Friday, 18 March 2011


Once upon a time, long, long ago, there were no stories. Life, must have been just about survival, finding shelter, finding food. But I think that human beings must have discovered language, by the time they created the cave paintings.

Because the cave art pictures tell stories, stories of the hunt, the kill. We don’t know why they were painted; perhaps they were for religious purposes. But yes, the cave artists told stories. Just like the great Artists that would follow them, thousands of years later, the cave art painters were using stories to communicate with other people.

We continued to tell stories. We were insatiable in our love of being told a tale. Thank goodness for Homer and the Greek myths; the people who wrote down the Nordic myths and all the other mythologies of the world. And I’m leaping forwards thousands of years; to Geoffrey Chaucer, and “The Canterbury Tales,” and around about the same era, the mid-fourteenth century, Giovanni Boccaccio, and “The Decameron.” For the first time in our story telling history, we had fully rounded characters, with psychological depth. They are not gods with fabulous powers, they are people, like ourselves with histories, hopes and fears.

And, of course, there is the wonderful “Arabian Nights,” or “The Thousand and One Nights”, “Les mille et une nuits”, recited nightly by Scheherazade. Those wonderfully
mesmerising stories, telling us of fabulous creatures, geniis and magic lamps.

From Wiki.

The main frame story concerns a Persian king and his new bride. He is shocked to discover that his brother's wife is unfaithful; discovering his own wife's infidelity has been even more flagrant, he has her executed: but in his bitterness and grief decides that all women are the same. The king, Shahryar, begins to marry a succession of virgins only to execute each one the next morning, before she has a chance to dishonour him. Eventually the vizier, whose duty it is to provide them, cannot find any more virgins. Scheherazade, the vizier's daughter, offers herself as the next bride and her father reluctantly agrees. On the night of their marriage, Scheherazade begins to tell the king a tale, but does not end it. The king is thus forced to postpone her execution in order to hear the conclusion. The next night, as soon as she finishes the tale, she begins (and only begins) a new one, and the king, eager to hear the conclusion, postpones her execution once again. So it goes on for 1,001 nights.

The region of Mesopotamia has an old and ancient civilisation. We have re-named it “the Middle East”. If we think about the region at all, we probably think of religious fanaticism and terrorists. Osama bin Laden and the Ayatollahs. But Mesopotamia had literature, probably before we had even discovered language. “The Arabian Nights;” or “The One Thousand and One Nights, has genre of storytelling which has influenced writers right up to the present day.

The writers of The Arabian nights, introduce us to many literary devices. Two of these are the concept of the narrator; Scheherazade herself. And the cliff hanger. Scheherazade, begins her story, but leaves off at a crucial moment. In terms of the storytelling technique, the king spares her life for another day, the reader wants to know how the story ends; so does the king. For the modern reader, Scheherazade gives us the first form of the serialisation. It still works today in stories and particularly in television.

From Wiki.

“The King lay awake and listened with awe as Scheherazade told her first story. The night passed by, and Scheherazade stopped in the middle of the story. The King asked her to finish, but Scheherazade said there was not time, as dawn was breaking. So, the King spared her life for one day to finish the story the next night. So the next night, Scheherazade finished the story, and then began a second, even more exciting tale which she again stopped halfway through, at dawn. So the King again spared her life for one day to finish the second story.”

Then there’s the unreliable narrator; how do you know whether the narrator is telling the truth? The writers of The Arabian Nights use this to great affect in "The Seven Viziers" (also known as "Craft and Malice of Women or The Tale of the King, His Son, His Concubine and the Seven Viziers"), a courtesan accuses a king's son of having assaulted her, when in reality she had failed to seduce him (inspired by the Qur'anic/Biblical story of Yusuf/Joseph). Seven viziers attempt to save his life by narrating seven stories to prove the unreliability of women, and the courtesan responds back by narrating a story to prove the unreliability of viziers. The unreliable narrator device is also used to generate suspense in "The Three Apples" and humour in "The Hunchback's Tale"

Vladimir Nabokov uses the unreliable narrator in “Lolita.” How do we know if the vile Humbert Humbert is telling the truth? He is narrating the tale to us. I think that Charles Dickens uses it too, in “Great Expectations.” The long story is told from Pip’s point of view. Dickens also used the cliff hanger device; many of his stories were published in serialised form.

There are elements of horror fiction in the Arabian Nights. The horrific nature of Scheherazade's situation is magnified in Stephen King's Misery, in which the protagonist is forced to write a novel to keep his captor from torturing and killing him. The influence of the Nights on modern horror fiction is certainly discernible in the work of H. P. Lovecraft and Edgar Allan Poe.

There’s the prototype for the very best of crime fiction; worthy of Sir Conan Doyle in “The Tale of the Murdered Young Woman” In this tale, a fisherman discovers a heavy locked chest along the Tigris river and he sells it to the Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who then has the chest broken open only to find inside it the dead body of a young woman who was cut into pieces. Harun orders his vizier, Ja'far ibn Yahya, to solve the crime and find the murderer within three days or else he will have him executed instead. This whodunit mystery may thus be considered an archetype for detective fiction. Ja'far, however, fails to find the culprit before the deadline. Just when Harun is about to have Ja'far executed for his failure, a plot twist occurs when two men appear, one a handsome young man and the other an old man, both claiming to be the murderer. Both men argue and call each other liars as each attempts to claim responsibility for the murder. This continues until the young man proves that he is the murderer by accurately describing the chest in which the young woman was found.
The young man reveals that he was her husband and the old man her father, who was attempting to save his son-in-law by taking the blame. Harun then demands to know his motives for murdering his wife, and the young man then narrates his reasons as a flashback of events preceding Harun's discovery of the locked chest. He eulogizes her as a faultless wife and mother of his three children, and describes how she one day requested a rare apple when she was ill. He then describes his two-week long journey to Basra, where he finds three such apples at the Caliph's orchard. On his return to Baghdad, he finds out that she would no longer eat the apples because of her lingering illness. When he returns to work at his shop, he discovered a slave passing by with the same apple. He asked him about it and the slave replied that he received it from his girlfriend, who had three such apples that her husband found for her after a half-month journey. The young man then suspected his wife of unfaithfulness, rushed home, and demanded to know how many apples remained there. After finding one of the apples missing, he drew a knife and killed her. He then describes how he attempted to get rid of the evidence by cutting her body to pieces, wrapping it in multiple layers of shawls and carpets, hiding her body in a locked chest, and abandoning it in the Tigris river. Yet another twist occurs after he returns home and his son confesses to him that he had stolen one of the apples, and a slave had taken it and run off with it. The boy also confesses that he told the slave about his father's quest for the three apples. Out of guilt, the young man concludes his story by requesting Harun to execute him for his unjust murder. Harun, however, refuses to punish the young man out of sympathy, but instead sets Ja'far a new assignment: to find the tricky slave who caused the tragedy within three days, or be executed for his failure. Ja'far yet again fails to find the culprit before the deadline has passed. On the day of the deadline, he is summoned to be executed for his failure. As he bids farewell to all his family members, he hugs his beloved youngest daughter last. It is then, by complete accident, that he discovers a round object in her pocket which she reveals to be an apple with the name of the Caliph written on it. In the story's twist ending, the girl reveals that she brought it from their slave, Rayhan. Ja'far thus realizes that his own slave was the culprit all along. He then finds Rayhan and solves the case as a result. Ja'far, however, pleads to Harun to forgive his slave and, in exchange, narrates to him the "Tale of Núr al-Dín Alí and His Son Badr al-Dín Hasan".

The tales vary widely: they include historical tales, love stories, tragedies, comedies, poems, burlesques and various forms of erotica. There are so many themes for tales in these wonderful stories; the list goes on.
 Frame story
 Story within a story
 Dramatic visualization
 Fate and destiny
 Satire and parody
 Science fiction elements

And whom do we have to thank for this wonderful collection of stories? We don’t know.

The first stories in written form seem to go back to the 9th century, according to historians and scholars, but it is not known how long the stories may have existed in folk history before they were specially recorded in written form.

From Yahoo Answers.

“The Arabian Nights, is a collection of folk tales and other stories. The original concept is most likely derived from a pre-Islamic Iranian prototype that relied partly on Indian elements, but the work as we have it was collected over many centuries by various authors, translators and scholars across the Middle East and North Africa. The tales themselves trace their roots back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian and Mesopotamian folk-lore and literature. Though the oldest Arabic manuscript dates from the 14th century, scholarship generally dates the collection's genesis to around the 9th century."

"The tales in the collection can be traced to the ancient and medieval Arabic, Indian, Persian and Egyptian storytelling traditions. Many stories from Indian and Persian folklore parallel the tales as well as Jewish sources. These tales were probably in circulation before they were collected and codified into a single collection. This work was further shaped by scribes, storytellers, and scholars and evolved into a collection of three distinct layers of storytelling by the 15th century:”

We have a Frenchman, Antoine Galland, to thank, for bringing the collection to Europe and translating it for us..

From Wiki.
Antoine Galland had come across a manuscript of The Tale of Sindbad the Sailor in
the1690s and in 1701 he published his translation of it into French. Its success encouraged him to embark on a translation of a 14th-century Syrian manuscript of tales from The Thousand and One Nights. The first two volumes of this work, under the title Les mille et une nuits, appeared in 1704. The twelfth and final volume was published posthumously in 1717. Galland translated the first part of his work solely from the Syrian manuscript, but in 1709 he was introduced to a Christian Maronite monk from Aleppo, Hanna Diab, who recounted fourteen more stories to Galland from memory. Galland chose to include seven of these tales in his version of the Nights.

Mystery still surrounds the origins of some of the most famous tales. For instance, there are no Arabic manuscripts of Aladdin and Ali Baba which pre-date Galland's translation, leading some scholars to conclude that Galland invented them himself and the Arabic versions are merely later renderings of his original French.

Galland also adapted his translation to the taste of the time. The immediate success the tales enjoyed was partly due to the vogue for fairy stories which had been started in France in the 1690s by Galland's friend Charles Perrault. Galland was also eager to conform to the literary canons of the era. He cut many of the erotic passages as well as all of the poetry. This caused Sir Richard Burton to refer to "Galland's delightful abbreviation and adaptation" which "in no wise represents the eastern original." Burton’s translation was greeted with immense enthusiasm and had soon been translated into many other European languages: English (a "Grub Street" version appeared in 1706); German (1712); Italian (1722); Dutch (1732); and Russian (1763). They produced a wave of imitations and the widespread 18th century fashion for oriental tales. 

I only know the stories from children’s versions read to me, or from Christmas pantomimes. So my task, which I am looking forward to, is to read the tales as an adult.

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