This volume reproduces the 1932 Modern Library edition, for which Bennett A. Cerf chose the most famous and representative stories from Sir Richard F. Burton's multivolume translation, and includes Burton's extensive and acclaimed explanatory notes. These tales, including Alaeddin; or, the Wonderful Lamp, Sinbad the Seaman and Sinbad the Landsman, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, have entered into the popular imagination, demonstrating that Shahrazad's spell remains unbroken.
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About the Author
A. S. Byatt is the author of The Biographer's Tale, Elementals, and the Booker Prize winning novel Possession, among other books. She lives in London.
Read an Excerpt
alf laylah wa laylah.
In the Name of Allah, the Compassionating, the Compassionate!
praise be to Allah, the beneficient king, the creator of the universe, lord of the three worlds, who set up the firmament without pillars in its stead, and who stretched out the earth even as a bed, and grace, and prayer, blessing be upon our Lord Mohammed, lord of apostolic men, and upon his family and companion-train, prayer and blessings enduring and grace which unto the day of doom shall remain, amen! 'o thou of the three worlds sovereign!
And afterwards. Verily the works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befel other folk and may therefrom take warning; and that they may peruse the annals of antique peoples and all that hath betided them, and be thereby ruled and restrained: Praise, therefore, be to Him who hath made the histories of the Past an admonition unto the Present!
Now of such instances are the tales called "A Thousand Nights and a Night," together with their far-famed legends and wonders. Therein it is related (but Allah is All-knowing of His hidden things and All-ruling and All-honoured and All-giving and All-gracious and All-merciful!)
1. that, in tide of yore and in time long gone before, there was a King of the Kings of the Banu Sasan in the Islands of India and China, a Lord of armies and guards and servants and dependents.
2. He left only two sons, one in the prime of manhood and the other yet a youth, while both were Knights and Braves, albeit the elder was a doughtier horseman than the younger. So he succeeded to the empire; when he ruled the land and lorded it over his lieges with justice so exemplary that he was beloved by all the peoples of his capital and of his kingdom. His name was King Shahryar,
3. and he made his younger brother, Shah Zaman hight, King of Samarcand in Barbarian-land. These two ceased not to abide in their several realms and the law was ever carried out in their dominions; and each ruled his own kingdom, with equity and fair-dealing to his subjects, in extreme solace and enjoyment; and this condition continually endured for a score of years. But at the end of the twentieth twelve month the elder King yearned for a sight of his younger brother and felt that he must look upon him once more. So he took counsel with his Wazir
4. about visiting him, but the Minister, finding the project unadvisable, recommended that a letter be written and a present be sent under his charge to the younger brother with an invitation to visit the elder. Having accepted this advice the King forthwith bade prepare handsome gifts, such as horses with saddles of gem-encrusted gold; Mamelukes, or white slaves; beautiful handmaids, high-breasted virgins, and splendid stuffs and costly. He then wrote a letter to Shah Zaman expressing his warm love and great wish to see him, ending with these words, "We therefore hope of the favour and affection of the beloved brother that he will condescend to bestir himself and turn his face us-wards."
Reading Group Guide
1. To the minds of a Western audience, The Arabian Nights is the most important work we have from medieval Arabic. Its influence can be seen throughout Western culture, from references in Jane Eyre to the plots of cartoons. What are some examples of the direct influence The Arabian Nights has had on Western literature or culture? Why did readers, then and now, enjoy it?
2. Burton has been quoted as having said, "The main difficulty, however, is to erase the popular impression that the 'Nights' is a book for babies, a 'classic for children'; whereas its lofty morality, its fine character-painting, its artful development of the story, and its original snatches of rare poetry, fit it for the reading of men and women, and these, too, of no puerile or vulgar wit. In fact, its prime default is that it flies too high." How does one account for the fact that, historically, The Arabian Nights has been seen as a children's book? Is it more appropriate for adults than for children given its content and depth? What are the main attributes that make it suitable for either audience?
3. The structure of The Arabian Nights is an entire study in itself. Debate has raged over the tales' relation to one another and to the overall structure of the work. Is the narrative structure effective? Are the tales related to one another or are they simply a mixture of unrelated stories bound by a narrative created solely for that purpose? How important is the setting of The Arabian Nights to the interpretation of each individual tale?
4. One of the most important moral concepts in The Arabian Nights is that of fidelity. From the very beginning of the work, fidelity is the driving force that binds the brothers together and that provides the backdrop for the telling of the tales. Fidelity of all kinds is explored in The Arabian Nights: that between a husband and wife, between brothers, and between a lord and his servant. Describe different depictions of fidelity in specific tales and explain how they are central to the advancement of the plot and the characters. Why is such a high premium placed on fidelity throughout the book?
5. Morals and ethics are among the most important subjects dealt with throughout The Arabian Nights. Describe the moral system as it is depicted throughout the course of the book, giving examples of important moral concepts in specific tales. How do the morals serve to propel the plot of the tales? How can one reconcile the bawdiness of these tales with the serious moral and ethical messages conveyed? Does the overt sexuality and "inappropriate" content reduce in any way the impact or importance of these moral messages?