Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997)
Arabian Fantasy

In Arabesques: More Tales of the Arabian Nights (anth 1988), Susan Shwartz suggests that the stories making up The Arabian Nights, along with various tales associated with the Nights, should be described as the Matter of Araby – by analogy with the Matter of Britain or France.

Some of the necessary conditions exist. AF as a whole inhabits a Land-of-Fable environment whose deserts and oases, bazaars and slums, jewelled caverns and minaret-topped Edifices are immediately recognizable. The Cities central to it – Cairo and Baghdad – are classic venues for Urban Fantasy. The cast – beggars, houris, eunuchs, caliphs, viziers, adventurers, Genies and orcs – are also familiar Motifs; as are magic carpets and other appurtenances. Moreover, AF is almost always told – Arabesques is only one recent imitation – as a Story Cycle, the form in which The Arabian Nights has always been transmitted to the West. But certain elements are lacking. AF, as understood in the West, lacks centrally any epic version of the founding or defence of a domain, nation or culture. There is also a problem of geography. Arthur's Britain, Roland's France and others can be located in the mind's eye, and in fact upon the map. Araby, on the other hand, is a mirage. In Arabesques Shwartz provides a Map of "The World of the Arabian Nights": it features locations from northern Africa through Asia Minor to China, but Arabia itself (being mostly desert) is almost empty.

This lack of focus – as far as Western users of the tales are concerned – makes it difficult to think of AF as dealing with the matter of Araby; but there is a more fundamental difficulty. Nowhere within the various cultures which originally contributed to the making of the Nights is that story cycle deemed to constitute a national epic. The matter of Araby, so far as it can be thought to exist at all, is a Western creation, as is AF as a whole.

Even the Nights themselves, as they have come down to us, are partly a Western fabrication. The original Alf Layla wa-Layla (literally "One Thousand Nights and a Night") began to take shape in about the 10th century; something like the essential cycle, assembled from Egyptian, Syrian and Persian sources, seems to have been in existence by about the 14th century. The Frame Story seems always to have shaped the cycle: the Sultan, Shahriyar, betrayed by an earlier wife, proclaims his decision to wed a virgin (see Virginity) nightly and to behead her in the morning; Scheherazade volunteers for the role, saving her life for 1001 nights by telling the Sultan part of a Story each night, breaking off at dawn before the tale can be concluded, so that the intrigued Shahriyar postpones her beheading 1001 times. But the actual number and sorting of the stories she tells have varied over the centuries, and several of the best-known tales in English have no known Arabic manuscript precursors.

The first translation into a Western language was by Antoine Galland (1646-1715) into French as Les Mille et une nuits (1704-1717), based on (but not restricting itself to) a manuscript dating from the 14th/15th century. This manuscript was published as Alf Layla wa-Layla (1984) in a critical edition by Muhsin Mahdin, and is the version translated by Husain Haddawy (see below). It contains only 35 stories, however; there are hundreds more. Among the tales which seem either to have been invented by Galland or to derive from some now untraceable manuscript or oral transmission are "Aladdin", "Ali Baba", "The Ebony Horse" and "Prince Ahmed and his Two Sisters". (Arabic manuscripts of any of these tales postdate Galland's versions.) Also, though it is based on Underlier material from numerous sources, and though Sinbad himself has served as an underlier for centuries, the manuscript Galland used does not include "The Seven Voyages of Sinbad".

From about 1706, English translations of selections from Galland began to appear. From the early 19th century, translations into English have depended upon variously trustworthy printed editions – all compiled or invented according to various criteria – of the Nights in Arabic. Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nights: A Companion (1994) – from which this entry, with his permission, takes much data concerning the Nights – analyses at considerable length the nature of the texts used and the quality of the various recent translations, beginning with The Thousand and One Nights (1838-1841) by Edward William Lane (1801-1876) and continuing with versions by John Payne (1842-1906) and Sir Richard Burton, whose A Plain and Literal Translation of the Arabian Nights Entertainments, Now Entitled the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1885), plus Supplemental Nights to the Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night (1886-1888), though awkward, contains the most complete assembly of Nights and Nights-related tales. A translation in French by Joseph Charles Mardrus as Le Livre des Mille et une nuits (1899-1904), which is more an adaptation than a translation, was itself adapted into English by E Powys Mathers as The Book of the Thousand Nights and One Night (1923 4 vols). Recent translations of merit include Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (1973) by N J Dawood, which takes a broad-church attitude toward the inclusion of late and/or apocryphal tales, though it is less omnivorous than Burton, and The Arabian Nights (1990) by Husain Haddawy, which restricts itself to tales found in the oldest extant manuscript.

Even before Galland's edition reached its posthumous conclusion (he was not responsible for some of the insertions in the final volume), writers in France and the UK had begun to mine the treasure trove. Given the state of textual criticism in the early 18th century – even now a secure pre-14th-century Stemma for the Nights remains a scholarly dream – it is not surprising that a very wide range of original stories, rough adaptations and translations became associated with the Nights, and that the Nights came to stand for anything that might be identified as an AF, whenever or wherever compiled. Of these preceding and surrounding cycles, the most famous is probably the Sanskrit Panchatantra ["Five Books"] (circa 6th century AD), which was incorporated into the Katha Sarit Sagara (circa 11th century AD; trans C H Tawney as Katha Saritsagara 1880-1884; this trans ed Norman Penzer (?   -    ) vt The Ocean of Story 1924-1928). The Sanskrit compilation and the Nights have many motifs and tales in common.

This situation is of greater import to scholars than to modern fantasy writers, who know they are fabricating an "Araby" and a Nights that never existed, except in the West after 1700, and make frequent and increasingly sophisticated use not only of the Nights but of the Ocean of Story in which the Nights remains only the most famous assemblage. In the UK, the first writer of interest to fabricate AF is probably Anthony Hamilton (?1646-1720), who wrote in French; his Histoire de Fleur d'Épine (1949; trans as History of May-Flower 1793 UK) is a deliberate Parody of the newly translated Nights. Over the course of the 18th century, French writers frequently used AF models to generate Satire directed at French society, even though the government censors proved unkindly adept at penetrating this form of Aesopian language. Claude-Prosper Crébillon fils was imprisoned for insufficient obscurity, though he escaped retribution for The Sofa (1740). Other tales using the Nights in this manner included Les bijoux indiscrets (1748) by Denis Diderot (1713-1784) and Voltaire's (1694-1778) Zadig (1748). Jacques Cazotte's The Devil in Love (1772) echoes the Nights. And Count Jan Potocki, who though Polish wrote in French, borrowed the complex frame-story structure of The Manuscript Found at Saragossa (written from 1797; 1847) from the Nights. There were hundreds more.

At first the picture in the UK was less interesting, and it remained for some time sullied by an English assumption that the Nights were immoral. The first notable AF in English may be Rasselas (1759) by Samuel Johnson (1709-1784). Later works of interest include Nourjahad (1767) by Frances Sheridan (1724-1766), Hieroglyphic Tales (coll 1785 chap) by Horace Walpole, The History of Charob, Queen of Aegypt (1785) by Clara Reeve, Robert Southey's Thalaba the Destroyer (1800) and, pre-eminently, William Beckford's Vathek (1786), arguably the first significant Dark Fantasy and a book which has been influential since its publication. Many 19th-century works – often eschewing any element of the Fantastic to concentrate on travel and adventure – continued to show the influence, though often by using AF as a matrix through which to mock the imaginary habits of the imaginary "Arabians", or to Parody contemporary life; Frederick Marryat's The Pacha of Many Tales (coll of linked stories 1835) and William Makepeace Thackeray's John Bull and His Wonderful Lamp (1849 chap) are typical. The most interesting fantasy tale was probably The Shaving of Shagpat: An Arabian Entertainment (1855) by George Meredith (1828-1909), which uneasily combines pastiche and Allegory; and the most interesting collection was perhaps Robert Louis Stevenson's New Arabian Nights (coll 1882) which – with its sequel, More New Arabian Nights: The Dynamiter (coll 1885) with Fanny de Grifft Stevenson, and the unrelated Island Nights' Entertainments (coll 1893) – provided a model whereby the ambience of the Nights could help establish the sootier mood of the Gaslight Romance.

In the 20th century, the influence of the Nights extends from Modernist literature – James Joyce's Ulysses (1922) contains a layer of reference to Sinbad the Sailor, and Jorge Luis Borges made constant reference to the Nights – on to Postmodernists like John Barth, several of whose tales and novels – most obviously The Last Voyage of Somebody the Sailor (1991) – are explicit fantasias upon the characters and structure of the cycle, and Salman Rushdie, whose works also make a constant conversation with the Nights. Rather more tentatively than in the 19th century, popular authors – like James Elroy Flecker, whose The King of Alsander (1914) and Hassan (1922), are both set in land-of-fable Arabias – continued to use AF material both to reflect comments on the contemporary world and as a romantic alternative to that world. More recent fantasy works which use the matrix – not all of them comic – include Ian Dennis's The Prince of Stars in the Cavern of Time sequence, Seamus Cullen's A Noose of Light (1986 UK) and its sequel, The Sultan's Turret (1986 UK), Esther Friesner's Chronicles of the Twelve Kingdoms sequence, Tom Holt's Djinn Rummy (1995), L Ron Hubbard's Typewriter in the Sky (1940 Unknown; 1995) and many others, Robert Irwin's The Arabian Nightmare (1983) (see Arabian Nightmare), Elizabeth Ann Scarborough's The Harem of Aman Akbar, or The Djinn Decanted (1984), Craig Shaw Gardner's Arabian Nights sequence, and Tad Williams's and Nina Kiriki Hoffman's Child of an Ancient City (1992 chap). Susan Shwartz's Arabesques: More Tales of the Arabian Nights (anth 1988), discussed above, and Arabesques II (anth 1989), provide a useful assembly of the range of AF-derived fantasy by contemporary writers. [JC]

This entry is taken from the Encyclopedia of Fantasy (1997) edited by John Clute and John Grant. It is provided as a reference and resource for users of the SF Encyclopedia, but apart from possible small corrections has not been updated.