Friday, June 10, 2011

The Arabian Nights

I received my copy of The Arabian Nights, published in 2007 by Barnes & Noble Classics of New York, last Christmas from two very sweet nieces. It has taken me almost six months to digest this thick book, which has notes and an introduction by Muhsin al-Musawi. Al-Musawi’s notes and explanations give needed background information and critical analyses to bolster the reader’s comprehension and appreciation of the work. The Consulting Editorial Director for this book is George Stade. This edition also contains beautiful crosshatches, which are sketches that depict a certain point in a story. The crosshatches come from Dalziel’s Illustrated Arabian Nights’ Entertainments published in 1865 (xlv). I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it.

The Arabian Nights is a collection of stories or fairy tales of Middle Eastern origin. These stories are embedded within a main story about the Sultan Shahriar of India and the infidelity he suffers from his wife. After realizing the cuckoldry that he is in, he asks his brother to join him in voluntary exile and bemoan their unfortunate circumstances. During their journey, Shahriar becomes convinced that women are duplicitous and untrustworthy when he meets a genie’s hostage. (The hostage “cheats” the genie by conversing with men and collecting rings while the genie naps on her lap (9).) Shahriar, having more pity on the genie than on the female hostage, returns to his kingdom, executes his wife and her slaves, and punishes the whole female gender by marrying one each day and sacrificing her the next morning. Scheherazade, one of the daughters of Shahriar’s vizier, resolves to end this practice. She becomes his bride and asks Dinarzade, her younger sister, to wake them up an hour before sunrise the next morning. Dinarzade does so and asks Scheherazade to tell a story. This piques Shahriar’s interest and he listens to the story. Scheherazade tells the story in such a way that she leaves a cliffhanger at the end, requiring Dinarzade and Shahriar to wait for the next day to hear the continuation. She succeeds so well that Shahriar postpones the execution. This tradition continues for many mornings until Shahriar forgives all women and exonerates Scheherazade from her fate.

The other stories are what Scheherazade tell. There are not exactly one thousand one stories in this book, but there are a lot. The book divides the stories or histories into seven parts plus an appendix containing the “orphan stories,” stories not found in the original manuscripts. Each part has a background story with characters that tell their own stories, who are forced to tell them in order to buy time, plea for a king’s mercy, or compete with other characters. Some are fantastical. Others are tragic. All are entertaining.

I paid special attention to the embedded stories in The Arabian Nights. I noticed how another level is added to the narration each time a character offers to tell a history. A few years ago, I took a class on Latin-American short stories taught by Professor Russell Cluff at Brigham Young University. In one lecture of the course, he discussed Jorge Luis Borges’s “Tema del traidor y del hĂ©roe” (“Theme of the Traitor and the Hero”). This short story has four levels of narration: (1) the author himself or the “explicit author,” (2) the narrator of the story or the “implicit author,” (3) Ryan, a character that plans to write a story, and (4) James Alexander Nolan, one of the characters in Ryan’s upcoming story. These levels have technical terms according to their narrative function. They are, respectively, as follows: (1) extra-extradiegetic, (2) extradiegetic, (3) diegetic or intradiegetic, and (4) metadiegetic or hypodiegetic. If there are more levels, add another “extra” or “meta” to the term.

If my calculations are correct, I count at least six levels in The Arabian Nights.

The first level deals with the explicit author. Unfortunately, the explicit author is anonymous. We do not know if the author is a man or a woman, or if there is just one author or a whole bunch of authors. We can suppose the author was Muslim, because we find religious and cultural customs pertaining to Islam. I believe there may be many authors for these tales, because the origins include Arabic, Persian, Indian, African, and Chinese peoples. I categorize this level as extra-extradiegetic.

The second level starts the story off with Shahriar, Scheherazade, and Dinarzade. The narrator is the implicit author and becomes the first narrator of the story, recalling the setup of Shahriar’s vengeance and Scheherazade’s plan to save herself and other women from his wrath. The narrator has a limited omniscience, because he recounts the actions of each character but does not reveal their thoughts. I see this narrator as a chronicler in Shahriar’s court. I categorize this level as extradiegetic.

The third level is the diegesis of the work. Scheherazade takes up the lion’s share of the narrator’s role and tells numerous and diverse stories to Shahriar. In this edition, I count thirty-seven stories, not including the ones Scheherazade’s characters narrate. Because Scheherazade does not narrate herself into the stories, she is classified as an intradiegetic-heterodiegetic narrator. I categorize this level as diegetic or intradiegetic.

The fourth level has Scheherazade’s characters telling other stories to the Five Ladies of Baghdad, genies, or kings. These characters mostly end up narrating their own adventures because they are asked to present their cases after getting into trouble. Other characters try to one-up each other in competitions. The characters that do narrate themselves in their own stories are called homodiegetic narrators; those that do not are heterodiegetic. One example is “The History of the Second Calendar, the Son of a King.” I categorize this level as metadiegetic or hypodiegetic.

The fifth level tells of a dervish told by the Second Calendar. The Second Calendar tells this story to a genie that catches him flirting with his female princess, and the Second Calendar prays for clemency. The Second Calendar’s story is entitled “The History of the Envious Man, and of Him Who Was Envied,” a moral tale warning about the vice of envy. I categorize this as meta-metadiegetic or hypo-hypodiegetic.

I may be mistaken on the sixth level. In “The History of the Envious Man, and of Him Who Was Envied,” the envious neighbor tracks down the envied man, who has become a chief dervish of a community of dervishes, and throws him down a well. While down in the well, the chief dervish hears the voices of fairies and genies. One of them tells the story of a princess possessed by a genie, and that her father would come to see the chief dervish in order to cure her. This is a narration, but the chief does not tell the story, he hears it. If this does not relate to our descending ladder of metadiegetic levels, then it may be just a diegetic function, with no relationship at all, or simply as pseudo-diegesis. So, this level may not qualify. Nevertheless, the story is within a story, and if it does qualify, then I categorize this as meta-meta-metadiegetic or hypo-hypo-hypodiegetic.

The diegesis latter makes me think about Jorge Luis Borges and the few works I have read. Towards the end of The Arabian Nights, in the section entitled “Inspired by the Arabian Nights,” it mentions how the work may have greatly influenced Borges. It states the following:

“The next generation of writers, which included Borges, embarked on perhaps the most sophisticated engagement with the Arabian Nights to date. As Irwin writes, ‘The Nights is a key text, perhaps the key text, in Borges’s life and work.’ Although Borges reworked many stories from the Arabian Nights, notably in the dazzling and playful A Universal History of Infamy (1935), the tales for him transcended what they were for many earlier authors—sources for wild plots or exotic curiosities—and profoundly influenced his structural innovations and views on the nature of storytelling. In Irwin’s words, ‘Borges found in the Nights precisely what he was hoping to find—doppelgängers, self-reflexiveness, labyrinthine structures and paradoxes, and especially paradoxes of circularity and infinity.’ Borges’s fascination with the frame story—a story within which other stories are told—drew him to the tale of a storytelling woman and helped him to reimagine the role and boundaries of fiction” (666-67).

If Irwin’s hunches are correct, then I am glad that I have read The Arabian Nights. The next time I need to research Borges’s work, I will keep this system of narration in mind.

This has been a wonderful exercise in recognizing the different levels of narration. I was not expecting to find a nugget of knowledge concerning Borges. As for the stories themselves, I enjoyed them simply because they are fantastical and descriptive, a good escape from the humdrum routines of life into an exotic world of imagination and play. If there is one thing that has bothered me in the tales, a theme I cannot aptly fit here in this review, it is the prevalence of slavery. However, there are chances for them to pull themselves out of circumstances in which they find themselves, but those are few and far in between. Other than that, I feel no hesitation to recommend this book to an interested reader.



  1. Hi Andy. This work did indeed have a great influence on Borges, he mentions it several times in the many interviews of his that I've read. In fact, this quarter I read his story "El sur" with my students and 1001 (Arabian) Nights is an important intertext in the tale. My own interpretation is that Borges includes it in "El sur" to allude to the notion of prolonging the moment of death by way of fiction, but also that of becoming so enveloped in fiction that one is unsure of their own reality. I've been meaning to read this one for some time...eventually.

  2. Thanks Ben. I will definitely have to look up "El sur" and see how it relates to the Arabian Nights. Scheherazade certainly does prolong the moment of her death many times until her husband recants his proclamation. Yet, according to your comment, Borges may have blurred the lines between reality and narrative, whereas the royal couple don't immerse themselves in the stories. Good point you bring up.


Have you read this book? What did you think of it?


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