The Tales of The Arabian Nights: A Visualisation

To help plan my recaps, I created a list of every story in The Arabian Nights. This is derived from the indices at the back of the three volumes of the Penguin Classics editions.  I thought I may as well post on the site, and it is pasted below.

I used the same list to create a rudimentary visualisation of the stories: their relative sizes, and how they nest within one another.

First, I created a spreadsheet (Arabian_Nights_Contents.csv, 18KB) which lists the stories by ‘level’ (i.e. whether they are told directly by Shahrazad, or one of the characters within one of her stories). The sheet also lists the number of Nights that a story spans, and also the number of pages the story covers in the Penguin Classics edition.

(Given more time, I might have also listed the number of bytes that each story consumes when rendered the HTML format found on the Project Gutenberg editions).

I used this data to generate a simple webpage. My version presents separate columns for each of the three Penguin Classics volumes, but could just as easily have been a single long list.

1001recaps.org/visualization.html

As you will see, the aesthetics of my visualisation leaves a lot to be desired. I cannot help but wonder what someone with more design and artistic flair could do with the same data.

Continue reading “The Tales of The Arabian Nights: A Visualisation”

The Arabian Nights and The Work of Julia Donaldson

Charlie Cook's Favourite Book

Earlier:

Shrinas’s son does this through a fairly simple trick, convincing the foreign king’s messenger that Wird Khan’s power is far greater than in reality – a classic military tactic. The modern literary parallel that springs immediately to my mind is the Mouse in The Gruffalo…

Throughout my reading of The Arabian Nights, I have often thought of the work of the British children’s author Julia Donaldson. Her books all seem to have “some element of surprise, shock, astonishment,” that ‘Borgesian quirkiness,’ that also imbues most of Shahrazad’s tales. Such a sensibility is not unique to Julia Donaldson, of course… but it is a trait that seems particularly strong in her œuvre. Indeed, the commonality even extends to many of the extremely short phonics books that she has written for children learning to read. Continue reading “The Arabian Nights and The Work of Julia Donaldson”

Magnificence, Opulence, Succulence

778—831 Hasan of Basra, the goldsmith


Almost every tale in The Arabian Nights indulges in an enthusiastic description of magnificence – usually the living quarters of a great king, or perhaps the beauty of a young woman. Throughout these recaps, I have sometimes lightly mocked such passages: after the umpteenth encounter with a princess with a ‘face like the moon,’ one becomes inured to that description. One comes to believe that such people are, perhaps, not as unique as each discrete story would have us believe; that full-moon-faced men and women are in fact two-a-dirham in 9th century Baghdad.

Perhaps a greater sin on my part is to take such passages for granted. When every story speaks of jewel-encrusted thrones inlaid with ivory, or living apartments with a dozen ante-chambers, then any given example of flamboyance tends not to be the sort thing I bother to note here. Too often, these recaps end up logging diversions from the established norms—the unique and the surprising. Meanwhile, The Arabian Nights signature literary moments get overlooked. Continue reading “Magnificence, Opulence, Succulence”

The Giving of Gifts

738—756 Julnar of the sea and her son, Badr Basim • 758—778 The story of Saif al-Muluk and Badi al-Jamal


It’s rare to encounter any kind of caliph, king or nobleman in The Arabian Nights without a scene in which they give an excessive gift. Whether its a caseload of dinars or a fine robe, the kingly characters share their wealth liberally with those who please them.

There’s a particularly extravagant example on Night 761:

The eunuch hurried off joyfully and found the king alone, with his hand to his cheek, brooding over the matter. He went up to him, kissed the ground in front of him and told him that his wife was pregnant. On hearing this, the king leapt to his feet, and such was his delight that he kissed the hand and head of the eunuch and stripped off his own robes to present them to him. He then told everyone present: ‘”Let whoever loves me make a present to this man, and what they then gave the eunuch in the way of money, jewels of all sorts, horses and mules, as well as orchards, was more than could be counted.

Continue reading “The Giving of Gifts”

Enter The Devil

687—688 Ishaq al-Mausili and his visitor • 695—696 Ishaq al-Mausili and the devil


The stories of Delilah the Wily and her daughter took up the entirety of my mental bandwidth in yesterday’s recap. However, two of the other stories in this week’s sequence shared an important trait that should be acknowledged: an appearance by The Devil.

The Arabian Nights has presented us with plenty of malevolent dæmons and marids; and we’ve met biblical angels. But no actual Satan… until now. Continue reading “Enter The Devil”

To Infinity and Beyond!

Buzz Lightyear

Last week I noted how much I enjoyed the way the tale of Buluqiya tries to describe the almost-infinite, and to invoke a sense of the overwhelming scale of God’s power.

In a lecture, Jorge Luis Borges (discussed previously in relation to these tales) made a marvellous point about the title A Thousand and One Nights, which itself alludes to the eternal:

I want to pause over the title. It is one of the most beautiful in the world … I think it lies in the fact that for us, the word thousand is almost synonymous with infinite. To say a thousand nights is to say infinite nights, countless nights, endless nights. To say a thousand and one nights is to add one to infinity. Let us recall a curious English expression: instead of saying forever, they sometimes say forever and a day. A day has been added to forever. It is reminiscent of a line from Heine, written to a woman: “I will love you eternally and even after.”

— Jorge Luis Borges, Seven Nights (Faber and Faber, 1986), translated by Eliot Weinberger from Seite Noches (Fondo de Cultura Economica, 1980)

Continue reading “To Infinity and Beyond!”

What does The Arabian Nights have to say about contemporary politics?

Trump supporters

434—436 The pilgrim and the old woman


Last week, I briefly mentioned the tale of ‘The Pilgrim and the Old Woman’ (Night 434) and her preference for liberty over a tyrannical ruler:

What is your country like?’ she asked. ‘We have spacious and roomy houses,’ he told her … ‘I have heard of all that,’ the old woman said, but tell me, are you subject to a sultan who rules you unjustly and if any one of you is guilty of some fault, the sultan seizes his wealth and ruins him, while if he wants he can drive you from you house and uproot you?’ ‘That may well be,’ the man replied, and the old woman said: ‘Then by God, that delicious food, that pleasant lifestyle and those pleasures, when combined with injustice and oppression, are deadly poison, while our food, eaten with safety, is a theriac.’[1]

I had to look up the word ‘theriac’ – it means an antidote to venom. So in summary, the woman is saying that one should free oneself from tyrannical laws… even if it causes a huge drop in the standard of living. Continue reading “What does The Arabian Nights have to say about contemporary politics?”