Review: Arabian Nights

I feel funny about reviewing classic literature. For one thing, it’s a classic, meaning a consensus has already been reached by “the collective, inimitable them” (Elizabethtown, 2005) that it is indeed a good book. My affirmation of its greatness is not necessary, and my denial of it would be meaningless. For another thing, seeing as it’s an old, widely-read book, there are certainly a great number of reviews, critical articles, and dissertations dissecting and commenting on it. My thoughts are but a drop in the bucket, and a less educated, sophisticated drop at that. 

As a result, I won’t be formally reviewing classics, per say. I’ll just be sharing some personal impressions and reflections. 

Without further ado, I give you my most profound and illustrious Thoughts on The Arabian Nights or 1001 Nights.

Whatever love I have for Arabian Nights comes from Dr. Stephen Bell’s class on World Literature at Liberty University. Dr. Bell (who happened to be one of my favorite professors) illuminated the framework in which Arabian Nights is set–a framework that I never would have recognized through my own unaided reading. Dr. Bell pointed out that Scheherezade, the main character, essentially saves her country through story-telling. That alone fills me with love for Arabian Nights.

To give you a little more context, Arabian Nights is a series of stories within a story. The framework story is about a Shah (or king) who discovers that his wife is cheating on him. His response to this devastating discovery is to execute her. He then decides to marry a new young woman every night, have sex with her, then execute her in the morning. That way, no woman ever has the opportunity to be unfaithful to him again. Great plan, right? 

After he has married and murdered a great number of his kingdom’s young women, his wazir’s (or prime minister’s) daughter comes up with a solution. She marries the shah, even though she had been exempted from the royal decree. Every night, after he has his way with her, she tells him a story. She leaves her stories on cliffhangers, or promises that she has more interesting stories to tell, which she would tell him if only she were to live another night, but, alas, she knows she will be executed the next morning.

The king is so captivated by her storytelling, that he spares her night after night, so he can hear the next episode. Her stories are redemptive, healing, and therapeutic, and after a few years of this… well, they live happily after. For the particulars, you’ll have to read it yourself. 

The idea of a young woman saving the world with story-telling is one of my favorite story arcs ever. After all, that’s my dream. If I could change the world for the better in some small way through the stories that I tell (or help others to tell), I would feel that I had done something worthwhile. 

Now, once I started reading the stories that Scheherezade tells her husband–the stories which compose the bulk of the book–my love diminished significantly. As a child, I loved hearing stories drawn from this book (Aladdin, Sinbad, Ali Baba). And I suppose that makes sense, for as the book’s introduction states, these stories were folk stories intended primarily for children, despite many mature elements. 

However, when I took on Arabian Nights as a whole, I found myself quickly bored and incredulous. The stories seem over the top and excessive, and at the same time simplistic and repetitive. There is no end to the magnificent troves of unimaginable riches, the genies and sorcerers, the incredibly beautiful damsels in distress, the daring adventurers, and the cons and schemes. 

Admittedly, there is something captivating about the story of a beggar boy in a far-off exotic land who discovers great wealth and marries the beautiful princess. Wish-granting genies and enchanted birds and cursed maidens have their appeal. However, the stories quickly began to all sound the same. The characters fall limply into one-dimensionality. The beggar boy’s riches are achieved through a pinch of deceit and a mountain of pure dumb luck. The maidens are each as beautiful as the moon, and in many cases, beautiful is all they are. 

Perhaps I’m missing some important layer of meaning or cultural context that would otherwise redeem the stories for me. Perhaps the original stories were better. As the introduction also points out, the book’s translator and editor, Richard Burton, took vast liberties. He embellished and dramatized the stories for his Civil War era readers, who relished in the erotic, scandalous “Orient” of their imaginations. He also wrote in a phony “Old English” to make the stories sound older and more exotic. Perhaps the true beauty and value of the stories can only be understood in the original Arabic language and through the grid of Arabic culture and history. 

Overall, I’m torn in my opinion of Arabian Nights. I love the idea of the story’s main framework; Scheherezade is one of my fictional heroes. I enjoy the cultural glimpses and the whimsical largesse of the folk stories. However, the sheer number of remarkably similar stories, all filled with exaggerated wealth and beauty, one-dimensional characters, and simplistic story arcs made Arabian Nights a true feat of endurance reading for me. 
If you’ve read any part of Arabian Nights, I would love to hear your thoughts and insights in the comments below!

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