Tales from The Arabian Nights

Christmas 1952, my uncle gave me Tales from The Arabian Nights. I was eleven years old.

Part of the appeal was the exquisite illustrations by Anthony Groves-Raines.

I was aware of the Story of Aladdin, having been to a pantomime based on the tale, and I knew about Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, but I can’t think why. Perhaps it was another pantomime.

No author is credited, but the stories – aimed at children – are paraphrased from the Lane translation, as far as I can see. There are just nineteen tales in this book, though some are sub-tales, such as the tales of Sindbad. Nevertheless, I was fascinated by these, and for some time I thought that was it. It was a pretty thick book, after all. I unreservedly adored these tales, and even did a school project on them, in which I remarked on the “it is written” philosophy inherent in the stories. As an enthusiast for fantasy, I could see how this canon underpinned many Western fairy stories, too.

A revelation took place on one of my fairly frequent visits to my grandmother’s brother. Uncle Allie was J.M.Barrie’s nephew, and he had what seemed to me an immense collection of books, including a huge Paradise Lost, illustrated by Gustave Doré, which was my main fascination at the time.

Uncle Allie’s day job was as head gardener at Newington House in Edinburgh, which was an institute for the war-blinded (from 1915). I well remember that his obsession was scented plants. Roses nowadays only have a shadow of the scents he introduced me to as a child. He even managed to get perfume in the air of the garden in winter time.

In his glass-fronted bookcase, I found a copy of Lane’s Arabian Nights Adventures which I have since inherited.

The full title was The Thousand and One Nights

commonly called in England

The Arabian Nights Entertainments.

Translated from the Arabic by Edward William Lane.

The Publisher was Bliss, Sands and Foster.

There is no date, but Alexander Brown was awarded it as a school prize in 1898.

This edition can be obtained from Abe Books, I find, as I write this, for a trifling sum. My dream of possessing a priceless antiquarian treasure is shattered.

However, I was astonished to find how many stories were in it. Aladdin and Ali Baba, indeed, were added to this edition as an afterthought, not having been included in Lane’s original translation. There are about fifty tales in this edition, and it is said to be bowdlerised. Indeed, until quite recently, I thought it was the definitive collection.

This, again, pales in comparison with the efforts of Sir Richard Burton (the explorer, not the actor), whose (approximately 300-tale) sixteen-volume translation of the oeuvre is deeply comprehensive and unexpurgated. In truth, only the first ten volumes contain his original translations, in the last of which are extensive indexes and cross-references to other translations. The next six volumes contain various supplementary tales and variants.

The sixteen volume version is available from Abe books at around £6000, so I guess Uncle Allie picked the wrong edition. Some philanthropist has been kind enough to deliver the text to gutenberg.org for our download and delectation. It runs to some 6000 pages, so prepare yourself for a marathon.

In truth, many of the stories have a certain monotony to them. They mainly concern innocents who are beset by djinns; or changed into animals by sorcerors; or whose wives lie with a black slave; or who are imprisoned in some remarkable way. The stories with which we, in the West, are most familiar are probably the best.


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