IN the caliph’s palace, a girl is frying multicoloured fish when a woman with a wand bursts through the wall and demands to know of the fish if they are true to their covenant. A young man mounts a flying horse. The horse strikes out one of his eyes with a lash of his tail and lands him on a building where the man will encounter 10 one-eyed men. The caliph Harun al-Rashid, venturing out of his palace, goes to the Tigris from where he watches a barge sail by on which a young man sits enthroned, claiming to be Harun al-Rashid . . . It was the wildness of the plotting and the freedom from classical constraints that appealed to the earliest Western readers of The Arabian Nights . ‘‘ Read Sinbad and you will be sick of Aeneas,’’ 18th-century novelist Horace Walpole declared.
The Arabian Nights , also known as The Thousand and One Nights , was made famous in the West by its first translator, French antiquarian Antoine Galland. The earnest purpose of his translation, published in the years 1704-17, was to instruct his readers in the manners and customs of the Orient and use the tales to provide improving lessons in morality. Since ladies at the court of Versailles were his target readership and since the Arabic he was translating seemed to him somewhat barbarous, he took pains to render it into polished and courtly French.
The publication was an instant success and his French was rapidly translated into English, German and most European languages. In the first instance, it was courtiers and the intelligentsia who read the book. The adaptation of a bowdlerised selection of the stories for children happened later, most notably in 1791 in The Oriental Moralist; or, The Beauties of the Arabian Nights Entertainments by a hack pretending to be ‘‘ the Rev’d Mr Cooper’’.
Galland had first published a translation of Sinbad and this had been well received. Someone misled him into believing that Sinbad was part of a larger collection known as The Thousand and One Nights . More by luck than judgment, he went on to translate the oldest substantially surviving Arabic version of the Nights .
This probably dates from the 15th century, but there were earlier, less elaborate versions of the story collection. There is also at least one Turkish manuscript that is older than the Arabic one Galland translated. Though the stories of the Nights as we have them are thoroughly Arabised and Islamicised, many seem to derive from much earlier Indian and Persian tales.
In the Nights , king Shahryar, sexually betrayed by his wife, kills her and resolves to avoid any future betrayal by sleeping night after night with a virgin and having her killed in the morning. The slaughter goes on until Scheherazade, his vizier’s daughter, volunteers to be the next to be led to Shahryar’s bed. She takes her sister Dunyazad with her. That night, at the post-coital moment, Dunyazad ( who has presumably been lurking somewhere in the shadows of the bedroom), prompted by her sister, asks for a story.
Scheherazade starts a story but does not finish it. Shahryar, keen to hear the end, spares her until the next night. On following nights, Scheherazade tells story after story, talking for her life and always careful to leave a story unfinished before dawn. So the nights are story breaks and there are not 1001 stories in the Nights .
Besides translating the manuscript he had found, Galland added stories that, he claimed, he had heard from a Syrian visiting Paris. No original Arabic text survives for these ‘‘ orphan stories’’, which are some of the most famous, including Aladdin and Ali Baba . Some have suspected that Galland made up these stories, but a Turkish original of Ali Baba has been identified.
In the early 19th century, a series of printed