torsdag den 9. april 2015

The Thousand And One Nights (c.850)

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.

8 kommentarer:

  1. How exciting! I even own The 1001 Books book and am weakest on the early entries. I might join you for the next couple. I think it would be fun to look at Japanese literature which I think you have coming up.

    1. That would be super fun! There are a number of very interestin Japanese and Chinese stories coming up and I am really looking forward to read them.
      Did you use the book as reference for your own reading choices? I know very few of the titles so I am going in cold on most of them

  2. I have read a selection of these tales too, and seemed to have the same reaction. I really liked the way the stories would have other stories inside them, with more stories inside that (Babushka doll style). I also liked the framing story: the two sisters with king, using stories to save other woman. Very clever!

    My copy of 1001 Books starts with Aesop's Fables. It's a 2006 edition (Australian). I've only seen 119 of them.

    I wish you good luck on your book odyssey (a story which should be on the list!). I look forward to the next review!

    1. Thank you very much.
      I have noticed that there are huge differences between the different editions and different criteria for selection. There are quite a few miss-outs in the early part. Homer for one or Canterbury tales. I suppose this version is more strictly litterature for better or worse.
      119 books is not so bad. I have not counted, but I doubt I would make 50. These are simply not the books I would normally pick.

  3. I own the 2010 U.S. version of the 1,001 Books book and this is the first book listed in it. I noticed that the second book is The Tale of the Woodcutter, which happens to be the basis for the 2014 Best Animated Film nominee The Tale of the Princess Kaguya, which would not suprise me if it makes it onto the 1,001 Movies list next year.

    Second, I'm guessing that the version of the 1001 Nights you read was an edited and/or censored version. The original contains explicit sexual scenes, up to and including bestiality. I own a 1934 reprint of the first unexpurgated English translation which was done by Richard Burton (the adventurer, not the actor). It is a three volume set and it spans just under 5,000 hardcover pages. (No, I have not read the entire thing.)

    Third, I'm guessing they are starting the list with this book purely because of the title of 1,001 Nights.

    1. I did not know that. Now I am really looking forward to The Woodcutter.
      Actually the version I got was pretty graphic. There was no holding back there. This is no victorian version. It is though a selection of stories and that I think has a lot to do with that there is no real official version. The western versions all take offset in different Middle Eastern version and there seem to be quite some difference between say Egyptian an Indian sources. I was quite happy with my 400 page selection.
      There is that about the name. I had that suspicion too and that is really too bad because it excludes some earlier masterpieces.

    2. Yes, we're not just talking about things like The Iliad, The Odyssey, and The Aeneid that were skipped over, but why not go back to the earliest written tale in human history - The Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh (circa 2,500 B.C.)?

    3. Now that would be an interesting book to read! I have been wanting to read that one for years.