I own this very fine-looking, old edition of The Arabian Nights’ Entertainments. Trouble is, it’s almost unreadable. It has gems like, “The sultan having revolved these matters in his mind, took leave of the unhappy king, when he found he was a little composed, without acquainting him with his intention, lest a disappointment should aggravate his affliction.”
The book was, in its day, “A New Edition” and “Illustrated.” Pity it wasn’t translated into English. It was published in 1887, and given as a gift in 1890 to somebody in Fanneytown, M.D. (I’m guessing: the dedication is almost unreadable.) I think we found it in a bookstore.
Not surprisingly, I’ve had trouble in the past reading it. But this time, for some peculiar reason, I’ve managed to get far enough in that I’m enjoying—yes, enjoying—the stories.
To be clear: I sometimes get lost, not only because of sentences like the one above, which being not uncommon cause one to lose threads of storylines which already, having been placed within one another like those Russian dolls within dolls, can on occasion lead the reader to forget the story within which he reads.
Let me try that again. I sometimes get lost, and not only because of this English translation. The stories in the Arabian Nights are, as everybody who’s read them knows, put inside other stories. You get to the point where the genii is about to decapitate somebody, and then the would-be victim talks the genii into listening to a story first. Meanwhile, this other story might be about another genii who’s tempted to turn somebody into a monkey. And so on. After a while, the stories all round out and then—it’s like the bends—you’re back on the surface, unsure how or why you got there.
This would probably be easier if I was reading it more often. Maybe. This must be some Arabian storytelling art. It’s not one we use that often nowadays. I’m out of practice. I never was in practice.
So, given all that, why am I enjoying it? (Parts of it, at least.)
Two things come to mind. There’s the sort of academic reason, that I find it fascinating that these stories, so like fairy tales, were circulating so long ago. According to this reputable-looking site by Rob Hafernik and Margaret Renault, “The core of original stories came out of Persia and India in the early eighth century.” That’s a long time indeed: twelve centuries. The enduring quality of fairy tales continues to amaze me.
The other is these tales are often about encounters with some kind of mysterious power, a magical or supernatural being or force. That’s what I’m accustomed to in fairy tales too: somebody going through a forest encounters a strange and wonderful thing. It might be that fairy tales as a rule have this element, not just as a sideline but as the main attraction. Why do we love them? Maybe because we’d like to meet geniis ourselves. Or talking fairies. Or giants you can outwit. I don’t think that’s the whole explanation, but I think it might be a part of it.
Whatever the reason, I foresee myself picking my way through many of these tales in the days ahead. As Hafernik and Renault put it, “The Nights have a distinctive style that seems to overcome even the poorest translation.” Too true.