragments dating from this time. The earliest substantial Arabic manuscript dates only from the 14th century. During this period, many of the stories seem to have been lost and replaced with newer tales. Certainly, there was an influx of Egyptian and Turkish elements. Today, there are two major families of Arabic texts: the Egyptian and the Syrian.

The first European translation was done by Antoine Galland into French in 1704. An English version of the French appeared two years later by an anonymous author. Galland's version seems to be based as much on oral tales as on the Arabic texts. Galland focused more on entertaining, magical, and exotic aspects of the stories, and downplayed the darker elements. As such, it is frequently used as a basis for children's versions.

After more than a century, Edward Lane produced another translation of the Nights in 1838. Lane's work was rather detached and ethno-centric, and he offers numerous comments in his notes. He censored or downplayed much of the sexual content as he was writing for the educated English classes of the time.

John Payne's 1882 translation was the strongest attempt at a complete and scholarly translation. Previous translations were only of select stories and were devised more as a vehicle for social commentary than as literature. They were intended to give a feel for the culture and nature of the Arab people. Payne's (and, later, Burton's) use of an archaic form of language places the stories in the past, and so turns the focus of the stories to literature.

Payne's translation is generally overshadowed by Sir Richard Burton's 1885 translation. However, Burton relied very heavily on Payne, even to the point of being accused of plagiarism. Burton translated much of the poetry in a pleasing way and returned the division of the tales into nights. However, he also inserts a strong personal presence through his extensive, colorful footnotes, which can distract from the text.

Joseph C. Mardrus's French version of 1899, translated to English by Powys Mathers in 1923, has been criticized for its bias and for failing to follow the Arabic texts. It focuses primarily on the sexual aspects of the stories, enhancing these where possible, and passing over more moral or mundane tales. In doing so, it presents a cultural stereotype. However, the version does provide a lively alternative to the more scholarly and edited translations before it.

It is hard to now pinpoint the origin of the Nights. Though they seem to have come from Persia, many of the tales are set in Indian or even Chinese locales. Most the Persian tales were reshaped or replaced by the Arabic over centuries. There are Egyptian and Turkish influences. Its introduction to Europe has been shaped by its translators, each with their own purposes and injecting their own biases or slants. In a way, the Nights is now without a home. It is a work that exists outside, yet within, its many manifestations.


There are a number of motifs evident in the Arabian Nights. These are both religious and secular in nature. Certainly the influence of Islam is felt. The characters frequently offer prayers of thanks or praise to Allah. In Islam, Allah is all-powerful, and what happens on this Earth is through His will. One must remain devout and faithful and allow Allah's will to be done, and generally one will be rewarded.

Also mentioned in the Qu'ran are djinns, which are powerful, magic-weilding creatures created by Allah just as humans were. Some of these djinns are pious and good, and some are heretical and dangerous. Solomon, also called Sulaymon, son of David (peace be upon the twain), spent some time capturing heretical djinns, imprisoning them in jars stamped with his holy seal, and casting them into the ocean. After languishing at the bottom of the sea for centuries, these djinns frequently converted to Islam on their release and granted wishes or wealth to those who freed them. But djinns can also be found loose in the wilderness or wherever it pleases them to be. Djinns are known by many, many names through the different translations: djinn, jinn, jinni, genie, efreet, ifrit, afreit, marid, etc.

The Nights are filled with images that we have come to associate with the Orient and Arabia. (Think of what you see in Disney's Aladdin.) There are sultans, caliphs, and kings in plush palaces surrounded by fertile gardens. They invariable have wazirs (sometimes spelled viziers) in their court to advise them. There are slaves--blackamoors (black) and marmalukes (white)--concubines, harems, and eunuchs. There are camels, fine horses, tents, oases, deserts, mountains, and treacherous sea voyages.

The women in the Nights are frequently adulterous. (And when they are, it is generally with the ugliest, foulest, most worthless blackamoor they can find.) When their treachery is discovered, these women often turn out to be gifted with magic and ergomancy. Indeed there is much magic in the Nights, often in the form of transformations. Many an unwitting husband or ungrateful relative is turned to stone or into a gazelle, cow, dog, ass, or fish. When the hero of a tale is so transformed, it is frequently the virgin daughter of a king who recognizes his true form and breaks the spell. (She generally gets a husband out of the deal too.)

Besides these religious and magical elements, many of the characters find cause to enjoy the day-to-day pleasures. Such things include all manner of fine foods, such as exotic fruits, spiced meats, and cold sherbets, incenses, perfumes, wine and other strong drinks, singing and verses, music, bathing, fine clothes and silk fabrics, kisses, caresses, and, of course, sex.

Some of the tales are vaguely instructional; some are merely entertaining. One lesson I learned is that, when you find yourself the only man in a palace of forty rooms, doted on by a harem of forty beautiful women, and you're told only that you must not open the fortieth door in their absence, well, DON'T open that door or you'll lose it all!

There are also a number of verses, which don't seem to survive translation very well. They are present in varying amount depending on the version. Also, though there may be 1001 nights, there are less than 300 stories, though many stories span multiple nights. As mentioned before, not all versions faithfully record the nightly divisions. But then again, few translations have all the tales either, especially when it's hard to know what counts an authentic tale. There are some tales that are now present in the English versions that do not seem to have a corresponding Arabic text.

Shaherazad and the Frame Story

The Arabian Nights are all held together by the frame story of Shaherazad telling stories to King Shahryar. This is basically as follows: Shahryar and his younger brother, Shahzeman, are both sultans of separate kingdoms. One day, the younger Shahzeman leaves his palace to undertake the long journey to visit his brother. But, shortly after setting out with his entourage, he remembers a gift he forgot at the palace. When he returns, he finds his wife in the arms of the greasy black cook. Shahzeman pulls out his sword and cuts the adulterous pair in twain, and then continues his journey to visit his brother.

But the ordeal has left him troubled. When he arrives, his older brother Shahryar inquires why he is so pale; Shahzeman refuses to tell. However, after languishing in his brother's palace for some time, Shahzeman happens to be looking out his window while his brother is away hunting. There, in the courtyard, he witnesses an orgy involving 10 concubines, 10 marmalukes, his brother's wife, and a savage blackamoor who hides by day in a tree (Well, only Burton mentions the tree.) This puts Shahzeman's own marital difficulties in perspective, and he regains his color and his appetite. When his brother returns from the hunt, he again insists on knowing the cause of Shahzeman's ill health and now this sudden recovery. Shahzeman finally relinquishes and tells the whole story. Shahryar declares he must see this with his own eyes; the following day, after pretending to leave for the hunt, he witnesses the same courtyard spectacle for himself.

The two brothers, in their distress, give up their kingship duties and set out to wander the countryside. After a few days, they make camp under a tree near the sea. Shortly thereafter, a huge afreet lumbers up out of the water carrying a large chest. The brothers quickly hide in the tree and watch as the afreet opens the chest and removes a beautiful maiden, and then proceeds to lie down and fall asleep with his head in her lap. The girl spies the two brothers in the tree, and waves them down. Carefully setting the afreet's head aside, she commands the two brothers to lie with her, or she will wake the afreet to slaughter them. Though they protest, she insists. When they have finished, she takes from her pocket a string on which are threaded 570 signet rings. She demands the seal ring of each of the brothers, which she adds to the string. She explains that though the afreet kidnapped her a virgin on her wedding night and keeps her locked in a chest beneath the sea, she has still slept with whomever she pleases. The two brothers realize that if an afreet as powerful as this can be cuckolded so completely, perhaps their own problems were not as dire as they thought.

The two brothers each return to their kingdoms. Shahryad orders his traitorous wife and concubines put to death. Then, since he can never again be sure of a woman's faithfulness, he instates a new policy of marrying a new maiden every night, and then having her executed the following morning before she has a chance to be unfaithful. After a few years of this, the kingdom is running very low on eligible virgins. But the wazir whose job it is to find fresh girls has a wise, well-read, and beautiful daughter. She finally convinces her father to offer her as the next bride in order that she may stop the slaughter. Indeed, after the marriage has been consummated, she begs the king to allow her to see her sister before her final dawn arrives. Shahryad assents. When Shaherazad's sister arrives, she asks Shaherazad to tell her a story (as the two had previously planned) to while away the hours until dawn. Shaherazad begins a tale, but dawn interrupts her before she can finish. But the king is intrigued enough to stay the execution for one day in order to hear the ending. And so begins a cycle of storytelling. Every night, Shaherazad must tell another tale interesting enough to keep her alive. She nearly always ends the night in the middle of a tale, or at least with promise of a tale that is even more wondrous.

After one thousand nights of telling (almost three years), Shaherazad has borne the king a son (or perhaps three; depends on the translation). She asks him for a boon. She summons her children and asks that the king to release her from her death sentence and not to leave his children motherless. Shahryad realizes that his wife is a wise and virtuous woman, and he relinquishes his oath. (Every relation and friend then gets robes of honors and new spouses and untold treasures; there is much merry making and honoring, and they all lived happily ever after.)


Burton, Richard F., trans. Tales from the Arabian Nights. Franklin Center, Penn.: Franklin Mint, 1977.

Though not a complete collection, this is a beautiful book by the Franklin Library. It has an elaborately engraved red cover, gold-edged pages, a satin blue bookmark, lush color plates, large type, and no paragraph breaks. (Well, it's weird not to have paragraphs!) It sets the mood even before the first word. Though this is Burton's translation, it contains only the text and none of his footnotes. It also has only selected verses, which is a relief for the casual reader. I used this as my primary source for my telling of "The Fisherman and the Djinn."

Campbell, Joseph, ed. The Portable Arabian Nights. New York: Viking Press, 1952.

This book appears to be a complete collection of tales (there are over 200 of them); yet the book is still physically small. However, many of the tales (about half) are given in a synopsized form, which means they take up only a half page or so. I believe that this version relies very heavily on Payne's translation, though other sources were also consulted. Based on my own comparisons, it does not seem as sexually explicit as Burton's above. I used this work as secondary source for "The Fisherman and the Djinn," and as primary source for the two contained tales, "The Physician Douban" and "King Sindbad and His Falcon."

Sallis, Eva. Sheherazade Through the Looking Glass: The Metamorphosis of the Thousand and One Nights. Surrey, UK: Curzon, 1999.

This is a slim, easy-to-read, yet scholarly work on the history of the Arabian Nights. (This is my source for the History section above). It includes chapters on the Arabic texts, the major English translations, reading the Nights, and commentary on the frame story and a few selected tales.

Lane, Edward William, trans. The Thousand and One Nights. London: Chatto and Windus, 1930.

This is an example of Lane's translation, with wood engraving illustrations. Instead of the story of "King Sindbad and His Falcon" (the bird prevents the king from drinking poison in the wilderness), this version has the story of "The Husband and the Parrot" (the bird testifies to the wife's adultery while the husband is away). Same moral though--repentance after the fact for killing a bird that has done you unrecognized good.

Payne, John, trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. London, 1901.

Published for subscribers only, the version at UH claims to be an Oman Edition (whatever that means). These 9 illustrated volumes provide the complete tales by Payne, which Campbell edits above in the Portable Arabian Nights.

Mathers, E. Powys, trans. The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night. New York, Dingwall-Rock, 1930.

This is an example of Mather's translation of Mardrus's French version. It is an illustrated 8 volume set. Sadly, UH does not have the first volume, so I was unable to compare the stories I know with other translations.

All of these works are intended for adult readers, or possibly mature high school students.