Like a literary phoenix, the One Thousand and One Nights – first printed in English, in 1706, as The Arabian Nights’ Entertainment – has surpassed time, culture, changing fashion and even controversy to maintain a position among the world’s premier imaginative works. A compendium of stories from India, Persia, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, Turkey and possibly even Greece and Rome, some tales date back at least 1,100 years, others are of relatively recent vintage, but all are tied together by a simple framing device in which a young woman recites stories to ransom her life and the lives of other women from the misogyny of a disturbed eastern king. In the end, she restores the king’s sanity, saving herself and her countrywomen.
Her name is Shahrazad – or Scheherazade, if you prefer – and she is now effectively the patron saint of storytellers. The tales she relates for 1,001 consecutive nights have enthralled countless millions for centuries, providing inspiration for authors as diverse as Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Charles Dickens and Jorge Luis Borges, composers such as Nicholas Rimsky-Korsakov, and filmmakers such as Douglas Fairbanks Sr. and Michael Powell.
But what is it about the Nights that has proved so enduring when other popular works have come and gone? Even given the famous Enlightenment preoccupation with oriental modes and themes, the Nights continues to project the image of a mythical medieval world well into the third millennium. British writer and mythographer Marina Warner believes that the presence of magic in many of these tales is key to understanding the collection’s appeal. Of course, not every story in the Nights has an element of the supernatural about it, but enough tales revolve around magical elements that TheArabian Nights’ world has become synonymous with an alternative reality; in Warner’s words, a place “packed with wonders, elastic in handling time and space, and plotted according to the different laws of fate and magic.”
Certainly there is hardly an aspect of western culture that hasn’t been affected by the Nights. With so much material to work from, Warner is obliged to pick and choose her discussion areas. She retells 15 stories in 20 chapters as springboards for an examination of the myriad aspects of the work – considerations of the One Thousand and One Nights in history, pastiche, theatre, dance, film or what-have-you. Throw in bits of personal biography, a nod to the two Gulf Wars and the Arab Spring, and the result is a text that is largely comprehensive, even if it sometimes careens from subject to subject like a runaway magic carpet.
My chief complaint is that, despite Warner’s wide-ranging perspective, there remains a lopsided approach to Stranger Magic that means some significant expressions of the Arabian Nights receive short shrift. Since her chief concern is with cultural history via magical representations, the reader cannot be too critical of her choices, but some omissions remain curious. German animator Lotte Reiniger’s admittedly charming silhouette film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926) receives an entire chapter, and the possibly bogus pastiche story Aladdin almost as many pages, but the Nights’ thorny history in the Arab world – many would like it banned – receives little attention.
Likewise, the symbolic meaning of the beautiful eastern carpet draped on Sigmund Freud’s couch (yes, that couch) is discussed at length, but not enough consideration beyond “name” writers like William Beckford and Voltaire is given to the celebrated “Oriental Tale” genre of the 18th and early 19th centuries – hundreds upon hundreds of works that suffused western literature with faux-eastern stories, influencing European letters for more than 150 years.
In such a terrifically expansive subject, however, this might be considered nitpicking. Poised midway between a dense academic text and a broadly selective overview of a timeless literary treasure, Warner’s massive work remains a powerful testimony to the enduring appeal of the 1,001 Nights. Complex, frequently subtle and sometimes unwieldy, her book will reward readers with sophisticated insights into the cultural exchange between West and East – a bit like The Arabian Nights itself.
Paul McMichael Nurse is the author of Eastern Dreams, a popular history of One Thousand and One Nights.
The Erotic World of Faery
By Maureen Duffy (Hodder & Stoughton, 1972)
Duffy’s examination of the erotic and sensual meanings lying behind fantastical English literature.
The Uses of Enchantment
By Bruno Bettelheim (Knopf, 1976)
Classic examination of the importance of fairy tales in children’s lives, and their impact in later life.
Breaking the Magic Spell
Radical Theories of Folklore and Fairytales, by Jack Zipes (Heinemann, 1979)
The doyen of American fairy-tale scholars explores the way in which fairy tales influence our lives and impart wisdom.
From the Beast to the Blonde
On Fairytales and their Tellers, by Marina Warner (Chatto & Windus, 1994).
An earlier book by Stranger Magic author Marina Warner. A survey of the roles of women both in magical stories and their transmission.
Paul McMichael Nurse