By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The One Thousand and One Nights, perhaps better known in the Western world as the Arabian Nights, is a remarkable collection of folk tales and legends from what is commonly known as the Middle East. As with the classical Greek and Roman myths and the Norse legends, these stories are anonymous and have their roots in oral culture, passed down from one generation to the next.
The Arabian Nights were also added to by succeeding generations. Indeed, the three most famous stories from the 1,001 Nights didn’t become part of the Arabian Nights ‘canon’ until the early eighteenth century, as we’ll explore below.
Clearly this collection of tales is worth a closer look. Whether it’s flying carpets, farting bridegrooms, or genies granting wishes, there is much to enchant, delight, and amuse in the Arabian Nights. Here are ten of the best stories from the collection.
Over the course of seven voyages throughout the seas of east Africa and south Asia, the intrepid mariner Sinbad has fantastic adventures in magical realms, encountering monsters and various supernatural and magical feats, including horses that live underwater and an island that turns out to be a vast sleeping whale.
Sinbad’s tales didn’t become part of the Arabian Nights until the eighteenth century, making them a relatively late addition. In some ways, they might be regarded as the Middle Eastern version of Homer’s Odyssey, in their focus on the adventures of a titular character as he negotiates the sea and encounters various fantastical places and beings.
2. The Three Apples.
This is one of the earliest detective stories. The body of a mutilated woman turns up in a wooden chest, and the sultan’s vizier is charged with solving the crime in three days, or he himself will be executed.
The vizier fails to work out ‘whodunnit’, and makes little attempt to crack the case (hence the story’s status as an ‘anti-detective’ story), but the hapless vizier is saved from death when the real murderer shows up at the last minute and confesses.
The story of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves is, after the tale of Aladdin and the Magic Lamp (of which more below), the best-known of the Arabian Nights stories. The words ‘Open, Sesame!’ are famous even to people who have never read the story of the crafty thief and his adventures. But there are a number of curious details about this story which are less well-known.
The story concerns a poor man named Ali Baba, who accidentally sees the titular forty thieves stowing away their plunder in a cave in the forest and decides to steal some of their treasure for himself. However, the chief of the thieves will become Ali Baba’s nemesis as the two men lock horns in a battle of wits …
Like the voyages of Sinbad the Sailor, this was another ‘orphan tale’ added to the collection only in the eighteenth century, when the French collector Antoine Galland included it. We explore the meaning of this story in more detail in a separate post.
This tale is one of our favourites, as it shows how funny some of the Arabian Nights entertainments (as they’re often known) can be. It centres on a man who flees his country following the embarrassment of having farted at his own wedding. When he returns ten years later, he discovers that his fart has become so famous that it is being used as part of the calendar, as a way of dating other events.
When he overhears a young girl asking her mother when she was born, the mother answers, ‘My daughter, you were born on the very night when Abu Hasan farted.’ Abu is overjoyed that something he has done will be remembered and live on for ever – immortality of a kind, we suppose…
This is often included in selections from the Arabian Nights because it explains how Scheherazade comes to tell the stories in the collection, although it’s not the most pleasant of stories. Two brothers, Shahriyar and Shah Zaman, are both kings. They both have unfaithful wives whom they kill rather unceremoniously for their adultery.
They encounter an efreet (an evil spirit or monster) and discover the efreet keeps a woman in his tree. Although the efreet believes the woman to be pure, she has in fact secretly had many partners – and adds both brothers to her conquests …
If the above story acts as the framing device for the 1,001 Nights, this story is the first one Scheherazade herself tells. A merchant accidentally angers a genie or jinni, who makes it his mission to kill the hapless trader. However, he grants the merchant a year to settle his affairs before returning to face his fate.
But when, a year later, the day of reckoning arrives, three sheikhs appear and each tell a story to try to convince the jinni to spare the merchant’s life. So this story is really three (or even four) stories in one.
Here’s a very brief story from the collection: indeed, it usually only runs to a few pages in most translations. Husameddin is a chief of police in the Egyptian city of Alexandria. One night, a soldier comes to him, telling him that his purse of monies has been stolen from him. Husameddin arrests everyone who was staying in the vicinity, when the real thief turns up and freely confesses he did it. But there’s a twist to come at the end of this short tale …
8. The Ebony Horse.
As well as containing stories which are precursors to modern detective fiction (see ‘The Three Apples’ above), the Arabian Nights also contains what might be considered proto-science-fiction tales too! The ebony horse in this story is a flying mechanical horse which is controlled using keys. It can even fly into space and cover the distance of one year in a single day.
The protagonist of the story (aside from the horse, of course) is the Prince of Persia, Qamar al-Aqmar. The inventor of the fabulous mechanical horse shows up in the city of Shiraz, and the king buys the horse for his son. The prince then rides the flying horse off on numerous adventures, meets and falls in love with a Bengali princess, and incurs the wrath of the inventor of the horse …
This is yet another story which was only added to the collection (by Galland) in 1709, although the narrative is thought to be much older.
This is another tale in which the protagonist encounters a vengeful jinni or jinnee rather than the helper we find in the Aladdin story (see below). Indeed, as with the tale of the Merchant and the Jinnee above, the spirit in this story sentences the poor fisherman (who is already down on his luck) to death. However, the quick-thinking fisherman manages to outwit his supernatural nemesis …
Where else could we conclude this selection of the best Arabian Nights tales but with the tale of Aladdin and the magic lamp? The story is undoubtedly the most famous of all the 1,001 Nights stories. And yet, like the story of Ali Baba and the adventures of Sinbad, it was only added relatively recently, in the early eighteenth century (it was thanks to Antoine Galland again).
Aladdin is young boy living with his mother in poverty in a town in China. One day, he comes into the possession of a magic lamp which contains a genie capable of granting him wishes. The story which ensues has everything from an evil magician, a beautiful princess (not called Jasmine; that’s only in the Disney film), and plenty of obstacles placed in our plucky hero’s way as he endeavours to win the hand of the sultan’s daughter.
What endears us to Aladdin is perhaps precisely his rough edges: the fact that he is poor but also somewhat wayward, rather than poor and innocent. This makes him more relatable and realistic, as we discuss in our analysis of this classic story.