One Thousand and One Nights Summary


One Thousand and One Nights

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One Thousand and One Nights Summary

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Compiled in Arabic between the 8th and 13th centuries (known to some scholars as the Islamic Golden Age), One Thousand and One Nights is a collection of Middle Eastern and South Asian stories and folktales that explore themes typical of Arabic, Persian, Mesopotamian, Jewish, Indian, and Egyptian mythology and literature. Well-known subject matter includes djinns, or genies, Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and Aladdin’s Lamp, and stories run the gamut from adventure tales, comedies, and tragedies, to burlesques, poems, and erotica. These stories, the total number of which varies edition to edition, are all set within a frame story featuring Scheherazade, the storyteller, and Shahryār, the Sasanian sultan who is spellbound by her tales. Weaving these narratives together in order to prolong her own life, Scheherazade captivates the king for 1,001 nights – a number, in Islamic culture, with mystical properties, as it is representative of alternative realities.

The framing device for this story concerns Scheherazade’s clever strategy to prevent her execution at the hands of the Sasanian Sultan. Having discovered his own wife’s infidelity in conjunction with his brother’s, he becomes a bitter ruler who marries virgin after virgin, killing each before she has the opportunity to betray him. When there are no more virgins to be had, Scheherazade, the royal Vizier’s daughter, offers herself up. Her father agrees reluctantly, and on their wedding night, Scheherazade begins to tell her husband a story, but does not end it, rightly assuming that the cliffhanger will keep him rapt. The stories she tells comprise One Thousand And One Nights, and range in genre and subject matter. Many tales include digressions into complex tenets of Islamic philosophy or in-depth explorations of anatomy, or are interwoven with other stories-within-stories, all of which serve to elongate the tale – ­Scheherazade’s ultimate goal. Though the exact conclusion of the frame story also varies, all end with the king sparing Scheherazade’s life.

There are eight core tales that comprise most known editions of One Thousand and One Nights, including “The Fisherman and the Djinni”, “The Merchant and the Demon” and “The Three Apples”. Many of the most well-known stories, however, were popularized by the first European edition (1704-1717), a French translation that included “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves”, “Aladdin and His Lamp”, and the stories of Sinbad the sailor, considered by many to be “orphan stories”.

“The Fisherman and the Djinni” centers on a fisherman who dredges an ancient jar up from a lake. The jar contains a genie that has been trapped for hundreds of years, so angry about his fate that he decides he will kill the person who releases him. The clever fisherman tricks the genie into getting back into his jar, and then soothes him by telling him the story of “The Vizier and the Sage Duban”. As a reward for telling him an excellent story, the genie promises the fisherman a lake teeming with exotic fish. Pleased with his new source of livelihood, the fisherman sells the magic fish to the sultan, who discovers a prince who has been turned half to stone as he explores the area surrounding the lake. The sultan helps the distressed prince, and rewards everyone involved in the tale.

A parable intended to teach a lesson about trustworthiness and duplicity, “The Vizier and the Sage Duban” concerns a healer named Duban who cures the Sultan Yunan’s leprosy. The king’s vizier convinces him that the sage Duban is out to kill him, and on that suspicion, Yunan has the healer beheaded. Before he is set to die, the healer gives the sultan a magic book, which he discovers too late has been laced with poison as punishment for his death, and the sultan’s failure to trust in the goodness of his actions.

In “Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves,” the sympathetic and hardworking Ali Baba stumbles upon a cache full of treasure, which he later discovers is a thieves’ hideout that is protected by a magical entry. When Ali Baba accidentally reveals the secret to his greedy brother Cassim, Cassim gets his just desserts and is trapped in the hideout, doomed to be killed by the thieves. The forty thieves then try to track down and kill Ali Baba as well, but their plans are consistently thwarted by the slave Morgiana who, like Scheherazade herself, is the cleverest character in the story.

“Aladdin’s Lamp” tells the story of a peasant boy who is tricked by an evil vizier into retrieving a magic lamp containing a genie from a cave. Aladdin cleverly outsmarts the vizier and keeps the lamp for himself, harnessing the genie’s powers in order to grow rich and eventually marry the sultan’s daughter. The vizier’s attempts to get the lamp back for himself are stymied, and Aladdin and his wife kill him and his brother, who tries to avenge the dead vizier’s life. In the end, Aladdin and his wife live happily ever after.

“The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor” shares many commonalities with the Greek tale of the Odyssey, as they are both seafaring adventure stories that detail fascinating and colorful voyages. The stories are told by the renowned sailor Sinbad, who regales a poor porter with chronicles of the adventures, challenges, and obstacles he encountered throughout his seven journeys. Beset by shipwrecks, strange creatures, and challenges of all kinds, including malicious figures such as a cannibal giant and the Old Man of the Sea, an enchanted creature that attaches itself to Sinbad’s back, which he must get drunk in order to rid himself of, Sinbad continued to sail, lured by the thrill and excitement of the open ocean. Finally, after seven voyages, he decides to settle down with the wealth he acquired from caliphs, rewards, and treasure troves discovered throughout his journeys.

One Thousand and One Nights weaves together a multi-layered tapestry of parables designed by Scheherazade to delight as well as educate, many of which cleverly and subtly elevate peasants, the persecuted, and women to heroic levels, while slyly demonizing the sultans, viziers, and thieves who pursue them.