The Thousand and One Night
The very first book on the ”1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die” list is “The Thousand and One Nights”. It is quite fitting to begin a canon of the most important literature with a collection of stories that has stood the test of time since antiquity. Frankly I am surprised that no literature from Greco-Roman antiquity made the list, but I am okay starting here. “The Thousand and One Night” is a good opening. Hey, this is a thousand and one list, after all!
Everybody know of “The Thousand and one Night” and most people will probably even know that it is a collection of stories of Middle Eastern origin. Fewer people may realize that it is a framework of stories that has evolved over time, that there is no single origin of the collection and that even the content of stories vary from edition to edition. If you read it you will be getting a sample, a particular selection of stories from one of the many renditions that exist. Another reader my therefore end up reading something rather different than what I went though.
My edition is the Penguin Classics “Tales from the Thousand and One Night” translated by N.J. Dawood and contain fourteen selected stories from a seventeenth century version from Cairo.
“The Thousand and One Night” is an interesting read for several reasons. First of all these are vivid and very graphic stories, almost irreverent. They are meant to be told so they do not dally on details, but move on at a rapid pace that makes the stories almost page-turners. I found myself entertained and almost never bored reading it.
Secondly many of the stories are very well known, but in versions that are quite different from the original (as far as you can talk about an original). Everybody knows “Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp”, but the actual story is quite different from the Disney version and reading the story behind all those modern renditions is very interesting indeed.
Thirdly a book like “The Thousand and One Night” is a window into another culture and another age. The stories reflect the ideals, the dreams and the moral codes of these people. As a representative of modern western culture I am sometimes perplexed, even confused at the sentiment behind the stories, but even at their most confusing I still get the idea (mostly).
Surprisingly the stories are almost void of moral lessons. These stories seem to be told with the intent to entertain, not to provide a lesson. At least I was mostly unable to find the lesson. In most western traditional stories there is a lesson behind: Hybris – Nemesis, the humble shall succeed, bad guys get their comeuppance etc. But I could not find that in these stories. Mostly there is a hero of the story who will get in an awful lot of trouble, but miraculously he will succeed and win riches, power and women. That frankly sound more like Hollywood than The Brothers Grimm and this may also be why the stories hold up to day.
What holds up less good is the callousness of practically all the characters. Small slights are almost always punished with violence. People are killed in an offhand manner with hardly a consequence and not just by the bad guys. Physical abuse seems to be the most natural reaction to almost anything. Women are usually promiscuous and are killed outright. Slaves are disposed of casually. Ships will founder losing all men but the hero with hardly a mention (Sindbad the Sailor seems to have lost close to a thousand people in that manner without any regrets). I find it a bit difficult to swallow and even in a cartoonish presentation it leaves me with a bad taste.
You can see how wealth is foremost in peoples dream. The heroes find extreme wealth and it always comes out of nowhere. You just wake up one day and you have all you ever dreamed of. The agent of wealth is usually a jinn, a magical creature often captured in a ring or a lamp, but just as often a free agent who decides to bestow favors on our hero. There is nothing about earning your wealth through labor or craftsmanship. It is more like winning in lotto. Back then as today that is a common dream. The hero may lose his wealth again, but not through an easy-come-easy-go morality. That happens through their adversaries or simply through random events. Usually however they earn it back, just as lucky as they got it in the first place, or in a few places through cunning.
Most of all the stories are incredible. They are meant to amaze the audience. Everything is bigger, richer and more outlandish than imaginable. So much so that at times this much-with-more-on-top gets almost tiresome, like a modern superhero tale. With jinns/superpowers like these there is no challenge and the story loses interest. Yet most of the stories manage to strike the balance and remain entertaining.
All in all a good beginning to this quest. This is a recommended read, maybe even essential and certainly a lot of fun.