Tales from the Thousand and One Nights – Translated by N.J. Dawood

Know O Prince, that once upon a time, there was a collection of such tales as could freeze the blood with trepidition, or stoke the raging fires of the imagination anew with tales of wickedness, debauchery, wonder and faith; tales of fantastic creatures, of magic and mystery, of the squalid and the high. Where O Prince, you ask may they be found?

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights (also known as Tales of the Arabian Nights) are a collection of Arabic, Persian and Indian folktales and legendary stories, dating from as far back as 850 AD. Rich with humor (often low-brow), allegory, social satire, fantasy, magic, sex and the vageries of daily life, the stories were originally translated and publicized in the West by Sir Richard Burton.

Tales from the Thousand and One Nights includes a mixture of selected stories (there are many, both short and long) including the classic adventure tales of Sindbad the Sailor (which almost certainly includes some of the Odyssey tales that made their way across the Middle East and into the Sindbad canon), Aladdin and Haroun al-Rashid. The stories are excellent fun, richly woven with characters (both memorable and cliched) from all walks of life. The tales are often nested and interwoven with one story incorporating another, followed by another within it’s further recesses, making the reading experience one that feels not unlike a slow, sinking immersion into a new world.

Stories in this volume include (among others): The Tale of the Hunchback, the Barber’s Tale, the Porter and the Three Girls of Baghdad, and The Tale of Judar and His Brothers. My personal favorite story (and one of the shorter tales): The Historic Fart.

The only suggestion I can offer for an improvement would be that footnotes and annotations might have added more to the reading experience as some of the satire and subtlty are very probably dependent on a greater understanding of the social context of the story. Learn a little more about the background of the Thousand and One Tales here and a site dedicated to the history of the Thousand and One Nights here.

For those interested, British explorer Tim Severin rebuilt a traditional medieval sailng ship (sewn together with rope – no nails), taking it to China in an epic recreation of the famous Arabic sea traders on whom the Sindbad legends and tales were based. Read about it in Severin’s book The Sindbad Voyage ( I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Severin at a lecture a few years ago and consequently have a signed copy!).

Sir Richard Burton, the original translator and popularizer of the tales is an interesting bloke all on his own. Burton was a noted explorer (endlessly thrashing about searching for the source of the Nile River), linguist, scholar and devil-may-care adventurer. Burton also translated the Kama Sutra, complete with the naughty parts intact (surprising for a Victorian). Read about him in Edward Rice’s definative account Captain Sir Richard Burton: A Biography. You can also find his original translation of the Nights online

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