The Arabian Nights and Tolkien

I have to write this last post because after all Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings are amazing and I want to explore some of the connections between Tolkien’s creation of Middle Earth and what we have seen in the 1001 Nights.  While the Nights often focuses on story telling and the frame story of Scheherazade and Shahryar the magical elements and far off adventures seems like a proto-fantasy novel.

We all probably have seen The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit or at least read them, and when viewing these it is hard not to see how the adventure journeys of Bilbo and Frodo are not some what inspired off of the adventures of Sinbad and Aladdin.  While we have discussed (briefly) how The Nights possibly inspired the Canterbury Tales, it would therefore seem that because Tolkien desired to create a new mythology of British Isles, that being drawn to the works of Chaucer would have caused the Nights to be an inspiration for Middle Earth.  It seems that because Tolkien was a professor of philology at Oxford he was primarily concerned with Old Norse Sagas such as The Volsunga Saga and other Norse mythologies.  As Tolkien read and understood these old languages and mythologies it seems that his Middle Earth is similar to a creation by Scheherazade.  They both combine different histories and different cultures to create an overall narrative of some magical and fantastical world.

If I had more time I think it would be interesting to see how the Nights inspired the horror of Lovecraft’s Mythos as a later extension of this.


Listening to Rimsky-Korsakov

As someone who has little classical music understanding or training, I listened to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade to see what themes I could pick up on.  I like how the mood at first is dark and foreboding as if Sultan Shahraman is killing the women before the arrival of Scheherazade.  The orchestra starts low and threatening before the first song of Sinbad and the Sea.  This part of begins the main theme where you can hear the leitmotif of Scheherazade and her beautiful narration.

To me I wonder what this says about adaption or translation of the 1001 Nights.  I could easily imagine the music of Rimsky-Korsakov being placed into a larger telling of the stories.  I could imagine that in audiobook reading of the Arabian Nights the music could play into the background while the narrator relates the story.

As the music is not specifically titled, it evokes a sense of awe and inspiration as well as the Nights sense of adventure.  In this, the music of of Rimsky-Korsakov is more of an adaptation as the main themes of the Nights are maintained without the exact plot. The inspiring theme of Scheherazade is the maintained frame story while the themes of Sinbad and the Festival of Baghdad are developed.  However, in this final adaptation  of 1001 Nights, the adaptation is unfaithful to the spirit of the perpetuity of the stories.

With the final theme of the Festival of Baghdad, Scheherazade’s theme overpowers the Sultan’s theme and by doing this the situation of Scheherazade and Shahraman is resolved; a quickly resolved conclusion.

Naguib Mahfouz and influences from Arabian Nights

The Arabian Nights and Days by Naguib Mahfouz seems to me to be an allegory of the condition in his Egyptian society with the same influences from the original Nights tales.  I like how the story starts with the Sultan awaking from his anger, realizing with guilt how many innocents he had killed.  I wonder why Mahfouz did this with the Sultan?  By making Shahrazade’s narration work, and changing the sultan’s mood in my opinion seems to weaken the nature of her narration.  It makes it less enticing.

I see the works of Mahfouz’s other novels here in Arabian Nights and Days.  Nuanced communication flows out of Shahazade’s lips describing the power in contemporary Egyptian Society.

The main allegory similar to the original Arabian Nights was the story of Sanaan al-Gamali and its allusion to politics.  In the story similar to the Merchant and the Demon as well as the Sinbad and Aladdin stories, Sanaan al-Gamali is trapped and must serve a demon.  When Sanaan awakes he realizes he has a large cut on his arm and that the dream he thought he had was actually a real encounter with a demon.  With Sanaan, Naguib Mahfouz illustrates the problems of corruption and sexual greed.  Sanaan rapes and kills a girl and then kills the governor to then which he is sentenced to death.  In this, I see satire and criticism of Shahrayr and larger Egyptian power, as Sanaan ultimately gets in trouble because he is poor, while the rich rulers of Egypt and Shahryar can get away with anything.

Horror and the Arabian Nights

While reading Edgar Allen Poe’s 1002 Night, I began to reread the second dervishes tale to understand what I had missed earlier.  I think in my previous analysis of the Nights Entertainment, while focusing on the large fantastical elements within the stories, I completely forgot to pay attention to the more important ways in which in various fantasy literature there is a horrible side to it.

Looking at the second dervishes tale now it is easy to see the horror within the tales.  When the young man sleeps with the djinn’s woman we see the first aspects of horror coming into the stories.  The man runs away without any honor leaving the woman to be tortured  by the djinn.  Later once the djinn finds the young man’s clothes, the djinn appears as a Persian in front of the young man.  This to any modern reader would seem like absolute horror, to see the fantastical demon in a man’s clothing coming to haunt you for the sins of the past.

This is further seen in how the horror elements are used in Poe’s 1002 Night.  When Shahrazad tells the stories of the wonders of the modern technology, he instantly revolts as these tales are not only fantastical but too weird and strange to comprehend.  The fantasy of them sort of reminds of HP Lovecraft’s Mythos and how he describes different fantasy elements as not only as magical but surreal and malevolent. For this action she has her strangled, reminding the reader of the horror of the Arabian Nights.

Why I like Burton’s Translation

What I like about Burton’s Translation is that it seems to convey the literal meaning of the text while also displaying the poetic imagery.  He tries to portray culture more than anything and to do this it seems that he incorporates both the literal meaning of words as well as the what the culture behind the words mean.

As his title says “a plain and literal translation” I think this is true for the most part as he removes unnecessary stories but still keeps the references to high culture.  To Burton, the most important thing seen here is what is considered “real” translation.  Though I disagree that the Mamluk Cairo aspects of culture are the exact reference for many of the tales, I do think he makes a genuine effort to understand the culture.

Burton’s translation as it relates to the Western experience of the Arabian Nights is also one of the best understandings of Orientalism.  The Haddawi and Lang translation although they are also good, do not show the orientalist understanding of the Arabian Nights.  When I first think the Western experience with Arabian nights I think of the Western fascination with the magical elements of the story and the hyper-sexualized Shahrazade.  With Burton’s translation there is quite a bit of this imagery and by having a somewhat literal translation with this Orientalist views it makes the 1001 Nights more imaginative in Western eyes.  Burton definitely emphasizes the sex, in order to sell more copies, but mainly to emphasize the otherness of the story.

The Importance in Relative Fidelity as Cultural Nostalgia

To me, the Arabian Nights represents an important collections of cultural and historical nostalgia.  A lot of this is seen in the references to Caliph Harun Al-Rashid as well as places and people during the time of the Abbasid Caliphate.  While others argue that the because the Arabian Nights is a collection of stories both Arabian and Persian in origin as well as Orientalist a lot of the stories focus on this cultural heritage.

When the Mongols sacked and destroyed Bagdad in 1258 so much of what was considered Arabic and High Islamic culture vanished or was destroyed.  Just as the “West” has its mythological sacking of civilization with the loss of Rome, so too is there a concurrent loss of culture with the sacking of Baghdad.  By constantly referring to the time of Harun al-Rashid, the fifth Abbasid caliph, the Nights Tales refers to a “Golden Age of Islam” before the Muslim world was fractured.

With this, concerning the argument of what is and is not part of the Nights tales matters quite a lot.  For the original tales, the local mouth-to-mouth oral translation the Arabian matter represent a nostalgia for a more united Muslim world and the rich and justly-ruled Abbasid court.  By adding the additional stories of Sinbad and Aladdin, though they share orientalist fantasies of the flying carpets, genies, thieves and villains don’t correspond to the themes in the “original” Arabian Nights version.

Though I don’t agree with definitions of originality and that faithfulness is all that matters within translations, I do think that the parts of the Arabian Nights, especially the frame story and the first few tales incorporate this visual remembrance of the Abbasid caliphate.

Sinbad as a Travel Narrative

While discussing Sinbad this week I was struck by the Indian influence and travel narratives seen in it.  For me the fourth voyage of Sinbad was incredibly interesting due to the allusion to the Hindi practice of Sati.  When Sinbad comes across the man who had lost his wife and that “God almighty will compensate me with a better wife,” I began to view Sinbad more as a travel narrative along the Indian Ocean than an accompanying tale to the Arabian Nights.

As a travel narrative I see how this has influenced Gulliver’s travels and Robinson Crusue.  The magical realism within the stories make them so fantastic as travel narratives.  From the massive bird and the shipwrecking often on coasts it shows the power of allusion and hyperbole within sailors’s tales.  Going on several journey’s the tale always comes back home to Baghdad as the center of the world.

As a travel narrative I also began to wonder how much of this is derived ore embellished off of the travels of Ibn Battuta.  I remember when I was in Oman at the Royal Opera House watching a play in Arabic about Battuta and so much of the travels and various merchant tales within Sinbad seem to spring from the same narration.  The idea of great exaggeration and reckless tales to the end of the world as well as the constant invocation of Allah show similar structure.