Thousand and One Nights

Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights, series of anonymous stories in Arabic, considered as an entity to be among the classics of world literature. The cohesive plot device concerns the efforts of Scheherezade, or Sheherazade, to keep her husband, King Shahryar (or Schriyar), from killing her by entertaining him with a tale a night for 1,001 nights. The best known of these stories are those of Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, and Aladdin.

Although many of the stories are set in India, their origins are unknown and have been the subject of intensive scholarly investigation. The corpus began to be collected about the year 1000. At first the title was merely indicative of a large number of stories; later editors dutifully provided editions with the requisite 1,001 tales. The present form of Thousand and One Nights is thought to be native to Persia or one of the Arabic-speaking countries, but includes stories from a number of different countries and no doubt reflects diverse source material.

The first European edition was a free translation by Abbé Antoine Galland into French (1704–17). Most subsequent French, German, and English versions lean heavily upon Galland. Among the English translations include the expurgated edition of E. W. Lane (1840), with excellent and copious notes; the unexpurgated edition by Sir Richard Burton in 16 volumes (1885–88); that of John Payne in 9 volumes (1882–84); Powys Mathers's translation from the French text of J. C. Mardrus (rev. ed., 4 vol., 1937); and that of Husain Haddawy (2 vol., 1990, 1995).

See J. Campbell, ed., The Portable Arabian Nights (1952); A. J. Arberry, Scheherezade (1955); M. Warner, Stranger Magic: Charmed States and the Arabian Nights (2012).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2024, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.

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