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[GUEST POST] Howard Andrew Jones on The Roots of Arabian Fantasy

Howard Andrew Jones is the author of the Arabian fantasies The Waters of Eternity, The Desert of Souls, and the forthcoming The Bones of the Old Ones, from St. Martin’s Thomas Dunne Books imprint. He is also the author of the Pathfinder novel Plague of Shadows, editor of the eight Harold Lamb historical collections from Bison Books, and Managing Editor of Black Gate.

The Roots of Arabian Fantasy

When talk turns to Arabian fantasy, it usually turns first to the Arabian Nights. It’s no wonder, for the core tales from the famous cycle have been entertaining listeners for more than a thousand years, and were popularized in the west by Sir Richard Francis Burton’s famous translations a little over 130 years ago – although they’d first been introduced in an earlier popularity wave in the 1700s. Today it’s fairly widely known that some of the stories Burton translated (or relayed – he seems to have sometimes cribbed from another translation) were not quite as bawdy as he let on, and that some of the best known stories (Aladdin, for instance) may be more European than Arabian. But the 1001 Nights have even more curiosities that make a “complete” collection more than a little challenging.

The original story cycle has its origins in Persian times, but inspiration probably goes back even further. One of the characteristic features of the 1001 Nights is the puzzle-box story, where a framing device is used to connect stories. Characters within one of those stories may tell a tale within a tale, and sometimes, a tale within a tale within a tale. But puzzle box stories didn’t originate with the 1001 Nights. The concept was likely transmitted from other storytelling traditions, possibly a millennium or more before the first version of the Arabian Nights – possibly before even the fables of Aesop (who himself might be a fable, but I digress). The most famous and influential of these story cycles seems to originate in ancient India, and is known as the Panchatantra. Storytellers knew a good thing when they heard it, and many stories and concepts in the Panchatantra made their way to the Middle-East, where the cycle became better known by the name of two of the principal characters, Kalila and Dimna. A recent English translation by Ramsay Wood (Kalila and Dimna, Saqi Books) of the first two books of the Panchatantra is a delightful read, full of wondrous animal fables that comment upon the nature of man and society, the attainment of wisdom, the beauty of friendship, and the trials of life. The men and creatures of Kalila and Dimna tell tales within tales within tales, just as poor, clever Scheherezade does in the 1001 Nights.

There is a second similarity between the 1001 Nights and Kalila and Dimna – the stories changed over time. One written copy of ancient oral stories is going to be different from another because those sneaky storytellers in one region added a few things in or left a few things out from the version popular in another region. Finding a “pure” edition, or an “original” edition is a fruitless exercise. Each generation left an imprint, and as the stories passed through a culture, changes were made. The tales of Kalila and Dimna were well-known and beloved in the ancient Middle-East, but they were not quite the same as the original Sanskrit stories. And the version of the 1001 Nights we have today is not the same as the version from the 10th century, or the 15th century. More and more layers were added by succeeding storytellers. A few generations after the 8th century when they lived, Haroun al-Rashid and his best friend and vizier, Jafar, were dropped into the story mix, sometimes adventuring in Baghdad in disguise at night. In later centuries, characters and place names from Muslim Egypt were added. When Antoine Galland assembled his collection of Arabian Nights in the 1700s and launched a sensation, he used some stories that he claimed came from a Syrian Christian. They’re probably of Middle-Eastern origin, but perhaps it shouldn’t really matter. (I’m not really troubled by this sort of “cultural appropriation” because it strikes me as essentially good natured. I liken it to someone excitedly joining a game that is already under way. Should that person be excluded because they lack the appropriate ethnicity? Should the Indians have excluded the Persians, and then the Persians the Arabs, from joining in the fun? Why then should we dismiss Antoine Galland because he is an 18th century Frenchman, even if he invented rather than found Ali Baba and Aladdin? All of the tales were created by someone, some time, and Galland’s “discoveries” are pretty nifty.)

Going as far back as Burton some editions of the stories are codified as more traditional and others “supplemental.” Usually the cutoff of traditional from supplemental is prior to European tampering, partly because European storytellers became fixated on ensuring that 1001 actually meant PRECISELY one thousand and one stories, not just “a whole bunch,” which meant stories with no proven staying power as oral favorites were added in. There are other differences in editions as well. For instance, today the Burton translations, as important as they were, are largely considered overly formal and dry. Burton removed the whitewashing other translators had used to hide (or eliminate) the erotic, then seems to have over emphasized some of the sexual goings-on. There are a variety of good modern translations. I myself have enjoyed the two volumes Jack Zipes created for Signet by updating the language from the best of the Burton translated stories; the Hussain Haddawy translation (Norton) is excellent, and several other versions are well-regarded.

The fantastic tales of Arabia might, sort of, begin with the 1001 Nights, but they certainly don’t end there. Less well known in the west is The Adventures of Amir Hamza. This immense work was written by Ghalib Lakhnavi in 1871 – though that’s not when it was created. Lakhnavi was just setting to paper the result of some thousand years of oral stories concerning the fictitious exploits of the Uncle of the prophet Mohammad – though that should in no way diminish what was a mammoth undertaking. Like the 1001 Nights, The Adventures of Amir Hamza brim with fantastic monsters, magic, and mayhem and romance. Within them, though, is a more obvious strain of Indian influence. It is currently available in one volume from Modern Library, painstakingly and lovingly translated/assembled by Musharraf Ali Farooqi.

Meanwhile, back in Persia of the 9th century, a poetic genius was commissioned to write the history of his homeland, which he did in rhyming couplets over the course of three decades. The result was the national epic known as The Shahnameh, or The Persian Book of Kings. The genius was Aboloasem Ferdowsi, who is as revered by his people as Homer is by the west. Just as modern Americans grow up hearing of The Batman and James Bond and, to a lesser extent, Hercules — folk in the 8th century would have come of age listening to stories of the hero Rustam and the adventures of Sekander, a romanticized version of Alexander the Great. The poem narrates the history of pre-Islamic Iran, up to the point of the Arab conquest, and is full of love and swordplay, triumph, tragedy, and magical doings. Like the later Lakhnavi, Ferdowsi took older tales and wove them together, but The Shahnameh gradually transforms into something less fanciful and more thoughtful over the course of its narrative, for Ferdowsi clearly had mixed feelings about the coming of Islam and the end of Persian sovereignty. A recent prose translation of the epic was completed by Dick Davis, for Viking. Even trimmed down a little it is a huge text, but if you thrill to The Odyssey and The Iliad it definitely belongs on your shelves.

Assuming that this information is mostly new to you and that you’re afire with enthusiasm to go exploring at your local library, bookstore, or online book trove, you will discover a rich mix of literature and genres. The 1001 Nights themselves have not just the tales of adventure we know best, but stories of comedy, and romance, and what amount to tracts on philosophy and religion. You will find what may be the first detective story ever told, featuring none other than Jafar al-Barmaki, the most famous vizier in history. You will discover some familiar themes presented through different cultural perspectives. But it is only fair of me to warn you that not every story in any of these cycles is a gem. Moreover, if you expect psychological depth or complex character motivation you will mostly be disappointed. Characters frequently just do things on a whim or for superficial reasons or because it is required by the story, which means that it can be difficult to grow attached to them in any meaningful way. Foreshadowing and character growth are usually either absent or only apparent between the lines. Your mileage may vary, but I find, much as I love these old works, that my patience for them is strained if I read too many back-to-back. Pressing on, as we sometimes do to get through slow patches in a modern fantasy novel, diminishes enjoyment and is akin to becoming inured to lovely scenery because you’ve been driving for twelve hours. Try to take in these works as they were originally intended. Sit down for a story or two (or a few chapters of The Shahnameh or Amir Hamza) for an evening’s entertainment. Imagine that you lie under the stars around the campfire, or sit near the storyteller’s foot at the marketplace, or beside your grandmother on a gloomy day as the rain batters the window pane. Do not gorge yourself; savor and enjoy. These stories have awaited you for eons. You do not need to rush.

4 Comments on [GUEST POST] Howard Andrew Jones on The Roots of Arabian Fantasy

  1. Recently, I had the privilege of moderating a panel on Islamic fantasy at World Fantasy Convention, with Howard as a panelist. His scholarship and understanding of the rich traditions of folklore throughout the Middle East were a wonderful contribution — a foundation, really — to the discussion. This is a topic that excites a great deal of interest in both writers and readers, as well it should.

    A special thanks to SF Signal for publishing this article (and to Howard for writing it!) so that those who weren’t present can also enjoy (and be enlightened) by this introduction.

    Well done!

  2. This was great.  I’ve always loved 1001 Nights, especially Scherezede’s story, but I wasn’t familiar with the history or with the other sources of stories and literature.

  3. Thanks, Howard.

    I wonder, with the novel from Saladin Ahmed coming out, if you might be a trendsetter, or at least the first person in this recent crop of novels to really dig into this tradition in a real and deep way. 


    I do have a copy of a translation of the Arabian Nights, annotated.  Reading that was as illuminating as, for exampkle, discovering that Gulliver did a lot more than visiting Lilliput.  Eye-opening.

  4. Deborah, thank you for the kind words. It was a pleasure meeting you — thanks again for running a fine panel.

    Paul, it would be great to be in front of the curve instead of behind it. I hope that Saladin Ahmed and I will be exploring the tradition with our writing for many years to come.

    MK, glad you enjoyed the article!

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