How does The Thousand Nights and One Night retain elements of the oral storytelling tradition?


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Orality, Literacy and Textuality Major Project

By Adrian Thurnwald

How does The Thousand Nights and One Night retain elements of the oral storytelling tradition?
Traces of the thinking of oral cultures exists with us today because of previously oral works that have been recorded and now live on. Pre-literate thinking and modes of memory leave hints in a work that may be noticeable to the learned observer. I intend to show that The Thousand Nights and One Night, and Middle Eastern text from the tenth century, is one of these works that has strong residual marks still left over from its roots in purely oral storytelling many centuries before it was even written down.

The History of the Nights

The Thousand Nights and One Night, more popularly known as The Arabian Nights, is a massive work, spanning, in different incarnations, ten to sixteen lengthy volumes and containing stories of varying length and style, some of them epics about kingdoms defeating kingdoms, in stories that follow hundreds of pages and dozens of the nights mentioned in the title, and some stories bawdy jokes about one man and his social shortcomings, taking just a moment to tell. Most of the tales are narrated by the fictional Shahzarad, a woman who begins telling stories on her wedding night in order to save herself from execution the next morning by a megomaniacally jealous husband. The stories are told in the bedchamber at night, and they are left unfinished each morning, so that Shahzarad’s execution must be stayed in order for the each story to be completed. The stories concern the mighty and the mundane, the fantastic and the trivial, the moving and the base. All aspects of human experience are contained within, including the highest, most spiritual love and sexual pleasure at its most empty, violence and renewal, family and state, birth and death. Many fantastic and delightful elements fill its pages as well. There are Jinnis, giant birds, speaking fish and palaces in the sky. The stories in the nights are life itself, and Shahzarad tells them each night for exactly that reason, to encourage the renewal of life each day, to create her life anew each night.

The Nights is a story-within-a-story, as Shahrazad narrates tales from within her own tale, but within her tales characters tell tales as well, and within those tales characters tell tales, sometimes to entertain, sometimes to instruct, sometimes as a challenge or a chastisement; some tales refer outward to other tales or inward again to still more tales. The Nights is a labyrinth, going deep into our unconscious, symbolic minds, deep into our imaginations, and deep into itself, twisting and changing in an elusive structure that can never easily be defined.

The Nights was translated into French in the 17th century by Antoine Galland and it is there it met the West, but the Arabic text of the Nights is much older, and the stories themselves even more ancient. ‘The original collection has no one author and no one source. The stories are Indian, Persian, and Arabic, and were told in many forms in many countries before they were written down. In the tenth century a Persian collection, Hazar Afsana (a thousand legends), was known by Arab writers, and tales can be traced back to the Panchatantra (Five Books) in Sanskrit- sixth century or earlier- and the Katha Sarit Sagara….’1

‘In this period, shortly before the middle of the tenth century, the first draft of what later became Alf Laylah wa-Laylah (a thousand and one nights) was made in al-Iraq. The basis of this draft, prepared by al-Jahshiyari was an old Persian work, Hazar Afsana (thousand tales), containing several stories of Indian origin. Al-Jahshiyari added other tales from local storytellers. The Afsana provided the general plot and framework as well as the nomenclature for the leading heroes and heroines, including Shahrazad. As time went on additions were made from numberless sources: Indian, Greek, Hebrew, Egyptian and the like. Oriental folk-tales of every description were absorbed in the course of centuries. The court of Harun al-Rashid provided a large quota of humorous anecdotes and love romances. The final form was not taken by the Nights until the later Mamluk period in Egypt…’2 These days, ‘the Nights have worked their way into all the principal languages of modern Europe and Asia and have taken their place as the most popular piece of Arabic literature in the West, vastly more popular than in the Moslem East itself.’3

The stories are still subject to quite radical change in translation as well, and perhaps have always been elastic, and changing with time. Burton, the famed English translator of the Nights, says ‘…I began and ended our work with the first Bulak (“Bul.”) Edition printed at the port of Cairo in A.H. 1251=A.D. 1835. But when preparing my MSS. for print I found the text incomplete, many of the stories being given in epitome and not a few ruthlessly mutilated with head or feet wanting. Like most Eastern scribes the Editor could not refrain from “improvements,” which only debased the book…’4

And the Nights still carries with it a certain mystique and awe with it as well, left over from older days, for there is a Middle Eastern superstition that no one can read the last of the Nights without falling dead.

This ability of the text to change, and this fear of the power of words, perhaps reflects an older time. ‘Oral cultures live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance,’5 says Ong, talking about the homeostatic quality of non-literate storytelling. ‘The integrity of the past was subordinate to the integrity of the present.’6 Ong also quotes 2 Corinthians 3:6, ‘The letter kills, the spirit [breath, on which rides the spoken word] gives life’ (p. 74) and notes that Homer refers to words as ‘”winged words” – which suggests evanescence, power, and freedom of movement, and lifting the flier free of the ordinary, gross, heavy, “objective” world.’ (p. 76). Both these are reflections on oral cultures, and the Nights is a literary work, but how literary? Is it possible that, like Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, many of these tales come from oral poets and storytellers? Is it possible that the culture they come from is not entirely literate, or has not entirely absorbed literacy into its collective consciousness, and strong traces of this oral thought still persist? Is so they should be evident in the texts, and these signposts should be clear to anyone who chances to look. I think the evidence is clear in the text itself, and this evidence shows lucidly up even through the lens of translation. I intend to prove that The Thousand Nights and One Nights has strong traces of Ong’s oral thought embedded in every single one of its, pardon the incongruity, ‘pages’. I believe it was recorded after its tales flourished as a means of storing knowledge in an oral culture.

I will analyse three stories from the first volume of the Nights, and I will also take time to analyse the introductory story of Shahzarad and her husband King Shahryar, for that is the framework of the entire compilation.

The Framework: The Tale of King Shahryar and of His Brother, King Shazaman
This is the tale that lays the foundation for the Nights and occurs before the first of the Nights even comes to pass. Unlike all the other tales, it has no narrator. I am referring to the Powys Mathers edition for most of the tales, but I will make passing reference to the translation by Sir Richard F. Burton. The book begins with a blessing.


Praise be to Allah, master of the Universe! And prayer and peace upon the Prince of Messengers, Muhammad, our lord paramount! And upon all his people prayer and peace for ever until the judgement day!

And afterwards! May the legends of the men of old be lessons to the people of our time, so that a man may see those things which befell others beside himself: then he will honour and consider carefully the words and adventures of past peoples, and will reprove himself.

Also glory be to him who preserved the tales of the first dwellers to be a guide for the purpose of the last!

Now it is from among these lessons that the stories called The Thousand Nights and One Night are taken; together with all that there is in them of wonder and instruction.7

Here is proof of not only religious feeling but an early literate, manuscript culture. ‘Often in medieval western manuscripts, instead of a title page the text proper might be introduced by an observation to the reader, just as a conversation might start with a remark of one person to another…The oral heritage is at work here, for, although oral cultures of course have ways of referring to stories or other traditional recitations (the stories of the Wars of Troy, the Mwindo stories, and so on), label-like titles as such are not very operational in oral cultures: Homer would hardly have begun a recitation of episodes from the Iliad
by announcing ‘The Iliad’.’8

Also, this introduction clearly states that that knowledge is meant to be stored here. ‘Although it is found in all cultures, narrative is in certain ways more widely functional in primary oral cultures than in others. First, in a primary oral culture, as Havelock has pointed out, knowledge cannot be managed in elaborate, more or less scientifically abstract categories. Oral cultures cannot generate such categories, and so they use stories of human action to store, organize and communicate much of what they know. Most, if not all, oral cultures generate quite substantial narratives or series of narratives, such as the stories of the Trojan wars among the ancient Greeks, the coyote stories among various Native American populations, the Anansi (spider) stories in Belize and other Caribbean cultures with some African heritage, the Sunjata stories of old Mali, the Mwindo stories among the Nyanga, and so on. Because of their size and complexity of scenes and actions, narratives of this sort are often the roomiest repositories of an oral culture’s lore.

Second, narrative is particularly important in primary oral cultures because it can bond a great deal of lore in relatively substantial, lengthy forms that are reasonably durable- which in an oral culture means forms subject to repetition.’9

It is from this tale that all the other tales of the Nights are to begin. ‘The Nights is a maze, a web, a network, a river with infinite tributaries, a series of boxes within boxes, a bottomless pool. It turns endlessly in on itself, a story about storytelling.’10 The other stories are internal; they exist within this one, as sound exists within the ear. ‘Hearing can register interiority without violating it’, ‘sounds all register the interior structures of whatever it is that produces them’, ‘interiority and harmony are characteristics of human consciousness. The consciousness of each human person is totally interiorized, known to the person from the inside and inaccessible to any other person directly from the inside.’11 ‘In a primary oral culture, where the word has its existence only in sound, with no reference whatsoever to any visually perceptible text, and no awareness of even the possibility of such a text, the phenomenology of sound enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence, as processed by the spoken word.’12

To proceed with an analysis of The Thousand Nights and One Night as an early literate text still retaining traces of oral culture and tales recorded from oral storytelling tradition, Ong’s nine hallmarks of oral consciousness and narrative must first be mentioned and expanded upon. The following quotes and definitions are fundamental for this essay.

  1. Additive rather than subordinative

Ong uses the example of Genesis from the Bible to describe this. The literal translation has a list with many ‘ands’; one thing is simply added to another.

‘Peoples in oral cultures of cultures with high oral residue, including the culture that produced the Bible, do not savor this sort of expression as so archaic or quaint. It feels natural and normal to them somewhat as the New American version feels natural and normal to us (Ong p. 38).’

  1. Aggregative rather than analytic

‘This characteristic is closely tied to reliance on formulas to implement memory. The elements of orally based thought and expression tend to be not so much simple integers as clusters of integers, such as parallel terms or phrases or clauses, antithetical terms or phrases or clauses, epithets. Oral folk prefer, especially in formal discourse, not the soldier, but the brave soldier; not the princess, but the beautiful princess; not the oak, but the sturdy oak. Oral expression thus carries a load of epithets and other formulary baggage which high literacy rejects as cumbersome and tiresomely redundant because of its aggregative weight (p. 38).’

‘This is not to say that there may not be other epithets for soldiers or princesses or oaks, even contrary epithets, but these are standard too: the braggart soldier, the unhappy princess, can also be part of the equipment.’

‘Without a writing system, breaking up thought – that is, analysis - is a high-risk procedure (p. 39).’

  1. Redundant or ‘copious’

‘In oral discourse…There is nothing to backloop into outside the mind, for the oral utterance has vanished as soon as it is uttered. Hence the mind must move ahead more slowly, keeping close to the focus of attention much of what it has already dealt with. Redundancy, repetition of the just-said, keeps both the speaker and the hearer surely on the track(pp. 39-40).’

‘The public speaker’s need to keep going while he is running through his mind what to say next also encourages redundancy. In oral delivery, though a pause may be effective, hesitation is always disabling. Hence it is better to repeat something, artfully if possible, rather than simply to stop speaking while fishing for the next idea (p. 40).’

  1. Conservative or traditionalist

‘Since in a primary oral culture conceptualized knowledge that is not repeated aloud soon vanishes, oral societies must invest great energy in saying over and over again what has been learned arduously over the ages. This need establishes a highly traditionalist or conservative set of mind that with good reason inhibits intellectual experimentation. Knowledge is hard to come by and precious, and society regards highly those wise old men and women who specialize in conserving it, who know and can tell the stories of the days of old (p. 41).’

‘Of course oral cultures do not lack originality of their own kind. Narrative originality lodges not in making up new stories but in managing a particular interaction with this audience at this time – at every telling the story has to be introduced uniquely into a unique situation, for in oral cultures the audience must be brought to respond, often vigorously. But narrators also introduce new elements into old stories. In oral cultures there will be as many minor variations of a myth as there are repetitions of it, and the number of repetition can be increased indefinitely (pp. 41-42).’

  1. Close to the human lifeworld

‘In the absence of elaborate analytic categories that depend on writing to structure knowledge at a distance from lived experience, oral cultures must conceptualize and verbalize all their knowledge with more or less close reference to the human lifeworld, assimilating the alien, objective world with the more immediate, familiar interaction of human beings.’

‘…the names of persons and places occur as involved in doings (p. 42).’ Ong notes that details of trades such as shipbuilding can be included here, because in an oral culture there is nowhere else for them to be stored. Lists make their way into oral narratives here as well, but lists always relate to human action and place.

  1. Agonistically toned

‘By keeping knowledge embedded in the human lifeworld, orality situates knowledge within a context of struggle. Proverbs and riddles are not used simply to store knowledge but to engage others in verbal and intellectual combat: utterance of one proverb or riddle challenges hearers to top it with a more apposite or contradictory one (pp. 43-44).’

‘Enthusiastic descriptions of physical violence often marks oral narrative (p. 44).’

‘The other side of agonistic name-calling or vituperation in oral or residually oral cultures is the fulsome expression of praise which is found everywhere in connection with orality…The fulsome praise in the old, residually oral, rhetoric tradition strikes persons from a high-literacy culture as insincere, flatulent, and comically pretentious (p. 45).’

  1. Empathetic and participatory rather than objectively distanced

‘For an oral culture learning or knowing means achieving close, empathetic, communal identification with the known, ‘getting with it’ (p. 45).’

‘Under the influence of writing, despite his protest against it, Plato had excluded the poets from his Republic, for studying them was essentially learning to react with ‘soul’, to feel oneself identifying with Achilles or Odysseus (p. 46).’

Ong also notes that the oral narrators of stories often identify with the heroes whose exploits they are describing, and will speak or answer for them.

  1. Homeostatic

‘Oral cultures live very much in a present which keeps itself in equilibrium or homeostasis by sloughing off memories which no longer have present relevance (p. 46).’

‘When generations pass and the object or institution referred to by the archaic word is no longer part of present, lived experience, though the word has been retained, its meaning is commonly altered or simply vanishes (p. 47).’

Ong notes that oral genealogies change over time to suit current societal values. ‘The integrity of the past was subordinate to the integrity of the present.’ ‘…oral traditions reflect a societies present cultural values rather than idle curiosity about the past (p. 48).’

Ong notes that inconvenient events in the past can easily be forgotten by an oral culture. ‘Moreover, skilled oral narrators deliberately vary their traditional narratives because part of their skill is their ability to adjust to new audiences and new situations or simply to be coquettish. A West African griot employed by a princely family will adjust his recitation to compliment his employers (pp. 48-49).’

  1. Situational rather than abstract

‘Oral cultures tend to use concepts in situational, operational frames of reference that are minimally abstract in the sense that they remain close to the living human lifeworld (p. 49).

‘Illiterate (oral) subjects identified geometrical figures by assigning them the names of objects, never abstractly as circles, squares, etc. A circle would be called a plate, sieve, bucket, watch or moon; a square would be called a mirror, door, house, apricot drying-board (p. 50).’
Ong then goes on to make these important points:

‘Oral memory works effectively with ‘heavy’ characters, persons whose deeds are monumental, memorable and commonly public. Thus the noetic economy of its nature generates outsize figures, that is, heroic figures, not for romantic reasons or reflectively didactic reasons but for much more basic reasons: to organize experience in some sort of permanently memorable form. Colorless personalities cannot survive oral mnemonics. To assure weight and memorability, heroic figures tend to be type figures: wise Nestor, furious Achilles, clever Odysseus, omnicompetent Mwindo.’

‘Bizarre figures here add another mnemonic aid: it is easier to remember the Cyclops than a two-eyed monster, or Cerberus than an ordinary one-headed dog. Formulary number groupings are likewise mnemonically helpful: the Seven Against Thebes, the Three Graces, the Three Fates, and so on (p. 69).’

Now the Nights may be addressed with these key points in mind. We will see many of the above features in just this introductory framework, and all of them in the analysis of three further tales.

I will describe now this introduction so that one may see the structure of the Nights all the more clearly.

The story begins, ‘IT IS RELATED - but Allah is all wise and all knowing, all powerful and all beneficent – that there was, in the tide and show…’13 Here immediately is the religious feeling and the social mores that are to be passed on (iv. Conservative or traditionalist). The audience is reminded straight away of their cultural identity and what the culture considers to be good and right. This is a reinforcing sentence. We learn that ‘a king among the kings of Sasan, in the isles of India and China’14 (geographical information [v. Close to the human lifeworld]) ‘had two sons, one tall and the other small.’ These sons ‘were just rulers of the people for a space of twenty years’ (both numeric memory aids). The two sons are the kings Shahyrar and Shahzaman. ‘Shahryar not Shahriyar (Persian)-“City-friend.”…Shah Zaman (Persian)=”King of the Age” (Burton, p. 883)’ The brothers wish to see each other. The Powers and Burton translations differ here. Burton goes into much more detail and lists the gifts one brother sends to the other: ‘the King forthwith bade prepare handsome gifts, such as horses with saddles of gem encrusted gold; Mamelukes, or white slaves; beautiful handmaids, high-breasted virgins, and splendid stuffs and costly (Burton p. 4)’ Here are hints of lists given during action (v. Close to the human lifeworld and also i. Additive rather than subordinative). Also, ‘high-breasted virgin’ is a stock phrase which recurs throughout the Nights (ii. Aggregative rather than analytic).

One brother, preparing to leave but forgetting something at the palace, returns to find his wife ‘embracing with both arms a black cook of loathsome aspect and foul with kitchen grease and grime (Burton, p. 6).’ The common racism against negroes in the Nights probably serves to reinforce social values at the time (iv. Conservative or traditionalist). ‘Loathsome aspect’ is a stock phrase often used when referring to negroes (ii. Aggregative rather than analytic). In response, Shah Zaman ‘drew his scimitar and, cutting the two in four pieces with a single blow, left them on the carpet… (Burton p. 6). Violence such as this abounds in the Nights (vi. Agonistically toned). Arriving at his brother Shahryar’s house, he falls ill with grief. Eventually his brother leaves for hunting, and Shah Zaman sees the wife and slaves there fornicating as well, and his sister-in-law calls out a name and then ‘sprang with a drop-leap from one of the trees a big slobbering blackamoor with rolling eyes which showed the whites, a truly hideous sight. He walked boldly up to her and threw his arms around her neck while she embraced him as warmly; then he bussed her and winding his legs round hers, as a button-loop clasps a button, he threw her and enjoyed her…e wa The men resumed their disguises except for the negro who swarmed up the tree, entered the palace and closed the postern-door as before (Burton, p. 8).’ Again there is racism and fear to reinforce social norms (iv. Conservative or traditionalist) and also descriptions of the very human activity of copulation (v. Close to the human lifeworld).

Shah Zaman feels better to see that his brother has more problems than he. Shahryar asks after Sha Zaman’s improved health and forces the information from him. They watch the copulations occur again in secret after they fake another hunting trip (iii. Redundant or copious). In despair, the brothers forsake their palaces and wander into the desert until the come to an oasis and a tree. A pillar of smoke rises and they hide in the tree. The smoke becomes a Jinni (which Barton describes as being linked to the word ‘Genius’ on p. 885 of his notes). The Jinni is undoubtedly a ‘heavy’ or fantastic character as Ong describes (memory aid). The Jinni has a key which he uses to release a girl from a ‘box of seven chains,’ (numbered memory aid). He has stolen the girl on her wedding night and he keeps her under the ocean (fantastic memory aid). The Jinni copulates with her and falls asleep (v. Close to the human lifeworld).

The girl then bids the kings to come down from the tree and couple with her. Two poems are associated with the woman. One is about beauty, and the other has a moral, ‘Say not: “If I love, I’ll escape the follies of loving,” / But rather: Only a miracle brings a man safe from among them” (Powers, p. 7).’ Poems aid in memory, and proverbs, especially in verse, are part of the knowledge passed down in oral cultures (iv. Conservative or tradionalist). The kings argue but eventually make love to the girl as the Jinni sleeps. The girl asks for their seal rings, and she adds them to ‘a necklace of five hundred and seventy seal-rings’ (numbered memory trigger) belonging to the other men she has loved without the Jinni knowing. Here we have three stories of cuckoldry (numbered memory trigger), each with a more powerful figure being cuckolded, teaching perhaps that all women are prone to wantonness. Indeed, the more powerful the male figure, the more wanton his companion female is by comparison (iv. Conservative or traditionalist, and this triplicate tale of infidelity could perhaps also be described as iii. Redundant or ‘copious’).

The kings decide that if a powerful Jinni can be made cuckold (and indeed he is described as having mighty horns) then their lot is not so bad, and they decide to go home. Then we have the passage which is the foundation for all the nights. ‘When Shahryar entered his palace, he caused his wife’s head to be cut off at the neck, and in the same way the heads of the slaves, both men and women. Then he ordered the wazir to bring him every night a young and virgin girl, whom he ravished and, when the night had passed, caused to be slain. This he did for three long years; so that the people were all one cry of grief, one tumult of horror. They fled away with such daughters as remained to them; and in all the city there remained not one girl who retained the state to serve for this assault (Powers, p. 7).’ Here is the fundamental schism, the fundamental conflict of the plot, and it is between man and wife, and man and himself, and it shows an extreme and exaggerated bloodthirstiness(vi. Agonistically toned, and the ‘three years’ serves as a numbered memory aid).

The king needs more virgins, and, as the tale continues, ‘Now this wazir had himself two daughters’ (numbered memory aid) called Shahrazad and Dunyazad (Shahrazad (Persian)=City-freer… Dunyazad=World-freer [Burton, pp. 886-7]). With Shahrazad we have our first reference to books, but also to the knowledge this girl can pass down. ‘Shahrazad had read the books, the annals, and the legends of old kings, together with the histories of past peoples. Also she was credited with possessing a thousand books of stories telling of the peoples, the kings, and the poets of bygone ages and of past time. She was sweetly eloquent of speech and to listen to her was music (Powers, p. 8).’ Her power of speech is noted here as the final and most important achievement, because the books come first but the orality is its crown. Shahrazad will prove this power of orality through all 1001 of the nights. The power of Shahrazad’s voice being emphasised points to a culture that, even recognising literacy, perhaps in its early stages, thinks that the world of orality is supreme. And Shahrazad must use her body, her voice and her stories, her whole existential being, to save countless lives, including her own (a theme, if not a direct sentence in the Nights, that is viii. Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced, and v. Close to the human lifeworld).

Shahrazad herself volunteers to be wed to the tyrannical king Shahryar. She thinks she can stop the trouble with her learning and her tales. To this, the wazir tells his daughter a fable. He is entering into a kind of proverb battle with his learned daughter, a battle that would have been common in oral cultures. He clearly intends the story to be instructive, and to apply directly to the now (vii Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced). So begins The Fable of the Ass, the Bull and the Husbandman, the first story-within-a-story in the Nights, the first of the ‘boxes within boxes’.

In this new fable, there is a merchant ‘To whom Allah had also given understanding of the tongues of beasts and birds (Powers, p. 8)’ who cannot reveal his gift to anyone on pain of death. He overhears an ass giving advice to an overworked bull, encouraging the bull to fake illness and shirk his labours. The merchant overhears, and he makes the ass work instead, pulling him out of his decadent lifestyle and almost working him to death. The ass and the bull are ‘type’ characters. The wazir uses this tale to dissuade his daughter from getting involved in the affairs of others, but she will not listen. The wazir continues the fable, because there is another lesson there he wants to try in this continuing battle of wills.

The ass tries to save himself by lying to the bull. He claims he heard the master say he was going to kill the bull and make a leather tablecloth (perhaps a hint of v. Close to the human lifeworld, because it instructs people on the uses of the bull. Earlier, the ways to work a bull are described in detail when the bull complains). The merchant overhears the ass’s lie. The next day the bull is stamping around and lively, ready to work, and this makes the merchant burst out laughing. The merchant’s wife asks what the merchant is laughing at, but he cannot reveal it. He says if he reveals it he will die, because Allah has him keeping a secret on pain of death. The merchant’s wife thinks the merchant is laughing at her, and she insists to know the cause of the jocularity, at any cost. When further protests don’t work, the merchant gathers all the relatives of both families to warn his wife against demanding to know this, against threatening him, but she will not listen. Already the story within has a direct parallel to the story without. Shahrazad is being stubborn, and the wazir is instructing her against it.

The merchant thinks he must reveal his secret and die. ‘Now the merchant had a valiant cock which could satisfy fifty hens’ (numbered memory aid) continues the tale, and this cock, whose empire parallels the family of an Arabic king (v. Close to the human lifeworld, and indeed all the animals are particularly human), seems unconcerned about his master’s fate, and the merchant’s dog chastises the cock for this. The cock says to the dog, ‘I myself have fifty wives, and I succeed very well by contenting one and scolding another, while he, who has only one wife, does not know the way of dealing with her. It is quite simple; he has but to cut himself some good mulberry twigs, go back in strength to his private room, and beat her until she either dies or repents. She will not importune him with any questions on any subject after that, I do assure you, (Powers, p. 11)’. The cock has an empire like a king and the merchant as master of his household and his animals has his microcosmic empire as well, just as this fable is a microcosm within Shahrazad’s story, ‘boxes within boxes’.

The wazir, telling the fable, immediately applies it to his lifeworld, saying to Shahrazad, ‘It may be I shall do to you as the merchant did to his wife.’ Shahrazad asks what happens next in the fable. The wazir tells her the merchant beats his wife till she is almost dead, then once more for good measure, and ‘Afterwards she walked out with him, and all the relatives and those who gathered there rejoiced. Happy and prosperous were the fortunes of them all until their deaths (Powers, p. 12).’ This seems to be passing on information on how to deal with an unruly wife, and there is also a moral here about trust and not pushing your nose into other people’s secrets, and indeed, in trusting in Allah (iv. Conservative or traditionalist, and v. Close to the human lifeworld). Here we leave this first story within a story.

Shahrazad counters her father with her own wit. She says if he refuses or beats her she will go to the king herself and tell him that the wazir refuses the king a gift, and then both of them will be killed. She has won the verbal battle. She makes a plan with her sister Dunyazad and the wedding goes ahead. After some foreplay that night, Shahrazad demands to be able to say goodbye to her sister and Dunyazad is admitted (two sisters are a numbered memory aid). ‘Then the King rose and, taking the maiden Shahrazad, ravished her virginity.’ After this detail of the lifeworld the audience is naturally made to be sympathetic to Shahrazad’s danger (vii. Emphatic and participatory rather than objectively distanced). ‘Afterwards they spoke together and Dunyazad said to Shahrazad: “Allah be with you! Tell us, my sister, some of your tales of marvel, that the night may pass pleasantly.” (Powers, p. 13)’ The king agrees, little knowing that each night will leave him on a cliffhanger, and waiting for the next instalment of the story. He will never be able to kill Shahrazad. Her words bookend every ‘night’ that passes (the book is broken up into both tales and nights) and all the stories (except for the stories-within-stories, where a character in the tale is themselves narrating. The Nights have a thousand voices just as Shahryar silences a thousand voices). Shahrazad says to Shahryar, ‘Then I will tell you the tales which, if Allah wills, shall be the deliverance of the daughters of the Mussulmans.’ She is going to do her best to solve this conflict (vi. Agonistically toned). ‘And Shahrazad, this first night, began the following tale:’

And so the nights begin.

So the entire premise of the Nights is a revolt against horror, against tyranny, and destruction of women and the female creative urge. There can be no reproduction here in Shahryar’s kingdom, so these stories are a revolt against death in every sense of the word. It is creative in its stories, in the Jungian sense of the anima being both creative and feminine, it is creative in that the storyteller wife over the course of the 1001 nights bears children and restores order. It is the power of the word to restore order to society, to the soul, and to bring peace and reason. It is important too that, even though this is a written text, Shahrazad is an oral storyteller throughout. Here the voice heals, and the oral storytelling tradition is retained through Shahrazad’s lips.

Most of Ong’s nine points have made it into this tale, and the tales are full of ‘heavy’ and fantastic characters, and also of numbers as mnemonic triggers. Numbers are clearly an integral part of The Thousand Nights and One Night. And, as a side note for those who are keeping track and who enjoy an agonistic turn of tone, before the Nights even begin, in the first thirteen pages we have been a party to: 1139 deaths (all murders); 1096 virgins being ravished (1095 of them killed); 1141 sex acts; 13 invocations of the name of Allah (not including the introductory blessing); the appearance of one Jinni, and; one story being told (within a story). The Arabian Nights is quite a book.

p. 624-625 talks of Syrian poets using counter propaganda storytelling… this can be linked to the Crusader Christian imagery in the Nights. Hitti, Philip K. 1951, History of Syria, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London
‘Another type of literature flourished now which may be termed counter-propaganda. It extolled the virtues of Jerusalem, recommended pilgrimage to it and insisted that the Prophet had proclaimed prayer in its mosque a thousand times more meritorious than in any other, excepting the two of Mecca and Medina. Even a preacher of the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, ibn-al-Firkah (d. 1329), subscribed to these views. Alongside this genre rose the sirah, a form of historical romance extolling the exploits, real or imaginary, of some Arab hero. Salah-al-Din, Baybars and ‘Antarah became the heroes of such romances. ‘Antarah was a pre-Islamic poet-warrior, but his romance (Sirat ‘Antar), judged by its latest historical allusions, was conceived in Syria in the early twelfth century. Story-tellers in the cafes of Cairo, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad drawing their tales from it and Sirat al-Zahir (Baybars) attract larger audiences than when reciting tales from the Arabian Nights.’

‘”Therefore, O Christian men, I counsel you to draw near to Christ before the battle and to purify yourselves with the supreme incense of the patriarchal excrements.”…To tell you something of the supreme incense of the patriarchal excrements:

When a High Patriarch of the Christians in Constantinople made a motion, the priests would diligently collect it in squares of silk and dry it in the sun. Then they would mix it with musk, amber and benzoin, and, when it was quite dry, powder it and put it up in little gold boxes. These boxes were sent to all Christian kings and churches, and the powder used as the holiest incense for the sanctification of Christians on all solemn occasions, to bless the bride, to fumigate the newly born, and to purify a priest on ordination. As the genuine excrements of the High Patriarch could hardly suffice for ten provinces, much less for all Christian lands, the priests used to forge the powder by mixing less holy matters with it, that is to say, the excitements of lesser patriarchs and even of the priests themselves. This imposture was not easy to detect. These Greek swine valued the powder for other virtues; they used it as a salve for sore eyes and as a medicine for the stomach and bowels. But only kings and queens and the very rich could obtain these cures, since, owing to the limited quantity of raw material, a dirhamweight of the powder used to be sold for a thousand dinars in gold. So much for it.’ (p. 597)

‘…not only fumigated himself with the excremental incense but spat upon some of the powder, to make it into a paste, and daubed the gums, nostrils, cheeks, eyebrows and moustaches of his champion with it.’ (p. 598)

‘The hateful Luka was certainly the most terrible fighter among the Christians; none could so hurl the javelin, direct the sword, or wield the terrible lance. His valour was equalled only by his ugliness. At first sight you would take his face for that of a mongrel ass; looking more closely, you would find much of the ape in it; when you had, as it were, learnt it by heart, you would recognise in it a cross between a toad and one of the most loathsome serpents. To come near him was less supportable than to be separated from a friend; he had stolen his colouring from night and his breath from old latrines. For these reasons he was known as the Sword of Christ.’ (Mathers, p. 598, from The Tale of King Umar al-Numan)

after the prince quotes poetry, ‘The barbarian Luka, born in a brutish land, understood no Arabic, so he could not appreciate the rhythmical beauty of these lines; he contented himself with touching the tattooed semblance of a cross upon his forehead and then carrying his hand to his lips.’ (p. 599)
‘…as he stretched forth his hand and thus uncovered himself, the prince launched his own javelin, which struck the Christian full in his tattooed cross. His unbelieving soul fled through his backside and went to mingle with the fires of hell.’ (p. 600)

From The Tale of King Umar al-Numan, p. 579


‘Auspicious King, Lukman the wise said to his sons: “There are three things which are possible only under three conditions: you may not know if a man be really good until you have seen him in his anger; you may not know if a man be brave until you have seen him in battle; and you may not know if a man be a friend until you have come to him in necessity.” A tyrant will pay for his injustice, in spite of the flattering words of his courtiers; and the oppressed will escape perdition, in spite of all injustice. Deal with people according to their deeds and not according to their words. Yet deeds are not worth the intentions which inspire them; therefore each man shall be judged according to his intentions and not according to his deeds. The heart is the noblest member of the body. A wise man said…’

5 girls, old woman, stream of proverbs, adages, advice, sayings, poems, moralistic stories.
‘Each had, in excess of her miraculous beauty, an astonishing knowledge of the Koran, the books of science, and the words of all Mussulman sages.’ (p. 576)
“Pleasant children, if it be true that you are so filled with knowledge of the delicious deeds of history, let each one of you come forward and make some little discourse to sweeten my ears.”


Burton, Sir Richard F. 2004, The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, The Modern Library, New York
Edmonson, Munro S. 1971, Lore: An Introduction to the Science of Folklore and Literature, Holt, Rinehart and Winston, Inc., New York
Foley, John Miles (ed.) 1990, Oral-Formulaic Theory, Garland Publishing, New York
Foley, John Miles 1986, Oral Tradition in Literature, University of Missouri Press, Columbia
Hitti, Philip K. 1951, History of Syria, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London
Hitti, Philip K. 1961, History of the Arabs, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London
Honko, Lauri and Voigt, Vilmos (eds.) 1981, Adaptation, Change, and Decline in Oral Literature, Suomalaisen Kirjallisuuden Seura, Helsinki
Kirk, George E. 1959, A Short History of the Middle East, Methuen & Co. Ltd, London
Mathers, Powys 1951, The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Routledge & Kega Paul Ltd, London

Niles, John D. 1999, Homo Narrans: The Poetics and Anthropology of Oral Literature, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia

Ong, Walter J. 2002, Orality and Literacy, Routledge, London

1 A. S. Byatt in the introduction to Sir Richard F. Burton 2004, The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, The Modern Library, New York, p. xiii

2 Philip K. Hitti 1961, History of the Arabs, Macmillan & Co. Ltd, London, p. 404

3 Hitti, p. 405

4 Burton, p. xxxvii

5 Walter J. Ong 2002, Orality and Literacy, Routledge, London

p. 46

6 Ong, p. 48

7 Powys Mathers 1951, The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night, Routledge & Kega Paul Ltd, London, p. xiii

8 Walter J. Ong 2002, Orality and Literacy, Routledge, London, p. 123

9 Ong, pp. 137-138

10 A. S. Byatt in the introduction to Sir Richard F. Burton 2004, The Arabian Nights: Tales from a Thousand and One Nights, The Modern Library, New York, p. xiv

11 All Ong, p. 71

12 Ong, p. 72

13 Powers, p. 1

14 Powers, p. 1


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