The Thousand and
One Nights
A Cunning Beauty

By Matt McKeown

"It is related, O auspicious King ..."

The Thousand and One Nights is both a very complicated and a very simple book. The complexity lies in two things: first, the many tales it contains, which are often nested within one another, like matryoshka dolls; and second, the wide variety of inconsistent versions of the tales. (Some European-language adaptations change even the title, making it the less accurate and less evocative Arabian Nights.) Which stories are included, and how many, differs from version to version—one of the most familiar to Western audiences, “Aladdin’s Wonderful Lamp,” was added by an early French translator, who had heard the story from a completely different source! This variety is quite natural. The work is essentially a compilation of very ancient folk tales, a little like the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm, and “authoritative” versions of such stories hardly exist. Moreover, the stories are collected from a vast variety of sources, ranging from Egypt and Arabia through Persia and Central Asia all the way to India. Its date is hard to pin down for many of the same reasons; the earliest known fragment comes to us from the ninth century, and some scholars think the work dates back to the eighth, but it is difficult to tell.

The simplicity of The Thousand and One Nights, on the other hand, lies in the framing device or over-story. This unites all the versions, regardless of their selection of tales and abridgments (and bowdlerizations). It runs along the following lines:

Once upon a time, there was a great king, Shahryar, who was driven mad by the infidelity of his wife. Resolving never to be thus disgraced again, he commanded his vizier to bring him a virgin bride every night, whom he would execute in the morning. This horror carried on until the vizier could find no more virgins in the kingdom. At this point, the vizier’s own daughter, Scheherazade, stepped forward. She was not only beautiful, but brilliant: “indeed it was said that she had collected a thousand books of histories, perused the works of the poets and knew them by heart, studied philosophy and the sciences; and she was pleasant and polite, wise and witty.” She offered herself to be the king’s next bride—for in secret, she had concocted a plan to deliver the realm from the madness of the king.

These learned and clever young ladies are very dangerous in the East.

During her first night with the king, Scheherazade began telling a story to while away the small hours. When she stopped halfway through, the king, who had become quite interested, urged her to continue; but she pointed out that it was dawn, and the hour for her execution had come. Sharyar ordered the execution to be postponed to the following day, so that she could finish her story first. This she did—and began a second story on this second night, again stopping in the middle at dawn. Again the king chose to postpone the execution. Scheherazade managed to keep up the scheme for the eponymous thousand and one nights, during which period she also bore the king three sons. Finally, having dazzled her husband’s imagination for almost three years with these lovely and thrilling stories, she asked him to grant her a favor; he assented. She called for her sons to be brought to her, and implored the king not to cause them to grow up motherless. “When the King heard this, he wept and straining the boys to his bosom, said, ‘By Allah, O Scheherazade, I pardoned thee before the coming of these children, for that I found thee chaste, pure, ingenuous and pious! Allah bless thee and thy father and thy mother and thy root and thy branch! I take the Almighty to witness against me that I exempt thee from aught that can harm thee.'” The king’s mind was healed, and peace and bliss were restored to the kingdom.

The shrewdness and courage of Scheherazade are certainly a fine example of “connecting knowledge and virtue,” as we like to talk about at CLT. Readers may also notice a faint parallel between her and the heroine of the Biblical book of Esther—which, given the presence of both Jews and Christians throughout the Near East, may perhaps have been a distant source for the story. The Thousand and One Nights influenced other literature in turn: authors like Chaucer and Boccaccio are thought to have drawn on its structure for The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, probably through translations made in medieval Spain, the great crossroads of Islamic and Catholic civilization. Translations of the Nights proper existed in eastern Europe by the seventeenth century, and the first French version was published in 1704, since which time it has remained one of the most popular books in the world. Numerous figures from our Author Bank, including Voltaire, Poe, and Borges, all drew on the Nights, praising it as one of the finest volumes of fantastical imagination available.


Matt McKeown is an editor for CLT. He lives in Baltimore.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might like some of our other pieces on great works of fiction, like Beowulf or the stories of Flannery O’Connor.

Published on 27th June, 2022. Page image of Scheherazade and the Sultan by Sani ol Molk (ca. 1856).

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