894 to 930: The Divine Right of Kings To Shirk Responsibility


896—899 The young man of Baghdad and his slave girl 899—930 King Jali ad and his son, Wird Khan • 900—901 The story of the cat and the mouse • 902 The story of the ascetic and his butter jar • 903 The story of the fish and the crab • 903 The story of the crow and the snake • 904 The story of the wild ass and the jackal • 905 The story of the unrighteous king and the pilgrim prince • 906 The story of the crows • 907 The story of the snake charmer • 907 The story of the spider and the wind • 909—910 The story of the two kings • 910 The story of the blind man and the cripple • 918 The story of the foolish fisherman • 919 The story of the boy and the thieves • 919 The story of the merchant and his wife • 920 The story of the merchant and the thieves • 921 The story of the jackals and the wolf • 921—922 The story of the shepherd and the thief • 924 The story of the partridge and the tortoises

Many weeks ago, when discussing The Arabian Nights foray into fables that begin on Night 145, I mentioned the widely accepted theory that the text has many authors. I suggested that there might be a ‘Monarchical author’ who wrote about kings (“where magic is all but absent”) and an ‘Allegorical author’ who produces the short morality tales about animals.

If that is the case, then the story of ‘King Jali ad and his son, Wird Khan’ is a collaborative effort, a tale produced by a supergroup of different writers. The narrative begins as a conventional tale about a king longing for a son, but it is one interspersed with shorter fables. Continue reading “894 to 930: The Divine Right of Kings To Shirk Responsibility”

Sunday Images: Brian Wildsmith

Brian Wildsmith (1930 – 2016) was a British illustrator who also won the Kate Greenaway Medal. These images are taken from www.brianwildsmith.com.

Nights 863 to 894: Miriam Takes Charge

863—894 Nur al-Din and Miriam the sash-maker

This story begins with a description of a fabulous walled garden and with it, a fascinating inversion of The Arabian Nights usual metaphors. All over the text, the beauty found in nature is Shahrazad’s favoured comparison when she needs to describe the beauty of individuals. So a hero’s physique might be described as being like a ban tree, or like a gazelle. On many occasions, a woman’s breasts are compared to luscious fruits.

But in the description of the garden, which begins on Night 864, Shahrazad flips those metaphors one hundred and eighty degrees, and the fruits, flowers and roses are described with reference to beautiful people and their body parts, rather than the other way around. Continue reading “Nights 863 to 894: Miriam Takes Charge”

Nights 831 to 863: Dark Games

831—845 Khalifa the fisherman • 845—863 Masrur and Zain al-Mawasif

It’s funny how a long run on One Type Of Thing puts you in the mood for something else. When Shahrazad has presented us with a long chain of very short stories, I’ve yearned for a longer narrative; and when we have been given a more substantial tale, I have found myself wanting something shorter.

The two stories in this sequence hit the sweet spot. At 14 and 18 Nights respectively, they’re enough to establish a character or two and a particular mood, but not so long as to outstay their welcome. And after a run of earnest ‘love’ stories, full of heroes who take themselves very seriously, the comedy of Khalifa the fisherman is a very welcome change of tone. Continue reading “Nights 831 to 863: Dark Games”

Sunday Images: Albert Letchford

Illustration by Albert Letchford

Albert Letchford (1866–1905) painted the illustrations for Sir Richard Burton’s original translation of The Book Of A Thousand Nights and A Night.


Magnificence, Opulence, Succulence

778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith

Almost every tale in The Arabian Nights indulges in an enthusiastic description of magnificence – usually the living quarters of a great king, or perhaps the beauty of a young woman. Throughout these recaps, I have sometimes lightly mocked such passages: after the umpteenth encounter with a princess with a ‘face like the moon,’ one becomes inured to that description. One comes to believe that such people are, perhaps, not as unique as each discrete story would have us believe; that full-moon-faced men and women are in fact two-a-dirham in 9th century Baghdad.

Perhaps a greater sin on my part is to take such passages for granted. When every story speaks of jewel-encrusted thrones inlaid with ivory, or living apartments with a dozen ante-chambers, then any given example of flamboyance tends not to be the sort thing I bother to note here. Too often, these recaps end up logging diversions from the established norms—the unique and the surprising. Meanwhile, The Arabian Nights signature literary moments get overlooked. Continue reading “Magnificence, Opulence, Succulence”

Nights 778 to 831: Hasan of Basra

778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith

The tale of ‘Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith’ is about loss and longing for absent loved ones. Over the course of 54 nights (counting the pages, it is the third-longest stand-alone story in the collection), three characters express different aspects of that anguish.

There is the titular Hasan, the embodiment of romantic love; his mother, who obviously expresses maternal love; and then an unnamed jinni princess, who adopts Hasan as a brother and therefore experiences filial love. When Hasan’s choices and circumstances take him away from these women, their passion for him seems no less strong, and no less valuable, than the upset he suffers when enduring a forced separation from his wife. Moreover, it is expressed no less eloquently. At the heart of this story are the many poems which punctuate the narrative, each expressing the pain of loss. Continue reading “Nights 778 to 831: Hasan of Basra”

The Giving of Gifts

738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal

It’s rare to encounter any kind of caliph, king or nobleman in The Arabian Nights without a scene in which they give an excessive gift. Whether its a caseload of dinars or a fine robe, the kingly characters share their wealth liberally with those who please them.

There’s a particularly extravagant example on Night 761:

The eunuch hurried off joyfully and found the king alone, with his hand to his cheek, brooding over the matter. He went up to him, kissed the ground in front of him and told him that his wife was pregnant. On hearing this, the king leapt to his feet, and such was his delight that he kissed the hand and head of the eunuch and stripped off his own robes to present them to him. He then told everyone present: ‘”Let whoever loves me make a present to this man, and what they then gave the eunuch in the way of money, jewels of all sorts, horses and mules, as well as orchards, was more than could be counted.

Continue reading “The Giving of Gifts”

Nights 719 to 778: Blind Love

Julnar March Chagall
Julnar the Sea-Born and her Son King Badr Basim of Persia. By Marc Chagall (1948)

719—738 Ardashir and Hayat al-Nufus • 738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 756—778 King Muhammad ibn Saba’ik and Hasan the merchant • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal

There is a strange theme common to the stories in this section. Each of the three main protagonists we meet—Ardashir, Badr Basim and Saif al-Maluk—all manage to fall in love with someone without having met her. In the first two stories, the princes fall in love with a princess on the basis of reputation alone; in the final story, it takes only an embroidered representation of the woman to capture the man’s heart.

All three princes profess overwhelming love for the princesses they desire, but let us make no mistake—they see these women as trophies to which they are entitled. The women are a means to satisfy male lusts and ambitions, and none of them is loved as the person they are. Continue reading “Nights 719 to 778: Blind Love”