Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

I've mentioned previously my fascination with the great explorer, author, ethnographer, translator, etc., Richard Francis Burton [see Orrin's review of To Your Scattered Bodies Go (1971)(Philip Jose Farmer)   (Grade: B+)], but I had never actually gotten around to reading his translation of the Arabian Nights.  I don't think I'd ever even comprehended the framing device that gives the book its name until I read John Barth's Chimera, a modern riff on the ancient tales.  Heck, I think all I really knew of the Tales was the same as most American kids: (1) the really cheesy Sinbad cartoon, where cinching his belt gave him extraordinary powers; (2) the even cheesier Ray Harryhausen stop-action films like Golden Voyage of Sinbad; (3) and, I suppose I Dream of Jeannie seemed to be related to the stories somehow.  But upon reading the stories, they turn out to be great fun and the set up is quite ingenious.

King Shahryar and his brother are both cuckolded by their wives--whom they slice and dice along with their "blackamoor" lovers.  Already prey to understandable doubts about the fidelity of women, they set out to find a man less fortunate than themselves:

    So the two brothers issued from a second private postern of the palace, and they never stinted
    wayfaring by day and by night until they reached a tree a-middle of a meadow hard by a spring of
    sweet water on the shore of the salt sea. Both drank of it and sat down to take their rest. And when
    an hour of the day had gone by, lo! they heard a mighty roar and uproar in the middle of the main as
    though the heavens were falling upon the earth, and the sea brake with waves before them and from it
    towered a black pillar, which grew and grew till it rose skyward and began making for that meadow.
    Seeing it, they waxed fearful exceedingly and climbed to the top of the tree, which was a lofty,
    whence they gazed to see what might be the matter. And behold, it was a Jinni, huge of height and
    burly of breast and bulk, broad of brow and black of blee, bearing on his head a coffer of crystal. He
    strode to land, wading through the deep, and coming to the tree whereupon were the two Kings, seated
    himself beneath it. He then set down the coffer on its bottom and out of it drew a casket with seven
    padlocks of steel, which he unlocked with seven keys of steel he took from beside his thigh, and out of
    it a young lady to come was seen, whiteskinned and of winsomest mien, of stature fine and thin, and
    bright as though a moon of the fourteenth night she had been, or the sun raining lively sheen. Even so
    the poet Utayyah hath excellently said:-

       She rose like the morn as she shone through the night
       And she gilded the grove with her gracious sight.
       From her radiance the sun taketh increase when
       She unveileth and shameth the moonshine bright.
       Bow down all beings between her hands
       As she showeth charms with her veil undight.
       And she floodeth cities with torrent tears
       When she flasheth her look of levin light.

    The Jinni seated her under the tree by his side and looking at her, said: "O choicest love of this heart
    of mine! O dame of noblest line, whom I snatched away on thy bride night that none might prevent
    me taking thy maidenhead or tumble thee before I did, and whom none save myself hath loved or hath
    enjoyed. O my sweetheart! I would lief sleep a little while." He then laid his head upon the lady's
    thighs, and, stretching out hip legs, which extended down to the sea, slept and snored and snarked like
    the roll of thunder. Presently she raised her head toward the treetop and saw the two Kings perched
    near the summit. Then she softly lifted off her lap the Jinni's pate, which she was tired of supporting,
    and placed it upon the ground, then, standing upright under the tree, signed to the Kings, "Come ye
    down, ye two, and fear naught from this Ifrit." They were in a terrible fright when they found that she
    had seen them, and answered her in the same manner, "Allah upon thee and by thy modesty, O lady,
    excuse us from coming down!" But she rejoined by saying: "Allah upon you both that ye come down
    forthright. And if ye come not, I will rouse upon you my husband, this Ifrit, and he shall do you to die
    by the illest of deaths." And she continued making signals to them.

    So, being afraid, they came down to her, and she rose before them and said, "Stroke me a strong
    stroke, without stay or delay, otherwise will I arouse and set upon you this Ifrit, who shall slay you
    straightway." They said to her: "O our lady, we conjure thee by Allah, let us off this work, for we are
    fugitives from such, and in extreme dread and terror of this thy husband. How then can we do it in
    such a way as thou desirest?" "Leave this talk. It needs must be so," quoth she, and she swore them by
    Him who raised the skies on high without prop or pillar that if they worked not her will, she would
    cause them to be slain and cast into the sea. Whereupon out of fear King Shahryar said to King Shah
    Zaman, "O my brother, do thou what she biddeth thee do." But he replied, "I will not do it till thou do
    it before I do." And they began disputing about futtering her.

    Then quoth she to the twain: "How is it I see you disputing and demurring? If ye do not come forward
    like men and do the deed of kind, ye two, I will arouse upon you the Ifrit." At this, by reason of their
    sore dread of the Jinni, both did by her what she bade them do, and when they had dismounted from
    her, she said, "Well done!" She then took from her pocket a purse and drew out a knotted string
    whereon were strung five hundred and seventy seal rings, and asked, "Know ye what be these?" They
    answered her saying, "We know not!" Then quoth she: "These be the signets of five hundred and
    seventy men who have all futtered me upon the horns of this foul, this foolish, this filthy Ifrit. So give
    me also your two seal rings, ye pair of brothers."

    When they had drawn their two rings from their hands and given them to her, she said to them: "Of a
    truth this Ifrit bore me off on my bride night, and put me into a casket and set the casket in a coffer,
    and to the coffer he affixed seven strong padlocks of steel and deposited me on the deep bottom of the
    sea that raves, dashing and clashing with waves, and guarded me so that I might remain chaste and
    honest, quotha! that none save himself might have connection with me. But I have lain under as many
    of my kind as I please, and this wretched Jinni wotteth not that Destiny may not be averted nor
    hindered by aught, and that whatso woman willeth, the same she fulfilleth however man nilleth. Even
    so saith one of them:

       "Rely not on women,
       Trust not to their hearts,
       Whose joys and whose sorrows
       Are hung to their parts!
       Lying love they will swear thee
       Whence guile ne'er departs.
       Take Yusuf for sample,
       'Ware sleights and 'ware smarts!
       Iblis ousted Adam
       (See ye not?) thro' their arts."

    Hearing these words, they marveled with exceeding marvel, and she went from them to the Ifrit, and
    taking up his head on her thigh as before, said to them softly, "Now wend your ways and bear
    yourselves beyond the bounds of his malice." So they fared forth saying either to other, "Allah!
    Allah!" and: "There be no Majesty and there be no Might save in Allah, the Glorious, the Great, and
    with Him we seek refuge from women's malice and sleight, for of a truth it hath no mate in might.
    Consider, O my brother, the ways of this marvelous lady with an Ifrit, who is so much more powerful
    than we are. Now since there hath happened to him a greater mishap than that which befell us and
    which should bear us abundant consolation, so return we to our countries and capitals, and let us
    decide never to intermarry with womankind, and presently we will show them what will be our

    Thereupon they rode back to the tents of King Shahryar, which they reached on the morning of the
    third day. And having mustered the wazirs and emirs, the chamberlains and high officials, he gave a
    robe of honor to his Viceroy and issued orders for an immediate return to the city. There he sat him
    upon his throne and, sending for the Chief Minister, the father of the two damsels who (Inshallah!)
    will presently be mentioned, he said, "I command thee to take my wife and smite her to death, for she
    hath broken her plight and her faith." So he carried her to the place of execution and did her die. Then
    King Shahryar took brand in hand and, repairing to the seraglio, slew all the concubines and their
    Mamelukes. He also sware himself by a binding oath that whatever wife he married he would abate her
    maidenhead at night and slay her next morning, to make sure of his honor. "For," said he, "there never
    was nor is there one chaste woman upon the face of earth."

Now I know that this seems like an unpromising beginning from a feminist perspective, but we are soon introduced to one of the great heroines in all of literature, Scheherazade:

    Presently the King ordered his Chief Wazir, the same who was charged with the executions, to bring
    him a virgin, as was his wont, and the Minister went forth and searched and found none. So he
    returned home in sorrow and anxiety, fearing for his life from the King. Now he had two daughters,
    Scheherazade and Dunyazade, hight, of whom the elder had perused the books, annals, and legends of
    preceding kings, and the stories, examples, and instances of bygone men and things. Indeed it was said
    that she had collected a thousand books of histories relating to antique races and departed rulers. She
    had purused 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. Now on that day she said to her father: "Why do I see thee thus changed and laden with
    cark and care? Concerning this matter quoth one of the poets:

       "Tell whoso hath sorrow
       Grief never shall last.
       E'en as joy hath no morrow
       So woe shall go past."

    When the Wazir heard from his daughter these words, he related to her, from first to last, all that had
    happened between him and the King. Thereupon said she: "By Allah, O my father, how long shall this
    slaughter of women endure? Shall I tell thee what is in my mind in order to save both sides from
    destruction?" "Say on, O my daughter," quoth he, and quoth she: "I wish thou wouldst give me in
    marriage to this King Shahryar. Either I shall live or I shall be a ransom for the virgin daughters of
    Moslems and the cause of their deliverance from his hands and thine." "Allah upon thee!" cried he in
    wrath exceeding that lacked no feeding. "O scanty of wit, expose not thy life to such peril! How durst
    thou address me in words so wide from wisdom and unfar from foolishness? Know that one who
    lacketh experience in worldly matters readily falleth into misfortune, and whoso considereth not the
    end keepeth not the world to friend, and the vulgar say: 'I was lying at mine ease. Naught but my
    officiousness brought me unease'." "Needs must thou," she broke in, "make me a doer of this good
    deed, and let him kill me an he will. I shall only die a ransom for others." "O my daughter," asked he,
    "and how shall that profit thee when thou shalt have thrown away thy life?" And she answered, "O my
    father, it must be, come of it what will!"


    "I will never desist, O my father, nor shall this tale change my purpose. Leave such talk and
    tattle. I will not listen to thy words and if thou deny me, I will marry myself to him despite the nose
    of thee. And first I will go up to the King myself and alone and I will say to him: 'I prayed my father
    to wive me with thee, but he refused, being resolved to disappoint his lord, grudging the like of me to
    the like of thee'." Her father asked, "Must this needs be?" and she answered, "Even so."
    Hereupon the Wazir, being weary of lamenting and contending, persuading and dissuading her, all to
    no purpose, went up to King Shahryar and, after blessing him and kissing the ground before him, told
    him all about his dispute with his daughter from first to last and how he designed to bring her to him
    that night. The King wondered with exceeding wonder, for he had made an especial exception of the
    Wazir's daughter, and said to him: "O most faithful of counsellors, how is this? Thou wettest that I
    have sworn by the Raiser of the Heavens that after I have gone into her this night I shall say to thee on
    the morrow's 'Take her and slay her!' And if thou slay her not, I will slay thee in her stead without
    fail." "Allah guide thee to glory and lengthen thy life, O King of the Age," answered the Wazir. "It is
    she that hath so determined. All this have I told her and more, but she will not hearken to me and she
    persisteth in passing this coming night with the King's Majesty." So Shahryar rejoiced greatly and said,
    "'Tis well. Go get her ready, and this night bring her to me." The Wazir returned to his daughter and
    reported to her the command, saying, "Allah make not thy father desolate by thy loss!"
    But Scheherazade rejoiced with exceeding joy and get ready all she required and said to her younger
    sister, Dunyazade: "Note well what directions I entrust to thee! When I have gone into the King I will
    send for thee, and when thou comest to me and seest that he hath had his carnal will of me, do thou
    say to me: 'O my sister, an thou be not sleepy, relate to me some new story, delectable and
    delightsome, the better to speed our waking hours.' And I will tell thee a tale which shall be our
    deliverance, if so Allah please, and which shall turn the King from his bloodthirsty custom."
    Dunyazade answered "With love and gladness."
    So when it was night, their father the Wazir carried Scheherazade to the King, who was gladdened at
    the sight and asked, "Hast thou brought me my need?" And he answered, "I have." But when the King
    took her to his bed and fell to toying with her and wished to go in to her, she wept, which made him
    ask, "What aileth thee?" She replied, "O King of the Age, I have a younger sister, and lief would I
    take leave of her this night before I see the dawn." So he sent at once for Dunyazade and she came and
    kissed the ground between his hands, when he permitted her to take her seat near the foot of the couch.
    Then the King arose and did away with his bride's maidenhead and the three fell asleep.
    But when it was midnight Scheherazade awoke and signaled to her sister Dunyazade, who sat up and
    said, "Allah upon thee, O my sister, recite to us some new story, delightsome and delectable,
    wherewith to while away the waking hours of our latter night." "With joy and goodly gree," answered
    Scheherazade, "if this pious and auspicious King permit me." "Tell on," quoth the King, who chanced
    to be sleepless and restless and therefore was pleased with the prospect of hearing her story. So
    Scheherazade rejoiced, and thus, on the first night of the Thousand Nights and a Night, she began her

And what recitations!  The Thousand and One Nights are the evenings that Scheherezade fills with stories of jinnis and ifrits, of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves and of the Voyages of Sinbad.  In this time she bears the King three children and finally the King summons his brother:

    Then the King shut himself up with his brother and related to him that which had betided him with
    the Wazir's daughter, Scheherazade, during the past three years, and told him what he had heard
    from her of proverbs and parables, chronicles and pleasantries, quips and jests, stories and
    anecdotes, dialogues and histories and elegies and other verses. Whereat King Shah Zaman marveled
    with the uttermost marvel and said: "Fain would I take her younger sister to wife, so we may be two
    brothers german to two sisters german, and they on like wise be sisters to us; for that the calamity
    which befell me was the cause of our discovering that which befell thee, and all this time of three
    years past I have taken no delight in woman, save that I lie each night with a damsel of my
    kingdom, and every morning I do her to death. But now I desire to marry thy wife's sister,

And so, Scheherezade saves the women of the kingdom with her stories.  She is truly a hero for the ages and these stories are immensely entertaining.


Grade: (A)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Sir Richard Francis Burton (Doomed Explorers)
    -BIBLIOGRAPHY: Writings by Sir Richard Burton
    -Grave of Sir Richard Francis Burton (Saint Mary Magdalene's Churchyard, Mortlake  (London Suburb), England)
    -ETEXT: Electronic Literature Foundation's Complete Arabian Nights The complete Arabian Nights text, as translated by both Sir Richard Francis Burton and Andrew Lang
    -ETEXT: The Arabian Nights  (This is the "original" translation of the Arabian Nights into English, made by Sir Richard Francis Burton)
    -ETEXT: Candlelight Production's Arabian Nights (Kids site: Andrew Lang translation of Arabian Nights)
    -ETEXT: various texts by Sir Richard Francis Burton (1821-1890)
    -ESSAY: BEST STORY  Narrate Or Die: Why Scheherazade keeps on talking. (A. S. BYATT, NY Times Book Review)
    -ESSAY: Alf Laylah wa Laylah  or The 1001 Nights (Daniel Beaumont, Assistant Professor University of Rochester)(This article is the introduction to Professor Beaumont's book-length study of the 1001 Nights, entitled "Slave of Desire" )
    -IraqNet: Arabian Nights (This site provides over 30 downloadable illustrations from Arabian Nights)
    -EXCERPT: Modern History Sourcebook: Sir Richard Francis Burton: A Pilgrimage to Mecca, 1853 (Modern History Sourcebook)
    -In Search of the Nile (The Robinson Research World of Knowledge)
    -BIO ESSAY: Captain Sir Richard Francis Burton  (1821-1890) by Adam Jones
    -BIO ESSAY: Sir Richard Burton
    -REVIEW: of CAPTAIN SIR RICHARD FRANCIS BURTON The Secret Agent Who Made the Pilgrimage to Mecca, Discovered the Kama Sutra (Anthony Burgess, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of A RAGE TO LIVE A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton. By Mary S. Lovell (James R. Kincaid, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of David Gilmour: Sheep in Wolf's Clothing, NY Review of Books
            A Rage to Live: A Biography of Richard and Isabel Burton by Mary S. Lovell
    -REVIEW: of F.W. Dupee: Sir Richard and Ruffian Dick
            Burton: A Biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton by Byron Farwell