On why the Arabian Nights matters so much to Fantasy: Arabian Fantasy Literature
I want to take you into a realm of Fantasy and magic that is like no other. A realm that is dream like and filled with brave heroes, powerful monsters, and treasure galore. I want to take you to the Arabian Nights. I would like to talk about Arabic and Persian fantasy and folklore which at one time had some of the most beautiful works that folklore and fantasy has ever scene, and that also had one of the greatest impacts on the fantasy genre as a whole.
Most people don’t know much about Arabic literature (and I am including Persian literature as well, even though it is a different kettle of fish), but what is interesting is that there is a vast amount of Arabic literature that is to be had especially in the fantasy and folklore department.
It all started in 9th century Baghdad during the Islamic golden age, under the ruling of the caliph Harun Al-Rashid, the region was ripe with scientific, cultural and religious prosperity. Art and music also flourished significantly during his reign. It was even said that the dome of his palace in Baghdad was capped with a bronze horseman, whose lance pointed in the direction from which enemy invasion might be expected. From this period was the beginnings of what we know of as the Arabian Nights today. Yes The Arabian Nights are that old if not older, as some sources believed that the Arabian Nights derived from the Jataka tales which was brought to the middle east by Indian traders. Meanwhile as all this was going on Western Europe was going through its dark ages period until the Italian Renaissance in the 14th century.
Now before we get any further, you need to know that there is two Arabic manuscript versions of the Arabian Nights: the Syrian and the Egyptian. The Syrian tradition includes the oldest manuscripts; these versions are also much shorter and include fewer tales. It is believed the Syrian manuscript is to be the purest expression of the style of the medieval Arabian Nights. Texts of the Egyptian tradition emerge later and contain many more tales of much more varied content as a much larger number of originally independent tales have been incorporated into the collection over the centuries. Interestingly enough the first, European translation of the Arabian Nights was translated into French by Antoine Galland from 1704-1717. Further translations were created by Edward Lane, John Payne, and then by Sir Richard Francis Burton who was criticized for his translation because of its “archaic language and extravagant idiom” and “obsessive focus on sexuality”. It has even been called an “eccentric ego-trip” and a “highly personal reworking of the text” (To which this writer whole heartily agrees with, I really dislike Burton’s Translation!!!).
What is totally amazing is the amount of influence that The Arabian Nights has had on some of the greatest writers of Fiction, especially fantasy fiction. Both Edgar Allen Poe and Robert Louis Stevenson were so inspired by reading the Arabian Nights that, they created works of fiction that is a carry on in the Arabian Nights cannon (Poe’s story A Thousand and second tale of Schehreazade and Stevenson’s New Arabian Nights). H.P Lovecraft as a child was so fascinated by the adventures recounted in the book that he attributes some of his creations to the Arabian Nights. The same can be said for H.G Wells and Alexander Dumas. Various characters from this epic have themselves become cultural icons in Western culture, such as Aladdin, Sinbad , Scheherazade and Ali Baba.
Part of its popularity of the Arabian Nights may have sprung from the increasing historical and geographical knowledge, so that places of which little at the time was known and so marvels were plausible. As time went on the historical and geographical knowledge had to be set further “long ago” or farther “far away”. This is a process that continues to this day, finally culminating in the fantasy world having little connection, if any, to actual times and places. Also several elements from Arabian mythology and Persian mythology are now common in modern fantasy, such as genies, bahamuts, Roc, magic carpets, magic lamps, etc…
The Arabian Nights also introduced a lot of the techniques of fantasy writing that we see today in great literature. Things like the Frame Story, embedded narratives and dramatic visualization. The Arabian nights is also was the first to utilize plot devices like Fate and Destiny and foreshadowing. What is also really fascinating is that the Arabian Nights also contains several elements that we see in fiction today. Fantasy, Horror, crime story, satire and believe it or not even Science fiction all have it’s place in the Arabian nights. One of the best examples of this is The City of Brass. The Story features a group of travelers on an archaeological expedition across the Sahara to find an ancient lost city and attempt to recover a brass vessel that Solomon once used to trap a jinn. Along the way the group encounter a mummified queen, petrified inhabitants,life like humanoid robots and automata, seductive marionettes dancing without strings, and a brass horseman robot who directs the party towards the ancient city, which has now become a ghost town. (Sounds a lot like a Indiana Jones Movie, or the ultimate D&D quest). Another good example is The Ebony Horse which features a flying mechanical horse controlled using keys that could fly into outer space and towards the Sun. The Arabian Nights is filled to the brim with stories like this.When you think about it all these great elements and more were mined like gold by other truly great fantasy authors to hone their craft after reading the Arabian Nights to create other great works of fiction. We as fantasy lovers owe a great debt to the Arabian nights for that alone.
Which ever way you look at it, the contributions that the Arabian Nights and Arab folklore in general gave to the fantasy genre as a whole is that important, it really is, and we must not forget that. So when you get a chance please pick up a couple of the recommended reads below, I guarantee that you will be transported to a magical realm that is like no other and at the same time you are reliving some of the great history that the fantasy genre has to offer.
Here is some of the best Arabian Nights Books out right now in bookstores or at the public library
The Arabian Nights and Sinbad by Husain Haddawy and – Considered to be one of the best most easily read translations. Warning this is not a complete version “per-say ” of the Nights and does not have all the stories of say a Burton’s translation. But what you have to remember this version of the nights was translated from the Syrian text which was the older of the two manuscripts and to some it is the most purest in accuracy and feel.
The Arabian Nights: tales of the 1001 nights Vol 1-3 by Malcom C Lyons, Robert Irwin editor- This is the most recent Nights to come out on the market and was edited by one of the best in the field of the Arabian Nights (Robert Irwin). This is a complete version that is based on the Egyptian text. This translation is also very readable.
The Arabian Nights: a companion by Robert Irwin -Indispensable if you are reading the Nights, and a must have on the shelf. A lot of the information for this article came from this book. Robert Irwin is a master of the study of the Arabian Nights and he he is also a lecturer at Oxford in the study of history of Orientalism and middle eastern culture.
Here is a list of other books that are either Arabic (and Persian) Folklore/or relate to the Arabian nights.
Night and Horses and the Desert: the Penguin Anthology of Classical Arabic Literature By Robert Irwin (Same book two different covers) – great vignettes and short stories, and gives you a better appreciation for Classic Arabic literature as a whole.
Posted on June 29, 2013, in Articles and tagged Arab Literature, Arabian Fantasy, Arabian Folklore, Arabian Night, arabic literature, Classic Literature, Epic, Epic Fantasy, Fantasy, One Thousand and One Nights, Persian Fantasy, Persian Folklore, Persian Literature. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.