The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights

The Arabian Nights: One Thousand and One Nights Study Guide

The Arabian Nights, also called One Thousand and One Nights, is a collection of stories and folk tales from West and South Asia that was compiled during the Islamic Golden Age. It took centuries to collect all of these together, and various translators, authors, and scholars have contributed. These stories trace back to ancient and medieval Arabic, Persian, Indian, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian literature. Many of these were originally folk tales from the Caliphate Era, while others are drawn from the Pahlavi Persian work Hazār Afsān.

The original core of stories came from Persia and India in the eighth century. After being translated into Arabic, they were called Alf Layla, or The Thousand Nights. There were significantly fewer stories in the collection at that time. Somewhere in the ninth or tenth century, more Arab stories were added in Iraq, probably including ones that referred to Caliph Harun al-Rashid. In the thirteenth century, additional Syrian or Egyptian stories were added, and as the years went on, more tales were added by authors and translators until the total was indeed brought up to one thousand and one. (This ClassicNote focuses on those stories most commonly known and taught.)

Though the different editions of The Arabian Nights vary greatly, the frame story of the ruler Shahrayar and his wife Scheherazade is common to all. All of the stories branch from this tale in some way. A story is often interrupted by a character who insists on telling another tale, which leads into the following story. Most of The Arabian Nights is written in prose, but verse is occasionally used in songs and riddles, or to relay great amounts of emotion. Most of these poems are single couplets or quatrains.

The Arabian Nights uses common motifs of magic and fantasy, intending to pull readers from their own lives into an exciting world where these things can exist. Flying is a common theme as well, as is a rise from poverty to riches and a fall back down again. Random events that can change the course of an entire story or a character's life show up repeatedly, expressing the truth that fortune can change rapidly and suddenly. Overall, considering how self-contained each story is, The Arabian Nights is remarkable for its cohesion, both in terms of theme and the use of framing devices.

Please note that the number of translations and versions means that different students might find slight variations in the text they are reading. For this Classic Note, several versions of The Arabian Nights were compiled, though most summaries are based on either Richard Burton's famous 1850 English translation or Andrew Lang's 1898 edition. Additionally, some of the major characters' names have been changed from the translated text to reflect their more popular spellings, notably Sinbad and Scheherazade. Different versions of this text may also deviate somewhat from the stories summarized in this ClassicNote, but the core plot and characters should remain consistent.