Sunday, April 03, 2011

Tales of the Arabian Nights

Title: Tales from 1001 Nights: Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Other Favorites
Author:  Anonymous, Translation by Malcolm J. Lyons, Ursula Lyons, and Introduction by Robert Irwin
ISBN: 978-0-141-19165-2 (Buy from Amazon here)
Copyright: 2010, Penguin Classics (An Imprint of Penguin Books), London
Pages: 496 (528 with bibliography, maps, and glossary)
Genre(s): Fantasy, folklore, literary fairy tale

Summary: This volume in the beautifully designed Penguin Classic Hardcover series is an abridged edition of the 2008 three volume Penguin translation of the full collection of folk and fairy tales that we think of as the Arabian Nights. That set of tales has a muddled provenance. The earliest collection known is a 9th century manuscript in Farsi; the next dated full set of tales is a 13th century Syrian manuscript used by Antoine Galland for his introduction of the collection to the Western world between 1704 and 1717. Modern scholarship suggests that the most well known tales from the Arabian Nights -- stories such as Aladdin and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves -- were likely the literary creations of Galland and not part of the original Middle Eastern collection of tales. Scroll down a bit on this page to find a most useful timeline for the various versions and translations. The audience for which Galland wrote was similar to the audience of Charles Perrault and Madame D’Aulnoy -- courtiers and intellectuals. This was leisure reading for the upper-class, adult world. It was not until the nineteenth century that the tales received more of a conservative treatment so that they would be more fit to pass down to those of tender sensibilities. The introduction to this volume is by Robert Irwin, and his background on the content was most engaging. Personally, I had no idea of the history of these tales nor any idea of how much they had been sanitized. Gregory Frost over at Endicott Studios has an excellent article that offers more background on the Arabian Nights as a work of fantasy.

The stories in this hardcover volume are risque, violent, far wilder than generally captured in volumes of these same stories targeted at young adults.  There is even something slightly hallucinatory in these tales; on one page is a realistic scene of hands and feet being cut off at the whim of a caliph and on the next, there is an account of some fantastical battle between jinn and sorceress.

Title: Arabian Nights   
Author: Anonymous, Illustrated by Rene Bull
Copyright: 2010, Calla Editions, New York
ISBN: 978-1606600085
Pages: 352 pages, including 20 full-color plates.
Genre: Fantasy, fairy tales and folklore

Calla Editions is an imprint of Dover Publications, more generally known for cheap reproductions of 19th century public domain materials. What makes this important is that Calla Editions are at the other end of the spectrum with regard to the production values. This edition of Arabian Nights is beautifully bound, with color plates of the 1919 edition illustrated by Irish artist, Rene Bull. (see images by Rene Bull here or here)

The presence of those illustrations in this Calla edition represent a huge difference between it and Penguin’s. I missed the presence of ANY illustrations in the Penguin which needs something to relieve the intensity of the tales. Not just a frontispiece but throughout the text the way that this edition has interspersed color and black and white design elements. The inclusion of graphics allows the reader to both see as well as imagine the fantastical elements in this collection. Oddly enough, the cover of the Bull is more muted (brown stamped with gold lettering) than the very busy one-color cloth cover of the other which features a sadly unoriginal rendition of Aladdin on his flying carpet sailing over palm trees and mythical palaces. It looks uncomfortably like something intended for children which is exactly what Lyons’ translation ought not to be packaged as being. Publishers have relegated art to the world of children unfortunately; unless a specialty or art book, titles in the mainstream targeted at adults do without. (I am aware of the business rationale. I think it’s an insufficient excuse for the shift.)

The overlap between the two collections of tales is primarily in the most well-known tales of the voyages of Sinbad, Ali Baba and Aladdin; but both also include the tale of the King who is half stone, the tale of the mechanical horse of black ebony, and of the city whose enchanted natives are fish of four colors.

Which would I rather spend time with? Frankly, the Calla Edition is the one with which I’m more comfortable, as I remain enamored of its beauty and its overall production values, but the Penguin may be more memorable for that strange juxtaposition of brutality and fantasy in the more accurate translation. The former is a pleasant and more simple world view, but the latter suggests more depth in the real culture.