Anuja Madan has a Masters in English Literature from St. Stephen's College and her M.Phil from Delhi University. She has been an Assistant Professor at Sri Venkateshwara College, D.U., and offered her own course on Indian nationalism and partition at IIIT, Hyderabad. She currently teaches at the English Department of Pondicherry University. Her areas of interest include children’s literature, gender and nationalism, film studies and women’s writing.

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The Arabian Nights has widely been recognized as a narrative about story telling.1 Melinda Rosenthal aptly points out that stories save the lives of people in the frame tale and framed tales, (as in ‘The Trader and the Jinni’), gain them pardon (as in ‘The Tale of the Three Apples’) and are responsible for certain actions and decisions. For example, King Shahryar’s decision to execute a virgin every day after deflowering her is caused by King Shah Zaman’s narrative about both their wives’ betrayal (Rosenthal 117-118). Within the text, no one can resist a good story, not even malevolent genies. Outside the text, the readers see Shahryar’s never ending desire for a good story (it is interesting that it is finally Shahrazad who puts a stop to the chain of stories) replicated in themselves.  The most fascinating effect of storytelling occurs in the frame tale. Shahrazad, the apparent victim, not only succeeds in saving her life, but also in preventing the king from wreaking any more havoc on his kingdom than he has already. This paper analyzes tales told in the first twenty nights of storytelling in the light of Shahrazad’s mission to ‘cure’ the king. It discusses the Nights as a self-reflexive text, which is a testimony to the power of storytelling.

I have used Richard Burton’s controversial translation— a note about its significance would be useful here. Burton (1821-90), soldier, linguist and an explorer, conceived the idea of producing a ‘full, complete unvarnished, uncastrated copy of the Nights’ in 1854 (Burton iii). His Plain and Literal Translation of The Arabian Nights, published in 1885 is a monumental work, containing ten volumes of the tales with six volumes of Supplemental Nights from the Wortley-Montagu manuscript in the Bodleian Library. The ‘Terminal Essay’ in volume X gives a scholarly study and bibliography of the Nights, together with a chance for Burton to hit back at his critics with more anthropological data. The notes to the tales carry details of varied information he collected in his extensive travels. Much of this information was about the sexual and marital customs of the different nations of the East. His main contention was that previous translations had degraded “a chef d’oeuvre of the highest anthropological and ethnographical interest and importance to a mere fairy-book, a nice present for little boys’ and his translation was radically different — and ‘authentic’” (ibid vi). 

However, Burton’s translation has had many critics. Haddawy comments that “Burton is interested in the exotic, the quaint and the colourful. He…appends curious notes…these are meant to appeal to Victorian prurience or to shock prudish sensibility. Typical is the note on the passage in the Prologue, in which Shahrayar’s wife lies on her back and invites the black slave Mas’ud to make love to her”2. Burton’s fascination with the sexual customs of the East is linked to the sexual and racial politics of the Occident at the time. The Arabian Nights is, in fact, informed by Burton’s Orientalist ideologies but it is not within the scope of the paper to discuss this issue in detail. Burton’s extensive notes, which foreground his roles as ethnographer and anthropologist, are obviously also part of an attempt to establish himself as the most authoritative storyteller of the oriental tale. In doing so, he contends with his contemporaries to emerge as a highly authoritative mediator between the orient and the west.

On a surface comparison of Burton’s and Haddawy’s translations, I found that Haddawy’s translation is targeted at the modern audience. He does not exaggerate figures of speech, rhetorical devices and poetic phrases like Burton does. Burton’s style is actually in ironic contrast to his title: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments. Though the language in Burton’s translation sounds ludicrous and deliberately ornate at times, it carries a flavor of antiquity (though of course the historical times of the narrative are diverse). In this essay, I use Burton’s version rather than Haddawy’s because I find it more enjoyable.

It would be appropriate to begin the discussion of the narrative and storytelling in The Arabian  Nights with the theme of authority. About this, Ross Chambers writes:

To tell a story is to exercise power… (it is even called the power of narration), and authorship is cognate with ‘authority.’ But in this instance, as in all others, authority is not an absolute, something inherent in a specific individual or in that individual’s discourse; it is relational, the result of an act of authorization on the part of those subject to the power, and hence something to be earned…Etymology tells us that the narrator is the one who knows; one might infer that the narratee’s motivation in authorizing the act of narration lies in the prospect of acquiring (fictional) ‘information 3.’ However… to the extent that the act of narration is a process of disclosure, in which the information that forms the source of narrative authority is transmitted to the narratee, the narrator gives up the basis of his or her authority in the very act of exercising it.’ (my emphasis; 47-51)

In a modification of Chamber’s theory, I would argue that the act of narration within The Arabian Nights is such that narrative authority is strengthened rather than diluted. This is partly a function of the narrative device of occasional postponement of disclosure; but more than that, it is the ‘art of seduction’ that the narrator exercises (this term has been borrowed from Chambers but its meaning and context has been reconfigured.4 ) Shahrazad exercises the art of seduction through her stories very effectively— it was Shahryar’s plan to use her for his sexual gratification for one night and then kill her, like he did with the other women before her, but she seduces him, literally (for we must not forget the recurrent line ‘So they slept the night in mutual embrace’)5 and figuratively, into not killing her, then falling in love with her, and finally, marrying her. In fact, the power of storytelling is shown to be supreme over the king’s authority at a very fundamental level: it transforms him morally. The author, here Shahrazad, apparently at Shahryar’s mercy, telling stories to save her life, actually gets Shahryar addicted to her stories and dependent on her, ultimately gaining authority over him in a pleasurably ironic situation for the reader.6
Yet, contrary to popular perception, her primary strategy is not that of relying on the king’s curiosity by deferring the story’s conclusion every night. The second night of story telling concludes with the first story’s climax. Thus, the logic that the king had used the previous night (‘By Allah, I will not slay her, until I shall have heard the rest of the tale’) ceases to apply (The Arabian Nights 29). Yet the king allows her to live, for he is already seduced by the power of stories. Therefore, the supremacy of storytelling gets established within the first two nights of the narrative. The stories she begins with are instrumental for this ascension to take place.

The first one, ‘The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni’ is about a trader who accidentally kills an Ifrit’s son when he throws away date seeds with force. The jinni announces his intention to kill the trader, and after much vain pleading for his life, the trader requests the Ifrit for one year’s time to wrap up his affairs. When the time is up, the merchant goes back to the same place, where he happens to meet three shaykhs, and shares his sorrow with them. Each of them successively strikes a deal with the jinni: if they narrate a story that the jinni considers ‘wondrous,’ then he should grant them each a third of the merchant’s blood. The jinni, more story hungry than blood-thirsty, agrees. He considers the first two stories ‘strange’ enough to keep his bargain, and when the third shaykh ‘had ceased speaking, the jinni shook with pleasure and gave him the third of the merchant’s blood.’ (my emphasis, The Arabian Nights, 37) Through this stratagem, the trader’s life is saved. There would be few readers who don’t see the parallels between the trader’s and Shahrazad’s predicaments. As Rosenthal aptly comments:

Examining the work as an example of self reflexive narrative, we cannot then be surprised by the ‘Tale of the Trader and the Jinni’ for it is simply an imaginative recasting of Shahrazad’s own situation, the imaginary world imitating the real world, with the protagonist in each literally being bartered for with the stories…Her telling of the first tale…serves the climax of the book, for we somehow know that if she can only get Shahryar to listen to her — if she can get him more involved in the story she is telling than in his own — she will gain control of the situation, and secure her life. (119)

Rosenthal doesn’t, however, discuss why these narratives succeed in engaging Shahryar. He gets immersed in them not because they distract him from his own story, as Rosenthal seems to suggest. On the contrary, it is because the first few stories resonate with his life in different ways. In the ‘Tale of the Trader and the Jinni,’ two out of the three inserted stories present ‘wicked’ wives (one who ensorcells her husband’s concubine and son; the other who ensorcells her husband into a dog when discovered by him in the arms of her black slave lover). Shahrazad’s second tale, ‘The Fisherman and the Jinni,’ which starts on the third night, also uses the insertion technique, and two narratives (‘The Tale of the Husband and Parrot’; ‘The Tale of the Ensorcelled Prince’) are about adulterous wives. According to Gerhardt, the first few stories seem very ill adapted to the situation Shahrazad had put herself in:

…if we try to connect them with the frame, Shahrazad appears to be rubbing in the conjugal misfortune, rather than helping him get over it; unless we interpret her choice as destined to show the king that he is not the only one to suffer, but nothing bears out of his interpretation. The obvious explanation is that the compilers did not consider the point; they did not strive to interrelate the stories and the frame, nor to keep alive the interest in the framing story itself. (399)

One may be tempted to agree with Gerhardt’s view: the fact that these stories repeatedly bring up betrayal by women should have, logically speaking, stoked Shahryar’s anger against womankind and strengthened his resolve to execute his present victim. So, how is it that they have the opposite effect? It is because in these tales, the erring women are punished and the wronged men avenged for the betrayal of love and the loss of honor that they have suffered. In each, the husband gains supremacy again, whether by killing the wife (as in ‘The Tale of the Husband and the Parrot’) or having her ensorcelled (as in the first and the third shaykhs’ stories within ‘The Tale of the Trader and the Jinni’) or when a rescuer kills the adulterous wife on his behalf (as in ‘The Tale of the Ensorcelled Prince’). In the latter tale, which ends on the ninth night, the savior is a king who not only kills the unfaithful wife, but adopts the prince as a son. The prince gets back his kingdom, a new wife, and immense riches. All these stories end on a note of satisfaction for the husband, and vicariously for King Shahryar.7 Bruno Bettelheim also aptly points out, listening to the stories is a cathartic experience for Shahryar. He interprets Shahrazad as a medieval psychoanalyst and Shahryar her patient. However, according to him, ‘only a wide variety of fairy tales could provide the impetus for such a catharsis. It takes nearly three years of continued telling of fairy tales to free the king of his deep depression, to achieve his cure’ (quoted in Irwin 233). In my opinion, the first few tales are the most crucial for such a cure, and preempt the end of the book.  

Despite having gotten so many virgins beheaded before they can supposedly cause havoc in men’s lives, Shahryar is still thirsting for vengeance when Shahrazad enters the scene. Her first few stories achieve what he has not been able to despite his severe retributions: provide fulfillment to the betrayed husband\ himself. The narratives put into perspective Shahryar’s own experience, and reinvent the outcomes of his own situation in ways which are befitting, yet not extreme. Though the stories of the Nights are of various ethnic origins, and many circulated orally for centuries, it is evident that the compilers arranged the text in way that kept alive the correlation between the frame tale and enclosed tales. The narrative’s self referentiality and duplicity (in the sense that it manages to keep the listener unaware of the way the story is functioning and impacting him) — both serve to enhance the authority of the storyteller. Narrative duplicity ensures that the king’s illusion, that he is the one in control is maintained even while there is transference of agency from him to the storyteller. In another moment of deferment and narrative duplicity, Shahrazad had refused to tell her father the real reason for her wanting to marry Shahryar: that she believes she can cure him of his madness.8 Apart from being the seminal strategy for healing the king, the self-reflexive nature of the text alerts readers to the dynamics of the storytelling process.

We have already noted how the first genie is constructed as an obvious parallel to Shahryar, since he lets go of his vendetta when seduced by the power of storytelling. The genie of the second tale, ‘The Fisherman and the Jinni’ is also Shahryar’s alter ego in some ways. When an impoverished fisherman finds the genie (in a jar of copper) and releases him, he immediately pronounces his intention to kill his rescuer. His story is that he had been imprisoned for more than five centuries, and after waiting in vain for someone to free him for hundreds of years (vowing to shower him with riches), he became angry and decided he would penalize the one who did eventually free him.
The genie’s being bottled up for centuries was seen by Bettelheim as a metaphor for an emotional stranglehold (179), a state shared by Shahryar. In the story, the fisherman tricks the genie back into the jar, and releases him again only after the genie has learnt his lesson and promised to benefit his savior. The genie keeps to his word by showing the fisherman some fish, which lead the latter to immense riches and rewards. Shahrazad too stops Shahryar’s reprisals by outwitting him. By the end of the supposedly thousand and one nights of storytelling, the king has become a changed man, regretting his past deeds, and showering his rescuer, Shahrazad with status, fame and wealth.

This story also works as a subtle warning to Shahryar: people who misuse their power get their due. The inserted stories reinforce this theme. When the genie begs the fisherman to release him again, promising not to kill him, the fisherman says that he can’t trust him, narrating the ‘Tale of the Wazir and the Sage Duban’ to prove his point. In this story, King Yunan is afflicted with leprosy and gets cured by a learned sage, Duban. He generously rewards Duban, much to the jealousy of his wazir. The wazir then tries convincing the king that Duban is a threat to his life (using stories of course), and after some rebuttal (also through stories), the king decides to have Duban executed. The physician pleads a lot, but to no avail. So, as his last method of saving himself, he tricks the king into consuming poison. As a listener, Shahryar’s sympathies would remain with Duban and the fisherman rather than their persecutors.  Yet, it is only natural that he would associate with the king and genie. These narratives lead him to negotiate the fraught terrain of power, justice and retribution through different standpoints, aiming at a holistic repositioning of the king’s worldview.  Hence, there are also many stories in the beginning which centre around men who regret killing innocents after being misled: the ‘Tale of Sindbad and his Falcon’ and the ‘Tale of the Husband and the Parrot’ within the ‘Tale of the Wazir and Duban,’ and the Tale of the Three Apples,’ in which a husband kills his wife because he mistakenly suspects her of adultery.

Here, it is important to note that the second main tale, ‘The Fisherman and the Jinni,’ the third main tale, The ‘Tale of the Porter and Three Ladies of Baghdad,’ and the story that follows, the ‘Tale of the Three Apples’ all feature kings or caliphs who redress the wrongs that they have heard about in stories. In ‘The Fisherman and the Jinni,’ a king hears the tale of the ensorcelled prince and swears: “By Allah, O youth, I will assuredly do thee a good deed which the world shall not willingly let die and an act of derring-do which shall be chronicled long after I am dead and gone” (Arabian Nights 78). In the second tale, the listener is the caliph Harun-al-Rashid. He gives jobs in his palace to the three kalandars who have been through many tribulations, gets the single sisters married, and renews the marriage contract between the portress and her husband, who had deserted her— “And the people marveled at their Caliph’s generosity and natural beneficience and princely wisdom; nor did he forget all these histories to be recorded in the annals.” (Arabian Nights 286) Shahrazad’s narratives educate the king about his responsibilities not only by presenting consequences of wrong action or creating pathos over them, but also by introducing powerful people who proactively give the stories they hear the right ending, who use their power to bring succor to wronged men and women.

A discussion of moral dimension of the text necessarily starts with the role of the narrator, Shahrazad. Lynne Tirrell has some interesting ideas about moral agency: 

Moral agency is characterized by three features. First, one must have the capacity to represent… Second, one must have a sense of self. And third, one must be capable of making judgments marked by what we may call ‘authority’… the root of authority is author, which the Oxford English Dictionary defines in its verbal form as ‘to originate, cause or occasion.’ To be a moral agent one must be capable of being the author of one’s deeds….Being a moral agent involves understanding or at least attempting to understand people. The practice of storytelling is necessary for it teaches us how to articulate people’s lives. It is through the articulation of events, motives and characters that we become moral agents. (115-117)

Shahrazad is the wiling ‘victim’ of Shahryar’s ‘madness,’ the wise woman who rightly judges that she would be able to transform him, and perhaps most importantly, the narrator in complete control who tells stories according to the needs and desire of her listener. She is a moral agent par excellence as her stories articulate and reconfigure Shahryar’s life in ways that open up alternative possibilities of existence for him, and give him a sense of recovered self. Through her “admonitory instances of the men of yore,” Shahrazad succeeds in causing the moral transformation of Shahryar, evinced by his regret for his past actions: “…Never, whilst I live, shall I cease to blame myself for the past. As for this Shahrazad, her like is not to be found in the lands; so praise be to Him who appointed her as a means for delivering his creatures from oppression and slaughter!” (The Arabian Nights 508-509)

This role of Shahrazad was preempted in the beginning of the text. She is, in fact, introduced to us like no other woman in the text is: in terms of her knowledge and learning, not beauty: “The elder [sister] had perused the books, annals and legends of preceding Kings, and the stories, examples and instances of by-gone things and men; indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She had perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart; she had studied philosophy and the sciences, arts and accomplishments; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty, well read and well bred” (ibid. 15). It is interesting that towards the end of the story, when she is getting married to the king, three pages are spent on the description of her beauty and ornaments, for by then her role as wife has subsumed that of the learned storyteller. In her role as storyteller, she is invested with the authority of accumulated learning and wisdom, and given the responsibility of continuing the oral transmission of wisdom, an age-old tradition. Speech, which is usually seen as suspect in women, enables the victim to turn into not just a moral agent but even a sage for the present and future generations.

In a meta-textual move, this wisdom gets memorialized in the written word — the conclusion of the Nights states that “King Shahryar summoned chroniclers and copyists and bade them write all that had betided him with his wife, first and last; so they wrote it and named it ‘The Stories of the Thousand Nights and A Night.’ The book came to thirty-two volumes and these, the King laid up in his treasury” (The Arabian Nights 515). Even after Shahrazad and Shahryar die, the transmission of wisdom continues: the next king “found in the treasury these marvelous stories and wondrous stories…then he admired whatso he had read therein of description and…anecdotes and moral instances and reminiscences and bade the folk copy them and dispread them over all lands and climes…” (my emphasis The Arabian Nights 515-516).

There are repeated references in the Nights to stories as valuable documents that need to be written down for posterity, thus enhancing their status. Other anthologies of the time also suggest that tales, which were written, had more weight than those that were transmitted orally (Irwin 109-110). Projecting the narratives as moralistic documents achieves the same end. The need for this can be understood when one goes back to the history of storytelling in the Arab world. According to Irwin, in the first few centuries of Islam, religious storytelling led to the sidelining of the secular side of the profession, and the profession of storytelling had a low status in the medieval Arab world (104-108). Highlighting the edifying nature of these stories also serves the purpose of setting the Nights apart from more raunchy anthologies circulating contemporaneously, some of which were pornographic in nature.9 Such a self-projection can be noted most obviously at the beginning: “Verily the works and words of those gone before us have become instances and examples to men of our modern day, that folk may view what admonishing chances befell other folk and may therefrom take warning; and that they may peruse the annals of antique peoples and all that hath betided them, and be hereby ruled and restrained.” (The Arabian Nights 1)  However, the selected stories themselves do not express such intent, since that would be counterproductive for the listeners/readers. One of the reasons for The Arabian Nights being such an impactful text could well be this fascinating interweaving of the fabulous and the ‘moral’ behind many of its stories, so that the readers, like Shahryar, are seduced by the tales without even realizing the insidious influence these might be exercising on them.

Works Cited

Bettelheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment. New York: Knopf, 1975.

Burton, Richard. A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights. Benares:                 Kamashastra Society, 1885.
Chambers, Ross. ‘Narratorial Authority and ‘The Purloined Letter.’’ Story and Situation: Narrative Seduction and the Power of Fiction. Theory and History of Literature 12. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Gerhardt, Mia I. The Art of Storytelling: A Literary Study of The Thousand and One Nights. Leiden, Netherlands: E.J Brill, 1963.
Rosenthal, Melinda M. ‘Burton’s Literary Uroburos: The Arabian Nights as Self  Reflexive Narrative.’ Pacific Coast Philology Vol. 25, No. 1/2 (1990): 117-118.
Irwin, Robert. The Arabian Nights: A Companion. New York: I.B. Taurus and Company, 2004.
Haddawy, Husain. Introduction. The Arabian Nights. Trans. Husain Haddawy. New York: Norton, 1990.
Moussa-Mahmoud, Fatma ‘English Travellers and The Arabian Nights’ from Studies in the Reception of the Thousand and One Nights into British Culture. Ed. Peter C. Caracciolo. London: Macmillan, 1988.
Rosenthal, Melinda M. ‘Burton’s Literary Uroburos: The Arabian Nights as Self    Reflexive Narrative.’ Pacific Coast PhilologyVol. 25, No. 1/2 (1990): 116-125.
Tirrell, Lynne. ‘Storytelling and Moral Agency.’ The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism.  Vol. 48, No. 2 (1990): 115-126.

1.This title is the most popularly used one for the text. Richard Burton’s translation (which is used in the paper) has a much longer title: A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights.

2.The note starts by saying: ‘Debauched women prefer negroes on account of the size of their parts.’ It goes on to give explicit details regarding the same. Towards the end of that long note, Burton says: ‘In my time no honest Hindi Moslem would take his women-folk to Zanzibar on account of the huge attractions and enormous temptations there and thereby offered to them’ (TheArabian Nights 6).

3.This idea is similar to Walter Benjamin’s notion that the storyteller has experience to impart.

4.Chambers uses it to mean the ascension of a new kind of authority: narratorial authority, which is a function of the texts’ production of themselves as art. This replaces narrative authority in the modern art story.

5.The line is part of the passage that occurs at the end of every night of storytelling.

6.That is one important reason why in this text the frame tale assumes a greater importance than the framed stories, though conventionally the frame tale is always subordinate to the embedded story or stories. Mia I. Gerhardt and Melinda M. Rosenthal have commented on how The Arabian Nights is different in this respect from other famous narratives using the framing device like Wuthering Heights and Frankenstein.

7.Haddawy comments that the happy endings of the stories are linked to the overarching presence of Divine Providence. The stories are enacted in a world in which the people often suffer but come out all right in the end.

8.It is ironic that her father narrates to her the ‘The Tale of the Bull and the Ass’ where the dominating wife is whipped into submission as an indication of what he will do to her if she persists with her scheme of going to Shahryar’s bed.

9.The kutubal-bah, or books dedicated to pornography, in the form either of sex manuals or of collections of exclusively erotic tales (Irwin 164). Irwin provides a qualification in his discussion: drawing boundaries between a ‘high’ Arabic culture and a ‘low’ culture is very difficult, because there were many cross-overs.(114)



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